An Untapped Market: Jewelry for People with Disabilities

Accessible by design: This community has had little representation in the trade, but industry activists hope to change that — and open up new business opportunities in
the process.

July 30, 2023  |  Rachael Taylor
Social Responsibility July August Magazine 1280 USED 073023

At the JCK Las Vegas show in June, Tiffany Yu made a striking statement. “We, as disabled people, actually control about $21 billion of discretionary income, which is more than the Black [$3 billion] and Latinx [$16 billion] markets combined,” said the founder of Diversability, a social enterprise that advocates for young people with disabilities.

These figures come from a 2018 study by the American Institutes of Research that points to the “significant and growing economic power of the disability market.” Another recent study — this one by research firm Return on Disability — describes people with disabilities as “an emerging market the size of China [and] the European Union [combined],” with 1.85 billion people globally who account for $1.9 trillion in annual disposable income.

Add in family and friends who might buy products for them, and the numbers get even higher.

Starting the conversation

Yu, who has paralysis in one arm due to a car accident when she was a child, was speaking at the Women’s Jewelry Association (WJA) Generating Community Impact Breakfast. Her statement was enough to pique interest in the room, which contained many C-suite jewelry executives. She also gave a live demonstration of how difficult it was for her to put on traditionally designed jewelry; for someone with the use of only one arm, she noted, clasps are particularly challenging.

The other speaker at the breakfast was Molly Kettle, chief operating officer at talent agency Gamut, which represents people with disabilities who are in the public eye — including Yu — and works to connect brands with the disabled community. Kettle posed some challenging questions to the audience.

What were they doing to sell to people with disabilities, she asked, and how were they making workplaces more inclusive for employees with disabilities?

These conversations need to happen more in the jewelry industry, believes WJA executive director Jennifer Markas, who organized the JCK talk. People with disabilities are not well represented, she says. “How many people do you see on a retail floor in wheelchairs?”

She points to diamond dealer André Messika, who has a child with disabilities, as doing great work to highlight inclusionary job environments. Messika actively employs people with disabilities at his cutting and polishing factory in Windhoek, Namibia. Generally, though, disability inclusion “has never been spoken about at scale” in the jewelry industry, Markas states.

Staff member at André Messika’s diamond-cutting center. (Natural Diamond Council)

Market appeal

By connecting the audience at JCK not just with the human experience of feeling excluded in the jewelry world, but also with a potential business opportunity, Markas hopes to open some minds.

“That’s really why we had the two speakers,” she says. “We knew that if Tiffany spoke, it would be like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, interesting.’ But the minute Molly was talking about the business case and how you could be a leader in this and set the stage for what adaptive jewelry is, I think [many people] were like, ‘Oh wow, this isn’t just something that we’re talking about, this is something I should actually explore.’”

Staff member at André Messika’s diamond-cutting center. (Natural Diamond Council)

And as Kettle pointed out at JCK, adaptable collections don’t just benefit those born with disabilities: “If we’re all lucky enough to age, we will probably join the disability community at some stage in our life.”

Seeing the potential, some jewelry companies are already paying attention to this potentially lucrative market. A number of major luxury brands have accessible collections in development that will likely launch in the next couple of years, bringing the industry that much closer to welcoming and accommodating all jewelry lovers.

Adaptive style

Mariana Russo Chambers was scrolling through Instagram one day in 2021 when she stumbled across the account of Stephanie Thomas — a stylist for people with disabilities, and a congenital amputee born with missing digits. Russo Chambers, founder of New York jewelry brand Cut + Clarity, connected instantly with Thomas’s story and reached out to her. A friendship developed, and a year later, the pair collaborated on a line of adaptive jewelry called Disabled + Stylish.

Using the patented Accessible, Smart, Fashionable system that Thomas’s Cur8able styling consultancy had developed, “we thought about ways to make jewelry with the disabled community front and center,” relates Russo Chambers. “The disabled community is not a monolith; it would be impossible to design for all types of disabilities. So we took Stephanie’s difficulty in dressing herself and her clients — because she is missing a thumb — as our primary focus.”

They didn’t want anything too dainty for people with motor-function issues to manage, so they replaced lobster clasps with sliding-ball clasps, and sized their chains to slip over the head. Thomas “challenged me to design a hand chain that she could put on easily,” recalls Russo Chambers, “and after many iterations, our Accessible Handchain was born and became our best seller.”

Disabled + Stylish is a permanent collection at Cut + Clarity, with new designs added periodically. Russo Chambers believes more jewelers should be looking into adaptive design. “Working with Stephanie has changed how I look at fashion, jewelry design, and the industry as a whole,” she says. “According to [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)], one in four adults in the US is living with a disability, but very few brands are addressing their needs. I am proud not to be part of that herd.”

Disabled + Stylish jewelry at Cut + Clarity, on model. (Cut +Clarity)

This article is from the July-August 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

Main Image: Staff at André Messika’s diamond-cutting center, cofounded with Schachter & Namdar, in Windhoek, Namibia. (André Messika)


Social Responsibility July August Magazine 1280 USED 073023 An Untapped Market: Jewelry for People with Disabilities

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