At De Beers: Millennials and Diamonds

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At De Beers: Millennials and Diamonds

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LONDON — “Maybe we won’t ever get married, and maybe we will … but it will be wild, it will be kind, and it will be real.”

So says the voice-over for a short film created for the Diamond Producers Association’s “Real Is Rare” marketing campaign. Aimed squarely at millennials and partly financed by De Beers, the dominant diamond producer, its introduction came just weeks after Bruce Cleaver’s appointment as that company’s chief executive in July. And the piece neatly sums up the challenges — and opportunities — the diamond industry presented him this year.

His job has recently taken him to Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. “A fairly standard kind of week,” Mr. Cleaver, 51, said with a smile as he sat in the De Beers office in central London. Beside him was a table displaying an array of diamond jewelry, its centerpiece a simple but striking diamond line necklace that seemed to dazzle from every possible angle.

Although about 95 percent of De Beers’s revenue comes from mining and producing diamonds, ensuring demand at the other end of the supply chain by winning over millennials is critical to the long-term economic health of the industry, and the cornerstone of Mr. Cleaver’s strategy: “The campaign is about millennials; it’s not aimed at the traditional successful couple that you’d see in advertising even five years ago — it’s not about diamond buyers on Fifth Avenue.”

In 2015, De Beers data showed, millennials spent nearly $26 billion on diamond jewelry in China, India, Japan and the United States, 45 percent of the total retail value of all new diamond jewelry that year, and making them the largest group of diamond retail consumers. And the numbers are expected to grow as millennials reach financial maturity.

“We know that they are invested in the diamond dream, but they don’t like being told what to do, and there is tendency for brands to underestimate them,” Mr. Cleaver said — and as the father of two millennial teenagers, he speaks from experience. “They want fulfilling and meaningful relationships — and diamonds are given at life’s great moments, so they fulfill an enormous emotional need.”

Anglo American, which has an 85 percent stake in De Beers, is betting on millennial diamond consumers. It put diamonds, precious metals and copper at the core of its leaner portfolio at the beginning of the year.

For Mr. Cleaver, who served as group director of strategy and business development at Anglo American and before that was responsible for strategy at De Beers, the challenge is adjusting the product offering to consumers who are progressing more slowly down the traditional life path than previous generations, who place a premium on individuality, and take a more casual approach to wearing jewelry — and to marriage.

While weddings and gifts to married women continue to be the backbone of the diamond jewelry business in the United States, accounting for 65 percent of all sales by value, the proportion has fallen from 70 percent in 2013, Mr. Cleaver said, with more millennial women buying their own jewelry.

Uncut diamonds at De Beers.

Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

The United States continues to be De Beers’s largest market, providing 45 percent of all sales. And Mr. Cleaver said that, despite some dark economic predictions after the presidential election, he is positive about the future. “I’d be surprised if it has any material impact, and there are those who think it will impact positively; lower tax means more disposable income,” he said. “In the short term, we’ll have to watch what happens.”

The growth outlook for China and India is a key focus, with the company increasing its marketing to help drive sales among the wealthy and aspiring middle-class customers in those countries.

But China is a difficult country to read, Mr. Cleaver added: “We found that Chinese consumers are still buying; they are perhaps buying more intelligently than they used to. They travel to areas where the currency is weaker, so there is still potential growth — but we wouldn’t expect major growth in China in the next year or so.”

Retail strikes in India led to disappointing results for the first half of 2016, but it remains a “tantalizing” market as the middle class grows, Mr. Cleaver said, adding, “The country is heavily invested in the gold business, but becoming invested in the diamond business, too.” He said that he believes changes made by the current Indian government will create growth and, hopefully, opportunity. “It’s an overused phrase, but I am cautiously optimistic about 2017 for the business,” he said.

De Beers traditionally sells only the rough diamonds that it mines and produces, but its Singapore-based auction facility has become one of Mr. Cleaver’s focuses as the company tries to diversify.

Approximately 90 percent of De Beers’s rough diamonds are sold through selling events to authorized bulk buyers known as sightholders; the rest are sold to small- and medium-size companies in online auctions. But in July, De Beers began testing the sale of diamonds polished by other companies. “Originally, the online auctions were a price discovery mechanism, so you could auction goods to test what other people might pay for those goods,” Mr. Cleaver said. “But we’ve seen clients migrate from being relatively small auction participants to long-term contractual clients, and we think the business has tremendous potential to grow our earnings base.”

Technological innovation at every stage in the diamond supply chain is essential to the industry’s survival, Mr. Cleaver added. “Mining — and I don’t confine this to De Beers — needs to be more tech savvy,’’ he said. ‘‘It doesn’t have to be grand technology. If you can take every little incremental bit of what you do in the mine and do it better with technology, you will make your mines more efficient, you will make your yields better.”

The company has been investing, he said, in technologies like accurate automated drilling and blasting and synthetic-diamond detection technology.

Technological innovation also is being studied in retail, partly because of millennials, Mr. Cleaver said.

“We need to get consumers feeling engaged in the purchase process when they come into the store,” he noted. “Traditionally, that’s not easy because it takes a long time to create a design. But will 3-D printing change that in the future? I don’t see why not.”

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