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The diamond industry is facing a period of consolidation, but one upstart jeweler is steadily carving out a reputation for himself in a sector that's becoming less dominated by major jewelry producers.
In 2012, Zameer Kassam, a former McKinsey analyst with a family background in jewelry, made the leap from the business world into jewelry design. Armed with a Harvard MBA, Kassam told CNBC his business model is "the complete opposite of opposite of everything in the industry," and hinges on millenials — currently the hottest demographic in business.
"There's been a seismic shift in how millennials think about diamonds and rings," the 37-year-old jeweler said in a recent interview. "They don't want something that everyone has. They don't place the same value in traditional brands across hotels, vehicles. It has to be personal."
After a tenure at De Beers Louis Vuitton and Angara, Kassam decided to commit his life to jewelry. His brand was born out of his passion for designing rings as well as working with clients, something he found difficult to do in a traditional luxury environment.
Personalizing jewelry is exactly what Kassam is looking to do with his eponymous brand, Zameer Kassam Fine Jewelry. His own efforts coincide with a broad push by the diamond industry to spur diamond sales among millennials in a bid to revamp its image. Advertising to the demographic is less focused on traditional ideas, and more on the emotional bond represented by the gem.
Kassam's model incorporates the personal background of a couple into the design of their engagement ring, which in some cases can sell for tens of thousands of dollars each. Kassam takes the client through three steps: a diamond tutorial, a casual conversation about the couple's story, and storytelling, where ideas and designs for the ring take flight.
"It's not just, 'Oh she likes red, so here's a red stone inside,'" Kassam told CNBC. "This has to tell your story. 'It is truly made only for me and it's infused with details about him and me.'"
Kassam's company, in partnership with the De Beers Group, is an exclusive retailer of Forevermark diamonds. Prices generally start at $10,000 for engagement rings and $5,000 for other pieces.
"There was never an option like this before — never had a jeweler who can know you so well that they can create your story in a ring. It sounds like something for royalty but doesn't have to be," Kassam said.
Kassam said he has worked with many unique couples, and enjoys telling their stories. Sometimes, it's as simple as having the ring blessed by a clergy member, or having wings hidden in the prongs of the setting to evoke the symbol of a hometown.
Affixing more personal stories to diamonds — and infusing them with more meaning and emotion — has become a way to help reheat a cooling industry, which recent data from Bain & Company show has only begun to rebound after a period of weakness. A sell-off in inventory during 2015 helped generate a 20 percent bounce in rough diamond sales last year, according to Bain.
Still, major jewelry retailers saw a slowdown in sales during the first half of 2016, amid slow demand in China and the U.S. Meanwhile, even the holiday season didn't provide its usual lift for big brands such as Tiffany and Signet.
The diamond industry's challenges — including continuing concern over the social impact of diamonds and the rising popularity of lab-grown gems — are creating an opening for niche players like Kassam.
Kassam told CNBC he was no fan of major jewelers' traditions, calling them "a stale experience" and the environment they provide "cold." To that end, his brand eschews brick-and-mortar stores. So how does he make his business work?
"We believe that people are our greatest asset," Kassam said. "Referrals allow you to start from place of trust, and it helps that we have been connected by friends."
A satisfied client who tells other people about Kassam's jewels "ends up being our internal referral engine," he said.