Open Hearts and Diamond Necklaces

For the record, it was a coincidence that both Mark Smelzer and I wrote about Facebook on our pages last month. Honest, we didn’t plan it that way!

But the fact that we each chose the topic says something. It not only underscores the effectiveness of the Internet as a means of messaging but also reminds us of the importance of community. Rather than surrender to a hurried and harried era that provides little time to participate in community organizations, people have found new ways to connect, proving again that man is a social animal. The need for emotional connection—and ways to express it—has seen us through tough times before and will see us through tough times now.

The sixth annual Women in the Know conference in New York, presented by the Women’s Jewelry Association, drove home the relationship between jewelry, emotion, and connections. Naturally, the conferences are designed primarily as educational and networking events, but this year the feel-good factor predominated.

The keynote address was given by actress and artist Jane Seymour, the designer and face of the Open Hearts collection for Sterling’s Kay and Jared divisions.

“Jewelry is not just gold or diamonds. It’s an emotional response,” she said. “It’s the pieces my mother or grandmother wore. It’s the piece given as a promise. It’s the piece given to say ‘I love you.’ It’s the piece a woman buys for herself if she’s feeling down or if she’s celebrating. It’s one of those things in life that’s iconic; that goes on forever.”

The Open Hearts jewelry evolved from Seymour’s Open Hearts series of paintings, which were inspired by her mother, Mieke Frankenberg, who, despite near-starvation in a Japanese internment camp in World War II, always emphasized the importance of helping others even at the bleakest moments.

“My mother always said, ‘If you think life is insurmountable and times are tough, go help someone else. It takes you out of yourself and it helps you,'” said Seymour. “My Open Hearts paintings and jewelry are subliminal reminders of her message: that even though your heart may be broken, if you close it off you don’t let the negativity out, and then you can’t let new love in.” Seymour wears an open heart necklace as a talisman and remembrance of her mother.

The luncheon speakers—all 13 of them—also proved that jewelry is more than the sum of its materials. Jewelry is friendship, personal growth, healing, a bond, self-affirmation, a lifeline, love, and, occasionally, just plain gorgeous fun. The speakers were the women featured in the touching tale of The Necklace: Thirteen Women and the Experiment That Transformed Their Lives, by Cheryl Jarvis.

The book relates how the women each chipped in to buy a timeshare in a diamond necklace. But the emotions that necklace unlocks, the bonds of sisterhood it forges, and the power it has had in doing good for others through the owners’ fund-raising efforts, would silence even the most ardent anti-consumerist critic. And the compelling stories of the 13 women who own shares of “Jewelia” (the punning name honors the late chef Julia Child) were enough to remind even the most recession battered just what we sell and what our product has the power to do.

The first speaker was the driver behind the experiment, real-estate agent Jonell McClain. Four years ago she went to the Pacific View Mall in Ventura, Calif., to treat herself after an arduous closing. In the window of Van Gundy & Sons—a high-end, family-owned jeweler—was a stunning 15.24 ct. diamond riviere necklace. At $37,000 it wasn’t on McLain’s short list of treats, but she went inside and tried it on anyway.

A few weeks later, after the price had been reduced and Van Gundy’s announced it was taking silent bids on display pieces, McClain got the idea to assemble a group of friends to chip in for the piece and take turns wearing it. Jeweler Tom Van Gundy was intrigued and agreed to sell it to the women for their bid price on the condition that his wife, Priscilla, be part of the group.

Priscilla’s story had the WJA audience laughing at her first reaction to Tom’s idea. (“You want me to do what? And sell it for how much?”) It was then, she said, that she realized Tom had “jumped the counter and become the customer,” because all he wanted was to make her happy. Although she could have borrowed any item in the store at any time, the powerful friendships she forged with the other 12 women through this necklace helped her heal after losing her beloved sister to cancer.

These aren’t easy times. And this isn’t an easy industry to be in during hard times. Yes, jewelry can be considered a “nonessential.” But the need to give to others and express emotion is essential—that’s what we need to remember, to hold onto, and to sell.