Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
Disengaged on rings
Six years ago when I decided to propose to my Japanese wife-to-be I went to the main jewellery strip in the Ginza district of Tokyo ready to part with two months’ salary for a diamond ring.
The two-month rule was in my head from my years of growing up in the United States where men are conditioned into thinking that this is the price for locking in your lifetime partner.
The fact is in Japan you can get away with spending a lot less - or with not buying an engagement ring at all.
Diamond producer De Beers is widely credited with creating the two-month tradition with its famous “A Diamond is Forever” campaign that began back in 1947.
After a few decades persuading men in America to buy diamonds, it set its sights on Japan.
In 1977, De Beers first aired a commercial telling Japanese men they should drop the equivalent of three months salary — and the suggestion didn’t seem so outrageous at the time with the country enjoying a historic economic boom.
It played the commercial in movie theatres before the movies, aiming to catch couples on dates.
Then the bubble popped in the early 1990s and Japanese salarymen started to be more careful with their hard-earned yen.
Industry data shows that Japanese men who buy diamond engagement rings now spend about $3,000 on average, down about a quarter from 15 years ago. And only about half of them are buying rings at all, down from nearly 80 percent.
In addition to simple economics, experts say the drop-off reflects changing views on courtship and marriage.
Traditionally, Japanese families have exchanged gifts to commemorate a marriage, with the ring sometimes part of the package offered from the groom. Nowadays, a marriage is more likely to be about two people and what they can afford on their own.
The trend underscores the challenges facing Tiffany and other Western brands trying to profit in a shrinking market. But it is also an opportunity for new market entrants like GNH, which is trying to undercut bigger brands by selling rings online, similar to Blue Nile in the U.S.
“There is no doubt the market will get even smaller,” Hiroyuki Watanabe, the head of GNH, told me. Watanabe said his business was still at an early stage.
“I’m not in the red, but I’m not making money either. I’m just getting started.”
Photo credit: REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao