JCK Special Report: What the Necklace Can Teach the Jewelry Industry



This article originally ran in the July issue of JCK.

Kate Peterson, one of the industry’s leading business consultants and trainers, asked me a few months ago if I’d read The Necklace. 

“Read what necklace?” (It was early morning at the Centurion show, and I hadn’t had my coffee yet.)

“It’s a book,” she explained. “It’s an amazing true story about 13 women who all pitch in to buy a diamond riviere necklace and then take turns wearing it. Never mind, I’ll send you a copy.” 

Two weeks later, the book—its full title is The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives, by Cheryl Jarvis—arrived. I figured it would lend itself nicely to bedtime reading, so that night I settled in to read the first chapter. I didn’t put it down till 2:30 a.m.  Yes, the book is about timesharing a diamond necklace. But what it’s really about is the power of jewelry to stir emotions. 

It began four years ago when a real-estate agent named Jonell McClain wanted to treat herself after an arduous closing. She went to the Pacific View Mall in Ventura, Calif., to buy a box of candy to send to the client, but had no idea what to get for herself.

In the window of Van Gundy & Sons was a stunning 15.24 ct. diamond riviere necklace. She had once looked for a rhinestone necklace of similar design to wear for a formal event. The necklace at Van Gundy’s, a high-end, family-owned independent jeweler, wasn’t rhinestone, and, at $37,000, it wasn’t on McClain’s short list, either. Nevertheless, something compelled her to go in and try it on. She was captivated. She even took her mother to see it. But she still couldn’t afford it. Why, she wondered, is so much beauty accessible to so few people? McClain started thinking. What if she could put together a group of women to chip in and take turns wearing the necklace?

A few weeks later the necklace was reduced in price, but McClain still didn’t think she’d get enough women together. Then Van Gundy’s announced a special sale—taking silent bids on display pieces. McClain told jeweler Tom Van Gundy what she was trying to do and offered a bid. It was lower than he’d have liked, but Van Gundy was intrigued by the idea. He agreed to sell it to the women for the bid price—on the condition that his wife, Priscilla, be part of the group. 

In the four years since, the necklace and the women who share it have enjoyed an amazing number of accomplishments. Apart from the bonds of friendship and sisterhood that have been formed between them, the necklace (named Jewelia, after Julia Child, who had just died) has been the highlight of fund-raising events, radiantly adorned the necks of brides, and reminded women battling serious illnesses that they’re still beautiful. Some of the women who own Jewelia have had their own battles with serious illness, divorce, and other challenges. 

“It isn’t about the money,” said Priscilla Van Gundy when JCK spoke to her recently. Indeed, Van Gundy’s hasn’t profited much from the necklace. It has received a lot of publicity, and people recognize the store because of the necklace, but the benefits have been largely intangible, not financial, she says. “Everything that has happened was a surprise to us. We were shocked when people contacted us, and especially when the whole nation caught on!”  

All the major television networks called, People magazine called, and the group—which now has a book agent—has signed on with a movie agency. 

“It may get produced or it may never get produced, but if it does it will touch a lot of people. There’s not much [in entertainment subject] for our age group,” Priscilla Van Gundy says. Other jewelers have been inspired by the story, including one in Alabama who made a piece for women undergoing cancer treatments to share.

All 13 of Jewelia’s owners attended the Women’s Jewelry Association “Women in the Know” conference in New York in early March, sharing the stage for the luncheon keynote. McClain, as the originator of the group, explained why it was so important to her to be even a part owner of the beautiful piece, but it was Priscilla Van Gundy—one of our industry’s own—who held the audience spellbound.

Her emotional story had the WJA audience laughing at her first reaction to Tom’s idea of selling the necklace for McLain’s asking bid if the women would admit her to the group. “You want me to do what?” she asked her husband. “And sell it for how much?” Priscilla, who handles the firm’s financials, admits to playing the bad cop who sometimes has to put the brakes on and make sure passion for the product doesn’t override the balance sheet.

It was then, she said, that she realized Tom had “jumped the counter and become the customer,” because all he wanted to do was make her happy. And while she could have borrowed any piece in the store at any time, the powerful friendships she’s forged with the other 12 women through this necklace helped her heal after losing her beloved sister to cancer. Already shy with strangers, Priscilla withdrew into herself even more after her sister’s death. But Tom—missing the pretty cheerleader whose smile and sparkle he’d fallen in love with in high school—helped her find solace in the company of other women by essentially pushing her into their midst. It turned out to be a perfect move. Meeting Priscilla today, you can’t miss her cheery smile, and you’d never think of her as withdrawn.  

“The experience made me think totally differently about how I present to customers,” says Priscilla. “I try to find out more about why they’re shopping, why they’re buying, and what they’re going to do with it so I can find the right piece. 

“I probably have 10 other Jewelias in my store, but it’s only inventory. Till someone gives it meaning and purpose, it’s just merchandise. It’s always going to be a piece of inventory until you match it with the right person, the right event.

“Jewelia was the right necklace for us. It couldn’t have been another necklace.”