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Is the Future of Fine Jewelry for Rent?

All of those weddings put on hold by the pandemic seem to be happening at once. We’re also catching up on a lot of socializing, reacclimating to being out in public—and actually feeling like looking our best again. Whether it’s a wedding, graduation party, work event, anniversary, or other formal occasion, we’re going to need something to wear, new shoes, makeup, and, of course, jewelry. But instead of buying new jewelry, consumers now have the option of renting the perfect piece for that special occasion. Fine jewelry rental is the latest trend hitting the jewelry industry, but will it last?

Borrowing jewelry is nothing new, of course. A jeweler might lend a piece to a special customer, whether to entice them to buy the piece or just to go the extra mile to nurture that relationship. But renting out jewelry as a formalized service has never been particularly popular with retailers. A rental can be seen as a lost sale, or even as diluting the exclusivity of the brand. Many jewelry retailers still see it this way, but the jewelry rental services hitting the market are seeking to prove otherwise.

Businesses that began as rental services rather than as retailers have a different view. There is a social aspect to the approach of an ecommerce rental service like Rocksbox, which delivers three pieces of fashion jewelry to subscribers every month for $21 per month. Rocksbox founder Meaghan Rose came up with the idea after trading jewelry with friends. She didn’t enjoy the jewelry shopping experience and found herself buying jewelry that she rarely wore. She did, however, enjoy discovering new styles and trends while experimenting with the jewelry borrowed from friends. With Rocksbox, she sought to bring this experience to the consumer. It is precisely that social aspect and that sense of personalization and discovery that appeals to younger consumers in particular.

While many jewelry retailers still oppose rental programs, some are testing the rental waters. For these companies, a rental isn’t a sale lost; it’s a test drive that often leads to a sale. Once you’ve worn a piece of jewelry, seen yourself in it, felt great in it, and had a great time in it, it becomes easier to commit to owning it and making it a permanent part of your look. But even when rental doesn’t lead to a sale, it still works as a form of brand exposure, introducing fine jewelry to a segment of consumers for whom it would be otherwise out of reach.

Jewelry rental has even caught on with Signet, the world’s largest retailer of diamond jewelry. The parent company of Jared, Kay Jewelers, and Zales recently acquired Rocksbox for an undisclosed amount. It will be intriguing to see how such a massive retailer transitions the brand from the fashion to the fine market.

It remains to be seen whether this gamble will pay off, as jewelry rental does come with its own issues that make turning a profit difficult. Pieces have to be insured properly and replaced if lost or damaged. And there are shipping costs to consider. The logistics of shipping fine jewelry all over the world in a secure and timely manner can become costly, especially for retailers splitting themselves between sales and rentals.

Jewelry rental, especially fine jewelry rental, does seem like a difficult business to sustain. Jewelry is so personal, often closely connected to a special moment or person in the owner’s life. But sharing items as personal as cars (Uber) and houses (Airbnb) is commonplace now, especially for Millennial and Gen Z consumers. We used to own records, cassettes, CDs; we now “rent” music for a monthly fee from Spotify. The same goes for movies and video games. We get mattresses, eyeglasses, meal kits, and bespoke wardrobes delivered to our houses as part of monthly subscription services. And the Millennial obsession with decluttering, minimalism, and owning less stuff in general is still alive and well. On top of that, renting appeals to the sustainability concerns of younger consumers. Instead of owning a rare mineral that requires so much energy and effort to extract from the earth only to be worn once a year, why not share it with others? Maybe fine jewelry rental isn’t such a strange idea after all.