I’ve been spending time recently analyzing data from two jewelry megatrends that have had a significant impact on sales, at both the retail and manufacturing levels. I was fortunate to have identified each of these trends early (see “The Next Three Stone”, SJN/MAJN May 2013, on the vibrating diamond trend, and “Something Really Important is about to Happen”, SJN/MAJN Oct, 2015, on the Two Stone trend), and to have charted a course that took maximum initial advantage of each. Indeed, the ability to accurately forecast which trends will materialize, and which will not, is incredibly valuable, so I am constantly looking for new ways to interpret data in an effort to create mathematical models with predictive value. I recently learned of a fascinating new theory that may have answered several mysteries in the fields of cosmology and paleontology, which has actually caused me to think about trends in the jewelry business in a new way, and I thought you might find elements of that thought process interesting.
Let’s start with the generally accepted scientific fact that a comet struck the Earth east of the Yucatan peninsula approximately 66 million years ago, resulting in an ecological collapse in which nearly all dinosaur species were instantly eradicated from the fossil record. This theoretical model was initially proposed by a team of geologists who had discovered an extremely thin deposit of the element iridium in strata in the Earth’s surface laid down roughly 66 million years ago. Iridium is created in the catastrophic explosions at the end of a star’s life, and the accretion disk from which our solar system was formed some 5 billion years ago had been seeded with it by the death of stars in our general vicinity that had previously gone supernova. Due to the way that interior planets form when solar systems come into being, iridium is actually an extremely rare element on Earth, generally occurring only as a result of comet and asteroid strikes. The presence of a thin, dense layer of iridium at precisely the right strata confirms the fact that a comet approximately nine miles in diameter struck the earth with such incredible force that it produced a cloud plume that spread the rare element in a thin layer all the way around the globe.
As an aside, it’s interesting that this theory was originally proposed at the height of the cold war, and was actually used by the Peace movement in the ‘80s as an argument against the bold negotiation stance of President Reagan vis-à-vis the Soviets because of perceived dangers of a “Nuclear Winter” that would accompany any nuclear exchange. They argued that as millions of tons of material were ejected into the atmosphere it would create an ecological disaster that would destroy the human race, just as it had annihilated the dinosaurs. But subsequent computer models show pretty clearly that it actually wasn’t atmospheric dust that killed the dinosaurs. Instead, the incredible heat generated by the impact caused ground temperatures to briefly rise to an average 600 degrees Fahrenheit all over the globe, immediately killing almost all land creatures except those that were protected by underground burrows, including our distant mammalian ancestors.
The event that took place 66 million years ago was ecologically devastating, but an analysis of the fossil record shows that significant die-offs were actually not uncommon throughout history on a geological time scale, and some were even more lethal than the event that destroyed the dinosaurs. The greatest devastation to life on Earth actually occurred approximately 249 million years ago during the Permian-Triassic Extinction event, in which 96 percent of all marine species, as well as over 70 percent of all vertebrate species, ceased to exist. But there have been periodic extinction events throughout history, consistently occurring at intervals of about 31 million years, which suggest that some outside force is contributing to the periodicity of the events. And this is where the story takes an extremely interesting and unexpected turn.
As photographic techniques in astronomy evolved in the early part of the twentieth century, astronomers made a curious discovery. As each neighboring galaxy to our own was photographed with ever-increasing precision, it became possible both to measure the specific speeds of individual stars as they revolved around the center of their respective galaxy, as well as to calculate the total combined mass of all of the stars contained therein. To their astonishment, astronomers discovered that the total mass contained by each galaxy was considerably less than the amount required to gravitationally hold its stars in orbit. Given their very rapid orbital speeds, the stars in each galaxy should actually be careening out of control into deep space. This came to be known as the “Missing Mass” problem, and the scientific community has gradually accepted a stunning solution: it turns out that the various particles we’re familiar with (protons, neutrons, etc.) make up only about 4 percent of the actual matter and energy in the universe. The remaining 96 percent (of every thing that exists in the Universe!) consists of forms of matter and energy that are unknown, about a third of which is now referred to as “Dark Matter”, because whatever it’s made of, while the galaxy mass and orbital speed studies show that it interacts with other particles gravitationally, we still can’t see it, can’t identify it, and in fact, have absolutely no idea what it is.
While we don’t yet know “what” Dark Matter is, we do have a pretty good idea “where” at least some of it might be found. In order to account for the missing mass, astronomers have theorized that Dark Matter exists as a relatively thin disk of material hovering above the plane of each galaxy in the Universe. And this is where the periodicity of the extinction events can potentially be explained. You can think of the Milky Way galaxy as being like a record on a turntable. It’s a flat disk that’s constantly rotating, and it’s big, with a diameter of about 200,000 light years. Our solar system lies about halfway out from the center, and makes a full rotation about once every 250 million years. In the course of revolving around the galactic center, it also wobbles up and down, and here’s the especially interesting part: it turns out that the periodicity of the wobble in our solar system’s orbit happens to be almost exactly 31 million years, precisely the same as the periodicity of the extinction events in the fossil record!
When we think of the solar system, we think of the sun, plus the 8 planets (nine if you count Pluto), plus the asteroid belt. But far beyond Pluto is an area called the Oort cloud that houses trillions - that’s right, trillions - of comets. Normally, the Oort cloud is a pretty sleepy place, as the extremely low gravity pull from the exceedingly distant sun keeps everything moving very slowly in very distant orbits. Occasionally, the gravitational push from a passing star can deflect certain comet’s orbits, causing them to fall inward towards the sun. But imagine if every 31 million years, the wobble in the solar system’s orbit causes millions of comets to suddenly be thrown inward due to interaction with the theoretically-proposed Dark Matter disk. Suddenly, the gravitational effect from this extremely massive unseen material could cause a hail storm of comets to be thrown inwards towards the sun - and Earth itself. And while the vast majority of those objects would likely miss the Earth, a few - or even just one - would likely find its way to Earth’s surface with devastating effect. The fact that this scenario plays out every 31 million years, as our solar system’s wobble takes it close enough to the unseen dark matter disk to send comets plunging into the Earth, makes the periodicity of the extinction events perfectly fit the theory. What an amazing piece of speculative scientific detective work!
As I was thinking about the extraordinary implications of this new theory, it occurred to me that the periodicity in the extinction events reminds me of the periodicity of the emergence of trends in the jewelry industry. Three Stone, Circles, Journey, Chocolate diamonds, Vibrating diamonds, and now Two Stone - each has appeared on a roughly 2-4 year cycle. I’ve been working on a pretty cool mathematical model that predicts how these trends occur, and what makes certain items succeed in capturing the attention of the consumer, while others fail. Advertising inputs (like De Beers’ initial wave of advertising that launched the Three Stone concept) are obviously a significant part of the algorithm, but the persistence of consumer demand, even in the face of adverse economic conditions, suggests that there is an underlying consumption imperative that lies waiting to be activated. And how does one account for the persistence of bead sales? Is it possible that the Great Recession actually blocked the successful formation of higher priced trends, and artificially extended the life cycle of the bead trend? And did this scenario simultaneously create pent-up demand for better jewelry, which I’m now seeing in sell through data for the larger sizes of Two Stone rings during the Christmas Season of 2015?
So many questions… fortunately, I suspect that somewhere in the relationship between dinosaurs and Dark Matter, there may be a lesson regarding periodicity that’s waiting for me to discover and apply to the question of how and when future trends in the jewelry industry will manifest themselves. And that makes thinking and learning about interesting phenomena outside of the jewelry business, even for someone who’s obsessed with studying consumer behavior (like me), extremely worthwhile.