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When Julian Exposito-Bader joined Amazon as head of buying for watches and jewellery in the UK, he was baffled: “Like everybody, I used Amazon for lots of things, but I was like — who is buying all these diamonds?”
Amazon UK had been selling jewellery, mostly diamond engagement rings and wedding bands, for five years when Mr Exposito-Bader joined in 2012. The Venezuelan had had a long and varied buying career that included sourcing children’s books for the now-defunct Borders, stationery for WH Smith and food for Marks and Spencer.
But Amazon lacked credibility within the industry. Through a charm offensive over the past four years he has convinced the sector that the site is not just a go-to for budget books and discount electronics, but can also sell jewels worth thousands of pounds.
He soon came to understand his core customer. “Men tend to be quite lazy,” he laughs. “When you buy an engagement ring, it’s a technical purchase. If you know the carat and the size, you type it in and, voila, a diamond comes up that is exactly what you want. And the beauty of buying from Amazon is that if she says no, you can send it back — it takes the risk away.”
While the bridal offer was strong for these unromantic reasons, Mr Exposito-Bader felt the site was lacking a more fashionable jewellery offering and wanted to bring stylish brands onboard. The trouble was convincing designers with delicate egos and pricey products that it would not be the brand-killing, bargain-basement scenario they envisioned. “It was tough,” says Mr Exposito-Bader. “People are afraid of what they don’t know and back then people didn’t know we did jewellery, but once you get one brand in, the dam breaks.”
That important first brand was cult costume jeweller Mawi. The fashionable crowd are willing to spend £500 on an oversized necklace made from base metal and Swarovski crystals. Mawi was reluctant, but Mr Exposito-Bader was gently persistent — and victorious.
You can see why this calibre of brand would be willing to spend time listening to his pleas. He is fun to be around, pleasantly conspiratorial, with a great sense of humour, but most importantly he is one of them: stylish, living in Dalston, creative London’s hub, with his fashion designer partner, he is the antithesis of the corporate behemoth the jewellers feared. He does not entirely bat this idea off. “They are not just going to do it because I’m a nice guy and they can go for a drink with me, there is also a commercial element.”
Plus, he had cash. Unlike many online-only retailers which will act as a shop window, requiring brands they promote to dispatch directly when sales are made, Amazon UK bought all the jewellery and watches it sells through the site. (This excludes jewellery from seller-operated accounts; Mr Exposito-Bader has no responsibility for this.) “We buy everything,” he says. “It is a risk, but it’s one worth taking. Every brand I buy, I believe in, and it’s our duty to make those brands work. It’s the right thing to do. I see retailers that work with a brand for one or two seasons and then drop them — it’s appalling.”
While Amazon keeps its cards close to its chest regarding specific figures, it will confirm that Amazon Fashion, under which jewellery and watches fall, is one of its fastest growing categories. One jewellery manufacturer that works with Amazon describes Mr Exposito-Bader’s visits as rare times when “the red carpet is rolled out”. A watch distribution group described selling to Amazon as a “brilliant experience”.
There have been high-profile successes too. Last year, Amazon offered an exclusive line of Hotlips rings by London jeweller Solange Azagury-Partridge, ex-creative director of Boucheron. These colourful lacquer pouts are a signature design of Ms Azagury-Partridge’s and sell for thousands of pounds when made of gold, yet Amazon shoppers suddenly had access to them for just £69 in silver.
More interesting is that these rings were sold alongside her top-end jewels, which Amazon also bought in. The most expensive is a Vices and Virtues gold and diamond ring that you can add to your basket with a click for £18,500.
The jewellery industry seems to be coming around to the idea of Amazon as a luxury retailer. But the barriers of the luxury watch industry have been more resolute. While you can buy timepieces by the likes of Rolex, Cartier and IWC (the priciest is a yellow gold Rolex Sky-Dweller at £40,000), these are sold through third-party suppliers. The offer curated by Amazon Fashion is centred on more accessible brands like Fossil, Michael Kors and Gucci.
“I went to my first Baselworld [watch fair] four years ago and I saw brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe, and you speak to them and they say they don’t need any more sales,” he says.
Amazon’s offer has since broadened to mainstream Swiss-made brands like Citizen and Bulova, and also has a strong focus on fashionable minimalist brands such as Uniform Wares and Daniel Wellington.
While Mr Exposito-Bader’s recent promotion to head buyer for jewellery across the whole of Europe has taken him away from watches day-to-day, he still fosters a hope that the watch industry may become more “democratic”, a word he uses to define the varied offer under his curation, as well as the next generation’s shopping habits. “Eventually, if we do Rolex, then happy days,” he says. “I’ll buy them.”
This story has been amended to reflect that Mr Exposito-Bader is Venezuelan, not Ecuadorean