24 Karat Festivities, California Style

On Saturday night, I took part in a Southern California ritual that dates back 68 years: the annual dinner dance organized by the Jewelers 24 Karat Club of Southern California, held since 2009 at the über-contemporary Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Although I’ve attended the legendary—and much larger—24 Karat gala that takes place every January at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City many times, I’d only been to the Southern California event once, in 2010. So when Robin Lutin, JCK’s West Coast regional ad sales manager, assured me there was space at the table this year, I jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant I needed to hustle.

I spent most of last week at the JCK office in Manhattan, and landed at LAX on Saturday afternoon with just enough time to taxi to my home near Hollywood, get ready for the black tie–optional party, and drive back across town to the heart of the Southland’s most conspicuously posh community. I made it at 6 p.m. on the dot, just as the cocktail schmooze-fest began.

The club had chosen to honor Donna Baker, president and CEO of the Gemological Institute of America, with its prestigious Excellence in Service Award, and I knew that cocktail hour would be my one shot at catching up with the crew from GIA, most of whom had just concluded their annual Career Fair in Carlsbad, Calif., on Oct. 5.

Sure enough, the first friendly face I saw when I stepped inside the luxe hotel was that of Robert Weldon, manager of photography and laboratory publications at GIA. From that moment on, I couldn’t walk more than five steps before encountering someone I knew and liked. In the ladies’ restroom, where I slipped in to wash my hands, I found Peggy Jo Donahue, director of public affairs for Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America. We emerged to find Robert and his lovely wife, Orasa, still in the hall, reminiscing about living in L.A. back when Robert was Professional Jeweler’s West Coast editor. Now that they lived closer to GIA’s San Diego County base, they seemed completely in their element.

My next friendly run-in was with designer JJ Williams, wearing a stylish pair of marquise-cut earrings from her JJ Number 8 line. She’d driven up from Laguna Beach with her husband for the 24 Karat dinner (her first), and we spoke briefly about her experiences at the GIA Career fair, where she’d been a panelist the day before.

As I walked into the cocktail reception, so many familiar faces greeted me that it was difficult to figure out where to focus. There was designer Erica Courtney, a vision from a futuristic fairy tale in a gorgeous gown with a red tulle skirt; JCK’s former publisher Frank Dallahan and his wife, Kathy, who were en route to San Francisco to babysit their 5-year-old grandson while their son and his wife attended a family wedding in Ireland; and my fellow JCK-ers, publisher Mark Smelzer, Robin Lutin, and John Tierney, who was recently promoted from event director at JCK Events to industry vice president, overseeing LUXURY Events.

Mark Smelzer and me at the Montage Hotel on Saturday night

New York City may be the undisputed center of the American jewelry trade, but judging from all the industry luminaries I clinked glasses with on Saturday night, California is no slouch when it comes to jewelry significance. Designer Katey Brunini; longtime industry publicist Laurie Hudson and her husband, Robert Bradley; and Frank Proctor, president and CEO of the Luxury Brand Group, and his Girl Friday, Jen Cullen Williams, were just a few of the trade leaders at the Montage that I have the honor of calling friends.

Frank, the current president of the Jewelers 24 Karat Club of Southern California, initiated the speeches when he got up to welcome us to the dinner and to introduce outgoing Jewelers of America president and CEO Matt Runci, who then gave a fantastic welcome to Donna Baker. In between, I exchanged too-brief hellos with Craig Danforth, GIA’s jetsetting director of global business development, and Kathryn Kimmel, the institute’s hardworking vice president and chief marketing officer.

Just before I dashed home to rest my by-then very weary head, I chatted with American Gem Trade Association CEO Doug Hucker, a veteran of both the 24 Karat festivities in Southern California and the grand 24 Karat affair in New York City. As we talked, I couldn’t help but think that though the West Coast event was smaller and much lower profile than the East Coast version, it was also more intimate, more fun, and—lest we forget the appeal of Southern California—infinitely more relaxed: no scarf, winter coat, or gloves required.