Holiday Help: The Time is Now

If the frosty mornings and hearty food cravings haven’t set in quite yet in your area, they will soon: it’s officially the holidays! For jewelers, this time of year brings busy store days and long nights full of hopeful shoppers, many of whom are just beginning their quest for the perfect gift.

This is also the height of engagement season, with a reported 40% of engagement rings purchased (and given) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. As family and friends travel in an effort to gather for seasonal celebrations, it’s no wonder this is a popular time to think about forming new families and lasting bonds. (I won’t even mention the influence of cuffing season, but we all know it’s there).

What does this mean for folks looking for beautiful, meaningful jewelry? In a word, timing.

On the one hand, this is an excellent opportunity to engage your trusted independent jeweler in a conversation about your needs, as he or she will likely be carrying the largest total stocked merchandise of the year in anticipation of holiday sales. Business will be brisk and the best items will sell quickly, so don’t count on that perfect piece sitting in the case long enough for you to regret it as it makes someone else’s day. But if he or she says “I have just the thing!” it’s probably because right now (and perhaps only right now), that’s actually true.

If your ideal jewel can only be created through the custom design process, your approach should be a little different. Many jewelers with on-site bench workers and designers can meet special deadlines with enough notice, but the custom process can rarely be rushed. As the Big Three** approach, early birds will see their orders filled while late starters must scramble or settle — and neither are good options when you’re considering a major expenditure for a very important purchase.

So while I advise all of my clients to think carefully and plan accordingly all year round, this becomes especially important during this festive, fete-filled season. Do not wait until the last possible moment to begin your hunt for the perfect treasure, and your jeweler will certainly thank you.

Have a burning question or special request? Submit now for inclusion in an upcoming post!


**Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day/Eve. Yes, I’m well aware that many more holidays are celebrated during this time, but these are the primary US dates (and closures!) to keep in mind when planning a special moment.

Do People Really Want to Buy From People?

Wisdom: born of experience, frequently hard won, and difficult to share. But those who have it do try to give those of us without it a tidbit every now and then.

In the past month or so, in various trade publications and even in a few conversations, I’ve witnessed this little nugget bandied about:

“People want to buy from people.”

Oh, how desperately I want to agree. I want to believe! As a former retailer on both the large and small scale and as a former educator, making that personal connection has long been my raison d’etre. There was no greater priority for me than to get on my client’s or student’s level, earning their trust and exceeding their immediate and future needs. It’s how I roll.

But as with so many things, I’ve recently started to call into question this longstanding truism, at least in the context of the kind of business I’m currently doing. I’ve spoken in the past about the challenges I continue to face in making the switch from selling jewelry to selling something else, but one of the greatest differences has been the approach to delivering on the client’s expectations.

This is not a business in which developing deep, long-term relationships is a priority. That’s not to say that we aren’t encouraged to build a rapport – in fact, the “discovery” process is a key topic of almost every sales meeting and workshop — but the timeline is intended to be as short as possible, and almost no consideration is given for clients who crave significant personal attention.

And you know what? More often than not, it works.

I want to be crystal clear: in no way am I making the case for lackluster relationship building, poor trust, and zero communication. But it’s important to consider that the modern consumer, regardless of age or demographic, has moved a large portion of their buying habits to the non-serviced world (a.k.a. the internet).

This translates to increased familiarity with products (thanks to extensive internet searching) and a surprising level of pre-established trust in a brand or company. People can and do offer up large amounts of their savings by typing in a credit card number and clicking a few checkboxes — we know they do it with diamonds (and really shouldn’t), but is doing it for a piece of equipment, no matter how crucial, acceptable?

When consumers feel confident, they’re willing to open their wallets. If that confidence comes pre-established (or takes little to no personal contact to reach), they come to the store with cash in hand, and are increasingly unwilling to sit through a discussion about their needs. As “experts” they’re confident enough to buy, and that’s all they want to do.

I already know the kind of havoc this can cause with jewelry buyers who didn’t bother to find out that emeralds are delicate, pearls need restringing, and rhodium wears away. The problems multiply with a piece of machinery that is user friendly when the user is friendly, and prone to tidal waves of sticky resin when they aren’t.

The best conclusion I can reach is that people might not want to buy from people so much these days, but they really, really should. It’s impossible to know everything, so why not let the subject matter experts — you know, the ones who are trained and willing to offer as much information as they can — give you a little help?

 

P.S. I can’t find attribution for this image, so please let me know if it’s yours. It’s perfect. I hate love how perfect it is.

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.

Two Become One: Fashion and Tech are Officially an Item

**Feature image credit: Boston Globe,“Molecule” Shoe by Francis Bitonti Studio Inc., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston**


I’m on a roll with these post titles, aren’t I? Don’t clap, just throw money. I’m here all week.

Tonight is the annual Met Gala, the event of the year for all things fashion, or really just for anyone important enough to score an invite. It’s a closed event, meaning the actual goings-on are not televised for us non-famous plebeians, probably because we’d be so overwhelmed by fabulousness that the world would grind to a halt due to mass unconsciousness.

The Gala has fascinated and inspired me for many years, but only in a limited sense — it’s great fun to watch celebrities (or their stylists) interpret the theme for each year, and the inevitable hijinks make for great bubble bath reading material, but that was usually the extent of my attention span.

But this year may just prove to define the peak of a movement I’ve been watching much more closely, of late: the strange, often conflicted and sometimes transcendent relationship between technology and fashion.

Welcome to Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.

(I may have suffered a bit of whiplash upon first reading the announcement. My eyes snapped back to the beginning of my Google Alert sheet, where I clicked and read about 15 blurb-y articles predicting “cutting edge fashions” and “nontraditional stylings” to appear on the red carpet.)

If you consider this annual spectacular to be the epitome of taste-making, the absolute and final arbiter of all things now — and believe me, many people do — this is big news. It’s time to make is Facebook official, folks: fashion and tech are dating. Pinned. Going steady. An item.

After a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts exhibit #Techstyle, with its look at everything from the latest fabric innovations and designer creativity to the way people interact with style and taste, I’m convinced that this relationship has staying power. Fashion hates to stagnate, and fears becoming lost and passe in an instant-access world. Technology provides the means necessary to keep up momentum, diversifying materials and expanding the very definition of what makes fashion a product of the people who wear it.

I used to hesitate, if asked my opinion on the direction it seems both high-end and mainstream fashion are taking. It’s easier to prevaricate than commit to passing judgement on something so massive, even though I’ve been leaning towards “cautiously optimistic” for some time. It seems the Met Gala has given people like me a sense of validation, that perhaps we’re not so crazy for dreaming of a wider, more expansive approach to an industry which, in the inimitable words of Miranda Priestly, “represents millions of dollars and countless jobs” and influences our daily lives.

More than anything except perhaps music, the things we choose to adorn our bodies have the ability to define our culture. The emerging fashion designer and MIT grad are no longer on opposite sides of the fence, but might even be one in the same. I can’t wait to see what they think of next.

 

Stay tuned for a follow-up post, after the evening’s festivities!

 

 

Diamond Disruption

BREAKING NEWS: things that were once found only in nature can now be synthesized by humans!

RUN… DON’T WALK… to your nearest web browser in frantic search of “the truth” about mining vs. lab-creating!

REMAIN CALM… AND YOU MIGHT SURVIVE!

—> Music cue: dramatic up-tempo tuneless 8-bar vamp <—

Okay, enough of that. The emergence and apparent popularity of lab-created diamonds is definitely cause for industry-wide conversation, if not some of the more hyperbolic commentary I’ve read in recent comment sections.

We now know that lab-created diamond companies aren’t kidding around. We know that some companies want to harness this force for evil, some for good, and many for profit.

We also should have predicted that the development, production, expansion, and marketing of this product would happen very quickly (which it did) and that it would reverberate through the industry like a Tibetan mountain gong (felt, rather than heard).

I actually received a handful of messages today from non-industry folks, asking for my opinion on the matter and offering up their own (one notable quotable: “now that Leo won gold, will he bedazzle the trophy in his fake glitter?”). After carefully explaining the differences between “synthetic” and “simulant,” I asked for honest opinions about giving or receiving lab-created diamonds. I also asked if they held the same thoughts about their own jewelry as they would that of friends, colleagues, or family members.

Here are their summarized answers, paraphrased and used with permission:

Friend A: I don’t even like synthetic fabrics, so why would I want synthetic diamonds when I can afford the real thing? None of my friends are engaged or close to it, but I hope they insist on the real deal.

Friend B: Well, I guess if they’re basically the same thing, then what’s the difference? It’s not like it’s an inferior diamond, it just didn’t kill children and the environment to get here. It probably end up like the drug industry though, won’t it, where generics are just as good and cost less, but some doctors are paid by the name brand and won’t write prescriptions for anything else?

Friend C: Ew. I don’t like diamonds at all anyway, and I would never want one for my ring.

Friend D: My center stone is a moissanite, but that’s because I didn’t want a blood diamond and didn’t trust any of the stores around here not to have them. If I’d known about lab diamonds, I might have asked for one.

Friend E: Maybe for earrings or something, if it’s cheaper, sure why not. But for something more important/meaningful like an engagement ring, no way. Test tube babies are still humans, but isn’t trying the natural way first better?

Well, aside from learning a lot more about these their real feelings on things other than diamonds, it was a pretty illuminating set of discussions. The most interesting part? All 5 of these responses are from women between the ages of 25-35. Yes, even evil genius friend B over there, drawing functionally accurate parallels between big pharma and big D. Smart cookie, huh?

As for my own opinions, I prefer to dig a little deeper. The jewelry industry as a whole reacts poorly to change, and adding lab-grown diamonds to the mix of lab-grown colored gems might feel like a step too far for some. The mined diamond industry is certainly feeling the pinch these days, so from their perspective, timing couldn’t be worse.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m not really a flag-waving traditionalist. I think that lab-created anything, sold and marketed with total transparency and accurate information, is perfectly good and healthy and legal. I myself have educated my clients about lab-created colored gems, and they have purchased from me in full knowledge of precisely what they bought.

The romantic in me shudders at the thought of a master gemcutter plying his or her trade with rough that did not come from the earth, passing through the hands of expert dealers and feeding the economies of local governments. The cultural connection I so cherish disappears, and for that reason, I am not personally inclined to seek out non-mined gemstones or diamonds.

Like any ethical jeweler, I abhor the use of marketing or sales tactics that attempt to cloud the truth and shade the facts in order to generate buzz (and therefore, sales). I successfully sold cultured pearls, heat-treated sapphires, and SI2 diamonds for exactly what they are, and never once did I need to resort to used-car-salesman tactics to do so. I see absolutely no reason why the emergence of yet another technological advancement should be met with anything less than our highest standards, as we do what we do best: serve the client.

Now I’m throwing the doors of discussion wide open: what do you think?

 

True (Blue) Tech

Now that I’ve covered the philosophical angle of my recent life changes, it’s time to begin introductions for my exciting new focus: technology & jewelry.

If you’ve asked me about my industry at any point in the last few years, you probably got an earful about my frustrations with jewelry people’s tendency to ignore, withhold, refute, squelch, circumvent, or otherwise deny the demand for the adoption of new technologies. Everything from mining and manufacturing to sales and advertising is in desperate need of an update, of the kind that will integrate all the good stuff of the “old” ways — personal service, strong relationships, gemological & bench expertise — with the many benefits of the new and forward-thinking.

This is not to say that the industry doesn’t already utilize some of the wonders of today. Advances in laser welding, gemstone treatment, pearl farming, metallurgy, CAD/CAM, and e-commerce have been adopted to great effect, though not as universally as I would like. We’ve come a long way, but there is far to go.

Today’s customers are rapidly losing interest in a world they see as a paragon of by-gone ideals, and nostalgia only opens the wallet to far. I want to see an engaged clientele who demand excellence in service, quality, source transparency, and storytelling… you know, all the things we do best.

wp-1453380921150.jpg
Top to bottom: castable resin, rough casting, polished ring

So I have joined a company that is “new tech” to the core, with the goal of bringing their fresh-eyed approach to the world of jewelry. These people are smart, savvy, and looking to make an impact on how we make stuff (all kinds of stuff), which will have a massive impact on how we design, create, advertise, and sell stuff. Replace “stuff” with “jewelry” and you have my full attention and dedication.

What does this mean for my daily life? Well, more denim and flats (and fewer diamonds), for one thing! It means I can turn my focus to the building blocks of the industry, perhaps helping to affect change and influence the direction we take in the coming years. I want to see the jewelry industry emerge from years of tech denial and embrace the power of doing things in new ways in order to achieve long-term stability and growth. I want more people wearing beautiful things that are made well.

Buckle up, people. No more hiding behind half a century of how-it’s-always-been-done. Wake up and smell the lasers, folks — I’m coming for you.

 

 

Red Light, Green Light

Ah, yuletide cheer. We in the retail business are supposed to be full of energy, joyfully helping each and every smiling customer who begs us for one last look in the box before we wrap up a special surprise.

Easier said than done.

There have been countless essays by workers across the whole spectrum of retail, each one detailing why they have it the worst. My usual non-sleep-deprived self would link to at least a few of them for you, but frankly, I just don’t have the time.

I prefer to believe that at this time of year, we’re all in this together. There is little if any energy to spare as it is, so we might as well expend what we have on a strong sense of solidarity.

Many customers are experiencing higher-than-normal demands and pressures at this point, with some inevitable temper flares and even a few tantrums. I find that this type of interaction can sometimes be avoided by deploying a mental game of the childhood favorite “Red Light, Green Light.”

It goes something like this: when a customer begins to react poorly to a situation (usually in response to not finding a desired item in stock), that’s a red light and it signals me to give that person some space. When he or she enters the red light frame of mind, no suggestion — no matter how utterly perfect and on budget — will be a success. That customer needs room to breathe, not another smiling associate clutching diamonds and pearls.

On the other hand, a customer gives the green light when he (sorry, it’s usually a he at this point) asks for suggestions, is willing to listen and respond to questions, and remains interested in a purchase even if the first item shown isn’t The One.

It is possible for a green light to turn red if he or she gets truly frustrated, but a seasoned sales person usually won’t let that happen. An angry red lighter often needs time and kid-gloved handling, but even they can be satisfied with a bit more charm and graceful interaction.

As 2015 winds its way to a close, please take this gentle reminder to keep kindness in your heart as you dash about on a mad chase for the last few gifts on your list. We — all of us — are here to serve you to the best of our abilities, and then finally make our way home to our own family gatherings. Besides, it’s a well known fact that red light customers rarely make the nice list!

Wishing my wonderful readers a happy holiday season, with warm wishes for a sparkling 2016.

Fine Lines and How to Walk Them

If a person is referred to as “walking a fine line,” it’s up to context to determine if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The tiptoe between genius and insanity? Probably good. A skilled diplomat? Definitely a compliment. But dancing on a knife edge… odds are not in your favor.

Given the opportunity, any sales person will regale you with plenty of stories about near misses: almost spoiling a surprise, almost missing a deadline, almost not double-checking. He or she might even admit to occasions of “foot-in-mouth disease,” wherein an innocent comment caused all kinds of embarrassing havoc, though of course not enough to lose the sale. We like those tales of disaster averted, because it reinforces the human aspect of what we do.

I would argue that anyone working under the umbrella of fashion — clothing, jewelry, accessories, cosmetics, etc. — is intimately familiar with the often necessary kid-gloved handling of a customer. It’s tough to avoid, really, considering the emphasis this industry places on aesthetics and personal appearance; one wrinkled nose or ill-timed hesitation could derail a sale simply by conveying anything less than supportive appreciation.

This focus on looks not only dehumanizes the entire process of sales (and buying), it creates an atmosphere of artificiality — that fine line has been crossed, and it is increasingly difficult to bring a client back to the real meaning (romance) and purpose (celebration) of the moment.

My promise to myself and my clients this season is to muster up my former dancer’s grace, and remain firmly in balance between the beauty of what I’m selling and the reasons I’m selling it.

 

The Anatomy of a Present

As the countdown to the largest gift-giving holiday in the US continues (I’ve got my eye on you, countdown widget, and your cheery “53 Days!” message), I’d like to conduct a totally unscientific analysis of the item known as the present.

We all know it’s what’s inside that counts, so it’s time to go shopping. Whether from the comfort of your footie pajamas in bed or while out on the town, enjoy hunting for that perfect something for your special someone. I have some suggestions for this part, but they belong in a different post.

And now, we wrap!

You never get a second chance at a first impression, so make the presentation count. I would say the percentage of joy from anticipation alone goes up at least 25% for a beautifully-wrapped gift; add another 10-15% if that bow looks professionally tied. (Source: family and friends’ ooh-and-aah volume levels the year I spent three hours perfecting the multi-loop bow).

Roll out your lovely paper, grab the nearest pie plate or toddler to keep the ends from curling back up, and try to cut a semi-straight line. Measure twice and cut once — or, if you’re my father, don’t measure and cut once too many times and start again. Cursing under your breath is optional.

Now that your gift is swathed in its outer coverings, take your preferred rustic twine/shiny ribbon/string from the cat’s toy and wind it around the box a few times. Tie a simple bow if you really like the recipient, or tie increasingly difficult knots if you want some entertainment later (thanks, mom).

Bonus points for coordinating wrapping colors to the tissue paper, ribbon, and tags. Extra bonus for heavy, metallic foil wrapping paper, just because it’s my favorite.

Now that we’ve torn through our beautiful and thoughtful outer layers in frustration and thrown them to the floor in a heap for the cat to play with, let’s consider the box.

Some boxes come with their own predetermined meaning — little blue boxes, I’m talking to you — and need little else to build anticipation. Other cardboard constructions need all the help they can get. Loosely pre-folded along crooked, perforated lines, these department store packages take a whole lot of love to make them attractive trappings for what’s inside. I strongly suggest heavy usage of clear sticky substances.

If you’ve managed to fold, cut, tape, and tie your way to this point, congratulations. Take a step back and admire your handiwork, noting any crooked seams and errant ribbon curls (“Six. Inches.”). If your package looks like it belongs under Martha Stewart’s tree in her latest December issue, you’re good to go.

If not, you’re faced with two options.

Option one: gather up all of your gifts, make a list of which person is supposed to get what, and truck them all down to your local mall where a troop of friendly Scouts will happily wrap them all in reindeer-themed paper with matching stick-on bow for the low, low donation cost of whatever you have left in your wallet.

Option two: remove all attempted wrappings. Place item(s) in cute, holiday-themed bags. Shove fistfulls of tissue paper on top. Pour a glass of your favorite adult version of eggnogg, and pat yourself on the back for surviving another round of holiday gifting.

Happy National Chocolate Day

Nine out of ten people love chocolate. The tenth person… is lying.

I’m a chocoholic in the first degree, but these days I find myself lusting after a different form of everyone’s favorite treat: chocolate gold.

Yep, you read that correctly. Unlike certain other candy-flavored jewelry items I may have mentioned in the past, chocolate gold is the real deal — it’s colored using similar compounds to rose or red gold.