On the side of the highway into Pittsburgh today I passed a billboard for Orr’s, a regional jewelry chain and it reminded me that we are about to be inundated with ads cajoling us to buy bits of rocks embedded in metal and other functionless baubles.
The Orr’s billboard is mostly white with black lettering focused on the words, “Stephen Webster,” who a quick trip to the Internet told me is a British jewelry designer. On the right is a highly stylized photograph of a nearly bald woman with her head and neck twisted upwards almost in the elongated style of the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo. The only colors on the page are the jewels in the rings and earrings she wears. But the figure is so much like the background white that all people in passing cars can really digest are the words “Stephen Webster.”
The unspoken message that Orr’s assumes we will get is that Stephen Webster is the equivalent of Cadillac or Apple, a premium brand. But I didn’t know it, nor did the other person in the car, nor did anyone in my office, nor does anyone except those interested in jewelry or perhaps design in general. Thus, what Orr’s is selling is not the “Stephen Webster” brand, but the fact that Orr’s has the brands. A quick trip to the Orr’s website confirms this analysis: the home page features a long horizontal billboard space in which ads for Stephen Webster, Henri Daussi, Roberto Coin, Cartier (the only one I recognized) and Marco Bicego rotated in succession.
The Orr’s basic marketing message—We have the best brands—got me thinking of other approaches that jewelry stores take to selling what are essentially luxury and to my mind frivolous products with arbitrary value.
We are starting to be bombarded by TV ads by Jared, a national chain which primarily places its stores in malls. For years, Jared has used the line, “He went to Jared.” The line is whispered as lascivious gossip between neighbors, screamed to best friends and sisters, intoned seriously by admiring but envious buddies. The context is always other people and their reactions. Whether you label the operative behavior as “Keeping up with the Joneses” or “If you got it, flaunt it,” the message that Jared is trying to make is come to Jared to makes sure your friends and neighbors respect, honor, envy and like you.
Thorsten Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” seems to be the operating theory here. For Veblen, the leisure class engages in conspicuous consumption for the sole purpose of making individual distinctions based on financial wealth. You show you are worth something by buying your spouse “diamonds as big as horse turds,” as my father used to put it. In this case, you make sure that everyone knows you are prosperous by going to Jared.
Jared has been using the slogan for years, so it must be working. But around even longer and working even better, I think, is the slogan of another national chain, Kay’s. Their line, sung in commercials after the presentation of a ring, earrings, bracelet or watch leads to an embrace, is “Every kiss begins with Kay.”
The reason I like the Kay’s approach—selling sex—is because it comes closer to the reason that most jewelry (other than graduation watches and sweet 16 charm bracelets) is purchased: to give to a beloved to symbolize a sexual relationship. Yes, some people want to make sure that they have the top quality, whatever that means, and have been trained to associate brands with quality. But they aren’t buying jewelry to get a brand. And yes, keeping up with or surpassing the Joneses is a big motivation to many people when they purchase jewelry, but it’s only a secondary motivation. No one buys an engagement ring to please the family (although he or she may have proposed because of family or societal pressure). They buy the ring or the earrings or whatever for the loved one. They may select one item over another because they know it’s better than what the Joneses have, but only after the decision to buy has been made.
The causal connection between giving someone jewelry and engaging in sexual relations is strongly rooted in our society precisely for the reasons that Veblen details. It is a form of display that is supposed to make the wearer more attractive and more of a status symbol for the giver. The exchange of rings symbolizes marriage, which is a public construct and the traditionally sanctioned locus for sexual relations. We give a ring to mark the engagement, as well, and for key anniversaries. We are brainwashed that other types of jewelry are the go-to gift for the spouse.
In a real sense, jewelry commoditizes romantic relationships, which means it turns romance into something that can be bought and sold. Instead of buying conjugal rights, you buy the symbol and give that to the object of affection. In the world of symbols and hidden meanings by which our society lives, every kiss does (or can) begin with the presentation of jewelry. Kay’s hits the bull’s eye.