Vegas: The Starting Gate

Rounding the final corner! Down the home stretch! Hitting his stride! Photo finish!

I blame it on my birthday** but I’ve always appreciated horse racing metaphors. There’s something so universally appealing about them, so evocative of a brief but heart-pounding excitement shared by a crowd that seems to hold its collective breath until the race is over.

That’s a bit like how I feel about Jewelry Week, hosted annually in Sin City and attended by thousands of industry professionals in a business and social whirlwind. It’s a fast-paced week, requiring immense amounts of energy and serious willpower to both get stuff done and have fun doing it.

For those of us on the non-retail side of the booth, the connections and sales generated at this show can make or break an entire year’s worth of business (but y’know, no pressure). It’s an opportunity to meet with clients in person, announce new and exciting things (!!), and yes, scope out the competition.

Buyers who attend are also on a mission: spend well, spend wisely. The glitter of the show is an easy distraction for the spendthrift store buyer, as it washes everything in an enticing aura of beauty and incites a covetous round of gotta-have-it fever.

This is, of course, the point. Any show is only as successful as its revenue generation — in this case, not for the show itself, but for the sellers who attend it — so a careful eye is kept on the general mood throughout the week. Trends are spotted, new and innovative offerings are critiqued, and dollars are measured.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the changes facing the industry right now, including questions about what retailers in particular should do to attract consumers of all ages and levels. It makes me wonder: what can both buyers and sellers learn from this show? What makes it so successful as an event, and how do we generate that kind of madhouse, leave-your-inhibitions-at-the-door vibe in our own businesses?

Something else to consider: the show has added a new area to the already-crowded floor, dedicating a space to what was once “crossover” and is now called simply “bridge” jewelry. This category consists of sterling-and-gold pieces with fashion and trendy appeal, at prices intended to be higher than basic fashion jewelry but lower or just approaching that of the fine category. It’s the stuff millennials buy for themselves (in theory), and it’s a popular but ever-moving target.

I’m interested to see the category perform in its own arena and not as second fiddle to its bookend price points. I will also be curious to learn if this one-size-fits-most approach feels like a fresh idea that just might save the middle of the market, or simply a rehash of the “entry level” model we see in the housing and auto markets. The former inspires repeat business, self purchasing, and aspirational purchases down the road. The latter sets buyers up for disappointment and frustration, stalling momentum and causing sales to drop. We’ll see which side wins this coin toss.

And as usual, there will be a significant amount of M-word (Millennial) dropping in the exhibit halls. This ties in directly with the two ideas I just mentioned, and the prevalence of a heavy generational focus has helped me formulate a kind of consumer theory I’ve been kicking around: shifting the focus too far onto the fashion/bridge category could hinder the long-term, aspirational level sales, preventing sellers from converting the $500 spenders into $5K+ consumers. I have found that when someone is sold on “good enough,” it can be all the more challenging to grow them into larger or more frequent purchasers.

So as the flag is raised on this year’s show, I’ll be keeping in mind these questions (and other thoughts) to revisit after the fact. Here’s hoping it won’t be heavy going for attendees, and that everyone will have free rein to buy and sell and enjoy themselves. I know I’m chomping at the bit to be on my way!

 

**Kentucky Derby Day. Every year without fail, my father-in-law (a horse racing fanatic) asks me to name the winning horse, who also happened to be one of only three fillies to ever win the Derby.

Jewelry and the “F” Word: Fashion

In a conversation with a fellow industry professional last week, I made this comment about the attitudes of certain types of clientele:

“We work in fashion. Why should we expect them to treat their jewelry any differently than their shoes or handbags?”

Death stare.

“We don’t work in fashion, we sell real jewelry.” Meow.

To me, this attitude is wrong on several counts. First of all, jewelry by definition falls under the broad umbrella of fashion items, along with any other accessory or article of adornment. It’s also governed by the same basic tenets (brand focus, trend awareness, color and style aesthetic), follows seasonal cycles, and even maintains a demographic pattern heavily based in income and access. All of these are hallmarks of fashion, regardless of price point.

To say that we are an industry apart implies that our buyers are not behaving in the same way as fashion buyers, and that is simply not the case. While some would like to think that selling a person on the sentiment or investment alone will close a sale, the simple reality is this: if buyers are convinced that one is enough, then repeat business is dead in the water.

The only way to build and maintain a healthy and growing industry is to encourage the idea that no purchase need be the last. You bought a wedding band? That’s wonderful, meaningful, and special — but what about another one for the other side, say for your anniversary? I’m tickled pink that you love your favorite dress watch, but wouldn’t you like something a little more casual — but no less beautiful — to wear every day? And wouldn’t those classic diamond studs look marvelous this evening when they’re dressed up with a set of diamond and sapphire enhancers? Of course they would!

My customers don’t own one pair of shoes, one bag, or one coat (especially in New England. Come on people, we have seasons!). Leave your arguments about consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and class divisions at the door: our entire industry — beauty and yes, fashion — relies on convincing the customer that he or she should have at least one more. Ten dollars or ten thousand (ten million and up, too), there is no time for semantic distinctions between your branch of the tree and mine.

 

FUQ: Frequently Unasked Questions

Before we dive headfirst into retail hell the holiday season and my fun-o-meter stops registering, I’d like to ask you — the consumer — a few questions. Since you’re certainly welcome to ask me anything**, I assume you wouldn’t mind returning the favor just this once.

Some of these questions might be new to you, and that’s okay. Just ask me to wait a moment while you go get someone else who can help me. Offering me a beverage while I wait is recommended, but not required.

Anyway, back to me and my questions. The first one is this: why are your price expectations so low? I mean, you love to ask me why my prices are so high, so I think it’s only fair that you give me a solid, well-composed response to just why you think my prices are so out of line with every other retailer you’ve ever been to (and some you haven’t).

Where did you get that unique scarf/bag/hat/coat? I’m obviously asking because I’m a genuinely interested person who loves fashion and accessories and I know my mother-in-law would love one just like it.

Next question: what’s in that little shopping bag from Competitor Jeweler around the corner? And as a follow-up, wouldn’t it make more sense to attempt a comparison shop before making a purchase?

While I sip this complimentary lukewarm beverage you brought me, could you please explain why you’re surprised that a 2-millimeter micropave diamond eternity band in 18 karat gold has lost a diamond or two, following your rock climbing expedition at Yosemite? I can certainly fix it for you, but my goldsmith is overloaded and we’re now at a 3-plus-week turnaround. Please understand that we want the repair done right, not fast.

This one’s for the romantically-inclined: why, why did you wait until now to design an engagement ring that you absolutely must present on the family vacation in nine days? I’m not saying we can’t handle that request, but you (and we) would feel ever so much less stressed if you had come to us, say, last month. Or even last week. Why do you add so much pressure to an already important event? This is a wonderful time in your life, and we hope you make the most of it!

Finally, please do me the honor of telling me what lucky person in your life you’ve decided to gift with a beautiful, timeless piece of jewelry. I want to hear about her favorite color, his love of working with his hands, and the special celebration dinner you have planned. These are the details that make my job worth doing, and I cherish every story you choose to share.

Oh, and one more thing… will that be cash, or charge?

(Just kidding). (Kinda).

**It’s that time of year again, folks: send me your burning, long-held jewelry questions. I’ll be collecting them for some upcoming Q&A posts. Think how many other people you can help by voicing your questions and finally getting some answers!

Be Bold

The ring featured in the header image of this post is one of our most popular styles. It contains an extremely high quality custom-cut garnet and nearly 3/4 of a carat of colorless diamonds, all set in 18K rose gold. Isn’t it just stunning?

I don’t often talk about the jewelry in the pictures I post, mainly because I feel that so many other blogs and websites do a much better job detailing some of the most intricate and beautiful jewels in the world. But this particular ring, designed by a fabulous, talented, and extremely kind woman named Bellarri (yes, that’s her!), represents something just a little beyond my usual more conservative classic taste.

Raised to always be the cool, poised, and diplomatic daughter, I struggle to speak out and stand up for myself. Doing the same for others has never been an issue — a lifelong activist and advocate for equality, I’m no armchair protester — but to raise myself up to a position of power has never felt comfortable. In short, I need to learn to be bold. And this singular piece of jewelry, with its fiery center, brilliantly outlined details, and larger-than-life presence, is nothing if not bold.

It sounds silly, perhaps, to aspire to be more like a ring. But many people attempt to emulate other inanimate objects — the towering oak, the majestic mountain, the smooth ocean come to mind — so why not a gutsy fireball of a ring that practically sings out to everyone who sees it, “look! Look at me, so tastefully bold, so beautiful and bright and impossible to ignore!” You can’t pass her by, you certainly can’t pretend she doesn’t provoke some sort of reaction, and you absolutely must pay her the attention she rightly deserves. No formerly timid, currently work-in-progress leader could fail to appreciate all she represents.

Follow Up: Good. vs. Goods, The Other Guy’s Perspective

Well, this is convenient. Hard on the heels of my recent editorial on the current state of marketing in the jewelry industry, a features writer over at Racked (a fashion/lifestyle headline-style site) took on the issue from Signet Jewelers’ perspective — you know, the largest monopoly conglomerate covering such household names as Kay, Zales, and Jared.

The article is worth a read, especially if such figures as “$5.7 billion in annual sales” and “3600 stores” pique your interest. But free advertising and product placement aside, what does Signet try to say about their products and their massive share of the industry? They’re all about the (straight, middle class) man.

Women react to their marketing — all 10+ channels of it — with opinions ranging from “cheesy” and “gimmicky” all the way to feeling downright offended by the way the ads portray women and their relationships with men. The fairytale gifting scenarios and mass-appeal life event celebrations ring hollow for most, as is clearly removes any sense of responsibility on the part of the gifter to make an effort and understand a woman’s unique style. The emphasis is all on a come-hither ease of use, rather than any real meaning, romance, or sentiment.

The idea is to make the experience so comfortable, so ridiculously easy for the (straight, middle class) male shopper that he loses all ability to reason and simply buys what he sees the girl on the TV screen loving and crying about, with no consideration for his (ahem, or her) giftee’s desires and needs.

And this is how those poorly-chosen gifts end up here with us. They need broken delicate chains replaced with something sturdier to stand up to a tugging toddler. A watch strap that actually fits him. Three diamonds replaced in the micropave shank because she’s a hairdresser and they keep falling out. A setting lowered or swapped because the latex gloves she wears to the hospital every day are getting shredded by the prongs.

I appreciate the need for mass-market appeal, as I mentioned in my earlier post, because I believe it helps romance the whole idea of jewelry and not just that particular piece from that particular store. But this… is not what I mean. Offending an entire gender with patronization and general lack of nuance is not helpful. Convincing men to enter a store at holiday time and stand in line, zombie-like, to receive this year’s version of last year’s hit, is not the kind of experience this industry stands for.

My soapbox is starting to bend under the weight of my heavy disdain for these tactics, so I’ll leave you with this thought (from the article) for now: “Every time I see [one of their ads] on TV, I want to throw something at the screen… [t]hey are infuriating because they are an insult to my intelligence and emotions! I am not that easy to buy and gift-giving just isn’t that magical.”

A Little Reminder

One of my primary roles here at work is to manage the inventory: accurate entry, tags, pricing, photographs, re-orders, show orders, invoice processing, etc. It’s a job that can be tedious from time to time (ahem, the Popular Bead Bracelet Brand era) but is usually rather interesting because it appeals to my inquisitive, detail-oriented brain and allows me to get my hands on every single piece of merchandise in the store as it arrives.

I also attempt what I call a self-inventory every so often, taking stock of my life and its various components and running down a list of places to improve, discard, or enhance. Recently my mind has been occupied with family, health, summer plans (golf lessons, new hiking boots), and of course my gemological studies. I tend to continue mulling over my educational material long after I’ve put it away for the day, which causes a disproportionate mental emphasis on the very technical details I’m currently learning. I end up totally engulfed in the bloodless and unromantic side of this industry, focusing all of my energy on numbers and figures and diagrams.

That’s great for test-taking and fundamental progress, but is ultimately useless in my day-to-day job until I work to distill it down into something I can use on the sales floor. I’ve been feeling waterlogged with minutiae, unable to climb onto solid ground from the watery bog of information overload.

So it was with genuine pleasure that I found myself on the business end of a diamond engagement ring sale just this week — and not a moment too soon.

The gentleman was polite and earnest; his female “helper” lived up to her job and was supportive but not pushy. We discussed settings & styles, diamond sizes & qualities, and priced out a few options. A brief lunch break on the sunny restaurant decks (them, not me) later, and a ring was born. Hooray!

This was not a “big” sale, or a tough one, or a thank-goodness-that’s-over interaction. The clean simplicity of selling a meaningful object to a happy and eager buyer was exactly the refreshing reminder I needed when terra firma seemed very far away. Clearly I required this experience in order to remember what we really do, what the purpose is behind all the numbers and calculations:

Joy. Happiness. Excitement. Love. Hope.

That’s our real business, our own small contribution to the betterment of the world. I am a facilitator, nothing more, as I gently nudge people toward an object that stands to represent all the best emotions we could ever want. And amidst the structure of carbon atoms and lengthy history of mining, I needed a little reminder about why I do it at all.

Vegas Virgin No More!

What do you do when you realize all your dreams have come true?

Pay back old sleep debts!“**

…Well, that’s the response you’d get from me, anyway. I’m back home and back to work after a fabulous, grueling, exhausting, productive, fascinating, and altogether too short trip to Jewelry Week in Las Vegas. Many who know me are aware that attending this show has been a dream — a serious goal — for some time, and it’s easy to say that the entire trip did not disappoint.

I briefly considered writing some kind of day-by-day recap post, detailing the hours spent in supplier meetings, lunch offerings by category, and what time we went to bed each night. While I’m sure that would make for some riveting entertainment, I’ve decided to withhold that kind of information to maintain the mystery. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises for any future show-goers out there.

Instead, I can offer my impressions of an industry that is so vast, it spans multiple convention spaces in multiple hotels across a week of 10+ -hour days (this would be where the “exhausting” part comes in). It’s far more than glittering jewels, dazzling trays of diamonds, and ropes of precious pearls. It’s an international community, a unifying purpose, a parade of fashion from ultra-conservative to runway couture, a lifestyle and modus operandi that creates its own rhythm for everyone to move and dance to.

Many things surprised me: the variation in personality types from one rep to the next; differences in approach and business model that are totally opposite but equally effective; the integration of modern technology into an ancient craft. I received an almost daily shock each time I checked my watch, thinking it some sometime before noon, then realizing it was rather closer to 6pm. Also, it turns out that walking all day in heels is something I can do, but probably not something I should do (my feet haven’t looked so mangled since my time as a ballet dancer).

In essence, this show reinforced the idea that business and beauty are not mutually exclusive. We accomplished so much for the store in looking at both the short and longer-term goals, but did so in a way that felt refreshingly true to the highest standards of ethics, quality, and service. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to stand amidst the madness and quietly learn at the elbows of industry professionals, and in that regard it’s a privilege to be counted as a member of such a dynamic group.

In the process of making my way from one end of the show to the other and back again more times than I can count, I discovered that it takes a very particular brand of dedication to really achieve success here. In fact, I’ll throw in the good old p-word: passion. Yawningly overused it may be, but the word is apropos for the type of energy I felt. Frankly, I’m not sure how anyone could sustain the kind of hyper-fast pace and intensive focus that is required to just make it through the day, let alone a lifetime of business, without feeling a true emotional connection to the work.

**Bonus points for Name That Film. No cheating!

Meet the Designer: Lecil Henderson

From time to time, we are fortunate enough to host the designers from some of our favorite lines here in the store. These events are very special for both our customers and for ourselves, because they allow a kind of access and interaction that’s virtually unheard of in most industries (how often did Steve Jobs personally sell an iPad?). Who better to educate us and sell the pieces than the designer himself or herself?

We recently hosted one of my favorite industry people (in general) and favorite jewelry designers (in particular): Lecil Henderson of the Henderson Collection and LUCA by Lecil. This gentleman is a well-known man about town, so to speak, and for every good reason imaginable: unfailingly polite, incredibly knowledgeable, and chock full of stories and anecdotes from his 30-year career in the business.

Lecil travels around the world bringing his designs to store events like ours, many of the largest and best trade shows, and of course he visits his factories in Italy where the pieces themselves are hand-crafted. He has an extremely loyal following, and his work exemplifies thoughtful, painstakingly-detailed design and the best quality Italian craftsmanship.

I feel extremely lucky to spend even a brief time in the presence of this guy — every time we’ve met I have learned something new about his products, design concept & inspiration, or the industry as a whole. I’m not sure I was able to express my appreciation for the time he takes to make every single person he meets feel like his closest friend, but the huge success of his beautiful pieces pretty much speaks for itself.

A few more pictures for your viewing pleasure:

The Valentine Gifting Myth

Every year around Valentine’s Day, kindhearted customers ask us about business and being busy. They assume we’re swamped with men seeking last-minute sparklies for their wives/girlfriends/mothers/daughters, and that the days preceding the holiday are almost as busy as the other winter holiday season.

No retailer will ever admit to being slow — it’s bad for business, right? — but in my neck of the woods, at least, February is not a top-dollar month. The weather has a large role to play in this, particularly in years where we get slammed with storm after winter storm (like, y’know, this year). But you can’t pin all the blame on Mother Nature and Old Man Winter, so I look to regional and cultural trends in an attempt to figure out why V-Day sales aren’t so hot.

There are some obvious factors to list as a starting point: post-holiday spending dips as bills come due. Holiday bonuses have been spent, and most folks haven’t filed taxes yet to get their returns. Winter is an expensive month for heating and electricity bills, not to mention snow removal, automotive repairs, and home maintenance. February also has the lowest average number of birthdays in the calender year, removing yet another reason to shop.

But I like to look at the slightly bigger picture as well, and consider the financial planning that many people and families do around this time. Summer vacations tend to book up this month (our local Travel Show is always in February — not a coincidence), and deposits must be paid. Spring and summer weddings are announced and invitations sent, often sparking a furious spending spree on dresses, suits, gifts, and the various travel arrangements required. And let’s face it, dreary days that cause a whole lot of staying home with not much to do causes an uptick in our-family-is-growing announcements. Yep, I said it.

Culturally speaking, periods of high-dollar spending tend to be followed by more conservative habits as the guilt and buyer’s remorse (not to mention plain old exhaustion and burn-out) set in. We’ve had advertisements attacking us on all fronts since Halloween, and by now we can barely suppress collective eye rolls at Superbowl puppy commercials, let alone the sweet romance of kisses and hearts of Public Enemy #1: the Hallmark Holiday.

Frankly, we’re in a unique position here because we do a constant, year-round business with custom design and repairs. This gives us the opportunity to show new merchandise to existing customers because they’re already coming in with a purpose, and can bring in new clientele looking for a more relaxing atmosphere than the madhouse malls. But the overall percentage of customers coming in to shower their loved one in diamonds is on a level with the temperature — lower than average.

Do you give or receive jewelry for Valentine’s Day? Do you want to?

Just Desert: Centurion 2015 Recap

You know, there may be something to that “mindfulness” stuff my mother talks about. It teaches you to feel gratitude and be alive in the moment — every moment — and that’s exactly how I felt during my first ever trade show.

Yep, I was the rookie. The newbie. Wide-eyed and slightly terrified, I made my debut in this larger-than-life world of equal parts glamour, artistry, and hard-core business. And believe me when I tell you that I loved every second of the whole experience, and that it has served to fuel an already raging passion for what i (we) do.

I decided to recap this trip in one lengthy post, so I’ll be skipping some of the actual details (morning and evening speakers, what we ate for dinner, who had the best/worst photo on their badge, etc.) in order to concentrate on describing my impressions of the whole shebang.

Day One: My bags are packed, I’m ready to go…
…and at 3AM, go we did. A snowy and sleepy drive to the airport was followed by a packed but uneventful flight straight to the land of cacti. We were met at the airport by the hotel shuttle and a gaggle of fellow showgoers, and were chauffeured to the beautiful oasis-like resort. Rooms found, luggage delivered, and sandals firmly on feet, we explored the grounds and lunched poolside in the sun. This did much to aid in recovery after a long day of travel, and allowed me a chance to catch my breath before the real fun would begin.

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Cup of coffee and a quick map check

Day Two: Walk This Way
This was it. First real day, first appointments, first impressions. Anxiety and anticipation mixed in my stomach with the morning’s coffee and breakfast. It seemed like everyone else knew each other, everyone felt totally calm and at ease, and my tight smile and clenched hands would be a dead giveaway for my nerves. Two deep breaths and a short walk later, we arrived at ground zero.

I will not go into excruciating detail about each appointment, for the obvious confidentiality issues as well as a desire not to bore my readers. But I will say that each moment of the day was a wonder to me: business conducted, questions asked and answered, hundreds of pieces of beautiful creations flashed before my eyes. The warmth and hospitality extended to us by nearly every vendor was a welcome surprise, as was the gracious introduction by my bosses to each new face I could finally put with the names and voices I knew so well.

This day was a mix of current and potential lines, so I made sure to pay close attention to what was said and done in each booth. Meeting after meeting, hour by hour (break for lunch — hello, 75 degrees, it’s been a while!) we looked, listened, and talked. Well, they talked, and I occasionally spoke a few syllables when asked. My energy was directed at learning the ropes ASAP so I could potentially be more than another user of oxygen and actually contribute something useful.

Sleep that night came quickly, and I felt like I’d run a marathon. Twice. In heels. Well, I suppose I did, in a way, and man oh MAN did my feet hurt.

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Shine on, pretty things. Coming to a store near you...
Shine on, pretty things. Coming to a store near you…

Day Three: Hit Me, Baby, One More Time
A change of dress (and shoes), another coffee-fueled breakfast speaker, and the next full day of appointments was on. I felt better — slightly more in control of my nerves, definitely clear about the tasks ahead, and totally absorbed in the business of doing business. The day went much like before, with fascinating people to meet and gorgeous baubles to behold.

A highlight of this whole experience was definitely the pleasure and privilege of meeting many of the designers of these miniature works of art. Each was as different as could be, but was the true embodiment of his or her own brand. I met a bold and audacious woman with hair and makeup as vivid as her colorful gems; a friendly and earthy artist who knew each and every detail of her extensive collection; a young gentleman groomed to within an inch of his life but with the charm and charisma of a born politician. Meeting them, however briefly, was meeting many of the celebrities of this industry, and it was an honor and a pleasure to do so. And hell, it was pretty damn cool.

That evening we politely applauded the winners of the show’s design awards while keeping up a running commentary on the many personalities and cultures around us. I find people fascinating on an average day, but the concentrated diversity represented here was truly astonishing.

Day Four: When It’s Over, is it Really Over
One day more, and I was exhausted but terribly sad it was ending already. We had appointments to keep in the morning hours, then a bit of “free time” in which to run right back to some of those new lines and attempt to frantically write up orders before the show officially closed. I sensed the rise in stress across the board, retailers and vendors both running near empty and determined to milk every last second of what felt like the fastest three days in history. Tempers were clearly being kept barely in check (or not at all) by a few, but most seemed to embrace the madness. I was stressed and still rather overwhelmed, but had never felt more involved in the turning of the world.

The show came to a close, bags were packed, and we trekked back up the hill for a final evening farewell. Special guest former president (W.) Bush spoke to a captive audience, then we were released to dine under the desert stars and next to heaters on a beautiful closing night. I toasted my two bosses and attempted to articulate my thanks, but I’m not sure anything I said could convey my true gratitude for the entire amazing opportunity.

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Like I said, beautiful pieces of art.
Dinner al fresco
Dinner al fresco

To summarize the experience, the word whirlwind comes to mind. I have had some pretty high-energy work events in my career (I’m looking at you, store grand openings) but nothing matches the high-velocity intensity of this three-day adventure. The jewelry was stunning, the accommodations luxurious, and the pace record-breaking… but nothing can top the wonderful people and their collective hard work and incredible dedication. Nothing about this was easy, which just goes to prove that it’s absolutely worth it.