When the news of Paris Hilton's 20-carat, pear-shaped engagement ring broke last week, questions immediately arose about where it came from, who made it, and, most perplexingly, who paid for it.
Her fiancé, actor Chris Zylka, was once homeless and now has a reported net worth of $4 million, so how could he afford a ring whose creator, Michael Greene of Greene & Co., told me has "a conservative value of $2 million"?
When Richard Johnson of the New York Post asked him if the couple "negotiated a big discount in barter for publicity" (Hilton tagged Greene & Co.'s Instagram account in one of the images of the ring), Greene says he misunderstood the question and thought he was being asked about how Zylka physically paid for the ring when he responded, "Those are the kind of things I wouldn’t talk about."
"I should have just said he wired the money to my account," Greene told me, adding, "I don't do barter and trade—I don’t need their publicity." He acknowledged that Zylka paid slightly less than $2 million but declined to reveal the precise figure.
Still, one industry insider says the story doesn't add up.
"I just don't think it's plausible, knowing her and knowing the reported information on him, that this was 100 percent up and up a straight buy," says Jack Yeaton, a publicist who has worked with celebrities and fine jewelry brands including Verdura and Kimberly McDonald. "For
A representative for Hilton, who is reportedly worth $300 million and controls a retail empire that includes 50 stores, 19 product lines, and sales from 23 different fragrances exceeding $2.5 billion, did not respond to a set of emailed questions.
Greene is hardly the only Hollywood jeweler whose name is frequently mentioned alongside celebrities. Lorraine Schwartz's 551,000-follower-strong Instagram account is filled with photos of famous people wearing her jewelry, and she has designed engagement rings for Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé—she even gets name-checked in Beyoncé and Jay-Z's 2006 hit, "Upgrade U." Schwartz was unreachable by press time, a representative said, but her collaboration with Kanye West on Kardashian's ring attracted attention from Extra on a red carpet in 2013.
Los Angeles jeweler Neil Lane, a celebrity favorite who has cemented his name in Hollywood and provides the engagement rings for The Bachelor, did not want to talk specifics but said that "there are always discounts" and "everyone barters" when buying jewelry.
"Everyone negotiates," Lane said earlier this week. "Why would a celebrity be different?"
Lane has a point, but celebrities have something to offer that most of us don't: free publicity. Case in point: our current president and his eldest son. The Graff engagement ring that Donald Trump presented to Melania Knauss in 2004 was wrangled through a reported deal in which Trump received the $1.5-million ring in exchange for exposure for Graff on his television show, The Apprentice.
While a representative for Graff told me that the company "maintains a strict confidentiality policy, and it is not our practice to comment on client relationships," Donald himself said at the time, "Everybody wants me to use their ring, for the obvious reasons. Am I such a bad guy for saying: 'I'll take it?'"
And as with most stories about Donald Trump, there's one about his children to match. When Donald Trump Jr. got engaged to Vanessa Haydon, he used a ring from the jeweler Bailey, Banks & Biddle, which he reportedly received for free in exchange for publicity that included the below photo op at the Short Hills Mall store.
Vanessa Haydon and Donald Trump, Jr. show off the engagement ring Trump presented at Bailey Banks & Biddle in the Short Hills mall in 2004.
The media moment earned the couple the indelible New York Post headline: "Trump Jr. Is the Cheapest Gazillionaire—Heirhead Proposes with Free 100G Ring." The arrangement may have been too brazen even for Donald Trump Sr. "You have a name that is hot as a pistol, you have to be very careful with things like this," he said on CNN's Larry King Live.
Yeaton said that giving a celebrity a free ring "is quite common practice," and from the jewelers' perspective, "you can argue that [gifting or discounting products for a celebrity] is marketing and you can offset the cost by pulling from that kind of budget."
And that's what more and more companies are doing. Money spent on earned media, which refers to publicity obtained through promotional efforts and word of mouth, is increasing, says Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior. Put another way: Jewelers know that celebrities, even those who fall short of an A-list ranking, are the influencers that matter when it comes to engagement rings.
Melania Trump’s engagement ring was front and center in her first official White House portrait.
"Someone like Paris Hilton, for example, showing your jewelry on her Twitter feed means a lot of her social connections are being exposed to the brand," Berger says, and while companies used to "think about paying for that exposure through
"Having celebrities wear our pieces is a great source of publicity for our collections," said Sarah Finkelstein, who handles public relations for Jacob & Co. "It often introduces the brand to new audiences via the celebrity's network, and on many occasions, results in sales as clients trust the taste and discerning judgment the brand's celebrity fans."
Companies have realized that consumers don't trust ads, Berger says, because "we know ads are trying to convince us of something." In contrast, "people tend to trust their friends and their colleagues, so if their friends and their colleagues are posting about something they're more likely to believe it."
The intimacy of an Instagram feed means that Hilton's own post about her ring "may feel a little bit more like [it's coming from] a peer than with traditional advertising," says Berger.
But does celebrity exposure really work? One high-powered jewelry source told me he'd never heard of Greene & Co. until last week. All of a sudden, it was the talk of the Diamond District.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.