Pearls of Wisdom

Sales tips from retailers who know how to keep those lustrous organic gems moving

Nationwide, pearl jewelry accounts for just 2 percent of retailers’ total sales, according to the Jewelers of America 2011 Cost of Doing Business Survey, reflecting a truism in the market: Pearls may be pretty, but they’re not an easy sell. Even Tiffany & Co. couldn’t make them a mainstay: The company closed its pearl-only Iridesse chain in 2009 after five years, citing a lack of consumer support. Yet plenty of independent jewelers know the secrets to selling pearls. Here are just a few of their tricks.

Romance the Pearl’s Unique Selling Proposition. Understanding what sets pearls apart from other jewelry helps instill a passion for the product among retailers and customers. “The pearl is the only gemstone that comes from nature ready to wear,” says Greg Fakiér, owner of Fakiér Jewelers in Houma, La. “No other gemstone has that bragging right.” Plus, knowing about a pearl’s origins can help reinforce its uniqueness: The Japanese akoya keshi pearl is a “happy accident,” says Emilly Brooke Rubin, owner of Emilly Brooke Rubin Jewelry Design in Nantucket, Mass., of the pearls that form as a by-product of the akoya culturing process. Rubin sources keshi from Portland, Maine’s Pearl Exporting Co., and pairs them in bohemian styles with opals and tumbled sapphires on leather. “Every single one is different and sexy—like the women who wear them,” she says.

Understand the Different Varieties. Quality and price vary widely among pearls, and articulating this to consumers is key. John Mays, president of John Mays Jewelers in Fort Smith, Ark., prefers selling top-quality South Sea and Tahitian pearls with deeper colors, larger sizes, and relatively blemish-free surfaces. “It’s a personal preference, and I need to know the differences in order to ask for higher prices,” he says. The foundation for Mays’ success? Gemological Institute of America training: “Everybody in our store has a GIA degree. If you want to sell the big pieces, you better have the education to back up the sale.”

Tara Vana necklace in silver with Tahitian pearls; $950; Tahizea, Calabasas, Calif.; 818-917-1246;

Stock a Great Selection. Of course, diversity is in the eye of the beholder. For Fakiér, a great selection includes plenty of entry price points. “I sell Honora box sets of five different pairs of colored freshwater pearl earrings for $99,” he says. “And Anatoli has pearl and colored stone pieces in silver for young people, which are priced from $150 to $300.” At Craig’s Fine Jewelry in Ridgefield, Conn., a desirable display involves fashion-forward mixes such as 36-inch layerable gold and pearl necklaces from Mastoloni for $2,600–$6,000 retail. “I think people are more casual, and the funkier styles with more versatility sell best,” says vice president Laura Verses. Craig’s boasts 14 feet of cases containing pearl jewelry—one reason the category accounts for 11 percent of total store sales.

Be Creative With Displays. In Mays’ shop, fiber-optic and quartz lighting—plus traditional cases as well as pedestals and towers to hold pricier pieces—earn his pearl merchandise lots of attention. He doesn’t overlook elements like display colors (he prefers gray); it’s those details, he says, that help him move high-ticket items—for example, the $20,000 18k black rhodium-plated earrings with 13 mm golden South Sea pearls and 4 cts. t.w. brown diamonds recently sold to a longtime client. (The 2011 Spectrum Award winners came from Baggins Pearls, a trusted supplier. “I sell Baggins, Gellner, and pieces from Steven Kretchmer,” Mays says. “I don’t have many pearl vendors—I just support the ones who are good for me.”)

Other retailers go heavy on photography to promote products. Henry’s Landmark Jewelers in Cape May and Ocean City, N.J., features duratran scenes of Tahiti in windows and cases to get customers in the mood to buy Tahizea silver and Tahitian pearl jewelry. With the help of vivid imagery, the romance of the pearl “bleeds into conversations with customers,” says manager and designer Scott Thomas.

Dress Your Staff in Pearls. How can clients be excited about a product if you’re not? “I look like a Mr. T with a uniform of pearls every day,” jokes Rubin. She received her first pearls—a double strand of Mikimoto 9 mm akoyas—at age 16, but stopped wearing them when she tired of their plain appearance. Two years ago, she drilled bigger holes in them and strung them on leather. “Now I wear them, and I encourage my customers to do the same with the Mikimoto strands they have locked in a safe,” she says. “You can wear them with a T-shirt and jeans. Pearls’ status in jewelry is very different now.”

Japanese akoya saltwater keshi pearls with 12 cts. t.w. sapphires and 18k white gold clasp; $5,000; Pearl Exporting Co., Portland, Maine; 866-673-2757;

Robin Koeshall, owner of Paul Gross Jewelers in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., also likes to look the part. “We wear them a lot in the store—I think that makes all the difference,” says Koeshall, who favors a Tahitian pearl and gold bracelet and a necklace of light, natural-colored freshwater baroques. The store sells colored freshwater strands from Imperial, and hosts an annual tropics-themed pearl event where guests receive 26-inch strands meant to resemble floral leis.

Show Clients That Pearls Are Youthful. Pearls and fashion go hand in hand according to those who sell them the best. “Pearls go with everything,” says Craig’s Fine Jewelry president Bill Craig. “It’s not just the classic strand that sells nowadays.”

14k gold earrings with Japanese keshi and sapphires; $800; Misha of New York, New York City; 212-997-7641;

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than at Fakier’s store, which sells Misha of New York’s gold and silver wire-wrapped and woven styles featuring baroque freshwaters with gemstone accents drilled into them for as little as $400.

Koeshall’s trendy offerings—pearls with silver and onyx beads—further prove that “it’s not just that classic strand of white pearls available anymore,” she says. Adds Verses: “People have to realize that the pearl jewelry we can wear every day now breaks the mold of that old-fashioned look.”

That’s exactly the point Thomas wanted to make when he brought Tahizea into Henry’s Landmark Jewelers two years ago. The owners warned Thomas that the sterling line—featuring spiked motifs and hairpieces—wouldn’t sell, but allowed him to place an order for 20 pieces at JCK Las Vegas that year. The shipment arrived in mid-June, and by the end of July, he had placed five reorders. “Most think of pearls as a strand with no art to it,” says Thomas. “But that’s one of the things that Tahizea does so well; it creates art within a category where people have a very bland image of the product.”

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