Diamond sales sparkling in China

In a country where gold and jade have traditionally signaled love, more young Chinese couples now fancy diamonds. China is overtaking Japan as the world's second-largest consumer of the precious stone.

An employee reaches for a diamond necklace at a jewelery shop in Shenzhen, China, October 19.

Diamonds may or may not be forever, but they are certainly for right now in China, as the country overtakes Japan to become the second largest consumer of the precious stones.

Fueled by the growing popularity among young couples of diamond wedding rings, Chinese imports of polished diamonds rose 12.7 percent over the first six months of this year to a record $300 million, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

As diamond sales in Japan slump because of the economic crisis, "the Chinese market will inevitably grow because Chinese people's love of diamonds is growing," says Wang Fei, a researcher specializing in luxury goods at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.

Diamonds are displacing traditional tokens of love such as gold and jade in China, says Ms. Wang, because "the big brands' marketing strategies" have persuaded young people that "diamonds are symbols of true love."

"There is a certain fascination with diamonds in China," adds Philip Claes of the World Diamond Center in Antwerp, Belgium, the world's largest diamond polishing hub. "Now [that] they have the means to buy them, they are very eager.

"China is becoming more and more important because of new consumers, middle-class, and rich people who can afford" diamonds and other luxury items, Mr. Claes says. China and Japan currently account for about 13 percent each of the world diamond market, still well behind the US, where half of all polished diamonds are sold.

Dealers are positioning themselves to take advantage of China's potential, says Claes. More than 80 Antwerp-based companies displayed their wares at last month's diamond show in Hong Kong, where the city installed its largest-ever pavilion.

Young married couples are not the only Chinese to show an interest in diamonds. Last week Xi Jinping, China's vice president and expected successor to President Hu Jintao, visited the World Diamond Center. He walked away with gifts of a two-carat diamond laser-engraved with the Chinese flag and a Chinese flag pin made of 60 rubies and five diamonds.

High-end jewelers are also expected to seek to expand in China as traditional markets elsewhere flag as a result of the economic slowdown. Cartier, a French jeweler and watchmaker, expects that China will become its biggest market within three or four years, CEO Bernard Formas said last month. The firm plans to double the number of its outlets by 2014, according to Mr. Formas.

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