Sunday Times Style: The Parisian Democratising Diamonds

Last year I had a baby, and I presented myself with a “push present” — a bold pair of silver, pearl and glass earrings. I hate the term “push present”, but it’s apt because I felt that I’d done something superhuman and I wanted to mark the occasion with a sort of wearable trophy.

Look around your female friendship circle or browse a few recent retail studies and you’ll note that I’m not alone. Once a symbol of romance and everlasting commitment, jewellery has become more of a gesture of self-love and self-expression. And as millennial women gain more purchasing power, there is a shift towards self-purchasing. A 2017 MVI Marketing study in America found that 51% of US women are buying jewellery for themselves, while the De Beers 2018 Diamond Insight Report found that a third of diamond jewellery sales worldwide are now self-purchases. Overall, single women are also increasing their average spend on jewellery.

The jewellery designer Valérie Messika, of the Parisian fine jewellery house Messika, recognised the potential of this evolution early on. The daughter of André Messika, one of the world’s biggest diamond traders, she launched her line in 2005 with the strategy of disrupting the diamond business. Her aim: to make these precious stones more appealing and accessible to younger shoppers. “When I was young, diamonds were sacred — they were for wedding bands. But when I decided to launch my brand, it was to break this idea, to make diamonds that are cool, that you could buy for yourself,” the 41-year-old says when we meet in Paris, where she is based with her husband and two daughters. Messika’s plan worked: the brand has seduced a whole new generation with its innovative designs — fashionable jewellery worn with dresses and jeans alike — and friendlier prices. Her smaller pieces start at £760, though her haute jewellery pieces sell for millions.

With bestselling lines such as Move — discreet, light pieces designed to be worn every day — Messika challenged the dictum that diamonds are for special occasions. From the outset, she instinctively eschewed the staid close-up photographs of jewellery styled in plush boxes and spotlit from above. Instead, women are always centre frame, wearing the gems in an effortless manner. “If I lost my embodiment of the woman, then I’ve lost the message,” she says.

That Messika has contributed in some way to the democratisation of diamonds is fitting. Precious stones were an everyday presence in her childhood home, and her father would often let her handle them and ask her opinion. “It was a fun way of spending time with my father,” she says. “I would hold the stones in my hand, and very early on I had the impression that the stones against my skin alone was enough — it was never about having gold.”

That sense of lightness has driven her aesthetic, and with each new jewellery trend — graphic cage rings, dazzling ear cuffs — Messika has been there. Her diamonds now dust the knuckles, collars and lobes of the likes of Kristen Stewart, Dakota Johnson and the American model Gigi Hadid. In 2017 she recruited Hadid to design an anniversary collection, with a follow-up collection in 2018. “Gigi embodied that generation of women who made my brand successful: they finish their outfits with jewellery, they mix diamonds and sneakers, they keep it cool,” she says.

Hadid also has serious selling power, thanks to her 45m-plus Instagram followers. Still, that’s only about a third of the followers Beyoncé has — another Messika fan, she first wore one of the Glam’Azone rings in 2014 in an Instagram post in which she was pointing at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The image was a prelude to one of the designer’s watershed moments, when the singer appeared dripping in diamonds, Messika’s Persian Drops diamond necklace and co-ordinating earrings, in the video for the Carters’ song Apeshit (again, shot at the Louvre) last year. “Beyoncé had selected a few things to wear, but they didn’t tell me what it was for. We were just told we couldn’t send any bodyguards. Her stylist said, ‘You just have to trust us,’ ” says Messika. She admits she was speechless when the video came out months later.

How does such an endorsement influence sales? “It’s very powerful for the brand awareness, but for sales, I couldn’t say: we’re not talking about T-shirts,” she says of the set, which features 99.8 carats in total. (It’s worth noting that Messika doesn’t pay influencers to wear her jewellery.)

Still, it’s no coincidence that the brand has burgeoned alongside the unassailable streetwear trend (the look for diamonds now is much more punk than pretty) and the growing power of influencers. Instagram is the new word of mouth, and the digital landscape has undoubtedly helped to democratise fine jewellery. Turnover increased by 40% between 2016 and 2017, and by 400% in the five years to 2018. We can presume much of this was led by the younger generation: in its 2018 report, De Beers found that millennials now drive almost 60% of the diamond jewellery demand in America and nearly 80% in China.

With her finger ever on the pulse, I have to ask: what’s the next thing to look out for in jewellery? “Customisation,” Messika says without hesitation, recognising a trend that is evident throughout the fashion industry. “Women want to create their own style and assume their own personality through their accessories.” Or, in the words of Queen Bey rocking Messika in Apeshit: “Look at my jewellery, I’m lethal.”

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