China wanderlust poses hurdle for diamond rebound, De Beers says

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HONG KONG (Sept 14): China’s newfound penchant for luxury travel poses the latest threat to a turnaround for the US$80 billion diamond industry.

Chinese deluxe spending on travel is the “fastest-growing competitor” standing in the way of diamond sales in the world’s biggest consumer market, said De Beers SA Chief Executive Officer Bruce Cleaver. To win those travel dollars, he said De Beers could even see itself tying up with the luxury travel market somehow.

“Luxury travel is certainly a competitor to diamonds,” Cleaver said in an interview in Hong Kong Thursday. “If there’s a way to link luxury travel to an African destination where the diamond came from, we’d certainly look into that too.”

The world’s biggest diamond producer is seeking to kickstart an industry that’s seen prices for polished diamonds slump for the past six years. Its major Asian markets including China and India reported flat or declining sales in 2016. The company is also facing hurdles as a younger generation of Chinese shoppers increasingly spend more on high-end electronics, travel and fine dining than on baubles.

Worldwide demand in 2016 was essentially flat, as a 4.4% gain in the US offset sluggishness in Asia, according to a De Beers industry report published Thursday. Sales in China and India showed improvements in the first half of 2017, with single-digit growth from a year earlier, said Cleaver. The industry expects gains for those countries in the next five years as the global economic outlook improves, though Japan won’t grow as fast as its Asian peers due to its aging population, he said.

De Beers is seeking to influence buying trends by spending US$140 million this year to advertise diamonds, the most since 2008. It is focusing on women in its main markets — particularly those between the ages of 18 and 33 — who De Beers says are buying diamonds for themselves as their earning power increases.

Winning over those shoppers won’t be easy, especially in China, where diamond sales declined 4.8% last year in dollar terms. Competition from travel is a big challenge. China is the world’s largest source of outbound travelers, according to the World Tourism Organization. More than 135 million Chinese traveled in 2016, and their spending rose 12% to US$261 billion.

Even at home, rich shoppers who want to make a fashion statement are frequently opting for items such as Louis Vuitton bags and Gucci loafers. De Beers also is competing against companies including Chow Tai Fook Jewellery Group Ltd that are offering fashion jewelry at lower prices to lure Chinese shoppers.

“We are still pretty positive,” said Cleaver. “It’s a question of adapting your brands to the future, which I think we have all the tools to do.”