Marketing Your Estate Jewelry Department

[Mark Ebert is president of Ebert & Co., a supplier of antique and estate jewelry in Los Angeles, Cal. A Certified Gemologist of the American Gem Society and a former instructor of gemology at the Gemological Institute of America, Ebert lectures frequently on gemology and antique and period jewelry.]

Your estate department, if well-marketed, could be one of your highest profit centers.

Why? Opportunities exist to buy estate jewelry wisely. In turn, this allows you to price for greater profit than in other departments, to promote uniqueness and to avoid customers who comparison shop.

But the success of your estate jewelry department depends on your marketing savvy. Here’s what you should understand about who is interested in estate jewelry, as well as how to display, merchandise, sell and service it.

Who buys estate jewelry?

The myth is that middle-aged, rich women are the only people who buy estate jewelry. In fact there is no solid demographic profile of an estate jewelry buyer. For this reason, it’s crucial that your sales associates develop profiles of your repeat customers in order to understand their tastes and preferences. This way, you can tailor your inventory to them.

Today, it’s more likely than ever the estate jewelry customer buys for herself or himself. And what this person looks for is beauty, quality, value, uniqueness and connection with history.

If you understand what motivates the customer’s first purchase, you can position your store to sell estate jewelry to that customer again.

What sparks estate jewelry sales?

Customers who haven’t bought estate jewelry before may develop a casual interest in it at certain times of the year. Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and Christmas are all perfect occasions to focus a customer’s attention on your estate jewelry showcase.

More serious buyers may develop a fondness for a given period or a given designer. Every time you add a new piece from that designer to your inventory, the potential exists to sell to the serious buyer.

An established estate department &endash; which is up and running all year &endash; will always attract the more serious estate consumer and also create opportunities with casual customers. If you’re just launching an estate jewelry department, timing is crucial. You may do well to lay the groundwork after Christmas and before July because estate jewelry suppliers are better positioned to help you with training and other support in the first half of the year. Just like you, they are less busy then than in the months leading up to Christmas.

Where and how should you display estate jewelry?

Perhaps you’ve heard the axioms that to sell diamonds you have to carry them, and that to sell designer jewelry you have to carry a wide representation of the designer’s line. Both assertions are true also for estate jewelry. Often it’s most effective to display a collection of estate jewelry in its own showcase. This helps to establish your store as an ongoing source for estate jewelry and allows you to create appropriate displays (see photos 2 and 3).

With contemporary jewelry, conventional wisdom is to give each piece lots of “air” in the showcase. With estate jewelry, do the opposite. Reduce the “air,” then invite the customer to take a deep breath and dive in. This more crowded look gives estate jewelry customers the feeling of making a “find,” enhancing the buying experience and making the customer proud of his or her discovery.

There’s usually more than one way to do things well, though, and you must experiment to see what works best in your situation. I know a jeweler who sells estate jewelry very effectively by mixing estate and contemporary jewelry in showcases throughout the store. Give yourself the opportunity to break out of the norm with estate jewelry display.

How should you decide whether to add a piece to your inventory?

In a previous article in Heritage (August 1994, “Starting an Estate Jewelry Department”), I reviewed several ways to obtain inventory. They include estate jewelry suppliers, customers, flea markets, pawn shops, estate settle-ments and commis-sion pieces. In all circumstances, add a piece based only on how it fits your standards for quality of manufacture, consistency with characteristics of a given period, general availability of similar pieces and special issues of provenance (the item’s history; see photo 1).

Sometimes a jeweler who’s just beginning to buy estate jewelry puzzles about how to handle the piece of a current customer who will continue to do business with the store. But jewelers frequently find little crossover between those who want to sell you estate jewelry and those who want to buy it from you.

When someone brings you estate jewelry, try to make an offer on it even if you don’t plan to put it in your show case. There are other ways to turn a profit, including selling it to a reputable estate supplier. You might be tempted to break up the piece, but check with an estate jewelry supplier first. That somewhat interesting center stone may be far more valuable if left in the original mounting. In estate jewelry, the value of the sum of the piece is often greater than the value of its component parts (see photo 4).

How should you train your staff to sell estate jewelry?

Sales associates who are effective with estate jewelry sales should be personable and willing to learn about the product. They should be excited about the uniqueness of each piece and enthusiastic about the added value of history. While more and more of today’s jewelry is sold as a so-called “commodity,” illusion and romance still matter with estate jewelry.

Many reputable estate suppliers will come to your store to train sales associates, especially if you develop a reputation of buying from and selling to them.

The estate supplier can help you to communicate to your staff the value of offering estate jewelry. And they can help your staff become familiar and comfortable with different periods, their characteristic design and materials, and their lore. One service we offer, for example, is training your staff to help customers clarify their expectations regarding estate jewelry.

I appreciate the value of gemological knowledge and encourage sales associates to set a goal to obtain gemological knowledge. However, the absence of such formal training shouldn’t limit a sales associate from closing an estate jewelry sale.

Beyond taking gemological courses, self-directed study is very important in building an under-standing of estate pieces. (See accompanying list of publications that will help to establish an understanding of key periods and designers. These books may be available for purchase through the Gemological Institute of America Bookstore and other industry resource houses.)

Sales associates also will benefit from attending estate jewelry shows and sitting in on auctions to study catalogs and hammer prices.

It’s important for the sales associate to understand customer attitudes, as well as their buying and selling habits. This understanding ultimately will help the associate because those who buy estate jewelry once are likely to buy it again.

Enthusiastic, well-trained sales associates are one of your most effective marketing tools. Help them to develop even more selling confidence while they help you to market your estate jewelry department. Encourage or require them to make civic presentations to women’s clubs, service organizations and other small-group meetings in your community. They will strengthen their knowledge as they prepare and teach, and they’ll generate interest in your estate jewelry department.

How will you service your estate department?

By its very nature, estate jewelry requires some special handling. Whether you focus on antique jewelry, estate jewelry or both, it will most likely show evidence of wear.

Repairs and restoration allow you to return the piece to its wearable condition. Your in-house repair department may plan to modify mountings, secure clasps and repair worn areas. And in most cases, you will want to clean the item, particularly if there’s obvious grime from the previous owner. While an interesting connection has been established between the new owner and the jewel’s past, the new owner will likely wish to wear a jewel with somewhat less of a connection to its previous owner!

However, be sure to check with an estate supplier before modifying (or even cleaning) a piece to avoid turning jewelry with a past into something with no future.

All of this points to developing a relationship with bench jewelers who can handle the intricacies of repairing pieces by hand without doing damage (see photo 5). Your estate supplier may help you to develop these contacts. If you send out estate pieces for repairs, you want to be sure the chosen jobber won’t destroy it. Good turn-around time and quality work are essential also.

You’ll also need to develop relationships with a lapidary who can cut colored gems to your specifications and with diamond houses that supply Old European-cut diamonds. Historically inaccurate melee can ruin the look of a piece &endash; for example, if a modern cut is used to replace a rose cut.

It’s especially important for your own protection to realize some estate pieces have synthetic or simulant materials. Test gems before offering them for sale to today’s litigious public. Remember that as long as there have been gems, there also have been substitutes. Know what you have in inventory before you sell it, and disclose the pertinent gemological facts about each piece.

And if you specialize in estate jewelry, expect more requests for appraisals. The field of jewelry appraisals is experiencing explosive growth.But you must not write appraisals unless you are qualified to do so. Either commit to developing professional appraisal skills or find professional appraisers who will accept your referral work.

How does an effectively marketed estate department fit your overall business?

A new estate jewelry department may attract new customers to your store. But it’s important to point out that it’s not a panacea &endash; it won’t rescue a business having a tough time. How, then, can a well-marketed estate jewelry department build profits:

· Mark-up. When you buy inventory from estate jewelry suppliers, you should be able to get at least the mark-up you average in your store. If you can buy off the street (and you will have more opportunity to do so if you market your estate jewelry department), the markup percentage can be significantly greater than in other departments.

· Turnover. Estate jewelry often turns faster than other jewelry for two reasons. First, customers attracted to unique pieces understand you can’t just reorder them. Second, you can obtain a rapid return on your investment by selling directly to the trade, by scrapping the estate jewelry for gold or by recutting stones to stock your inventory.

Now that you’ve built your estate jewelry department, here’s a final word of advice. Get excited about the added depth and dimension that estate jewelry brings to your store. Tell all your customers about it. Get them involved with the excitement of jewels with heritage. Before you know it, your “new” estate department will become an established fact in your community.

First-time North American Serial Rights; ©1995 Mark Ebert


(Note: some books listed are out-of-print, but may be obtained through specialty book finders.)

Armstrong, Nancy. Victorian Jewelry. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976.

Art Nouveau Jewelry. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1985.

Becker, Vivienne. Antique and Twentieth Century Jewellery. Colchester, Essex: N.A.G. Press, 1980.

Egger, Gerhart. Generations of Jewelry. West Chester, Pa.: Dorrance & Co., 1984.

Flower, Margaret. Victorian Jewellery. London: Cassell & Co., 1951.

Jewelry of the 1940s and 1950s. New York: Rizzoli, 1988.

Poynder, Michael. Price Guide to Jewellery. London: Antique Collectors Club, 1976.

Proddow, Penny, Debra Healy and David Behl. American Jewelry: Glamour and Tradition. New York: Rizzoli, 1987.

Raulet, Sylvie. Art Deco Jewelry. New York: Rizzoli, 1985.

Sataloff, Joseph. Art Nouveau Jewelry. Bryn Mawr, Pa.: Dorrance & Co., 1984.

Schiffer, Nancy N. Handbook of Fine Jewelry. West Chester, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1991.

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