Going from Smart to Smarter

Jewelers Enter the Wearable Technology Market

New York Times, December 4, 2014

LOS ANGELES — On a Saturday night in August, Jing Zhou hit the dance floor of a club in Hollywood wearing the prototype of a bracelet she had designed. The white cuff, called Elemoon, had looked sleek and unassuming until Ms. Zhou charged it in the corner, and it began to flash a rainbow of colored lights. That’s when her fellow club-goers started paying attention.

“One girl stared at it and screamed, ‘What am I looking at?”’ Ms. Zhou recalled during a recent Skype conversation from the factory in Shenzhen, China, where Elemoon is manufactured. “Another two girls asked me, ‘What does it do?’ I told them it changes color to match your outfit. You can rub it to find your phone, get important texts or call alerts.”

Made of a natural white polymer with a gold- or silver-plated lining, Elemoon features a customizable LED display and connects to a companion smartphone app via Bluetooth. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Ms. Zhou said she was preparing to deliver the first batch of bracelets around Valentine’s Day for a retail price of $399.

Until very recently, it was enough for a piece of jewelry to be beautiful, meaningful or both. Its utter lack of utility was beside the point. Over the past couple of years, however, a slew of wearable devices — be they fitness trackers like Jawbone, or Wi-Fi-enabled spectacles like Google Glass — have begun to compete with traditional jewels for space on the body.

It didn’t take long for entrepreneurs like Ms. Zhou, a former tech journalist and mobile advertising executive, to see an emergent market: smart jewels that marry a keen sense of style with a digital-age sensibility. She began developing the concept for Elemoon last year after visiting a store and seeing “a whole wall of wearable technology that was basically all rubber bands,” she said. “I wanted to make something more appealing.”

Piers Fawkes, editor in chief of the New York-based trend-spotting website PSFK, said he began to see a groundswell of companies like Intel collaborating with style arbiters around New York Fashion Week in February.

“Tech companies are starting either to have a fashion-first mentality or they’re starting to understand that fashion is just as paramount as technology,” said Tom Emrich, founder of We Are Wearables, a Toronto-based community group that organizes events for technology pioneers. “And I don’t think there’s any going back from that — they’re 50-50.”

Mr. Emrich referred to Ringly, one of the category’s earliest and best-known entrants. Founded in April 2013 by Christina Mercando, a former executive at Hunch, a social recommendation service acquired by eBay in 2011, Ringly looks like a simple gold-plated cocktail ring.

But beneath its chunky, checkerboard-cut gemstone — available in onyx, emerald, pink sapphire or rainbow moonstone — lies a circuit that’s Bluetooth-connected to a smartphone app. When texts, emails, calls or social media notifications from a selected group of people come in, the ring notifies its wearer using a customizable mix of four vibration patterns and five colors.

“I wanted to build a technology that was exceptionally stylish and so discreet only I would know it existed,” Ms. Mercando wrote by email.

She said she had the idea for Ringly — which retails for $195 to $260 — when she got fed up with missing calls and texts from friends and family “because my phone was buried in my purse and I hated leaving it on the table or having it out all of the time.

“I also disliked feeling so dependent on and chained to my phone,” she said.

Dave and Veronica Becker had a similar epiphany before they founded Beacon & Lively in October 2013. The Philadelphia-based company makes a Bluetooth-enabled bracelet called the Beacon set to ship this spring. Boasting a tapered, asymmetrical design, the $195 brass piece is plated with gold, silver or black ruthenium and features a color-coded LED notification system designed to help people feel less tethered to their phones.

“Like all good ideas, it started in a bar,” Mr. Becker said. “I was stepping away for a couple of minutes and told my wife I’d call her, but the phone was in her purse and there was no chance in hell she’d hear it in a crowded bar.”

By the time the Beckers had hired a jewelry designer to help them craft a stylish solution to that common problem, the smart-jewelry market was already starting to hum. Mr. Becker said myriad competitors have arrived on the scene in the past year — and that’s a good thing.

“In order for the market segment to develop, there’s going to have to be a whole lot of companies out there,” he said.

If estimates on the size of the wearables category are to be believed, it’s getting more crowded with each passing month. In January, Transparency Market Research issued a report that said sales of wearable devices — including smartwatches and fitness trackers — are expected to reach $5.8 billion in 2018. In September, the research firm MarketsandMarkets published a report predicting they would hit $11.6 billion by 2020.

While the smart-jewelry segment is too nascent to quantify, marketers agree that a profusion of new products, led by a crop of chic notification bracelets, is helping set the bar for how wearable technology should look and feel.

“The ones that interest me most are the ones that are plausibly jewelry or watches,” said Cheryl Kremkow, director of Citrine Media, a jewelry branding consultancy in New York, “because they look as though they’re something you’d wear whether or not they function.”

Case in point: MICA (My Intelligent Communication Accessory), a $495 smart bracelet coming out this holiday from the fashion-forward New York retailer Opening Ceremony. Available in two stylish versions — one in white water snakeskin, South African tiger’s eye and Russian obsidian, and the other in black water snakeskin, Chinese freshwater pearls, and Madagascar lapis — the bracelet, engineered by Intel, is equipped with a curved sapphire glass touch screen display that delivers text, email and social media notifications.

The MICA bracelet will square off against two new tech bracelets — a notification style as well as one that doubles as a phone charger — from the designer Rebecca Minkoff, who has partnered with Case-Mate, a mobile technology accessories company.

But it’s not all about the wrist. Mota, a consumer electronics company in Sunnyvale, Calif., is bucking the bracelet trend with the introduction next spring of its SmartRing, a glossy ring made from a white or black composite material that looks like something straight out of “The Jetsons.” To read notifications delivered to the ring via Bluetooth, its wearer uses the by-now-familiar swipe gesture.

Kevin Faro, a Mota co-founder, is convinced that his company’s know-how will be sought after in the coming years by traditional jewelers looking to smarten up their dumb baubles.

“We’d love for a well-known brand to take the lead on this,” Mr. Faro said. “To include our technology into their fancy or expensive bracelet could generate massive interest and sell a lot of units.”

While the common bond shared by most smart jewels is that they function as pagers for their owners’ smartphones, Artefact, a Seattle-based technology product design company, has developed a prototype for a smart locket that emphasizes emotional connections over digital ones. Known as Purple, the concept piece — designed in a round hinged case fashioned from gold, silver or platinum — receives images and messages from people selected from its wearer’s social networks and provides the ability to respond with a “like” or other pre-set message.

“It’s about remembering people close to you and maybe telling them you love them,” said Emilia Palaveeva, Artefact’s chief marketing officer. “We were able to take advantage of an object known for centuries to do that.”

During the brainstorming phase for Purple, the team at Artefact focused on creating a device that, through its classic design and emotional resonance, could transcend its technology. “We’d often cross out smart and just say jewelry,” said Lulu Mills, an industrial designer at Artefact who began working on the project last year.

If more smart jewels are successful at merging fashion and function, however, the question remains: Will traditional jewelry retailers, the gatekeepers of the business, give gadgets their blessing?

The technophiles of the industry think so. Daniel Gordon, a social media planner and sales associate at Diamond Cellar, a fine jewelry store in Columbus, Ohio, says the future of the jewelry trade hinges on its ability to embrace change — and that means welcoming wearable tech into its showcases.

“I think jewelers will eventually carry smart products and smart jewelry and it’ll even go high-end,” Mr. Gordon said. “We’ll see four- and six-figure items that have smart technology. I don’t think we have a choice. If the consumer wants something that can receive texts and look beautiful, we’re the perfect catalyst for it.”