Diamond Disrupters Challenge Mayfair’s Traditional Luxury Market

Financial Times

Discreet showrooms in the affluent area of central London are attracting a values-oriented millennial clientele.

From Tiffany to Graff, legacy diamond marques have long been drawn to London’s Mayfair district. Lately, though, disrupters have been arriving with non-traditional strategies that include discreet, appointment-only showrooms and made-to-order jewellery. Some strip out costs while attempting to offer value for money. Others focus on their sustainability credentials.

The US-based lab-grown diamond company Diamond Foundry sells its diamonds directly to consumers via its Vrai brand, which opened an inconspicuous upstairs showroom in Mayfair last September. The plan is for this pop-up to remain here until a permanent space is found. In addition, the brand is available online from department store Selfridges, and its flagship London store will start selling it by early next year.

Vrai president Mona Akhavi says that, for many clients, the jeweller’s sustainability credentials are compelling. “We are the largest vertically integrated producer [in terms of carats] in the US and the first to be certified carbon-neutral, using only renewable energy for production,” she says.

Vrai’s diamonds are created in a zero-emission foundry in the Pacific north-west using 100 per cent hydropower from the Columbia river. The company is also opening a foundry in Spain, which is why, Akhavi says, the first permanent European store is slated to open in Madrid this month.

In the UK, 60 per cent of Vrai’s sales are wedding-related. Consumers pick their own diamond, customising and personalising the piece. It is then made in the US and delivered five to seven working days later. Much of the business is conducted via virtual appointments and the company operates on a mostly made-to-order basis.

Baunat’s London space is similar. Two streets away from Vrai, it has no external signage to suggest that the Antwerp-based brand’s lofty office-cum-showroom is here. But, then, attracting passers-by is not the intention.

Classic tennis bracelets and diamond solitaires, created in its Antwerp atelier by in-house goldsmiths and diamond setters, are Baunat’s stock-in-trade. Engagement rings account for 75 per cent of its business, which has led to a largely millennial clientele.

The diamond jewellery disrupter and digital-native brand specialises in the high-quality design, manufacturing, marketing, and retailing of jewellery that revolves around 100 per cent natural, untreated, conflict-free diamonds.

Each diamond over 0.30 carats is accompanied by a diamond-grading certificate from the Gemological Institute of America, or Antwerp-based Diamond High Council HRD, or the International Gemological Institute. Its ethical standards are certified by the Responsible Jewellery Council.

Baunat was founded by Steven Boelens and Stefaan Mouradian, two diamond industry veterans who were intent on bypassing layers of the supply chain in order to undercut conventional luxury diamond retailers in price. “These clients are not prepared to overpay for inefficiencies or intangible elements, which are not reflected in the finished product they buy,” says Boelens, who is also Baunat’s executive director.

Clients are taken through a process online whereby they can choose every element, including shank design, carat weight and stone shape, from the company’s core collection.

Baunat’s working capital is not tied up in stock. Instead, only once the piece has been paid for is the diamond purchased and the finished creation dispatched from Baunat’s Antwerp atelier, in a process that ordinarily takes between 10 and 14 days.

When clients are shown gem sizes and cuts, cubic zirconia is used instead of diamonds. It is the same at all of Baunat’s 12 showrooms, from Geneva to Shanghai or the two scheduled to open this year in Luxembourg and Madrid.

These clients are not prepared to overpay for inefficiencies or intangible elements, which are not reflected in the finished product Steven Boelens, Baunat Mayfair was also the launch pad for Hong Kong-based jeweller Boochier. Since exhibiting at the PAD design fair in October, it has secured a retailer at nearby Dover Street Market, selling pieces that combine pavé diamonds with 18-carat gold coated with coloured enamel. There is a choice of 10 colours, from pastel pink to orange or yellow.

Boochier founder Melinda Zeman says 99 per cent of customers are women buying stackable items for themselves, such as the $10,300 Fruit Hoops bangle. It comes from the Ties collection, so named because of a recognisable signature that resembles a loose knot. Though it was designed to convey the vibrancy and culture of Zeman’s mixed Ghanaian and Chinese heritage, she concludes that it is a motif that “celebrates the different ties that help to form identity”.

Sometimes, though, disrupters can come unstuck by being too ambitious. Vashi, a diamond brand founded by Vashi Dominguez in London in 2017, was known for the immersive retail theatre surrounding its in-store jewellery production, involving 3D printing, casting, setting, polishing and engraving.

The craftspeople working at benches and in the windows of its Covent Garden flagship store certainly burnished its bespoke appearance. But a planned expansion to Old Bond Street was never to happen: the company ceased trading on April 4, when Teneo Financial Advisory was appointed as joint liquidator of Diamond Manufacturers, Vashi’s holding company.