On May 11, a series of photos were posted to Instagram capturing a marriage proposal that looked as though it could've been staged for a recent episode of "Emily in Paris." Mais non, it was real: With the Eiffel Tower in the background, Wylie DuFresne presented his well-manicured now-fianceé Tatiana Schermick with a custom engagement ring featuring an emerald-cut solitaire on a thin, yellow-gold band.
To date, the post has garnered more than 12,500 likes; a handful are from people who know the couple, but most are from complete strangers who comprise New York-based fine jewelry brand Ring Concierge's 547,000-strong following.
The numbers point to a millennial-led trend that was unfathomable just a decade ago: For fine jewelry brands looking to woo customers into buying four-, five-, sometimes six-figure pieces, they don't need exorbitant marketing budgets, Madison Avenue boutiques or a long list of affluent contacts — a key essential, rather, is an engaging, blinged-out Instagram feed. (Luckily, it's practically inevitable that engagement-ring customers will provide a bit of user-generated content.)
"I'm not even going to lie and say there was a strategy," Ring Concierge founder Nicole Wegman tells me of the brand's account, which she launched in tandem with the company. "I didn't have any preconceived notions as to what it should look like — I just reacted to customer and follower feedback in real time. 'They like this? Great, I'll do more of it. They don't like this? I'm not going to do that. We're getting questions about this? Okay, maybe that's a topic that people want to know more about.' And it just evolved."
For Schermick's part, a Ring Concierge post landed on her Explore page circa 2017, prompting her to follow the account. She quickly became a fan of the brand's engagement rings, as well as the glimpses into Wegman's life, and began sending DuFresne not-so-subtle hints on the styles she liked.
"I would send my fiancé the Instagram posts every time [the brand] posted an emerald-cut set in a Whisper Thin band," she says. "I had to make sure he knew I only wanted my ring from Ring Concierge."
A former fashion buyer at Bloomingdale's with a background in product development, Wegman founded Ring Concierge after a frustrating experience shopping for her own engagement ring. Like many New York couples, she and her now-husband first headed to the diamond district, where "it was so difficult to trust anybody, [and] the aesthetic was not in line at all with my own," she says. After studying at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and finding a mentor who helped her navigate the largely male-dominated and traditionally family-run diamond business, Ring Concierge was born in 2013.
"We're simple and minimal, and have the focus really on the diamond," Wegman says of the brand's engagement ring offerings, which are all bespoke and handmade. Pieces start at $8,000 and can go up to seven figures.
As the only model for the collection when she first started posting on Instagram, Wegman quickly built a rapport with like-minded followers. "All of these women on Instagram started to see this woman that they could relate to — similar age, eating at similar restaurants, wearing the same brands, wearing all this jewelry — and looked at the account and said, 'I like this, what's this brand?,'" she says. "It started to explode organically."
Around the same time, fellow designer Stephanie Gottlieb's Instagram following also began to swell. The New York native spent five years in sales and production at an "old-school 47th Street diamond wholesaler" before launching her eponymous brand: "My internal struggle was that I was designing jewelry and selling it to a customer that I didn't really understand — it was a slightly older customer who was very traditional, and the jewelry felt very traditional. There was no fashion element to it, there was no color, there was nothing exciting about it. It was very classic, basic, bread-and-butter fine jewelry. Certainly that serves a purpose, but it wasn't mine."
A quick glance at her account verifies this. Among pieces that the brand's 455,000-plus followers pine over are Gottliebs' signature slider bangles, custom engagement rings and personalized bubble necklaces. (Prices range from $90 for a simple pair of studs to six figures for a custom engagement ring.) Once "the girl in high school who wore pumpkin jewelry on Halloween and giant heart-shaped earrings on Valentine's Day," as she puts it, Gottlieb has become synonymous with rainbow gemstone pieces.
"My first real bold rainbow piece that I designed was an emerald-cut eternity band — half were diamonds, half were a rainbow layout," she says. "I really didn't reinvent the wheel there, but I did something different. People weren't used to considering an eternity that could be that playful. It felt very serious before."
Initially, Gottlieb envisioned her company as a one-woman show, whereby she'd meet clients through word-of-mouth referrals and sit down with each one of them. "Then Instagram took it to a very different place," she says. Though she considered creating an account for her brand, Gottlieb was already posting personal photos under @StephanieGottlieb. Sharing her work on the same handle felt like the most practical move.
"What people really love about our account is that they feel connected to the brand, but also to me," she says. "That's been really instrumental in our growth, and huge in allowing us to reach a customer base that we never would have reached otherwise. For the first eight years, I didn't spend a single dollar on marketing. That was unheard of before Instagram. We owe this business and our success to Instagram, wholeheartedly."
Instagram, says editor and consultant Will Kahn, "does what editorial used to do, which is give context and life to jewelry." Khan saw his own @willsnotebook following soar when, as an editor at Town & Country, he began sharing photos of artfully-arranged jewelry on his notebook. He points to Gottlieb and a handful of other designers who are deftly leveraging Instagram, even as the space becomes increasingly saturated.
"If you look at someone like Brent Neale, for example, she brings you into her life. She shows you how to wear things and how she wears things," he says. "You get to know her through Instagram, and therefore you're buying into her sensibility and her taste level. You feel like you're friends with her."
Neale — whose playful, chunky pieces have landed on the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and T: The New York Times Style Magazine — describes this dynamic as "grassroots trust," one she's built by regularly posting her sapphire-bedecked mushroom pendants, 18-karat gold knot rings and custom cuffs and necklaces since launching her namesake brand five years ago.
"Stories have been a huge tool for me," she says. "People watch Stories almost like they watch TV," she says. The engagement, she adds, is fascinating: "When you see how many times [a post] has been shared, that's crazy."
Though Instagram has proven to be an important arm of their business, Jemma Wynne founders Jenny Klatt and Stephanie Wynne Lalin were initially reluctant to join. Having launched the brand in 2007 — three years before the social media platform was available to the masses — they worried that the pillars of the label (luxury, sophistication, exceptional craftsmanship) would get lost in a sea of blurry brunch photos and Valencia-filtered sunsets.
"We weren't so excited about it at first," says Lalin. "We were a little scared about showing too much or not showing it in the right way or feeling too casual."
After giving an employee the go-ahead to share pieces on her own account and seeing the positive engagement, the two created a dedicated brand profile and slowly leaned into posting. Today, Jemma Wynne’s social media content ranges from videos of Klatt and Lalin sourcing stones to editorial lifestyle images that they hire models for and conceive alongside a creative director and fashion photographer.
In retrospect, Lalin believes that because the brand was established pre-Instagram, it arrived on the app with ample credibility.
"We've been in business for 15 years, and we've worked really hard over those 15 years to establish ourselves with our clients," she says. "We did that at first by selling in stores. We were very laser-focused on a specific set of stores that we wanted to work with, and I think that validated us. Once social media happened, people were comfortable enough with our brand to purchase things sight unseen."
Exposure via the platform, however, doesn't come without its gripes: New accounts popping up daily and frequent algorithm changes have made it increasingly difficult for brands to foster a sense of community among followers and land on the radar of potential new clients. Sharing original designs that are ultimately copied is another inevitable frustration.
"While I could talk for hours about the copying that goes on and the picture-stealing and the accounts that claim to be us, it isn't good for our business to focus on that," Lalin says. "Once we let it get to us, it ruins the whole creative process."
Running a business — which includes maintaining an Instagram presence — already leaves limited time for the creative process.
"It's a tricky thing because you give it away to somebody to do, and I think the voice would change," says Neale, who still creates 100 percent of her brand's Instagram content. "I'm struggling with that a little bit. It's so time-consuming, but it's also so important, so I don’t want to give it up yet."
Gottlieb, Wegman, Klatt and Lanlin all have hired staffers to oversee social media, but continue to be heavily involved.
"Sometimes I'm up answering DMs at midnight, or at 6 a.m. on a Sunday," Gottlieb says. "But I want that sale, and it's so important to me to be the first line of communication and not to lose the opportunity. One day, I'll get out of the DMs. But for now, it works."