Make Your Estate Revenues Soar

There’s money to be had in estate jewelry because customers really want these pieces,” says Mark Ebert, president of Ebert & Co., a Los Angeles dealer who supplies more than 200 retailers. “Estate jewelry is different. It’s unique. If a $15 stick pin is best of category, you can get as excited about it as you can about a $100,000 diamond—in fact, more so.”

How can you turn excitement into sales? A major selling point for estate jewelry is its uniqueness. “Your customer won’t go to a cocktail party and see someone else wearing the same thing,” Ebert says. Lorrie Kraft, who runs Kraft’s Jewelry in Sheridan, Wyo., reminds her customers that one-of-a-kind pieces mean once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. “You might never see another piece like this,” she tells them.

That rarity often triggers impulse purchases. Cathy Calhoun, who owns Zenker Jewelers in Royersford, Pa., says, “More women will buy for themselves on the spot in estate than in any other department. They know that a lot of these items can’t be found anywhere else.” Calhoun has doubled her store’s revenues to $800,000 in the 2 1/2 years since she purchased it, mainly by expanding the estate department from half a jewelry case to 12 cases.

But whether you have a dozen cases devoted to estate jewelry, or just one, you need the right approach to make your estate sales take off. Successful estate jewelers, wholesalers, and auctioneers suggest the following strategies.

Every piece tells a story. One of Calhoun’s most effective sales tools is to bring each piece to life with a story. When she buys jewelry over the counter, she always asks: “Who in your family loved this piece?” (She also researches provenance, workmanship, and prior ownership, of course.) “The story of ownership helps me sell more than anything else,” she says. “I never sell on price. These are great values, but we go a different route. We talk about the piece and try to give the history.”

Sales associates have easy access to the historical information. The tag on each piece of estate jewelry includes an inventory number, and a corresponding inventory card contains the history. “My employees are real good with this,” Calhoun says. “They tell a story like you wouldn’t believe.”

The anecdotes have helped convert customers into collectors. “Once you put a ring on their finger and give them its history, they love it,” Calhoun says. But she cautions jewelers not to include negative associations, especially “the three Ds”: death, divorce, and debt.

Stores of knowledge. The breadth of information needed to sell estate jewelry can intimidate salespeople. Kraft overcomes their fear by stowing “cheat sheets” under the display counter. The sheets describe estate jewelry eras and provide a synopsis of major historical themes and corresponding design trends.

Cheat sheets can be helpful, but Melinda Adducci, co-president of Joseph Du Mouchelle Fine & Estate Jewellery Auctioneers, Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., advocates training sales associates so they can discuss estate jewelry and design eras authoritatively. “If your staff doesn’t know what they’re selling, if they’re not comfortable with what you’re showing, they probably won’t sell it,” she says. “And if you don’t educate them about estate jewelry, they’ll probably ignore that case altogether.”

Adducci also recommends that jewelers maintain a reference library to provide independent validation of the value of items in the store. For instance, if you’re selling Cartier jewelry, show the customer similar images from a book about Cartier.

Period pieces. Encourage customers to collect jewelry from a particular era. Maintain files on a customer’s purchase history, taste in design, and “wish list.” Linda Pedersen, who manages the estate department at Fox’s Gem Shop in Seattle, says, “Once they fall in love with a piece, you can show them other jewelry from that era that accents the first item.” Calhoun says that when her staff educates customers about the different eras of design and corresponding historic trends, the clients “choose what period they love, and that’s what they seem to buy.”

Affordable quality. The affordability factor also can spur sales. Jerry Forrest, president of The Jewelry Forrest in Dallas, says 10% of his store’s gross revenues come from his estate department, even though the firm specializes in custom design. “Estate is good value for your money,” he tells customers. “An estate piece can be completely hand-fabricated, but labor isn’t factored in.” For instance, a filigree platinum-and-diamond estate ring might sell for $900. Re-creating it from scratch would cost at least $1,000 just for labor. “Unless the customer is looking for a piece with provenance, I think truthfully they’re just looking at estate items for a better deal,” Forrest says.

Quality is another selling point. Many estate pieces have virtually unduplicable craftsmanship. If gemstones are original, they predate most treatments, Adducci says. “People want something pristine, with great history and background.”

Desirable displays. Devote at least 3 ft. of display space to the estate department and place between 24 and 36 jewelry items there, Forrest counsels. “You need to have enough for it to show,” he says.

Make sure your estate display looks different from displays of new jewelry. Use different fabric for the case, preferably a rich, old-fashioned material such as velvet or silk. Consider using a different color gift box, too. Calhoun uses velvet boxes for estate pieces and leatherette for modern jewelry.

Some jewelers group estate items by period. They use tent cards to label selections as art deco, Edwardian, etc. To create freshness in the display, exhibit just a portion of your estate inventory at a time, cycling new items in occasionally.

Props should harmonize with the jewelry. Calhoun places each of her high-value brooches on a black velvet backdrop centered in an “antique” silver frame (purchased from Ikea). A duplicate of the price tag on the back of the frame allows sales associates to answer questions without disassembling the display.

Calhoun places beautiful gloves flat in the case and lays a single, spectacular bracelet across each. She displays cameos two ways: on a bust in the center of a crisp white lace collar, or on a bust attached to multiple 18- or 20-in. strands of 3-mm white, taupe, or pink pearls. Historic props also can be striking. Calhoun placed a $2,600 gold-and-sapphire art deco mesh handbag in one case next to art deco jewelry. Period art, photographs, or decorative objects may serve as accents as long as they don’t create clutter.

Display density is another point to consider. Calhoun advocates densely filled estate cases. “My look for the rest of the store isn’t cluttered at all, but I really pack the estate display cases with hundreds of pieces of jewelry in each case,” she says. “I never would have believed it, but if the estate case is packed, not cluttered, people will stand at the case and really study them. They’ll stare and stare and keep looking until they find something they didn’t see before.” Fox’s Gem Shop takes the opposite approach. Pedersen says the firm recently removed items from the case so it could create focal points with larger items. Experiment to see which approach works best for you.

Powerful promotions. Trunk shows can build estate sales, but Ebert contends that if a store can sell estate jewelry during an event, it should be able to sell it year-round. Here are some additional ideas for year-round estate jewelry promotions.

  • Piggyback on fashion shows held by area boutiques or nonprofits. “If a clothing fashion show is occurring, offer to have models wear jewelry,” recommends Adducci. “There’s insurance available for that.

  • Watch PBS’s Antiques Road-show to see how it creates excitement about estate jewelry and other antiques (JCK, July 1999, p. 120). Consider promoting a similar event in your store or offer to hold one for area nonprofit fund-raisers. If you don’t have appraisal expertise, bring in someone who does. Du Mouchelle says, “We’re involved in buying events that are almost like the Antiques Roadshow 10 or 12 times a year for both nonprofit and in-store events. We’ll give the history, background, and an estimate of fair market value for no charge to the public.”

  • Join the local speakers’ circuit. Calhoun gives talks on antique and estate jewelry to virtually every civic club in her community. She brings slides of jewelry and tells the stories associated with their provenance and prior ownership. “I always say, ‘Everybody go through their safe-deposit boxes and jewelry cases. If there’s something you’re not wearing, and you would like money for it instead, bring it to me,’ ” she says. “I get a lot of older people who can’t pass on old things and would rather turn them into cash. It really works. I’ve built up my business by becoming the local expert. It develops both buying and selling.” But don’t bring your loupe to the event, she warns. “You’ll be inundated with requests for free appraisals. People will show up with shoeboxes full of jewelry.”

  • Build some drama and urgency into your estate sales. Calhoun happened upon this strategy through necessity: An estate she had appraised was offered to her for sale, but she didn’t have the money to buy it. “I said I was interested, but they had to give me three months to pay for it.” She hired a photographer to take pictures of the items and used them for postcards she mailed to her list of 5,000 regular customers. The postcard explained that the store had acquired a rare collection of antique and estate jewelry that would be available for purchase on three dates before being made available to the public. She sold the entire collection (which cost $160,000 wholesale) in just two days.

Developing a successful estate department can take time. “You can’t go from selling absolutely nothing to $50,000 pieces overnight,” says Adducci. “Start with small brooches, rings, earrings, and pendants and see which eras people like. If you don’t have great knowledge, work with someone who does, buy items of great quality, and stick with it over the long run.”