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.

Reading Reactions

Featured image is my father’s custom garnet ring, designed by Irene S. Sirois. Copyrighted design.

If I didn’t have to work, I would probably read. All day, most of the night, nonstop page-turning. Like most bibliophiles I have some preferred genres and authors, but if you put something with words on it in front of me, I’m going to read it before you’ve finished telling me not to (so please don’t). This means I have to practice extreme selectivity, because I simply don’t have time to read it all. In practice that translates to rationing my reading time, where my time currency is portioned out like my 8th grade allowance, with wild abandon sparingly and with great care.

So it might surprise you to know that I spend a daily allotment of what I lovingly call Industry Research Time poring over every blog, publication, article, Google Alert, LinkedIn Pulse, and Instagram post I can find. I take notes — actual, physical ones and purely mental ones — and attempt to connect the dots between what I’m reading and what I’m experiencing. I sift through opinions, corroborate facts, and weigh topics in an effort to determine what’s important, who’s talking about it, and how I think and feel about it all.

When you consume this much material, it’s inevitable to come across some things you simply don’t agree with. Most of the time this happens with op-eds and other opinion-based articles, and stems from having a very different perspective on the topic. Exactly such a case can be found in this article, published in the May 2016 MJSA Journal entitled “Is ‘Custom’ a Dirty Word?” which I encourage everyone to read.

The piece describes the challenges of defining what “custom jewelry” means — I subject I’ve discussed before — and goes on to describe how Lisa Krikawa of Krikawa Jewelry works around what she perceives as the extreme limitations of selling custom or customized jewelry. This workaround is to essentially remove the word custom from the conversation entirely, because she experiences the usual backlash of fear and distrust from clients who prefer to touch and try on their designs before purchasing.

To say that I sympathize with this position is an understatement, having sold both full custom and customized jewelry myself. And Krikawa’s actual conversations with clients reflect the realities of selling this type of product, in such a way that they feel heard and understood. This is exactly the right approach, and I couldn’t agree more with her process of offering examples from the showcase, hand sketches, and CAD models. It’s what I used to do, too, and it works.

In part, the solution to the touch me/feel me issue can be answered by the amazing technology I work with in my current profession. Using 3D printers to prototype quickly and cheaply gives the client a physical piece to touch and try on, even with temporarily seated gems so the full effect is present. Now the relevant questions — too tall? too thick? right size? in proportion? etc. — can be answered in real time, without the expense of fixing these issues after the fact.

My main argument with Krikawa’s approach is that by working so hard to eliminate a particular word from a client’s vocabulary, the opportunity to educate them about custom is lost. The process of qualifying a client for potential custom work does not need to turn them off or scare them away from a purchase; when handled with careful explanation, my nervous clients turned into my best evangelists for the custom process (hello, referrals!).

I have worked very hard to promote the idea of custom jewelry as the future on the industry, and feel that removing it from the conversation is counterproductive. I prefer to help the client understand and appreciate the opportunity, educate them as to the options, and explain how the risks are mitigated or eliminated.

There are few things I appreciate more than the people who expend serious time and energy making their clients happy, regardless of how they accomplish that feat. I hope the various opinions and theories about custom jewelry continue to expand and develop, especially as technology grows and offers more solutions to an often cumbersome process.

Please comment with your thoughts, I’d love to keep the conversation going!

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor(ly) Made

You have a secret. You’ve been carrying it around for quite some time now, and it’s starting to really get you down. You’ve tried to push it away, but it comes back like a bad penny every time you turn on the TV, walk through the mall, or flip through a magazine. It’s difficult to admit it, but… you just hate your ring.

Now don’t be alarmed that I’ve guessed your innermost thoughts. I’m not psychic — well, not entirely — I just know that look. You’re gazing at some of our beautiful rings, imagining what they’d look like on your finger, and you casually glance at the sentimental, formerly-fashionable piece of misery currently perched where that gorgeous double-halo with split-shank in platinum should be.

You sigh, or frown, or maybe even grimace. What can you possibly do? After all, someone very special gave you that ring. He or she (probably) thought long and hard before that purchase, and it (hopefully) made you very happy at the time. It still holds a wealth of meaning for you, and always will.

But times have changed, and so has your style. And recently someone told you that the shank was wearing quite thin, and the prongs are really not as heavy as they should be. It would be a bit silly to spend money on a fix when a whole new setting isn’t really so much more, wouldn’t it? And the new one would suit your style, and of course make you just as happy as the day you received the first one.

I understand. And I can help.

Give us just a little slice of time, and we can create the ring of your dreams. Rather than a symbol of the early days of your relationship, this ring will celebrate the love that has grown and flourished over time. It will honor your past and pay tribute to your future, and it will make you happy to look down at your finger all over again.

So give me your tired, your poorly made, your ugly jewelry yearning to be new again. It’s time.

**Speaking of a do-over, I spy… a whole new look for Karat Cake! Hope you like the mini-makeover!**

Ring, Ring!

Clients often ask me when “engagement season” is. I’m not sure why they want to know (it’s usually not an engagement customer doing the asking), but my answer is the same: it’s always engagement season.

While it’s true that more proposals happen during the winter holidays, the rings themselves aren’t necessarily purchased between November and January. We simply see an uptick in foot traffic during that time, so it sometimes feels like the diamonds are flying fast and thick.

On the other hand, I can say with some authority that there is a “wedding band season,” and it’s starting right about now. The most popular months for marriage are June, August, September, and October, which means we’re 3-6 months out and the checklists for the intended couples are getting their boxes ticked bit by bit. Couples often want to wrap up what they perceive as important or expensive (or both), to reduce stress and long-term financial burden. It’s a winning strategy, and one that’s encouraged by the multitude of published and online planning tools that are so ubiquitous today.

If your style is simple or popular and your finger is stock or sample size, you could walk into and out of a jewelry store with wedding band in hand after about twenty minutes. You’ve probably also never missed a flight, always get green lights when you’re in a hurry, and should purchase a lottery ticket immediately — that is to say, you’re one lucky duck.

For most, the wedding band search is a slightly longer process. Try them on, price them out, and then purchase or order with a minimum of one month until your wedding.*** We’d prefer two to three months, because we like tight and important deadlines even less than you do (trust me, the idea of combining a special rush order and a bad hurricane season is not an appealing one).

I want your wedding band to be perfect, and that can sometimes mean a custom creation to accommodate an estate setting that won’t allow a straight band to sit comfortably on your finger. This is probably going to take longer than a month, and we’d like to take our time to get it exactly right.

Take this as a pleasant PSA, from our beautiful industry to all you soon-to-be-newlyweds: if you’re getting married in the near future, come in and see me. We’ll talk wedding plans and weddings bands, and get one of thing checked off that lengthy to-do list.

*** Cautionary tale: a client once told me she had two months until her wedding, but neglected to mention she’d be leaving for Mexico — her destination location — three weeks prior to the actual wedding date. We got the rings completed on time, but it was a pretty near thing. Keep in mind your actual plans, not just the wedding bubble. Please.

Hot Off the Bench

I think it’s time for a new serial feature, don’t you?

Conveniently, our fabulous goldsmith has come up with a little project to work on, and I thought it would be a great way to show how some types of custom jewelry come to life.

This time we’re starting the process by selecting gemstones and designing a piece around them. It’s often fascinating to consider how different people approach the same materials, and probably says a lot about each unique personality and taste.

In my case, I’ve selected this Azurite & Malachite pair to play with:

Azurite & Malachite diamond-shape doublet pair
Azurite & Malachite diamond-shape doublet pair. Pretty, huh?

At first glance, the mind goes immediately to a pair of earrings. Dangles perhaps, with a simple wire wrap and lever back. But the more I toyed with the idea, the less I liked it — the object of this lesson was to create something I might actually wear, and earrings weren’t ringing any of my bells. Instead, I picked up a pencil and started doodling a necklace, something casual to wear in those warmer months the meteorologists insist will come.

The deep blue and vibrant green with globe-like land and sea contrast cried out for a more organic accent, so I began to toy with freshwater pearls, various chains, and other elements to create a simple but laid-back (and just a little coy) Y-necklace design.

Original sketch -- basic concept, a few notes on possible metals and accents
Original sketch — basic concept, a few notes on possible metals and accents
Orientation and placement of stones
Orientation and placement of stones
Sample materials, including chain, pearls, and some malachite beads
Sample materials, including chain, pearls, and some malachite beads

At this point, it’s time for a discussion about materials, structure, logistics, and of course the total cost (design, materials, labor). We’ll be looking at the practical execution of a general idea, and hopefully resolve any potential issues during the actual design process. Will the Y be too heavy? Are the beads and chain in the right proportions? How does the necklace lie on the neck, and how do we prevent issues like spinning? What kind of clasp is best? How long should the Y-portion be?

The logistics can be overwhelming at first, but a methodical approach and talented, experienced goldsmith are the keys to figuring out the best way to achieve a beautiful end result.

Stay tuned to see how these component parts come together as a whole, finished piece of wearable artwork!

That Sounds Good

Chocolate diamonds. Champagne diamonds. Cognac diamonds.

Lemon quartz. Watermelon tourmaline. Bubblegum pink sapphire.

Are you hungry yet? Food may pave the proverbial path to a man’s heart, but evidently food-type descriptors make consumers hungry for colored diamond and gemstone jewelry.

Few people would deny that professional marketing teams are the true drivers of consumer habits these days. We’re essentially told what we want, so that we want what somebody wants to sell. It’s not a bad cycle really, as long as everyone is honest and ends up happy with what they sold or what they bought.

As someone who works very hard to ensure a client is educated about how they’re spending their money, I sometimes send a silent thank-you to the inventors of those delicious nicknames. A custom client who can use vivid descriptors of any kind, food or otherwise, is more likely get what they really want the first time: “a purple that’s not too deep, not really royal, and definitely not plum, but a bit more violet. Like out outer edge of a violet, but sort of like grape Jello.” Yes, I can work with that. (Maybe I’ll coin “Grape Jello Sapphire”?) Personally, I get a kick out of gems with foodlike names because, well, I’m a foodie, and calling my jewelry something edible is kind of the perfect combination of passions for me. I relate much better to a lip-smacking red raspberry rhodalite garnet set in buttery-yellow 18K gold, don’t you?

So clearly I’m not totally averse to unique and descriptive nicknames. But I do have issues with the rampant dishonesty and consumer duping that comes from those marketing geniuses who decided to take their pitch one step too far. These are the people who sell gems that are worth very little (or almost nothing) at prices comparable to their truly rare and valuable counterparts. I’m looking at you, purveyors of the chocolate or champagne or cognac diamonds.

They’re pretty. If the color appeals to you, they’re stunning. They are incredibly useful in design work, and they’re an excellent alternative to softer gems in similar colors. Do you know what they are not? Rare. And therefore, expensive.

It is absolutely astounding to me that certain retailers are promoting these common-as-dirt, industrial quality, murky brownish diamonds as something special enough to sell in the same price bracket as white diamonds. The markup on such a product must be astronomical — great for the retailer, of course, but not so much for the consumer. It’s a bit like buying meatloaf at Kobe prices just because somebody told you it was pretty much the same thing, and tastes pretty good.

I love beautiful pieces of wearable art, and jewelry made with these brownish gems can be equally beautiful to those made without. But my expectation is to pay less for something with a lesser value, and informed customers should expect the same. I question how long a value system can last if price — usually, though not always, a major factor — becomes a meaningless mode of comparison. Consumers should be purchasing jewelry because they love it, but they should be charged an appropriate amount for the true value of their dollar’s buying power.

What’s your favorite colored gemstone nickname? Do we need to introduce some new ones?

You Say Tomato? Custom vs. Customized

“An educated consumer is a good consumer.”

That’s a ripe old retail adage if ever I’ve heard one, but its staying power comes from the ring (hah!) of truth. In jewelry, it’s always clear to me when a customer is armed with knowledge because he or she feels confident in the value of the purchase before I’ve had to say a word. It makes the job of the salesperson easier, for sure, but it also increases both initial and repeat business. Value and trust are the cornerstones of this industry, and a customer’s perception of how well a business represents those factors will make or break the sale in the end. The educated customer has information confirmed, and so is far more inclined to trust.

You’re nodding your head, yes yes, we know this. Consumers buy expensive things based on trust when their knowledge runs out. How is this relevant to your pithy and not-very-inventive post title?

Where I work, we have a goldsmith. Correction: we have an amazing, fabulous, absolutely one-of-a-kind goldsmith who is capable both of incredible craftsmanship and innovative design. She works brilliantly with customers to morph their garbled, elaborate, and frequently contradicting design concepts into workable pieces of unique, wearable art. While I could write for days on how she creates these wonderful pieces (and believe me, I will in the future) I’d prefer to focus just now on her designs. Her custom designs.

At a custom appointment, customers might pull elements from existing pieces. Frequently it’s easier — and less confusing — for a customer to see/touch/feel what we mean by a split shank with bead-set diamonds and milgrain edge. (Try describing a bypass ring clearly and concisely to someone. Go ahead, try it.) But just as often, a design is created that is so unique, so deliciously original or specific, that it must be drawn and rendered in 2-or-3-D to demonstrate how it will look as a finished piece. The work our jeweler extraordinaire creates is, by definition, custom. It’s one-of-a-kind. Singular. Unique. Exclusive.

Do you know what it isn’t? A choose-your-own-ending, swap-in/swap-out, one-in-ten piece of jewelry that, while certainly beautiful, is in no way unique to the person who wears it. It’s customized.

That center diamond you changed out for a sapphire? Customized. Ordered the 6mm wedding band instead of the 7mm and brushed the center? Customized. Princess center with square halo not your fave, so you did a round center and cushion halo? With the halo set in rose gold? You customized that, my friend. It’s lovely, and it’s exactly what you wanted.

It’s still not custom.

Custom jewelry, in its uniqueness, carries a particular cachet. It’s typically the most expensive option — every cent of the design, casting, production, finishing, and appraising cost goes to one consumer instead of many — and it comes with its own special set of challenges (matching wedding band, anyone?).

Customized jewelry takes a central design and makes limited changes. These tweaks and alterations can obviously change the look of the entire piece, giving the impression of a unique item, but the fact remains that another person could be making identical changes in a store down the street. These customized beauties are no less valuable to the people giving, receiving, and enjoying them. But they should never, ever be confused with true custom work.

We face the question over and over: why is the estimate to make this custom ring X price, when this other ring in the showcase is Y price? Enter the aforementioned education. We take the time to explain in great detail the differences found in custom jewelry, and what makes the value of such a piece incomparable to a stock or customized item.

I refuse to turn this post into a rambling diatribe against jewelry stores that market their swap-style design changes as custom. It’s inaccurate at best and downright misrepresentation at its most insidious; customers looking around are unable to comparison shop with any kind of confidence. Or trust. And we know that’s a bad thing for all parties. But it happens a whole lot these days, thanks to the advent of various computer programs that trumpet their “custom” design capabilities.

In the end, the goal is a happy customer. Getting there through honest dealings, thorough education, and a touch of jeweler’s magic is how we choose to do it — and it works.