There's no occasion quite like the Fourth of July to celebrate all things American. Here at Fashionista, we'll be spending the week examining the fashion industry in our own backyard, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.
I've never owned a class ring, or even had the option of purchasing one presented to me that I can recall — but I've always been intrigued by them and the romantic idea of holding onto an expensive piece of jewelry for your whole life that isn't marriage-related, or even possessing that level of pride in your high school or college. It seemed like a charming, iconic symbol of Americana akin to letterman jackets that, for someone like me who went to a tiny school in a big coastal city without so much as a football team, only existed in movies and TV shows.
In fact, class jewelry is a very real business; but, unsurprisingly, as young people have begun to care more about the latest sneaker or tech device than traditional keepsakes, that business is experiencing a slow decline. Certainly, a smaller percentage of graduates purchased class rings over the past couple of months than did 50 years ago. While there aren't specific numbers tracking the decline of class rings as its own category, a 2011 report found that sales of traditional yearbooks — a bigger, but analogous, business — had been declining at a rate of 4.7 percent per year.
"There's not as many class rings that are sold today as there were 30 years ago," confirms Ann Carr, the chief marketing officer at Jostens, one of a few companies that dominate the U.S. academic memento market. The Minneapolis-based company now also sells things like yearbooks, letterman jackets and professional sports and military insignia, but became a pioneer in the class rings business in 1906, shortly after launching in 1897. The concept of the class ring is believed to have originated shortly before then, in 1835 at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, making it an historically American tradition. At the time, students only had one class ring option for their graduating year, but in a trend that mirrors the jewelry industry as a whole, they've become increasingly customizable and personalized.
Adapting to this shift by providing more options is what's kept Jostens and other class jewelry purveyors — Balfour is Jostens's main competitor — afloat. "Back in the mid-'80s, our class ring was one of the only pieces of jewelry I ever saw; but nowadays, young people are being presented with so many more options," explains Jeff Peterson, Vice President, Marketing at Jostens. "The purchase intent for things like class rings or yearbooks has not gone down; what has changed, though, it's the diversification of what those products are."
In other words, students aren't all interested in the traditional, bulky look of a traditional class ring, though they might still like the idea behind it. Rings with a more contemporary look and class jewelry outside the ring category have become increasingly popular. "We've got lots of interest in things like bracelets, lockets, necklaces, tags — it gives us confidence that the interest is still there, it's just they're more demanding in terms of how they want to remember it," says Peterson. Carr notes that the company has been among the first to offer natural stones in class jewelry, and to sell retail-ready products in school bookstores.
That thinking led Jostens to embark on a first-of-its kind collaboration with the small Los Angeles-based fine jewelry brand Sarah Chloe, known for its pared-back, personalized signet rings and other classic styles. After discovering those signet rings in a Mark and Graham catalog, Carr reached out to founder Zahava Ryzman last year and immediately wanted to work with her to bring a little more newness to the company's class jewelry offering. Despite knowing as little about class rings as I did, Ryzman agreed, in part because, for her, it was an opportunity to learn more about an ever-challenging segment of consumers: Generation Z. Before she started designing, Jostens took her to schools to meet with students, or potential customers, to get a sense of their interests and preferences.
"They have a very strong viewpoint as to what they like," Ryzman says she observed. "The students we met with were so confident; they articulated their point of view so strongly. They came across so well-read and -versed in what they were interested in." And what they're interested in, it appears, is a departure from traditional rings. Ryzman's first capsule collection for Jostens doesn't include even one class ring, but rather a charm necklace and bracelet with options for engraving, gemstones and accent charms — her goal was to mix commemorative elements with fashion elements. It turned out to be one of Jostens' most successful launches of all time, with sales doubling their initial expectations. Carr and Peterson were effusive in their praise for Ryzman. "We exist in service of those students; she's really been a soulmate in that mission," says Peterson. They're currently working on future collections, which may be more expansive and include rings. "She's looking at, how do we do a modern-looking class ring?" says Carr.
Aesthetics aside, another aspect of the class ring market that's changing is how they're sold — though not as significantly as you might think, at least not at Jostens. The company began as a regional business, adding sales managers in additional regions as it grew. The local sales forces would "walk into schools and form relationships with principals, set up class meetings and get seniors together to talk about the year," explains Peterson. Today, he says, even though Jostens offers online ordering, the majority of product is sold in the exact same way, person-to-person. "What we've found is that the personal relationships that our sales representatives have [with schools] is the key to this business; it's very relationship-based," says Peterson. On average, sales reps stay with the company for more than 10 years. "They really are part of the community; they have kids who go to these schools," adds Peterson. What the company is trying to do now is create that same sort of personal touch online.
Ultimately, what Jostens and its competitors have to market (and hope never dies out) is the emotional significance of class rings, and that's been an easier sell in the parts of the country you'd probably guess. "The traditional ring itself, it's so powerful down in some parts of the country," says Carr, referring to the American South, "where the tradition is so strong they have ring ceremonies."
Rings also, sometimes, lead second lives: At West Point, donated rings from earlier graduates are melted down and mixed with new gold to make rings for new graduates. There's also a pretty vast assortment of vintage class rings available for sale on Ebay and Etsy.
In today's landscape, when buying something to keep forever is an increasingly foreign concept — especially in the fashion and accessories space and among millennials and Gen Z — getting students to care will be the class jewelry market's biggest challenge. At the same time, the fine jewelry market as a whole is steadily growing: In a way, it's really just about starting 'em young.