Wealthy Chinese Head Abroad to Buy Diamonds Without Scrutiny

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Demand for Diamond

Demand for Diamond

Wealthy Chinese who made their country into the world’s second-biggest market for diamonds are now increasingly traveling abroad to buy the stones, at a time when ostentatious purchases are frowned upon at home.

That’s the view of Tiffany & Co., one of the biggest jewelry outlets, and De Beers, the world’s largest diamond producer, which said sales of the stones have slowed in China. Revenue from luxury jewelry worldwide is forecast to grow by 8 percent annually through 2018, according to Paul Gait, a London-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

China has been the main engine of demand growth for the diamond industry, with sales expected to double in the next decade, according to Bain & Co., a private equity firm. Now, jewelers there are contending with an anti-graft campaign that’s already dented sales of luxury goods, including premium cognac and high-end watches.

“Patterns of buying by Chinese consumers are changing very fast,” said Bruce Cleaver, head of strategy and corporate affairs at De Beers, a unit of Anglo American Plc. “They travel more, and they buy a tremendous amount more than they used to outside of China.”

Xi Jinping, who became China’s president in 2013, is driving the toughest campaign against corruption since the days of Mao Zedong, targeting both high-level elites and people in less powerful positions. He’s seeking to curb a culture of bribery that’s seen as threatening growth. China’s economy is expected to expand 7 percent this year, the slowest pace since 1990.

‘Too Ostentatious’

The crackdown doesn’t “stop husbands and wives giving gifts to each other,” according to Cleaver. Instead it may have a chilling effect on those “who don’t want to be seen to be too ostentatious,” he said. The result: “a little less footfall in the Tier One cities in our stores.”

Other factors may also be involved. The weak euro makes vacation shopping in places like Paris, where De Beers has two outlets, much more attractive, he said.

Meanwhile, Tiffany is seeing the same trend, according to Mark Aaron, vice-president of investor relations.

“We continued to experience softness in Hong Kong and Macau as we believe some Chinese tourists have been traveling to and shopping in other regions,” Aaron said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

Weak Currency

De Beers’s retail stores are a joint venture with the French luxury-goods company LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, and offer high-end jewelry that can fetch tens of thousands of dollars or more. There are six in China and 66 worldwide.

“Chinese consumers who can afford to travel do take advantage of currency weakness to go and buy in Europe, where it’s much cheaper,” Cleaver said Tuesday in an interview in New York.

The shift is coming in a challenging moment for the industry.

Tiffany said Wednesday that same-store sales at the jewelry chain globally fell 1 percent in the first quarter. At the same time, the price paid by buyers for polished diamonds fell 8.1 percent this year, according to an index from Polishedprices.com.

Prices for rough diamonds, the uncut stones bought by jewelry makers, have tumbled 13 percent in the past year.

De Beers, which mines in southern Africa and Canada, failed to sell 30 percent of the rough diamonds at its March sale, according to industry publication Rapaport. Last month it cut its 2015 output target to 30 million to 32 million carats, from as much as 34 million carats.

“China is the main driver of growth for diamond jewelers,” said Bernstein’s Gait, in an April 20 note. “The size of the middle and affluent classes in the country is forecast to grow considerably by the end of the decade.”

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