ANDERSONVILLE — There's money to be made in marriage equality.
Wedding jewelry designer Rony Tennenbaum said he predicted when he started a jewelry line for matrimony-minded gay couples six years ago that the push for same-sex marriage wouldn't just shift social norms.
The designer, whose brand will be one of many stocked at Sparkles Fine Jewelry, a new store opening this month at 5405 N. Clark St., was convinced that an important market niche was set to boom as gay marriage gained support.
"My feeling was that the country would start coming around and we would start seeing laws take shape, and I just felt like, 'I will be there when they do,'" the 48-year-old Israel native said.
"Right off the bat," when Sparkles opens on Sept. 17, the store "will be marketing to the LGBT community by stocking a jewelry collection whose very reason for being is to celebrate same-sex marriages," said a news release. The store, which welcomes gay and straight couples, hopes to provide a comfortable location for people to shop regardless of sexual orientation.
The country's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population has an estimated $790 billion in purchasing power that Tennenbaum, Sparkles owner Rachel Meyering and others hope to tap into as the push to legalize gay marriage continues.
Gay marriage supporters had big victories in 2013 at the state level and in the Supreme Court, which ruled this year that same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits.
One of the latest states to legalize gay marriage was Minnesota, where officials are urging Chicagoans to come get hitched while a gay marriage bill sits stalled in the Illinois legislature. Now, an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. population lives in 13 states (plus the District of Columbia) where same-sex couples can tie the knot.
Jason Cox, assistant director of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce, said that "with all the conversation around gay marriage and hopefully some action very soon in Springfield, I think reaching out to the LGBT community makes a lot of sense," particularly in LGBT-friendly Andersonville.
"We have a lot of patrons to whom supporting locally owned independent businesses is important, and if they are able to find unique products that aren't already being offered in the neighborhood, it is really a benefit for everyone," said the assistant director, who is gay.
The market for same-sex marriage is about a decade old. And "even within the [LGBT] community there are a lot of questions and unknowns," said Tennenbaum, a gay New York resident who plans to marry his partner of 20 years in October.
He said, for instance, that some lesbian couples "don't necessarily want a traditional Tiffany's ring."
He said same-sex couples often have questions about who proposes to whom, who buys the ring, who wears it and if they should get matching engagement or wedding rings. Tennenbaum's advice is to buy something that speaks to both people's individuality but also to the couple's bond, such as similarly designed rings where one is gold and the other is white gold.
"We're starting to see people putting together traditions that have never been in place before for this community, and that's a part of what I'm doing," he said. "We are in the middle of writing the rules and writing these etiquettes."
Tennenbaum had been working in jewelry for more than 20 years when he decided six years ago to "branch out," and design engagement and wedding jewelry for same-sex couples.
Googling around for gay marriage jewelry back then yielded "awful, really gaudy, very symbolic" jewelry that incorporated "rainbows and triangles," he remembers, saying a lot of it was "really not something that friends of mine would want to wear."
He also said some gay couples feel uncomfortable shopping at stores for jewelry together because "they don't really know if it's a store that will frown upon it."
"You know, two guys walking into a store and trying on diamond rings can pose a bit of discomfort, " Tennenbaum said.
But the jewelry designer said he is confident Sparkles will help gay couples who may be nervous about walking into just any jewelry store, and explained in a statement that the concept is simple:
"Engagement and wedding rings should proclaim love, not sexual orientation."