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14k Gold for All: How Direct-to-Consumer Jewelry Companies are Changing Everything

A gold bracelet, necklace, and earrings sitting on a white marble slab.

The affordable fine jewelry movement is putting a stake in the sand. As ecommerce and the direct-to-consumer market booms, entrepreneurs are disrupting the old industry and rethinking what it means to sell, own, and buy fine jewelry. 

Ditching traditional high markups and stuffy showrooms, brands finally offer fine jewelry at accessible prices and normalize wearing it every day. Shower in it? Totally fine. Sleep in it? Yep. 

Yet, the extremely low prices bring up questions of quality and sustainability. We decided to explore the affordable fine jewelry movement to better understand what it is, why it’s happening, and if those low prices are really all they’re cracked up to be. 

What is affordable fine jewelry, and why is it a trend? 

The direct-to-consumer model has allowed fine jewelry shops to offer pieces at close to the same price points as costume and demi-fine jewelry. But what’s the real difference? 

The difference between demi-fine and fine jewelry

Before we get started, let’s establish a couple of definitions. We’re defining affordable fine jewelry shops as ones that sell many pieces with a price tag under $500.

Fine jewelry refers to items made with precious metals and precious or semi-precious stones. Most commonly, that means pieces crafted with 10- to 18-karat gold, sterling silver, or platinum. Stones range from sparkly favorites like diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires, to colorful choices like topaz, agate, turquoise, and opal. 

Demi-fine jewelry most commonly refers to vermeil, plated, and filled pieces. Demi-fine pieces won’t feature expensive gems like diamonds, but often include wallet-friendly options like white sapphires, moissanite, or cubic zirconia.

Most of this jewelry is made with gold in some capacity. Gold jewelry comes in a few different variations: 

Gold-plated jewelry

Gold-plated jewelry is made out of a thin layer of gold atop a base metal. Because of that, the outer coating can wear off over time. 

Vermeil jewelry

Vermeil (pronounced ver-may) jewelry has a sterling silver base with a thick layer of 10- to 18-karat gold on top. These pieces are often good quality with a lower price tag.

Keep in mind that vermeil means different things to different jewelers, and it’s not standard from country to country either. For example, in Canada, jewelry has to be plated with only one micron of gold to be marketed as vermeil. The United States requires vermeil jewelry to have plating that’s 2.5 microns thick. 

Gold-filled jewelry

Gold-filled jewelry is made of a thick layer of gold bonded to a base metal. At least 5% of the weight of each piece must be solid gold.

Solid-gold jewelry 

Solid-gold jewelryIs exactly what it sounds like: solid. In order to be considered solid gold, it must be at least 10 karats. 

 

A pair of earrings sitting in a peach dish.
Daihana Monares via  Unsplash

Trending now: 14 karats for less 

Once entrepreneurs found the opportunity to offer precious metals and stones at affordable prices, others caught on, offering more options for consumers looking to treat themselves than there had ever been before. 

Perhaps the most well-known champion of the affordable fine jewelry trend is Mejuri, the Canadian brand that’s developed a cult following for its simple 14-karat gold and diamond designs. 

According to a recent article in Forbes, “The magic that Mejuri created is a movement, one where women are self-gifting (which is inspired by the fact that women are making their own buying decisions and fueled by female empowerment) and one where fine jewelry is for every day, not for occasions.” 

Whether Mejuri was the catalyst that sparked the movement or the trend grew in parallel among many entrepreneurs that were sick of the old ways, today the affordable fine jewelry trend is in full swing.

A close up of a woman wearing several Aprés Jewelry rings on both hands.
Aprés Jewelry sells fine jewelry at better prices. Aprés Jewelry 

The emergence of the affordable fine jewelry movement

Fine jewelry has long been unattainable to the masses because of its price point. In the last few years, many entrepreneurs have seen this as a golden opportunity. 

That was the case for Aprés Jewelry founder Amanda Thomas. Amanda writes on the Aprés website, “After getting engaged and really searching the market for chic and affordable fine jewelry for my wedding, I was shocked at how scarce the options were. I really wanted to fill the gap and create amazing engagement rings and wedding bands that were substantial and didn’t break the bank.” 

Aprés has done just that, offering engagement rings as low as $1,100. Customers can set their budget and choose from a range of center stones from morganite to natural diamonds that fall within their desired stone size and price range. 

The brand also offers fine earrings, necklaces, and bracelets made for everyday wear. And because its pieces are made of solid gold, customers never have to take their favorites off. 

These entrepreneurs saw the need for more affordable fine jewelry options, and opened up shops to meet that demand.

Sharing a similar origin story, Vrai (then Vrai & Oro) emerged in 2014 and has developed into a digital-first direct-to-consumer jewelry business focused on lab grown diamonds. We chatted with one of the founders, Vanessa Stofenmacher, back in 2016. Her take was similar to Amanda’s: “No one is really taking a stance and doing anything about this and bringing essential fine jewelry, high quality jewelry, at an attainable price.” These entrepreneurs saw the need for more affordable fine jewelry options, and opened up shops to meet that demand. 

The target market has reacted with exuberance. 

What was once only attainable for major life moments (a wedding, big anniversary, birth of a child) has now become available to teens saving up their babysitting money; for couples who wanted the look of a 2-carat diamond ring but couldn’t afford the price tag; for people who want to wear simple gold jewelry while taking a run or doing the dishes, but felt worried that the affordable items would tarnish. These brands have created an entirely new market out of an old industry saturated with tradition. 

A closeup of a woman wearing three Stone and Strand necklaces
Gold and diamond necklaces from Stone and Strand. Stone and Strand

How the direct-to-consumer model allows brands to keep prices low

There is a large difference in pricing between affordable fine jewelry brands and other jewelry companies. The same diamond solitaire necklace might sell for $185 at one shop and $680 at another. This doesn’t necessarily signal a difference in quality, but in the type of distribution. 

Most affordable fine jewelry brands operate under a direct-to-consumer model, and many are digital-first. That means that without the obligation to pay a fee to a larger retailer to carry their products, shops are free to set their own prices. Better margins for the shop means they can pass those savings onto customers. 

Stone and Strand, an affordable fine jewelry shop started in 2013, built its entire mission on this model. It allows customers to indulge in “expensive taste without the mark-up.” Creating jewelry at the same factories as its Fifth Avenue New York competitors, the brand deliberately chooses to keep prices low so that its pieces are accessible to all. 

Particularly noteworthy is Stone and Strand’s use of 10-karat gold in the majority of its fine pieces. Ten-karat gold contains 41.7% gold, and while it’s less pure than 14-karat (58.3%) and 18-karat (75%) gold, it’s the most durable of the bunch. Using this as the base metal in its fine jewelry means pieces will cost less and better withstand the bumps and scratches that come with everyday life—a win-win for Stone and Strand customers.

Stone and Strand also offers engagement rings for less by grouping small diamonds together to appear as a larger stone. Its Mia ring, for example, has a total carat weight of .5, with a .2-carat center stone. The overall effect is similar to that of a large pear-shaped stone, at a fraction of the cost. 

One person puts the Mia ring by Stone and Strand on another person's finger.
The Mia ring by Stone and Strand uses many small diamonds to give the appearance of larger stones. Stone and Strand

Sustainability, recycled gold, and longevity

With some affordable fine jewelry makers dropping new styles weekly, and at prices so low that customers can buy multiple pieces, there’s an open concern as to whether these businesses are sustainable. 

While it’s difficult to give a blanket answer here, many affordable fine jewelry businesses have committed to sustainability in some form. Many brands choose to work with recycled gold. Stone and Strand, for example, has made a commitment to sustainability by crafting with recycled gold and ensuring that all shipments are carbon neutral. Others opt to sell vintage or estate jewelry alongside their own collections, breathing new life into old pieces that otherwise might sit in storage. 

Fine jewelry should last forever, which means that items can be passed down for generations, or melted down to create something new, eliminating the possibility of waste. Fine pieces can also be repaired, while many costume options can’t. 

While fast fashion items—cheap, mass-produced clothing items that follow trends—are often purchased to scratch an itch or get in on a moment, fine jewelry is usually seen as an investment purchase

If you’re looking to start (or you already have) your own jewelry business, you can make an impact by keeping your business sustainable. Think about:

  • Being as transparent as possible. List out where and how you source stones, share how your brand has sustainable practices like using recycled/vintage materials, etc.
  • Working with ethical suppliers of raw materials. Even if your business has sustainable and ethical practices, you should ensure that’s the same for the people you work with too.
  • Offsetting your carbon footprint. Can you buy carbon credits or offer an option where customers can pay extra to offset their shipment at checkout? Even allowing customers to check out with Shop Pay can help plant trees

    Interested in starting a jewelry business? Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify—no credit card required!

    Two dachshund hoop earrings hang off a white shell against a tangerine backdrop.
    Birgith Roosipuu via Unsplash

    Suitable for every day

    The other major pivot that innovative jewelry brands are making is the transition from “only special occasions” to “suitable for every day.” Generally speaking, fine jewelry was reserved for black tie events, that once-a-year holiday bash, or your wedding. 

    Now, shops are encouraging the daily wear of essentials. The reasoning? First, solid gold or platinum jewelry is significantly more durable than plated or vermeil jewelry. Wear your gold and diamond hoops every day and they won’t tarnish, fade, or turn your earlobes green. Second, if you have nice jewelry, why leave it in a box collecting dust? 

    This switch brings dynamic change to the old market, opening doors for entrepreneurs looking to create new trends within fine jewelry. As more jewelers discover how to keep prices low, they open the door to an entirely fresh customer base, one that never thought they could purchase these types of high-end items before. It also means that those who already buy fine jewelry might become repeat customers, as they’ll be able to purchase more options for every day.

    Feature image by Joseph Saraceno

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