Monday, December 19, 2005

Call them “Desperate Husbands” — men who wait until the last minute to go Christmas shopping. Men who wear procrastination as a badge of honor.

Girlie men shop online or visit the mall in November, wrap their presents and stash them in the closet.

Real men put off shopping until Dec. 24.

Because men don’t shop. They buy. They are goal-oriented. And what they end up buying is jewelry.

Diamond jewelry, to be exact. Square-shaped or pear-shaped, from Harry Winston to Wal-Mart, from Tiffany’s to Target, the most dangerous place to be on Christmas Eve is between a desperate husband and a jewelry counter.

“We have men rolling up at 3:30 on Christmas Eve,” said Katie Mulcahy, manager of the Old Town Alexandria jewelry store Mystique. “They know exactly what they want. We love that. They’re easier to sell if they’re desperate.”Men, she explained, do not have a Plan B. Most likely, in the most dire cases, say five minutes before the store’s closing, they will buy up rather than down. “A lot of times you can guilt them into spending more,” she said. Because at that point, the only alternative is a Chia Pet from the 7-Eleven.

Mystique rakes in at least one-third of its annual sales in the four days before Christmas, Ms. Mulcahy said. “I’m sure it’s the same all across the country,” she said. “Men put off Christmas shopping until the last minute. It’s like homework for them.”

At the Tiny Jewel Box on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, where earrings, bracelets and necklaces range from $500 to $50,000, a group of regular male Christmas procrastinators compete to see which one can make the final purchase on Christmas Eve.

“The desperate come in on December 24, and they’ll fight each other,” said saleswoman Maggie Hayns, staring down at the sparkling bounty in the store’s display case. “It’s crazy.”

“Men always shop late,” said Terry Chandler, head of the Diamond Council of America. “It’s the nature of the beast.”

Diamond sales are up — U.S. diamond jewelry sales rose 8.2 percent in 2004 to $31.5 billion.

Mr. Chandler, who operated 12 retail stores for the past 20 years, said he has a theory about why men wait until the final buzzer.

“If men are buying something that is not practical, they put it off for as long as they can. And jewelry is not practical.”

Holiday shopping is a pressure-filled experience for the desperate husbands.

“Some men resent it,” said Jim Rosenheim, chief executive officer of the Tiny Jewel Box. “They have a resistance to demand. Others just want to get off the hook. And we’re lazy.”

Some wives shop early in the month for the “bling” they want, then tell the jeweler to hold the item until their husbands come in. Others, like former “Wonder Woman” actress Lynda Carter, expect their husbands to read their minds.

So there was Washington lawyer Robert Altman on Friday afternoon, standing in front of a jewelry case at the Tiny Jewel Box, eyeing a pair of diamond drop earrings for his actress wife.

“She did not pick out something,” he said.

So it’s a surprise? Mr. Altman hesitated. “It’s not entirely a surprise. It would be a surprise if I don’t pick out something.”

He wore a leather jacket and chatted with Mr. Rosenheim, who said Mr. Altman was an old friend and a regular customer.

“Men’s egos are much more fragile than womens,’ ” said Mr. Rosenheim, who is working his 47th year at the Connecticut Avenue jewelry shop. “Men don’t want to make a mistake.”

His favorite Christmas memory involves several alpha-male deadline junkies who wound up at the store late on Christmas Eve one year. They were all lawyers in the communications industry, and as it turns out, were adversaries in a large lawsuit involving a technology company. Most importantly, they had all been to a Christmas party and were full of imported cheer.

The lawyers recognized one another and began looking over the jewelry. There was a sense of camaraderie — a feeling that they had more in common than they realized, haggling over depositions and filings.

“They ended up huddling together,” Mr. Rosenheim said, “and in fact solved their case in the middle of the store.”

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