For all the fuss made in recent years about the resurgence of bespoke design, and how it would revolutionise the state of luxury goods and crafts, it seems the actual benefits of this change have been far more sporadic and unevenly distributed than originally expected.
For all the people spending money on bespoke designs and consumer goods, where is all the business going?
Perhaps the way to answer this question is to look a bit more into the main characteristics of customers for bespoke design (also known as custom design).
For the sake of this discussion, we shall focus mainly on jewellery, but it wouldn’t be difficult to apply this same mindset to bespoke furniture, bespoke tailoring, bespoke art commissions, or even bespoke tattoo design.
In the realm of jewellery, there seems to be several different levels of bespoke design based around discretionary income. However, most of the different types of bespoke design customer tend to behave in similar ways. The two most different categories of bespoke design customer can most easily be classified into customers who seek an involved experience, or a more casual experience. We will call them by the terms the jewellery industry most often uses for them: fully bespoke design and semi-bespoke design.
How Bespoke Jewellery Design Has Changed Due to Designer-Makers and CAD/CAM
It’s worth noting that ever since the advent of designer-makers, the definition of bespoke jewellery design has blurred quite a bit. Once upon a time when jewellery was entirely intended as symbols of wealth, bespoke design was pretty much exclusively a luxury only for the wealthy. This class of bespoke design still exists, and seems to be as alive and well as ever.
However, with the advent of contemporary art jewellers in the 1960’s, a different class of bespoke design commissions appeared which had more in common with the market of traditional handcrafts. As these designers achieved prestige and fame for bold experimentation, the line of these hand crafts started to blur with fine art commissions. This field of “studio crafts” is precisely the kind of work showcased at the Crafts Council, and still straddles an unneven line between craft design and fine art commissions.
When CAD design entered the picture for jewellery (largely around 2005-7), the biggest reason for it’s early adoption was to bring about an entirely new and affordable way of creating bespoke design for a less affluent customer of fine jewellery. The effect has been to create an entire market of bespoke that sits somewhere between the traditional high-end luxury market and the craft market.
Even if CAD remains a fantastic way of providing an affordable fully bespoke service, as time has gone on, the promise of instant gratification CAD was supposed to offer has fallen short. Whether this is due to unrealistic expectations, or perhaps overpromise by CAD designers, the result has been the development of software designed based on combining existing components together on a screen. This simplified version of CAD design software has led to a resurgence in semi-bespoke design (formerly the preserve of printed catalogues of assembled jewellery components). Since the tools for creating semi-bespoke jewellery are so much easier to learn and use than fully-fledged CAD design, the results are more instantaneous and more visually exciting than a printed catalogue.
This second CAD-based take on the bespoke market has separated entirely from the behaviour of fully bespoke design. It features more in common with online customisation than with traditional bespoke, but as the customer has come into the shop rather than stayed at home looking at a website, there are still lingering elements from the bespoke experience.
Customers for Fully Bespoke Jewellery Design
Let’s look a bit more at the traits of a fully bespoke customer. This is the person we are supposedly aiming for in most bespoke design services.
The assumption most bespoke designers would make is that if a customer is at the point where they are willing to buy a bespoke ring or other piece of jewellery, they likely have a special occasion or purpose planned for their design. This is probably more true for those with less disposable income than others, and would be more true of jewellery than it would of other fields of bespoke design, but the assumption does make sense regardless of whether they’re a designer-maker’s customer or a luxury bespoke customer.
Following on from this, we can assume other things: whether they are wealthy or not, we can assume the customer has saved up money for this specific purpose. We can assume if they’re resorting to bespoke design to get what they want, they are not satisfied with something that is already pre-made, and are willing to spend a significant amount of time getting it made properly. Therefore, while they will have a good budget for their piece, their time sensitivity for delivery is going to be generally lenient, but their price flexibility will be generally low.
Bespoke customers also usually have some pretty clear idea of what they want, and will often come in with an example of what they’re thinking. However, since there is little or no correlation between imagination and product knowledge, these ideas bespoke customers start with usually require significant amounts of work to be made into something useable which will also fit within their budget. This tends to mean that bespoke customers are just as likely as not to end up with a finished design which has little bearing on the original ideas they come in with. Fortunately, if the bespoke designer has done their job right, this isn’t an issue.
Finally, because of the time and personal investment required for the creative process, the development process can become potentially very nerve-wracking for the client, especially for clients who are spending a larger proportion of their discretionary income and who have never experienced the manufacturing process before. It falls entirely upon the bespoke designer and/or sales assistant to manage the customer’s worries throughout the entire process, no matter how irrational. Frankly, if they’re paying for fully bespoke work, they’re paying for a sustained positive emotional experience as much as the design process.
Fortunately, this also means their reaction to the finished piece will likely be very strong one way or the other. It can also result in a certain amount of waffling over details (as the client is either nervous about getting it “just right”, enjoys the power of choice, or is eager to impress their individuality on the design). Regardless of the motivation, when the end result comes, clients this emotionally invested will either be tremendously thankful, or they will be very angry. There’s little in between. Fortunately, since the one factor we should have control over is the success of the manufacturing process, it is possible to leave every customer happy if the designer handles things carefully.
Customers for Semi-Bespoke Jewellery
Now that we’ve seen the traits of a fully bespoke customer, let’s compare them to a semi-bespoke customer. This includes customers shopping either through a computer interface which allows them to customise, or working with a designer and a catalogue of assembled findings.
These customers tend to also save up a certain amount of money to buy the piece in question (notice a distinct absence of impulse buying in either category), but they are less likely to know exactly what they want coming in. Likewise, there is still emotional investment in the process, but it is a little less than fully bespoke, and the panic factor seems to be significantly less with the client.
Generally, since semi-bespoke in jewellery tends to operate based on a catalogue (3D or otherwise), customers are more likely to play around and experiment with the design, resulting in even more revisions than you would see on a fully bespoke design, especially if they’re using an online catalogue. It can also potentially mean quite a bit of waffling on the clients part if not managed by the sales assistant.
Another big difference from fully bespoke design is the potential lack of conversion. A semi-bespoke customer is more likely to walk away from the design process than a fully bespoke customer, as they have less invested. Again, this is more true online than offline. But in either case, that same semi-bespoke customer is also more likely to come back later.
Also, due to the greater level of variability and the fixed costs shown with semi-bespoke systems, a semi-bespoke customer is likely to be somewhat more flexible on price than with fully bespoke.
Note that there are incidences of a semi-bespoke customer deciding to upgrade themselves to fully bespoke because that’s the only way of getting exactly what they want, but it seems even if such a chance is possible at the point of sale, the price difference between the two is usually enough to dissuade that from happening.
What This Means
The interesting thing about these two profiles is not the traits they both have, but rather the traits they both lack. Specifically, notice how neither customer has come to impulse buy, although both may respond to upselling. Also, neither type of customer has a problem with waiting for the delivery of a piece assuming that they meet any deadlines they have set. These factors, above all others, are reasons why bespoke design tends to sit directly at odds with the high street shopping experience. It’s also worth noting that these customers are generally less frequent than their casual shopping counterparts. Perhaps it’s the level of involvement in the experience. Perhaps it’s a lack patience. Or perhaps, customers quite simply seldom know what they really want. It’s hard to sell a product based upon the creative input of a customer when they cannot be asked to give that creative input.
What does this mean for bespoke design in luxury goods? The good news is that the taste for luxury only grows with exposure, and the new affordability of bespoke will only grow over time. Every trend report going right now predicts the current return to locally sourced individually tailored merchandise will not only stay, but expand over the next few years.
The growth may be slow and uneven, but from all indications this market looks as if it will only expand with increasing affordability from new technologies.
Disclaimer: All evidence here is based upon anecdotal experience gathered from bespoke designers and retailers I have worked with in the London Jewellery trade over the past 7 years. As with any analysis of human behaviour, there will be exceptions.