Who Broke the Crystal Ball?

There are a lot of things to like about my job: intelligent and talented colleagues, innovative and fast-moving core industry, free food and booze… y’know, the usual expected combination of perks at a tech start-up.

But the very best parts of my day revolve around the conversations I get to have with jewelry industry folks. They come from a huge range of specialties — retailers, designers, manufacturers, students, teachers, artists — and once we get to know each other a bit, many of them are willing to take a few moments to chat about the general state of the industry.

These conversations have given me both deep insight into the inner workings and relationships within the network itself, and a bird’s eye view of the US (and often global) jewelry industry as a whole. Useful and interesting stuff.

In a totally unscientific way, I’m been taking notes on these discussions and keeping track of what people seem to be saying. Here’s an overview of some of the most common topics and their subsequent commentary:

“The industry is changing.”
This is by far the most popular statement. It seems that nearly everyone is in agreement about the state of flux and evolution, keeping in mind that anyone talking to me right now is probably already embracing a certain amount of technology and the momentum to implement it.

But I perceive a certain level of apprehension mixed in there as well, particularly when some of the smaller shops are considering their long-term business plans. Comments such as “I’m buying this because my son/daughter thinks we need it” and “I hope you can teach an old dog new tricks” imply an understandable hesitation, but they also address the larger climate of uncertainty in the market.

“Nobody buys X anymore, they only want custom.”
If you’re handy with CAD or a designer-in-training, prepare yourself for desperate job offers and high expectations — but not necessarily an understanding employer. There is a definite skills and knowledge gap happening here, and it’s what I refer to as Magic Box Syndrome.

This tendency to demand good/fast/cheap/easy from technology is frustrating both for the people who don’t understand why it isn’t perfect, and for those of us trying to convince users that it’s still pretty darn good. That expensive computer program with beautiful renderings can’t make you a better designer if you don’t understand the fundamentals of jewelry construction (including CAM, casting, and at least some benchwork). Our little orange box can’t magically reproduce something your designer dreamed up if it’s unprintable, uncastable, and probably unwearable.

And what happens when, inevitably at this time of year, the conversation turns to the holiday season?

I’ve learned to brace myself.

While the majority of my clients are buying a 3D printer to expand or improve their businesses, I come across the occasional purchaser who is simply trying to save it. Three separate shops in the last week have lost their CAD people, and are trying to catch up on CAD/CAM themselves before the rush. Two other businesses I know are about to begin casting their own work, because outsourcing takes too much time (and therefore money). And of course, my manufacturing clients are facing increased labor and metal costs, high demand for fast turnover, on custom pieces and a huge uptick in small-batch multi-unit orders that will probably end up as quick mountings for engagement season.

“We’re in for a wild ride,” they say.

But the saner voices — less panicked, more curious and optimistic about the future — are predicting a time of general change toward custom or customized jewelry in a way that might just save the entire industry from itself. As I’ve mentioned once or twice, adapting our old business models to the new wave of consumers is the only realistic way to preserve the beauty of treasured jewelry pieces and still grow as an industry.

It is my good fortune to be in communication with such a wide variety of interesting people, and to hear firsthand how many of them are keeping their eyes on the prize and working to turn this big old ship around. I can guide and support them through at least a small part of that process, and hope that their eventual successes will pave the way for others.

One thought on “Who Broke the Crystal Ball?

  1. Brenna

    Hi, Cay!
    It’s been while, but I quickly caught up with your blog, and I’m so happy and excited to hear of your travels, growth in your job and continuing gemology education!
    I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s illness, and hope she’s doing well.

    I’d love to learn more about what you do. The new tech side of jewelry design is fascinating. It adds elements for interpretations unavailable and questionable until now.

    Like

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