It’s been 70 years since Marilyn Monroe portrayed a jewel-hungry showgirl in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, famously explaining her need for the financial stability that precious gems ensured, singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Diamonds are still a good pal. But a gentleman is no longer necessary to acquire them.
“It’s a really interesting shift,” says Fatima Ali, vice president, assistant general counsel, at Sotheby’s Financial Services. “A lot of older clients or clients from decades past were acquiring jewelry as gifts from, usually, men. Also, they were inheriting jewelry from their family’s estates and things like that.” But she notices that now, women — herself included — are buying jewelry for themselves.
None of this happened in the blink of a solitaire. It took until the ’60s for women to be able to have their own bank accounts, and until 1974 to no longer require a father’s or husband’s permission to open a credit card. In 2019, NBC News reported that 20% of all home purchases were by single women. This year, the New York Times noted that single women outstrip their male counterparts in owning homes.
That hard-won independence has shifted how women think about their most significant — and most personal — fashion pieces. Fine jewelry is no longer a visual representation of love. It is now a trophy one bestows upon oneself for a job well done.
“When I make these types of purchases, they’re usually marked by important inflection points in my life,” says Ali. She made her first major purchase, a Cartier necklace, to celebrate her graduation from law school. She’s since expanded her collection to include vintage Van Cleef & Arpels, a turquoise and diamond piece from Dior, and a sapphire cocktail ring she consistently gets compliments on. “Because the pieces are being used to mark what I call ‘high notes,’ or key memories, in your life, instead of a memory in a relationship from somebody else, they’re that much more meaningful.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Barbara Wilding, a successful real estate agent at Compass. “I tend to look at them as little rewards,” she says of her buys. Over the years, she’s treated herself to diamond tennis bracelets, diamond earrings, and a number of pieces by a friend who designs jewelry. “Usually, I will buy myself something when I close a big deal.” Wilding says. “[I’ll tell myself,] ‘Okay, if I sell this house, I’m going to buy that bracelet.’”
The jewelry industry has been keen to embrace the cultural shift. Instead of ads urging men to “treat her this Valentine’s/Mother’s/President’s/Arbor Day,” contemporary labels like Mejuri and Messika, as well as heavy hitters like Tiffany’s, target women directly on Instagram.
“You don’t really see those De Beers ads anymore where everything’s about an engagement ring,” Wilding notes.
Not that men are no longer buying women jewelry, or that women don’t appreciate it. But women are done waiting for what they want. “If I see something that I like, that I think is quality, and I’m going to wear it, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it,” says Wilding. “To wait for my husband to buy it? No. That wouldn’t even enter my mind.”