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How Retailers Can Cash in on Estate Jewelry

Whether you call them vintage, estate, or period, secondhand jewels ­constitute one of the fastest-growing profit ­centers for retailers. How does a newbie capitalize on this exceedingly pretty, parallel world?

Features
By Martha C. White
This story appears in the February 2011 issue of JCK magazine
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How Retailers Can Cash in on Estate Jewelry
Deco Fabulous
Platinum, sapphire, and diamond Art Deco brooch, circa 1910; $12,000; Tiny Jewel Box, Washington, D.C.

The saying that “everything old is new again” couldn’t be more apt when it comes to the jewelry market. National brands like Zales and Ross-Simons are now hawking secondhand items online, and pre-owned has become as much a buzzword of the recent recession as subprime or bailout.

“The estate business has really evolved in the last two to three years, with people looking for true values,” says Sid Potts, owner of Sid Potts Inc. in Shreveport, La. In the past 15 years, Potts says estate pieces have gone from less than 5 percent to 25 percent of his sales. There are several reasons behind such substantial growth: The meteoric rise in the price of gold combined with a poor economy has cash-strapped consumers more willing to sell their used jewelry, while others are looking to buy something secondhand for a lower price. Wealthy buyers may view high-end estate jewelry as a safer investment than stocks or real estate in these turbulent times.

Rhapsody in Blue
A turquoise and diamond suite by Bulgari, c. 1965, includes a necklace with 130.20 cts. t.w. turquoise and 70.86 cts. t.w. diamonds, a bracelet with 23.20 cts. t.w. diamonds, a ring with 1.60 cts. t.w. diamonds, and earrings with 13.50 cts. t.w. diamonds; price on request; Siegelson, New York City; 212-832-2666; siegelson.com

The prospect of buying and reselling those goods is appealing to many jewelers who might have struggled with sales through the recession. But, say pros, this is not a market to venture into cavalierly.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

Even experts disagree about the meaning of the phrase estate jewelry. Some hold that it refers exclusively to an upscale segment of the secondhand jewelry market. Others say the term is basically a marketing tool that can define any secondhand jewelry. If you’re going to get into the business, you need to decide which of the two viewpoints to embrace because that will dictate what type of pieces you acquire. 

“Estate just means secondhand,” says Matthew Rosenheim, president of Tiny Jewel Box in Washington, D.C. “It has no connotation in terms of how old it is. Secondhand and estate can be used synonymously,” he says. Many retailers prefer estate, however, for the higher value perception it confers. “The term vintage implies that it’s interesting by virtue of age,” adds Rosenheim, while antique generally refers to pieces more than a century old.

If your goal is simply to sell secondhand jewelry, you may find that customers now welcome the lower-priced items. But you risk diminishing your brand equity and may run into trouble transitioning those buyers back to new, full-priced merchandise in the future. That said, Rosenheim says it can be a lucrative sideline for the right jeweler, since the rapidly rising spot gold price isn’t fully reflected in the secondhand market. “There’s an opportunity to sell estate as a value proposition,” he says. “Draw a distinction if you want to sell used stuff and make good margins, or if you want to be in the vintage jewelry business.”

LEARNING AND BUYING

A Mighty Heart
14k gold, pearl, and diamond Victorian-era heart brooch; $2,100; Tiny Jewel Box, Washington, D.C.
Focusing on the upper echelon of estate jewelry is potentially more rewarding than selling new pieces, but it’s also far more challenging, explains Rosenheim. You need to invest both time and money in order to achieve success. “If you’re going to do it, you need to do it with a certain level of strength and marketing,” he says. “If you just put a few pieces in your case, it’s not going to mean anything. You have to commit enough stock to make customers feel this is important to you.”

Begin by educating yourself. Research the big auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s and see what pieces pass through their doors—and for how much, says Terry Betteridge, owner of Betteridge Jewelers in Greenwich, Conn. Go to antique and estate shows, jewelry shows, and auctions to learn about the market and to network with dealers. Experts in vintage jewelry say that face-to-face relationship-building is the best way to find a trustworthy dealer. Combining your knowledge of your customer base with their knowledge of periods and styles will help you curate a selection of pieces that will appeal to your shoppers.

Educating your customers is another important step. “You can’t just have an item in a case and expect people to understand it,” says Randi Molofsky, chief curator at Portero, an online vintage retailer that sells jewelry, bags, watches, and other luxury accessories. “You have to have education, whether that’s a fun event or having photos in your store of celebs wearing vintage jewelry and showing how it’s worn on the red carpet. There is a certain customer who is interested in vintage inherently, but the mistake is not educating enough.”

Tie Them On
Diamond earrings in silver, c. late 18th century, in pendeloque design; price on request; Siegelson, New York City; 212-832-2666; siegelson.com

Patti Geolat, chief executive officer of Geolat & Associates, a Dallas-based appraiser of antique jewelry, says a reputable dealer can be your sherpa through the sometimes dizzying world of different styles and periods. “If you’re going to buy it on the street, a tremendous amount of the burden is on you,” she cautions. If you decide you want to skip the middleman and purchase items directly from auctions or private sellers, keep in mind that the process requires a lot of forensic work, says Betteridge. Being a jewelry detective demands the ability to spot details like repairs that were made with cheaper materials or stones that were replaced with newer (possibly less valuable) gems. Your eye will also need to be able to pick up deterioration such as a loose setting that you’ll have to repair before reselling.

POPULAR PERIODS AND STYLES

You’ll also need to know what’s hot. Signed pieces command a premium; names like Tiffany, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels are always prized. Many vintage jewelry sellers cite a growing interest in button earrings and brooches from the ’50s and ’60s. Some attribute this partially to the popularity of the TV show Mad Men and the resurging interest in the fashions of that era. “People are really beginning to understand, appreciate, and love what is termed retro jewelry,” says Elizabeth Anne Bonanno, an estate jewelry consultant in New York City. 

Art Deco pieces enjoy a seemingly perennial popularity. Their geometric shapes are easily recognizable and complement modern fashions well. Matthew Rosenheim says vintage bridal is another category in high demand. “It’s the strongest category for us in vintage,” he says, adding that diamond and platinum Art Deco pieces are most popular.

Christie’s Images Ltd. 2010
Signed Language
Art Deco aquamarine, tourmaline, diamond, and enamel brooch mounted in platinum and 18k gold, 1927, signed Cartier France. Estimated at $80,000, the piece realized $230,500 at Christie’s New York jewelry sale in October 2010, reflecting not only the perennial popularity of Deco period pieces but also the premiums earned by those bearing a Cartier signature (see this month's Brilliant).

Likewise, the romantic, delicate curves of Victorian jewelry appeal to a wide range of consumers. “It has a little bit of a gothic feel to it, which plays into a lot of fashion trends,” says Molofsky. A tougher sell, says Bonanno, is jewelry from the Art Nouveau period that immediately preceded Art Deco. When it comes to unearthing under-the-radar gems, Geolat says knowing your audience is crucial. Bold or edgy styles that might wow sophisticated buyers could fall flat among more conservative consumers. And as for the next big thing, the 2008 import ban on Burmese jade and ruby has some experts predicting that demand—and prices—for these pieces will climb.

A GREAT PAYOFF

If you invest sufficient time and money to enter the estate market, experts say, the payoff can be tremendous.

Establishing yourself as a destination for vintage ­jewelry sets you apart from your competitors and serves to draw new customers. “You’ll never see some of these people if you don’t deal in estate pieces,” says Potts.

The one-of-a-kind nature of estate jewelry has its own advantage: If a buyer doesn’t purchase now, they might never get the chance again to own a particular piece. That, says Geolat, “gives them a reason to [buy, and] creates some urgency around the sale.”

Jewelers can use events and publicity to generate enthusiasm around what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

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