The recent exhibitions saw strong footfall, but buyers’ price expectations made sales difficult.
The diamond and jewelry industry returned with enthusiasm to the March Hong Kong shows, the first major international fairs in the municipality since the Covid-19 pandemic. Chinese buyers came in large numbers to meet suppliers, view goods and check out prices, exhibitors reported. However, despite packed floors, actual sales appear to have been limited.
“People had created a big hype that everything would change, but the market takes time to get into the mood,” said Nilesh Chhabria, chief operating officer at Indian polished manufacturer and sightholder Finestar Jewellery & Diamonds. “It can’t just switch on and switch off. However, for some people the show went very well.”
Mainland demand had been at a near standstill since mid-2022, when the country imposed several lockdowns to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. The Chinese government ended its zero-Covid policy in December, and, in January, made the important move of opening the border with Hong Kong. This enabled retailers, dealers and jewelry manufacturers to travel following three years with few opportunities. Hong Kong has also been easing its containment measures over the past months.
Indeed, the first day of the Hong Kong International Jewellery Show and Hong Kong International Diamond, Gem & Pearl Show coincided with the end of the municipality’s mask mandate, which had been in place for more than two-and-a-half years. The government’s choice of March 1 appears to have been a coincidence, but exhibitors felt it was an important signal that the city had moved on from the Covid-19 pandemic, even though many attendees still wore face coverings voluntarily.
“Everyone who I met was very happy to be back in Hong Kong [and that] Hong Kong [had] opened up,” said Rishi Mundra, managing director of Hong Kong diamond manufacturer and trader Stellar Group HK. “The mask mandate…was the last one of the last major Covid-19 restrictions that we had in Hong Kong. That increased the sentiment that…we’re back in business.”
The rooms appeared extra busy because the two fairs, both organized by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), took place at one venue — the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC) in the Wan Chai district. Before the pandemic, jewelers would exhibit at that site and loose-stone dealers at a different center near the airport. More than 2,500 exhibitors and more than 60,000 buyers attended over the five days, the HKTDC reported.
“The vibrant atmosphere, busy traffic and packed booths not only reflected the global jewelry market’s pent-up demand after three years and strong buying power, but also reaffirmed Hong Kong’s position as the world’s premier trade-fair capital in Asia,” commented Sophia Chong, deputy executive director of the HKTDC, in a statement.
Price discovery was a major objective of Chinese buyers at the shows, many of whom were only willing to bid below exhibitors’ asking prices, participants said. Loose-diamond sellers could have made strong sales if they’d offered discounts, but many were unwilling to do this, they noted.
Melissa Wolfgang Amenc, a director of Swiss gemstone and jewelry dealer Golay Fils & Stahl, who exhibited in the antique section, saw a similar trend in her sector. While traffic was strong, many customers were surprised at some of the prices of colored gemstones and jewelry, which had risen during the pandemic due to shortages, she explained.
“I get the feeling that the local population, whether it be Hong Kong or mainland Chinese, were not necessarily ready for that adaptation, because the prices they made reference to were considerably lower than the prices we ask [for] now,” said Wolfgang Amenc.
As for diamonds, demand skewed toward the small stones that are popular among high-end brands. The best-selling items were VS to SI clarities and D to G colors. Some of the stones were destined for the greater Chinese consumer market, while some were the target of jewelry manufacturers planning to export finished products to the US and Europe, exhibitors noted.
While some business happened, it took a while to get off the ground, said Mundra at Stellar Group. Customers came in seeking lower prices than exhibitors wanted to sell at, and later had to adjust their expectations.
“A lot of times, they were offering below cost,” he observed. “But then once they walked around the show and realized [what the] bottom prices [were], they figured, OK, we cannot get goods below this certain price point. So when they came in the second and third day, it was a better sell to them.”
Buyers from Western brands were mostly absent, exhibitors said — more so than usual at the March shows, which are generally less of a draw than the preholiday September Hong Kong fair. Most visitors, if not from China, were from other Asian nations. (The June jewelry show is also a mainly regional affair.)
The exhibition was something of a “warm-up show,” said Rahul Jauhari, director of sales and marketing at Hong Kong-based colored-diamond specialist Kunming Diamonds. Conversions into actual transactions were limited, he noted.
The most positive point was the optimism that the shows and the strong footfall signaled. Chinese companies that made purchases mainly did so in anticipation of demand rather than because consumers were spending right now. This made exhibitors hopeful of a healthy Chinese recovery over the coming months, especially with two more important Hong Kong trade shows on the calendar for the early summer and the autumn.
“At least [customers have come] to buy one or two stones,” said Vincent Yiu, director of Hong Kong’s Brilliant Trading Company, a diamond wholesaler. It’s “not like before [the pandemic], but at least it’s a very positive sign. They’ll definitely come back in June and September.”
Image: Visitors at the March show. (HKTDC)