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How the diamond industry is redefining gender roles during the most romantic time of the year

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, the expectation is that we should all be feeling romantic. Maybe some of us will receive flowers or chocolates from our significant other. Some of us might get jewellery. Some might even get a proposal.

According to IDEX and US census figures, 7.8 per cent of annual diamond sales and 10 per cent of all proposals take place on Valentine’s Day. And despite a later average age for marriage and rising divorce rates, the sentiment of ‘diamonds are forever’ reigns as strong as ever during the season of love.

Partly as a result of these peaks, the diamond industry is thriving. Bain and Co reported that in the 18 months from the beginning of 2014, the diamond industry value chain grew by somewhere between 4 and 8 per cent. The same report also suggests that by 2019, demand for diamonds will far exceed supply. And with the world’s most expensive engagement ring being worth over an estimated $83m, there’s plenty of demand out there.

But is it still men who are buying jewellery for women? And are they still the ones getting down on one knee?

Well, the answer is just not that simple anymore.

Diamonds are a girl’s best friend

More women are buying their own diamonds than ever before. A Mintel study found that more than half of the women surveyed bought jewellery as a treat for themselves, rather than waiting for a male partner to buy it for them. That’s not all that staggering when you think about it. Women are earning more, becoming more independent. Just like men, they want to show their success – and nothing says ‘I’m doing well’ quite like a 12 carat diamond.

These high-earning, successful women know what they like. Why send a husband or a boyfriend to buy a personal item – so personal that it will literally sit against your skin – when you can choose exactly what you like and ensure that you actually like it? More women see jewellery as an accessory than ever before, so buying a diamond for themselves gives them the opportunity to match statement pieces to their style and outfit. Outfit coordination - something most women wouldn’t trust a man with.

This power of choice is now even extending to proposals. Not only do women not want to wait for a proposal anymore, but 42 per cent say they wouldn’t trust their partner to choose their engagement ring. Not the most romantic sentiment, but one that undoubtedly makes sense to any strong-minded woman whose future husband doesn’t perfectly replicate her taste.

Proposals are becoming less about gender

But before we go too far down the cynical, unromantic route, it’s worth remembering that this year is a Leap Year – and the one day of the year where women are traditionally allowed to propose to men. And with our new empowered, ultra high net worth women taking the initiative in the diamond market, it’s definitely time to ask – will more women actually be getting down on one knee for their men this year?

The history of Leap Year proposals is steeped in legend. In the 5th century, St Bridget took a stand against women’s passivity in proposals. She struck a deal with St Patrick by turning bathwater into beer and in return, St Patrick then proclaimed that women could propose to men every Leap Year, without shame.

The tradition could be brutal though. If a man said no to a leap year proposal, he could expect an eternity of bad fortune. He could even be killed by his would-be fiancée’s family. Nowadays, pain of death upon refusal is less of a concern (but only slightly!)

It does seem that the idea of women proposing to men has much less of a stigma attached to it than it once did. According to one study, 56 per cent of men in relationships would say yes if their partner asked them to marry them today. And celebrity trailblazers like Halle Berry and Pink have openly stated that they were the ones to pop the question in their relationships.

Just like buying their own jewellery, women are asking the question – why wait for someone to give you what you want when you can give it to yourself?

But, who gets the ring?

So with the leap year approaching, would the modern woman buy an engagement ring for the modern man? And does who gets the ring depend on who proposes to who?

Firstly, let’s take a look at the men’s engagement ring market. Jewellery stores are now stocking ranges that include hundreds of male engagement rings. And in same-sex relationships, it’s not unheard of for both parties to want an engagement ring, so why wouldn’t men in heterosexual relationships demand the same treatment as their female partners?

So where next for the diamond industry?

All in all, it seems that gender is becoming less of a defining marker in the romantic stakes. Especially when style and status in the form of a giant sparkling diamond is up for grabs. And with two big romantic milestones heading our way, these are tantalising times for luxury brands. For the smarter players, it really could mean double the opportunity.

Erminia Blackden is head of strategy at Cocoon