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Why it's a good time to invest in a diamond watch

The slowdown in the luxury sector is touching everything from watches to jewellery, resulting in a drop in prices

A display of Rolex SA watches in the window of a Watches of Switzerland Group Plc store on Regent Street in London, UK.(Bloomberg)

By Bloomberg

LAST PUBLISHED 28.11.2023  |  05:00 PM IST

In the market for some sparkle this Christmas? It may cost less than it did the last few festive seasons.

The slowdown in the luxury sector that’s hurt big European names such as LVMH and Gucci-owner Kering SA is touching everything from watches and jewellery to diamonds.

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So it’s probably not a bad time to put some bling under the tree. Rough diamond prices have begun to stabilize, but man-made diamond values remain under pressure. As for watches, Rolex and Patek Philippe timepieces continue to change hands for much less than they did 18 months ago, making some bargains likely. And there is little to suggest they won’t get even cheaper still.

The disparate parts of the high-end market are moving together because they were all boosted by pandemic purchasing habits. As consumers were locked down, many accumulated savings and directed spending to luxury goods. The situation was most extreme in the US, where Americans’ personal balance sheets were boosted by stimulus checks, as well as stock-market and cryptocurrency gains. The rush into watches—particularly Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet—coincided with a fear of missing out on stellar returns from alternative assets, including Bitcoin and non-fungible tokens. Add in constrained supply, and the secondary values of the most-hyped names reached many multiples of their retail prices.

It was a similar picture for diamond jewellery. Amid the heightened emotions of the pandemic, some people gave more meaningful gifts or sought to treat themselves for surviving such a traumatic period. Diamonds fit the bill on both counts. With not enough stones available, prices rose, reaching a record high in February 2022, according to diamond expert Paul Zimnisky’s Global Rough Diamond Price Index.

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These factors are now unwinding.

Gyrating stock markets and slumping cryptocurrencies have taken their toll on watch and jewellery buyers’ wealth. Meanwhile, higher interest rates put pressure on watch collectors who had used leverage to amass large positions over the preceding five years, forcing them to sell.

Earlier this year, it looked like secondhand watch prices, particularly for Rolex, were stabilizing. But the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, job losses at big tech companies, and broader concerns about the economy put pressure on values once more.

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Consequently, the Bloomberg Subdial Watch Index fell 1.8% in October, sinking to its lowest level since 2021. The index, which tracks prices for the 50 most-traded watches by value on the secondary market, is now down about 42% since reaching a high in April 2022, Bloomberg News reported. Similarly, research platform WatchCharts’ Rolex index is at about a 30-month low.

Demand is still strong for many new Rolex models, with waiting lists continuing to grow. Cartier watches also remain popular in stores, with some models even proving more resilient on the secondary market. But there are signs that demand is waning for some new pieces. Just as with handbags, when times get tough, consumers tend to gravitate toward the tried-and-tested names.

Cartier-owner Richemont earlier this month saw revenue from its watch brands, which include A. Lange & Sohne, Vacheron Constantin, Panerai, IWC Schaffhausen and Jaeger-LeCoultre, unexpectedly decline in its second quarter. Swiss watch exports as a whole are also normalizing after a period of strong growth.

As for diamonds, consumers now have other things to spend their money on, while a sluggish retail recovery in China may also have weighed on demand. These circumstances have coincided with the industry restocking supplies of stones. Consequently, the Zimnisky Global Rough Diamond Index is about 26% below its peak in February 2022.

Have we reached the floor? Given the extent of the decline in second-hand watch prices, we are probably closer to the bottom than the top of the market. Much depends on whether speculators have fully offloaded their inventories, and that is far from certain. Spring’s relief proved fleeting.

In contrast to watches, though, prices for natural diamonds may be stabilizing. This comes after industry players took steps to stem the slide—De Beers allowed buyers more flexibility rather than requiring them to purchase their contracted allocations, and the market in India imposed a halt on imports. The prospect of European Union sanctions on Russian diamonds could also constrain supply. But much will depend on the crucial holiday season, from Thanksgiving in the US to Chinese New Year next February.

Yet, in one corner of the diamond market—lab grown stones—values are still plummeting. Although consumers, particularly in the US, are increasingly embracing man-made gems, their positioning as a cheaper alternative to natural diamonds means shoppers also demand the best deals.

Meanwhile, scale and technological advances have made manufacturing cheaper. And, of course, unlike natural stones, which are finite, factories can make as many synthetic stones as they want. The prospect of lab-grown diamonds democratizing the industry, opening it up to new consumers as Danish charm-maker Pandora AS hopes to do with its lab-grown diamond range, or cannibalizing sales of lucrative engagement rings, will also have a bearing on whether prices for natural stones recover.

If the boom and bust in watches and jewellery has demonstrated anything, it’s that all that glitters is not gold.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering consumer goods and the retail industry. Previously, she was a reporter for the Financial Times. 

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