Shanghai - Under a black-and-white framed photo of the New York skyline, a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne cools in the private bridal salon at Tiffany’s flagship Shanghai store, while white roses and love poems set the mood for China’s Romeo to pop the question to his Juliet.
The room, dotted with splashes of the jewellery chain’s familiar eggshell blue, has been busy of late, as young Chinese, drawn by the allure of diamonds, increasingly choose the sparkling gems over traditional gold baubles to mark their marriage vows.
China’s diamond market has more than tripled to $22.8 billion (R223bn) over the past five years and is now the world’s largest after the US, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor. It is far outstripping the growth rate in China’s 465 billion yuan (R740bn) jewellery sector as it steadily gobbles up market share from gold.
In China “we now have more and more young people making their declarations and proposal ceremonies within our bridal rooms”, Stephane Lafay, Tiffany’s head of Asia Pacific and Japan, says, adding that couples are attracted to the romantic image of the jeweller’s iconic “little blue box”.
At the centre of the trend are China’s 13 million brides each year, who are increasingly demanding diamonds.
“All along, my husband and I always thought that we would buy a diamond ring, so it never crossed my mind he might not. I think I’d have been pretty cross if he hadn’t,” says Zhou Lijuan, 27, an accountant in a parastatal in Shanghai, with a 50 000 yuan diamond ring.
To be sure, gold is still hugely popular in China, both as jewellery and as an investment. The World Gold Council said earlier this year that China was set to challenge India’s position as the top gold consumer, with demand this year soaring more than 20 percent to 1 000 tons.
But diamonds have steadily increased as a share of China’s jewellery market, accounting for just under a third now from a quarter five years ago, according to Euromonitor. This has propelled Greater China, including Hong Kong, to the largest diamond jewellery market after the US, according to consultancy Bain, and along with India, it is expected to be the main driver of growth for the $72bn global market.
The appeal of diamonds, long linked with wedding bells in Europe and America, has not always been so strong in China, where the bride’s family was often required to supply a gold-based dowry of rings, bracelets and other trinkets.
But tastes are changing.
China’s modern consumers have much more exposure to Western culture than their parents, including books, films and television shows that often involve heroines or romantic leads receiving or wearing a diamond ring.
“Western films have a kind of ‘bridge’ effect, so when Chandler buys a diamond ring for Monica in Friends, it really left a deep impression,” says Lily Cai, 30, a civil servant, referring to the hit US television series.
“A diamond ring is a symbol of love, and the larger the diamond the deeper the love,” she adds. She now has a diamond ring from Chow Tai Fook Jewellery, which cost 43 000 yuan.
China’s sparkle has tempted jewellers, mining houses and dealers alike.
Auction house Sotheby’s will offer a huge white diamond in Hong Kong at the start of next month, which would be the most expensive white diamond ever sold at auction if it hits its $28m lower pre-sale target.
“From 2006 until now we’ve seen a threefold increase, close to 200 percent, of Asian buyers purchasing jewellery worldwide. What they have really focused on, of course, is diamonds,” says Patti Wong, the chairwoman of Sotheby’s Asia.
De Beers, the largest diamond producer by value and majority-owned by Anglo American, sees China as driving growth over the next four years. It has five diamond-focused outlets in China with more set to open this year.
Even traditionally gold-focused jewellers, such as Chow Tai Fook, are looking to increase exposure to diamonds. The biggest jewellery retailer by market value, it recently struck a deal with Russian mining house Alrosa to ensure its diamond supply.
Rio Tinto has also set up links with Chow Tai Fook, and last week invited 100 jewellery experts in Hong Kong to see its latest diamond haul.
“China will be the engine for growth in global retail diamond jewellery consumption,” says Jean-Marc Lieberherr, the managing director of Rio Tinto’s diamonds and minerals division. – Reuters