JCK Silver Spotlight: Silver Linings

The ups and downs of the precious metals market have forced some manufacturers to seek out alternatives to sterling, and others to rediscover it.

In August, a faithful client of the Silverado Jewelry Gallery in Bend, Ore., noticed something different about a necklace she was about to purchase: the price. The woman—who buys up to 10 pieces a month from the 2,000-square-foot store, a purveyor of Dana Kellin, Jamie Joseph, and other trendy lines—told owner Heather Hanst she remembered when a 1 mm silver snake chain cost only $7, not the $19 she was now being asked to pay. The client bought the piece, but Hanst softened the blow: “I gave her a 30 percent discount,” she says. “I am softly educating my customers about rising prices. I want them to know I care.”

The unavoidable fact is that silver—once the industry’s most cost-effective and well-priced precious metal—suddenly went up-market this year, following in the footsteps of its much costlier cousin, gold. Then it slipped again. In late September, silver sank to $28 per ounce, effectively erasing the gains it had made in 2011. Indeed, the metal’s jittery per-ounce price—$13 in 2008, to a high of $49 in April, to $30 as of this writing, per Kitco.com—has affected everybody’s nerves, not to mention margins.

That’s because at silver’s high, it was nearly impossible to create jewelry that hit the magic $1,500-or-less retail price point. As a result, many retailers and manufacturers were forced to consider alternatives—turning to brass, silver plate, and other costume materials, as well as silver repairs, to keep customers buying.

Mary Brobst, co-owner of Gold Smith Jewelers in Lincoln, Neb., knows the costume strategy well. Last year, she brought in a line of copper, nickel silver, and brass ­jewelry that sold so well she added a similar collection in the fourth quarter this year.

Retailers who have already dipped their toes into the growing pool of better-made costume merchandise include some 300 U.S. and Caribbean accounts that carry the Italian-made, gold-plated bronze Rebecca line, a fixture on the fine ­jewelry show circuit since 2008.

Others, like Nate Smith, sales manager of Christopher’s Fine Jewelry Design in Champaign, Ill., have just begun to assess the faux options. Last year, he picked up Steven McGovney‘s paper earrings, colorful cardboard and surgical steel styles that start at just $12 a pair. “Out of 120 pairs we bought, only 20 are left,” says Smith.

Corrugated earrings with beads, laminated imported papers, brass, tin, copper, and titanium; $28; Steven McGovney, Prescott, Ariz.; 928-899-4641; stevenmcgovney.com

Yet regardless of price, costume doesn’t tempt everyone. Alex Weil, president of Martin’s Jewelry in Manhattan Beach, Calif., resists silver plate and brass because of service issues, among other reasons. “There seems to be plenty of nice silver in a variety of prices,” he says. Instead, Weil carries silver from Gabriel & Co. and Classic Imports, lines he brought in over the past three years.

Meanwhile, Paula Brenton, president of the Silver Owl in Albuquerque, N.M., is ambivalent about selling costume jewels, but does, interestingly, repair some for profit. Last year, a young woman brought in a massive silver necklace she inherited from her grandmother. The piece was set with hundreds of rhinestones—300 of which were missing. “The hard part was matching them,” she notes. “CZs are easy because they are calibrated, but rhinestones—not so much.” (Brenton’s trick? Buying up old costume jewelry at every opportunity and cannibalizing the pieces for repairs.) Ultimately, the client was happy to save the sentimental piece, and so was Brenton. “That repair cost a lot of money,” she says.

Besides the dollars they earn, though, Brenton likes repairs for the round-trip visits: “Repairs mean someone is in your store twice—once to drop off and once to pick up. They might see something else they want.”

Rim Hoops in sterling silver; $335; Lisa Jenks, Brooklyn, N.Y.; 646-519-7229; lisajenks.com

Among designers, volatile silver prices mean ­artists such as Lisa Jenks and Saundra Messinger have to keep a close eye on weight to contain costs. “I was probably the last designer to adjust my prices,” Messinger admits. “I waited too long.” Cost is also paramount in Jenks’ ­decision to introduce brass and bronze into her collections. Though most shoppers claim to understand the reasons for the higher prices, some silver price tags (particularly on weightier pieces) inevitably deliver the smack of a heavyweight boxer punch. “For some of my customers there is real sticker shock,” says Jenks.

Other jewelers cope with yo-yo-ing silver prices by avoiding certain styles or creating lighter versions and ordering much closer to ship dates. For Hanst, it’s merely a matter of prioritizing: “If my favorite wine went from $14 to $22 a bottle, I wouldn’t be like, ‘No, no wine for me!’?”

Thankfully, most consumers have taken a similar approach, which is why silver sales are up for many retailers, including Brobst, who credits “more designer and contemporary silver lines.” The uncertain economy has even had a bright side: Manufacturers have gotten creative, turning out better-looking silver jewelry in order to “compete for the silver buyer,” says Messinger.

That phenomenon has, in turn, inspired a slew of new customers to appreciate the metal’s inherent value and original styling. Silver jewelry now commands greater respect. “Silver was so inexpensive for so long,” says Jenks. “Now it does seem like a precious metal!”

Bronze Fisticuff ring; $115; Lisa Jenks, Brooklyn, N.Y.; 646-519-7229; lisajenks.com

Even longtime platinum and gold fans like Lisa Krikawa, a manufacturing retailer in Tucson, Ariz., are seeing the light. This summer, as scores of shoppers balked at the price of gold, she pondered her options. Flush with palladium designs—60 percent of her jewelry, mostly engagement rings, was made in the material—she decided to give another affordable white metal a go. This fall, she’ll introduce a 10-piece silver line starting at $300—three times less than the $900 gold price point.

“I just rediscovered a love for sterling,” Krikawa says. “I can make substantial pieces—I can go chunky—which is great since everything is getting so lightweight.” Reactions to an image of one of her prototypes, emailed to 4,000 names in her client database, have so been so positive that she’s considering a silver wedding band line.

Whether the silver price keeps falling or goes back up, Messinger says it hardly matters. “We’re all ­learning to do business differently: planning, buying, pricing, designing,working differently. In many ways, it’s a good thing.”

More on silver from JCKonline.com:
+ JCK Silver Spotlight: Silver Streak
+ JCK Silver Spotlight: Sterling New Styles
+ The latest silver news

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