BEIJING: It’s early Saturday evening and the shops are buzzing on central Beijing’s upmarket Qianmen shopping street. Standing out among the designer boutiques and Chinese tea shops is the four-storey flagship store of the Chow Tai Fook jewellery chain, which draws in passers-by before the towering red-brick entrance to Tiananmen Square can bring them to their communist senses.
The shop is a glittering, enchanted palace, where browsers are politely, but deftly, ushered to the next available counter attendant as they step inside. Each precious gem has its own section, and every floor carries progressively more expensive stock surrounded by added layers of protection.
Security in the form of attractive young men and women dressed in smart suits and bearing tell-tale wires on one ear, cameras trained on every imaginable area and the rigorous key hand-over procedures all help create an atmosphere that this is a place where very expensive things are kept.
Attendants on the first floor don’t touch the merchandise with their bare hands; they apply black gloves and keep the goods visible on black velvet trays. From the second floor up, you need to look like a serious buyer before a shop assistant calls in the reinforcements to unlock the cases – which is not surprising when you learn the prices of the rings, pendants, necklaces and earrings on offer.
Diamonds, diamonds everywhere
Although this is the heart of China’s wealth belt, it is not jade – highly valued for thousands of years and an integral part of the cultural heritage – that dominates displays. Instead it is gold, platinum and diamonds, in particular, being held in front of the noses of the world’s newly rich.
Most surprising of all is that it is not just women who are hankering after the diamonds here. Men, macho-looking men, are salivating over them in equal numbers.
Until that Saturday I had assumed diamonds, as diamond giant De Beers has told the world for decades, are a girl’s best friend. But, that’s clearly not the case in China, as I witnessed. Their appeal here is not restricted to the female gender.
Several young couples were dotted around the diamond section,trying on wedding bands. Of five I saw, not a single couple opted for a simple, yellow-gold band. Every one of them was engrossed in choosing white-gold or platinum bands with diamond insets – that’s a diamond in the man’s ring as well as the women’s.
It was fascinating, too, to watch the speed at which major purchasing decisions were made. The couples couldn’t have been in the shop for more than half-an-hour each. I saw a middle-aged women come in and have a cursory look at a necklace bearing a large emerald-and-diamond pendant before marching to the till with her partner in tow.
Diamonds are “forever”
Wondering whether the excitement around diamonds was a Chow Tai Fook phenomenon or whether the international diamond industry was responsible for an amazing marketing feat in the world’s most exciting luxury goods consumer market, I visited several other jewellery stores in Beijing. I soon found myself humming the “Diamonds are forever” James Bond theme tune and wishing that I had money to invest in diamond-related stocks.
Shop assistants at two other upmarket jewellery stories in the Qianmen area told me that men were not only buying diamond rings for wedding purposes, but also as adornments for themselves. They showed me chunky rings with big diamonds, each claiming to sell one three- or four-carat diamond ring, for at least RMB 1,5m once-a-week (about the same price in South African rands; click here to convert to your currency).
I visited two other shopping districts in Beijing’s downtown area, and saw a similar story playing out in jewellery stores dominated by diamonds, gold and silver. Couples were huddled over trays of rings and holding up their diamond rings next to their faces – much like the pictures of the Caucasian demi-gods in the display posters around them.
Marketing messages attached to the merchandise included lines like: “With a perfect metaphor – this is your abiding love”; “Navigate the seasons of your life”; and, “The Love Diamond.” In evidence throughout was the marketing hand of South African favourite De Beers, its Forevermark brochures, in Chinese, dotted on counters and its in-store video inserts repeating takes of dreamy western models looking into the distance with the wind blowing through their hair.
Diamonds are a relatively new attraction in China as are wedding bands. You don’t see many people wearing rings to indicate commitment in a relationship, let alone diamond rings. However, if diamonds are becoming a hit among China’s male and female elite, as they clearly are in Beijing, it seems inevitable that their popularity will continue to soar.
This is an enormous nation of copycat shoppers. The diamond industry appears to have pulled off a major coup – not only engraining the sparkling gem in the consciousness of China’s women, but by gaining its acceptance among men.
By Jackie Cameron
Copyright: Jackie Cameron (2012 – ). This article was first published by South Africa’s business and financial news content provider, Moneyweb.co.za. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also read Jackie Cameron’s magazine feature about investing in diamonds through a share portfolio: Stocks and stones.
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