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James Allen & Blue Nile: Evolution of the Diamond Market

By Mike Fried,

This article is a discussion of the history of the retail diamond market and how the two biggest game-changers, Blue Nile and James Allen revolutionized the industry towards selling online.  If you’re looking for current information, read our Blue Nile Review and James Allen Review

Before There Was Blue Nile

In the classic model of the diamond jewelry supply chain, De Beers sells rough diamonds for cash (Cash on Delivery — no credit allowed) to sightholders (a limited list of diamond polishers with rights to buy rough diamonds directly from De Beers) who manufacture the rough into polished diamonds.

The diamond polishers sell diamonds to local wholesalers who, in turn, sell to local jewelry stores.  This system leads to several disadvantages to the consumer.

The Disadvantages of Multiple Channels of Distribution

Problems with Cash Flow

Firstly, since De Beers demands of its sightholders cash payment, the sightholders are constantly struggling with cash flow.

They have a commitment of several million dollars approximately every six weeks when De Beers sells its rough diamonds at what it calls “sights” (hence, sightholders.)

Most diamond polishers don’t have that kind cash lying around, so they must have a constantly open large line of credit. Add to that the fact that it takes approximately 3 months to finish manufacturing a box of rough diamonds.

To help you with the diamond buying process we lean on our expertise and experience. The author of this article, our CEO, Mike Fried has over 20 years of experience in the diamond industry. Mike started from the bottom, sorting and evaluating hundreds of thousands of diamonds to learn every facet (pun intended) of diamond quality and value. Mike followed that up by spending years buying and selling diamonds on the wholesale market as well as selling tens of millions of dollars worth of diamonds to diamond retailers.

Interest Payments

Even if the sightholder could miraculously sell all of the diamonds polished from one box on the first day they are available, the sightholder has still added three months of interest payments onto the cost of the diamonds.

 Late Payments and Delays

And that’s only if their customers pay in cash, which is extremely rare in the diamond business.  Most diamond wholesalers agree to pay in 90 days from the time of their purchase, but on average, these diamond dealers will pay a month or two past their agreed upon time.

And this doesn’t take into consideration the additional month (at least) it will take to send the diamonds for certification.

Another outcome of this cash requirement of De Beers’ is that sightholders loathe to tie up their diamonds anywhere.  Rarely will a sightholder agree to leave diamonds on a consignment basis with a customer.

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Payment Up-front

Sightholders need to constantly sell to clear out inventory — because whether they like it or not, a new batch of diamonds is always only 6 weeks away that they need to pay for up front.

Sightholders aren’t the only ones with a heavy burden of pressure in the marketing pipeline of diamonds.  Diamond jewelry is generally a relatively low turnover business.

Inventory Requirements

On the other hand, it’s a business where one must maintain a massive level of inventory.

If you just wanted to keep a stock of 100 loose diamonds for customers to chose from (which, considering all the different shapes and sizes and colors and clarities, 100 really isn’t such a large number), that could easily cost between $500,000 and $1,000,000. And this is just for the diamonds!

Keystones

Imagine all the gold and watches.  Most jewelers can’t afford to maintain such a large inventory with their cash alone, so they generally must borrow heavily.

In order to cover this enormous cost, jewelry markups have historically been quite large.  There’s even a vernacular term for the standard markup in the jewelry business of 100% of the wholesale price — it’s calledkeystone pricing.”

How Blue Nile Addressed These Issues

Founded in 1999, Blue Nile launched in an attempt to capitalize on e-commerce and address these issues with diamond sourcing and pricing. Like other online alternatives to conventional brick-and-mortar retail, Blue Nile has grown hugely over the years and was acquired by Signet in 2022.

blue_nile_logo

As you probably already know, Blue Nile does not inventory any loose diamonds (with the exception of their premier brand, the Astor Cut Diamonds.  All of the loose diamonds listed on their website are all sitting in tens, if not hundreds, of vaults all over the world belonging to just as many different companies.

These companies send Blue Nile a constant electronic feed of their inventory including all details of each diamond along with their wholesale price of the diamond.

Blue Nile adds on a standard markup (usually around 18%) and presents these diamonds to the web-surfing diamond consumer.

From Supplier to Consumer

Blue Nile does not have to pay for maintaining their enormous inventory. As soon you purchase the diamond, it is sent to their fulfilment center to be mounted in the jewelry of your choice and go through their rigorous quality assurance procedures.

I’m not sure exactly how long it takes Blue Nile to pay the vendor for the sale, but it is almost certainly not longer than 60 days.

From the perspective of the sightholder, listing their diamonds on Blue Nile costs them nothing.  These companies anyway have a constantly high level of inventory.

Sightholder Benefits

As long as the diamond is in their office, all they have to do is upload its details to Blue Nile and it immediately become available for sale.  If the sightholder has a regular customer who wants the diamond, so they sell it to their customer, and simply remove it from their Blue Nile feed.

No opportunities are lost, only new opportunities are achieved.  And since there are no expenses selling diamonds through Blue Nile, the sightholder is motivated to offer lower wholesale prices in their feed upload to Blue Nile.

Blue Nile’s Perspective

From Blue Nile’s perspective, they have none of the high inventory carrying costs of your typical bricks-and-mortar jewelry store, so they can survive, and thrive, on a significantly lower profit margin (18% versus 100%).

Also, Blue Nile provides live data to all of its suppliers of how their prices compare to their competitors for similar items.  This creates a true competitive market dynamic that ultimately drives prices down to their minimum.

Always Looking Out for the Customer

Blue Nile is a company that always seems to be looking out for an edge. They recently contacted us and raved about our education content (very impressive, since we aren’t exactly 100% supportive of them). They offered us unique single-use coupon codes

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for our readers that are supposedly the best discount for loose diamonds and engagement rings. If you want a coupon, just contact us

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Blue Nile vs. James Allen

Since Blue Nile came onto the scene, there have been an innumerable amount of imitators.  Just about all of them, however, can’t match Blue Nile’s size of virtual inventory and ease of use and customer service.  In this regard, Blue Nile truly carved out a significant first-mover advantage.

On the other hand, though, Blue Nile’s feature set is set and defined, it is easily replicable.  Their first-mover advantage will never allow them to offer diamonds any cheaper.  In fact, it can only hinder them, since they have a significant marketing budget they need to cover.

One firm stands out as taking all the good that Blue Nile delivered to the industry and bringing it one giant step farther — Jamesallen.com.

jamesallen-logo

Seeing is Believing

You see, for all of Blue Nile’s great innovation in how to deliver diamonds to the consumer in the most cost effective way, there was always one giant advantage the bricks-and-mortar stores had over them.

In a store, you could actually see the diamond before you decided to purchase it!  It seems silly and obvious, but it’s truly a major factor.  Not everybody can afford a VS or VVS diamond where seeing the diamond is less important.

Blue Nile tries to make the claim that loose diamonds are a commodity and you can learn all you need to learn about each one by reading its certificate.

Blue Nile’s Misleading Claim

Not only is this not true, but most consumers already intuitively understand that it’s not true.  As I explained in my article about clarity, no two VS2s or SI2s, or I1s are alike.  For most diamonds VS2 and lower, you really need to examine the diamond before you buy it.

Virtual Loupe

Jamesallen.com solves this issue with their “virtual loupe.”  Now, you can buy a diamond online and examine it ahead of time.

This not only will give you the peace of mind that you are going to receive what you expect to receive given the clarity you have chose, but now you can purposely look for a lower clarity diamond (that will still look great to the naked eye) because you can check it and see for yourself!

Inspiration Gallery

Another unique tool that James Allen has developed is their Inspiration Gallery. This gives you the ability to “window shop” random setting/diamond shape combinations in  your budget to zero in on the perfect ring for you.

James Allen James Allen is the leader in online diamond sales. Their imaging technology is the same as inspecting a diamond with a jeweler's loupe. They have the largest exclusive loose diamond inventory online and fantastic prices. They also have the nicest collection of lab-created diamonds online.
What we love about them:
  • No questions asked returns within 30 days of shipment. James Allen will send you a paid shipping label to return the ring.
  • Lifetime Warranty
  • Free International Shipping
  • Free prong tightening, repolishing, rhodium plating and cleaning every 6 months
  • Provide insurance appraisals
  • One free resizing within 60 days of purchase
  • Free ring inscriptions
  • Best-in-class high quality imagery of all diamonds in stock
  • 24/7 Customer Service
  • Best-in-class packaging
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Blue Nile Blue Nile is the largest and most well-known internet jewelry seller. They have a very large exclusive online inventory. Their high-quality images are catching up to James Allens' and their prices are amazing. 
What we love about them:
  • No questions asked returns within 30 days of shipment. Blue Nile will send you a paid shipping label to return the ring.
  • Lifetime Warranty
  • Free Shipping
  • Free prong tightening, repolishing, rhodium plating and cleaning every 6 months
  • Provide insurance appraisal
  • One free resizing within the first year of purchase
  • High quality images of about half of their diamonds
  • 24/7 Customer Service
  • 100% credit towards future upgrades (must be at least double in value)
  • Best in class fulfillment
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About the author

Mike Fried Mike Fried Mike Fried has over 25 years experience in the diamond industry working with Leo Schachter Diamonds, Moshe Namdar Diamonds, and joining The Diamond Pro in 2007. He is recognized as an industry expert and has been quoted in publications such as Us, People, Page Six, The Next Web and more.

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