Listen to this article
Claudia Cruz, a nanny whose dark hair hangs down her back in a two-foot long braid, commutes into downtown Mexico City every day from a dusty suburb via bus and metro to look after a baby for a working mother. She is wearing sparkly rhinestone earrings, which cost her $5. Nobody would believe that they are real, she imagines, given that she is riding public transportation. Wealthier Mexicans get around by car, preferably with a chauffeur.
“I feel like something is missing if I’m not wearing earrings,” she says, twirling one of the studs between her fingers. She is reluctant, though, to wear her most expensive jewellery: a pair of gold-plated earrings, a gift from an employer.
Aggressive begging is a near-daily occurrence for Ms Cruz. Tattooed young men board the buses and demand small change, warning that they have just got out of jail and have a proclivity for violence. They may well not be exaggerating: three out of every 10 Mexicans are the victims of crime each year, according to the government’s annual crime survey. (One in 100 Americans experienced violent crime in 2014, according to the Department of Justice.) In the decade following 1993, more than 300 women were murdered in Ciudad Juarez and, on average, seven women are killed each day in Mexico, according to government estimates. The annual survey says that 65 per cent of Mexicans “have stopped using jewellery daily”.
French insurer AXA says that 10 per cent of its Mexican clients file claims for violent property thefts each year, against 4 per cent in England, France or Spain. Since mistrust of public authorities runs high, nearly one in five clients refuses to report thefts to authorities, says Arturo González, head of damage reports for AXA Mexico.
Yet sales of jewellery — from costume to luxury items — are on the rise, according to industry research. This tension between personal security and conspicuous consumption reflects the country’s enduring show-off, class-driven culture — and it is forcing women to work out how much risk they are prepared to live with.
A typical Mexican girl’s introduction to jewellery begins shortly after birth, when a doctor pierces her ears with gold or silver studs, gifts from a grandmother. At her baptism inside a Catholic church, she will wear a Virgin Mary charm on a necklace. The customary gift for her first communion is a silver bracelet with her name engraved on it, and more jewellery arrives for her quinceañera, a rite-of-passage party on her 15th birthday. If she comes from a family of means, she will receive a luxury timepiece from her parents at a gala event to celebrate her graduation from secondary school.
There is a marital order of jewellery, too: a diamond engagement ring from her boyfriend; an elaborate piece upon the birth of her first child; other “tokens” to mark special occasions forever after.
Guadalupe Loaeza is an author who since the 1980s has chronicled such stages in life for Mexican women, along with their tastes and social norms. Inside her modern flat in a bohemian Mexico City neighbourhood, Ms Loaeza retrieves a book with pictures of 1950s high society women, including her own mother. Page after page shows neatly coiffed ladies with strings of pearls circling their necks. “It’s like the little pearls club,” she says with a throaty laugh. “They have no personality.”
In Ms Loaeza’s opinion, women these days are better served with costume jewellery, such as the “totally fake” strand of plastic pearls dangling almost to her waist. The classic silver hoops in her ears, made by Mexican silversmith Tane, communicate sophistication without demanding attention. Not accessorising seems unthinkable to her.
“The Mexican woman is very feminine,” she says. “She’s always overdressed.”
Mexico is an attractive accessories market, according to research company Euromonitor. The company predicts that total jewellery sales will grow by 7.7 per cent this year to $1.76bn, with costume jewellery accounting for two-thirds of the total. But jewellers and other industry figures say fine jewellery sales are likely to be many times higher than those recorded by Euromonitor, perhaps three to five times higher, as many transactions take place privately to avoid taxes and money laundering alerts.
Driving consumption is a growing middle class and an influx of new brands in a brand-conscious country. Nearly half of Mexican households — 14.6m — could be considered middle class, according to Euromonitor, while another 3.8m are likely to join them by 2030. At that rate, Mexico will have as many middle-class households as there are households in Spain put together. “Everybody wants to do business in the Mexican market,” says Amanda Hartzmark, an analyst with Euromonitor.
José Carlos Pérez, the jewellery buyer for Mexican department store chain Palacio de Hierro, says his company’s high-end jewellery sales have posted double-digit growth for four years in a row. “Affordable luxury” brands such as Tous and Swarovski enter into that category, with ranges starting around $75. “Fitting into social circles is very important for Mexicans,” Mr Pérez explains at Palacio’s flagship store. “You buy a luxury brand to belong to it.”
At a nearby display counter, three Mexican women in their 60s ogle costume jewellery by Alexis Bittar. Costume jewellery is a fun way to stay current, says Jacqueline de Haene, as she pays $125 for a pair of crystal-encrusted earrings. It is a guilt-free indulgence and “no big deal” if she loses them. Ms De Haene is wearing large silver rings, a silver necklace and dangly silver hoops; she feels that sporting more expensive jewellery these days is “offensive” in a world with such dramatic income disparities.
This is the market segment that Mexican jewellery designer Daniel Espinosa attends to: women who already own nice jewellery but want to experiment with trends. Mr Espinosa describes his brand as a “bridge” between costume and fine jewellery. Using techniques such as gold-plating, he offers the allure of luxury without its cost. Young ladies who work the social circuit might opt for a statement piece, like his $400 Roman-style collar, but the bread and butter of the business centres on women looking to spend no more than $150 for a pair of earrings.
“We are an answer to economic, fashion and security needs,” says Mr Espinosa, as he runs his fingers through Austrian crystals strung into necklaces.
Another male jewellery designer has responded to Mexico’s security crisis in a much more direct way. David Álvarez, who lives in the colonial city of Morelia, in Michoacán state, says it felt like a ghost town in early 2015: police were scarce and criminal gangs demanded protection fees from local businesses. Armed robberies were common.
Going out in the evening seemed risky, so Mr Álvarez met his friends at coffee shops in the afternoons, but even there they were targets. One Saturday, four armed men stormed into the café where he was sitting and ordered everyone to the ground. In a matter of minutes, they stripped patrons of wallets, phones and laptops. Then they instructed the victims to continue drinking their coffee, as if nothing had happened.
“In the moment, you’re in shock. You don’t think anything. But then afterward you realise what you just lived through,” he says.
After that experience, Mr Álvarez, an engineer and son of a silversmith, started thinking about how jewellery could double as an alert system. Together with his younger sister, he has designed bracelets with a panic button and GPS tracking system; when the wearer presses the button, an alarm sounds — either silent or firetruck-loud — and messages are sent to contacts telling them your location. Their “smart jewellery” brand, Geek & Chic, aims to “empower people”, Mr Álvarez says.
A spate of home robberies in upscale Mexico City neighbourhoods has led many women to question privately whether they should continue to own or buy nice jewellery. “I always want another necklace, but never — never — the real thing,” says Elizabeth Millán, a prime-property realtor.
Ms Millán inherited a valuable necklace from her grandmother but she is afraid such visible wealth might make her and her home a target. Several of her friends have experienced terrifying attacks at home, and her elderly mother died shortly after being robbed at home. “They tied up the servant and threatened her with a pistol. They really damaged her emotionally,” she says.
Sylvia Orozco, a 51-year-old housewife, says most of her friends no longer wear their engagement rings. But she does, out of habit. She hopes her diamond is small enough to go unnoticed. “It’s not that I don’t worry; it can be dangerous to wear these things,” she says.
Ms Orozco waits for trips overseas to put on luxury watches and more expensive jewellery. She was thrilled to receive a diamond Tiffany-style ring for her 25th wedding anniversary, but she has no desire to flash it about in Mexico. Three assaults while in her car — broken windows, shouts to hand over a mobile phone — have taught her to be cautious. “They can steal nothing, but it scars you,” she says.
Despite security fears, retailers say fine jewellery sales are soaring. Mexican auction house Morton’s sold $190,000 in fine jewellery and timepieces on a late July evening, slightly less than it would turn over during high season. Even heavy rains could not keep the crowd away. “People say they don’t want jewellery in their house, but then they come here and buy,” says Javier López, head of institutional relations at Morton’s and brother of the auction house’s founder.
José Davalos tells a similar story. Mr Davalos is a third-generation jeweller who designs custom pieces for wealthy Mexicans. His company, JD Joyeros, takes security seriously. They meet new clients by referral only inside a large, nondescript house on a tree-lined street in Mexico City.
His clients have both nice jewellery and top-notch protection. Buyers of standout unique pieces, such as the $250,000 fancy-cut, orange-yellow diamond ring on Mr Davalos’ desk, wear their jewellery with little worry because they can afford an armoured car with a private security detail.
Customers who are concerned about security sometimes ask for a cheap copy of their engagement rings, but Mr Davalos always advises them to wear the real thing or nothing at all. “If you’re going to be robbed, the assailant doesn’t know the difference between the good and bad stuff. But the scare will be the same,” he says.
Fourth-generation jeweller Miguel Ángel de la Fuente, who works out of a storefront on Masaryk Avenue, Mexico City’s closest approximation to Rodeo Drive, says he has never heard a customer say her engagement ring was stolen by force: she is far more likely to lose it. The trend among many of his customers is to purchase sparkly items that appear more expensive than they are. Looking for an example, he pulls out a pair of stud earrings with multiple tiny diamonds that sparkle as if each earring were a single one-carat rock.
But Mr de la Fuente is clear on the attitude women should take, echoing Mr Davalos: “Jewellery is meant to be used,” he says. “If you’re not going to use it, don’t buy it.”
“Jewellery will always be important,” says Abelardo Marcondes, chief executive of LuxuryLab, a luxury goods forum for market trends in Latin America. Mexican women have gravitated toward subtler displays of wealth, he notes, such as expensive but discreet brand-name pieces that would only be recognised by one’s social circles.
Mr Marcondes’ friend Marimar Turati exemplifies today’s discerning Mexican jewellery consumer. She favours tasteful yet understated pieces, mixing rings from international brands such as Pomellato with finds from antique stores, local jewellers and auction houses.
The tiny clusters of diamonds on her fingers could easily be mistaken for rhinestones by the untrained eye. “Since they’re discreet, I’m not afraid to wear them every day,” says the 36-year-old consultant.
Ms Turati, however, rarely uses her Rolex watch, which she bought to replace another Rolex that was stolen at gunpoint: “At first you get angry, then you go out and buy another one.”