“Thanks, But I’ll Do It Myself!” The Case For Custom Design

Traditional lines between who makes jewelry and who sells it are becoming increasingly blurred. More jewelry manufacturers are opening retail stores, while more retailers are making at least some of the jewelry they sell. Indeed, 90% of JCK Retail Jeweler Panelists recently reported doing some custom design work, with more than half saying they’ve dramatically increased the amount they make in the past five years.

Obviously, custom jewelry design is a market with potential. Who does it? The “usual suspects,” of course, including quality independents and custom goldsmiths. But chain stores and even upscale specialty stores such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus offer custom design services, too.

One reason lies in the consumer demographics, which remain fairly constant across the country for all types of stores. The custom design customer tends to be professional, established in her career, reasonably affluent, educated, in her mid-30s to mid-50s ­ and definitely female. This is a big market for female self-purchase. Even when men turn to custom design for gifts, the women they’re buying for usually have a lot to say about the purchase.

“When guys come in ­ and these are successful men ­ they start shaking!” laughs Chai Mann of Fox’s Gem Shop in Seattle, Wash. “They have a girlfriend or wife they’d love to surprise, but they’re afraid she won’t like it and that would hurt their egos!” (We’re glad he said it and we didn’t!)

Frank Yanke, a custom goldsmith in Franklin, Mich., often solves this problem by selling a loose stone, then making a cute package with some casting grains. He tells the man to come back with his wife to have the design made.

Bridal customers are another big and growing market for custom design. These couples are younger than non-bridal customers (usually in their late 20s to early 30s) or are embark-ing on second marriages. Mann says many late-twenty-something customers (“Generation X” in demo-speak) will spend $5,000 to $7,000 for custom bridal jewelry. They’re educated and have done their diamond homework before coming in. They check out places they expect to get a bargain such as QVC or promotional stores, then go to Fox’s to see “what diamonds really look like.” When they see their supposed “bargain” stores are no bargain, and a supposedly “expensive” store like Fox’s offers better value and custom service, they stay, he says.

“You’re taking a special engagement ring and making it even more special,” says Mark Moeller of R. F. Moeller Jeweler. “You can’t lose a sale!” Though his Minneapolis-area stores stock 300 different bridal sets, custom design still is a significant part of his bridal business.

This also is a female-driven market, he says. “It flies in the face of what De Beers says about men being emotional and women being practical during the engagement ring purchase. This is usually a mutual decision.”

Finding the customers: In researching the market for custom design, JCK found that many buyers are first-timers. They’re often looking for bridal rings and are attracted by the store’s reputation. Most become repeat customers, both for more custom work and for regular purchases from stock.

Jewelers who’ve seen dramatic increases in custom design business over the past few years cite three chief reasons:

  • They’ve advertised or promoted it more;

  • They’ve added a designer or staff to help them do it;

  • They’ve benefited from increasing word of mouth.

Tom Tinney of Tom’s Jewelry in Tallahassee, Fla., boosted advertising because, he says, “Custom design gives me the tools to compete with the discounters and the ‘me-too’ mall stores.”

“Lots of people have taste and money,” says Frank Yanke. “They go to traditional stores and buy traditional pieces and they can say they bought it at so-and-so and everyone will recognize the name. But if they came in here, they’d have so much more fun! They’d enjoy my pieces, if I could get them in the door. I’ve got to find them, and I’ve been working on finding them.”

Adds Mark Moeller, “Upscale customers want something unique. You can’t ignore it. And you can’t ignore the customers who will be your upscale customers in 10 years!”

Nordstrom promotes custom design through word of mouth and salesperson suggestion. Patricia Kayne, manager of the fine jewelry salon in the firm’s new store in King of Prussia, Pa., says, “If we don’t tell the customers we do it, they don’t know.”

Houston-based Cherryll Walzel agrees. She’s seen custom design increase tremendously over the past five years because she’s gone after it; 60% of that business starts with salesperson suggestion, with only 40% customer-initiated.

But JCK found that customers do initiate the custom design process in many stores. These jewelers don’t discourage custom work, but would prefer to turn over their own stock.

“We have 6,000 pieces of inventory,” says Chai Mann. “Of course, we’re going to try to sell from our inventory. But when customers see pieces and start saying ‘I want this different, and this, and this,’ of course we’re going to do it.”

Adds Marc Fink of Roanoke, Va.-based Fink’s, “Practically all of it is customer-driven. We don’t really push it, but we do have the design talent and we don’t want to stifle that.”

Even master marketer Tom Tivol of Tivol in Kansas City doesn’t aggressively push custom design. “I love this work,” he says, “and I and one or two of our salespeople will suggest it, especially for an engagement ring sale when I can see quickly that a woman isn’t finding anything she likes. But many times, when I’m struggling over a custom piece, I wonder why I don’t just try harder to sell jewelry, when there are so many fabulous, talented designers in this industry already who can make incredible jewelry.”

Making and remaking: Almost half of JCK Panel respondents say the bulk of their custom design business comes from remount work. But many jewelers feel this really shouldn’t be considered custom design ­ especially, notes New Jersey-based panelist Stephen Corbo, when it involves promotional remount companies that come to a store equipped with a selection of mountings and stone-setters to do on-the-spot work.

Though much custom work arises from customers’ desire to redesign old jewelry, there’s a big difference between creating a whole new look for Grandma’s diamond and dropping the stone into a ready-made semi-mount. Such promotions are good traffic-builders, but not true custom design. (Diamonds from an ex-husband, by the way, often get traded in rather than remounted, say jewelers.)

Some jewelers employ on-staff designers or goldsmiths. Others will do the sketch, but job some or all of the actual work out to a trade shop. Many simply have one of their vendors make up a custom piece.

Department stores follow different routes, too. Neiman Marcus is known for custom design, says buyer Timothy Braun. The firm has a workshop in Dallas, with six designer bench people who can create virtually any kind of custom design in any price range. Nordstrom works with Nanz Aalund and a few other designers to create custom commissions and its own line of jewelry. If a customer likes a certain designer’s work but doesn’t see a piece she wants in the case, then the department manager will call the designer and they’ll work together to create what the customer wants.

This kind of service is growing increasingly important in vendor-retailer relationships. Indeed, jewelers JCK interviewed name several prominent designers and manufacturers as being especially accommodating. Frequently, a customer likes a particular line, but wants a design tweak here and there or wants to use his or her own stone in a piece.

But, don’t assume all your vendors are ready to jump on the custom bandwagon, cautions Corbo. Many really don’t want to be bothered for just one piece. They might change a stone or a chain, but won’t allow major design changes.

What customers want: Typically, jewelers find that customers vaguely know what they want but have few specific details in mind. Perhaps they’ve seen a picture in a magazine or have admired a particular piece but want the look at a lower price. Most jewelers will try to design something similar (not an exact copy) that’s within the customer’s budget.

“Their thoughts about what they want to do are often predicated by my inventory,” says Cherryll Walzel. Customers get ideas by looking around her store. If they’re comfortable with the style of her merchandise, they’re generally comfortable with having a staff member suggest design ideas.

“We try to figure out their lifestyle and design for them,” she says. “We can have a designer come in for several days and just sketch until it’s right.”

Here she’s hit upon the key word for custom design – lifestyle. Virtually all jewelers JCK interviewed say their customers want jewelry they can wear all day and into the evening. Few see much demand for elaborate cocktail rings or “evening gown” jewelry.

Non-ostentatious doesn’t mean minimalist, however. Frank Yanke feels people are going out more again and they want slightly ­ emphasis on slightly ­ more elaborate jewelry than in the early ’90s when everyone was staying home.

Customers may not want to flash jewels like Ivana Trump. But jewelers say those who spend $5,000 on a ring want it to look like a $5,000 ring ­ not as if they’re embarrassed to have spent money and are pretending it cost $1,000.

Regardless of price, custom design can be a tough sell because you’re selling something that doesn’t exist. “We live in a tangible world,” says Corbo. “People like to touch something.” Many customers aren’t comfortable ordering a piece of jewelry from a rendering. In addition, the farther removed the customer is from the benchwork, the greater the chance for error. That’s why jewelers usually ask a customer to approve a piece several times during the creation process ­ especially in the wax stage, which shows dimension in a way a rendering can’t.

What happens when you think customers will love a piece and they actually hate it? Or when it comes back from the vendor or shop and you realize it may not be what the customer is expecting?

“Show it to the customer first [before sending it back]!” says Chai Mann. Ninety percent of the time, he says, they love it! (Assuming, of course, that you’re concerned about design translation, not quality of workmanship.)

“In my store, everyone can hear what’s going on between the customer and the designer,” says Yanke. “So anyone at any step of the process can say, ‘Wait, I don’t think that’s what they had in mind.'”

Corbo suggests negotiating some kind of agreement if the piece doesn’t satisfy. If he can sell the piece, he’ll just take it back and put it in the showcase. If it’s going to be a white elephant, he may ask the customer to pay a fraction of the cost to cover design time or he’ll alert the customer that this is a done deal and get their agreement first.

Patricia Kayne says Nordstrom’s famous hassle-free return policy absolutely applies to custom design. “If the customer doesn’t like it, they don’t pay for it,” she says. “It’s that simple.” But she tries to prevent bad situations. If, for example, she know it’s physically impossible to make a piece to a customer’s specifications, she’ll say so. She recalls a customer who wanted a complicated opal design with sev- eral exactly matched stones ­ all on a very tight budget. It wasn’t possible, so ultimately she turned the job down.

Finally, observes Mann, some people are paranoid. They fear a jeweler will switch a stone or underkarat the gold. Do whatever you can to set the customer’s mind at ease, he advises, but if a customer is just too paranoid, don’t do the work.

Custom styling: The consumer’s desire to own something unique, something that not every jewelry store has, drives custom design. Yet jewelers report that most customers actually want something fairly classic, although with a modern twist.

“There used to be a big push for contemporary, but now I’m seeing a real demand for classics like three-stone rings, or tapered baguettes in 18k or platinum mountings,” reports Marc Fink. His customers often update their pieces by choosing a more advanced cut, like a Radiant-cut diamond.

Mark Moeller also has seen a return to classic styles with a modern twist. He sees differences in taste between his Minneapolis-area stores. Customers in Edina are far more likely to try an unusual design than those in St. Paul, which is very staid and classic. His Minneapolis store has a strong gay/lesbian clientele. This, he says, tends to be a pretty artistic and stylish demographic group that seeks unique design.

Custom design actually is a very small part of overall volume for Tivol in Kansas City. Tom Tivol sees no point to custom-designing something which already exists. “Between Las Vegas, New York, Basel and Italy,” he says, “there’s so much talent and very little that isn’t already available.” What the store does design is somewhat avant-garde.

Custom design most often involves rings, followed by earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Brooches are less popular, but that may change as the look grows more important in finished jewelry. Rings account for most of their work, says Tivol, who prefers to leave earrings to the experts.

“Earrings are tough,” he explains. “You have to understand construction, weight, size, movement, how it lays on the ear.” He stresses ergonomics in all his custom work. He’s seen many fascinating, trend-setting designs at shows which won’t necessarily be comfortable on the body.

“We’ve made mistakes in weight and wearability,” he recalls. “Now if a customer is going in that direction, we try to diplomatically guide them away so that they can enjoy wearing the piece when it’s done.”

Most jewelers say diamond is the gem of choice for custom design. Walzell creates a lot of gold pieces. Custom goldsmith Yanke, who meets many of his customers at art shows, sells much more color than traditional stores like Fink’s or Fox’s. About 75% of his custom work is color, usually tourmaline, tanzanite, peridot and other less common gems.

Note: Future reports in this series will examine the technical and financial aspects of custom design and assess its future impact on the jewelry industry.

WHO’S DOING IT

  • 89.6% of JCK Retail Panel members who responded to a recent survey said they offer some kind of custom design service.

  • Of these, 65.1% have seen their custom design business increase in the past five years.

  • Many noted increases of more than 50%; some even saw increases of 100% or more.

  • 27.9% are doing about the same amount of custom design as five years ago

  • Only 6.9% are doing less custom work than they used to.

WHAT THEY’RE DOING

  • 48% of Panelists said the largest part of their custom design business comes from remount work.

  • 37% said the largest percentage of their custom work involves specially commissioned pieces for clients.

  • 15% said they create most custom work for their own inventory.