The State of Estate

Last year was a tough one for the United States. Americans continue to bite their nails over the struggling economy, the threat of terrorism, and the specter of war with Iraq. Amid all this anxiety, is there a place in the public consciousness for antique and estate jewelry? We asked wholesalers and retailers who specialize in that niche, and their response was favorable: Antique and estate jewelry enjoy steady popularity, they report.

“There still is an active market out there of people looking for nice things, so we’re not feeling that the market has fallen like the stock market,” says Michael Kazanjian of Kazanjian & Fogarty Inc., Los Angeles. He believes there is a more-value-for-the-money perception of antique and estate jewelry, which benefits the market in tough times: “This type of an economic climate gives people a greater inducement to be more careful in their buying decisions, which I think works in favor of estate jewelry.”

But is there enough consumer interest in antique and estate jewelry for an independent retail jeweler to benefit from offering a selection of vintage pieces? It all depends on location—some areas and towns are more appreciative of antique and estate jewelry than others. “We’ve tried [a permanent case] and it didn’t work,” says Fred Couch of Couch’s Jewelers, with stores in Anniston, Gadsden, and Oxford, Ala. “I think certain markets can support it, like Savannah or Charleston—places that have a high population or get a lot of tourism. I’ve got a friend living in Savannah that does have a year-round case, and he does well with it.”

Testing the market. Couch’s satisfies the antique and estate jewelry aficionados in his area by holding trunk shows—which can serve as an excellent gauge of a local market. Both Couch’s Jewelers and Koser’s Jewelers in Mount Joy, Pa., have enjoyed success with trunk shows: Koser’s holds an estate jewelry trunk show once a year on Black Friday, and Couch’s holds two or three estate shows a year at its Anniston location.

Both Couch and Randy Wolgemuth of Koser’s say their trunk shows attract curious onlookers as well as a small population of devoted vintage-jewelry collectors. Also, each store has seen cross-sales of antique/estate and contemporary jewelry during the shows, as customers who were drawn in for the estate sale wound up buying a modern piece, and vice versa. “A lot of our biggest sales have come from people who weren’t necessarily intending to buy estate jewelry, but they happened to be in the store shopping for other things, so they bought,” says Wolgemuth.

Both companies use the services of Stephen Singer Inc., a New York-based antique and estate jewelry company that specializes in trunk shows. “They have a really good program that they have coordinated with audiotapes that train your people what to expect of [the pieces] coming in,” says Couch. “And they have a continuous loop [videotape] that you can put on a little TV on your counter or in your window. People passing by are always fascinated by that.”

Michael Kazanjian agrees that trunk shows are an effective way for a retailer to test the local market, but he believes retailers should be open to taking the next step. “Once they see that it works, I think they’re making a mistake by not having an ongoing representative case of interesting pieces they uncover,” he says.

Stocking antique and estate jewelry year-round requires a good deal of homework. Retailers must take the time to educate themselves and then be prepared to scout out pieces or form a relationship with a reputable antique and estate jewelry dealer who can provide them with revolving stock.

Keeping fresh stock is crucial. “The problem is that the customer who comes in a lot likes to see different things,” says Camilla Dietz Bergeron, an antique and estate jewelry retailer based in New York City. “If you can’t devote a good part of the budget, or if you don’t have that high a turnover, they come in and see the same things over and over.”

Kazanjian, however, is a strong advocate of the continuous-stock concept, advising jewelers to work with their own customers. “I encourage every retailer I work with, even if they’re small, to start with a case and take things in on consignment from some of their clients that may have pieces they wish to sell,” he says. “I think jewelers don’t realize that there is an independent market out there for estate jewelry. One reason Sotheby’s and Christie’s have done so well over the years is that they’ve tapped into that market of people who are looking for a pre-owned piece. I think jewelers have a profit center that they could really gain by considering a small case of estate jewelry. … It can certainly open up an additional market that they may be losing to the auction houses.”

Monkey see, monkey … don’t? Most of the dealers and retailers we interviewed believe that outside influences—such as today’s estate-jewelry-bedecked actresses and vintage-inspired fashions—do not influence antique and estate jewelry sales. Fashion and celebrity coverage can boost the image of vintage jewelry to the masses and bring in new and curious customers, but actual sales are a matter of personal preference. There is a broad range of consumers interested in antique and estate jewelry—from collectors who specialize in a particular house or designer, to aficionados of a certain period, to people who walk in off the street and fall in love with a piece—but the consensus is that consumers know what they love and will buy it no matter what pop culture dictates.

“I would say that most of the people who buy from us are educated, and they know what they want,” says Madison Avenue antique jewelry dealer Janet Mavec. “Fashion is just not an issue.”

Camilla Bergeron agrees. “Our customer does not like dainty Victorian,” she says of the jewelry styles that accompany current clothing fashions. Her market is not interested in that look, and neither is she. “I don’t like it particularly myself, so we don’t really buy it. We don’t change what we buy because of trends; we buy it because of what we think is right [for our market]. Hopefully [the customer] will appreciate that and like it—and so far, so good.”

The level of consumer education varies drastically. “I would say over 75% do know what they’re looking at,” says Jacob Gipsman of Jacob’s Diamond and Estate Jewelry in Los Angeles. “And then some people are not that concerned. We tell them what it is, but they’re not always that concerned.”

For others the percentage is lower—Wolgemuth estimates that only about 20% of his estate trunk show customers are educated shoppers. “Most of them are just coming in because they’ve heard that estate jewelry is beautiful, and it’s neat, and it’s different.”

Knowledgeable or not, there’s a vast range of personal tastes, says Janet Levy of the New York-based J. & S.S. DeYoung—and that range leaves room for all. “It’s still a very good, strong industry,” she says, “because you’re dealing with something that’s limited in supply, and there are enough collectors and enough interest in these pieces that the market has really been pretty steady.”

The bottom line? “People who like estate want more of it and will keep buying it,” says Gipsman.

Old favorites. Recent years have seen antique and estate engagement rings gain popularity, and dealers agree that they are in the greatest demand right now. “There have maybe been some more marriages since Sept. 11—you know, people just deciding ‘Hey, let’s do it,’ ” says Bergeron. “And I think some people who have been battered in the market just think they’d rather buy a pretty diamond ring than put [their money] in the market.”

Michael McTeigue of New York’s McTeigue Associates Inc. agrees. “Everybody’s selling cushions now, and that is further measure of estate coming into its own,” he says. The style—an Edwardian or Art Deco mounting with a cushion- or Asscher-cut stone—has become an everyday, commonly requested engagement ring style, whereas “eight years ago, nobody was wearing cushions,” he says.

McTeigue looks for three factors when searching for antique engagement rings: beautiful design, beautiful manufacture, and beautiful stones. “If those three things are good, and then if you can find one that’s not worn out by wear, or even pristine—that’s almost a collector’s item,” he says.

The finite number of available pieces that fit those qualifications presents a problem for dealers. “The calls are there, but to have what they want is a hard thing,” says Gipsman. “It’s very hard to find original engagement rings.” To meet demand, many dealers and retailers compromise by setting old stones in some of the quality antique reproduction mountings available today.

Demand exceeds availability. The dwindling amount of available quality antique and estate jewelry extends beyond engagement rings. “I’ve been doing estate jewelry for 25 years, and when I remember what it was like 15, 20 years ago … there was a very small market that really chased it, and so much vintage was available—purchased through estates or at auction or between dealers,” says Martin Katz, a Los Angeles-based antique and estate jeweler. “When you see what’s available today, it’s virtually nonexistent.”

Heightened consumer awareness of the value of antiques—brought on by the eBay phenomenon and television shows like The Antiques Roadshow—has resulted in fewer goods reaching the market. Katz, who provides many celebrity clients with jewelry for awards shows and charity affairs, also admits responsibility. “I know that I had a hand in some of the popularity—I was the first one to put celebrities in vintage jewelry around six, seven years ago, with Kate Winslet and Sandra Bullock. After that, the vintage craze took off in the celebrity clientele.”

“Fine goods have been in demand forever and they’re more in demand than ever,” says McTeigue. Kazanjian agrees: “There are a lot more people collecting than ever before … so I think that’s every jeweler’s struggle—to find the great stuff.”

Ironically, today’s shaky economy may help to release new goods onto the antique and estate jewelry market. “We’ve seen opportunities to make purchases that we probably would not have made in a healthier economic scenario,” says Kazanjian. “I think there has been some shifting wealth, and when that happens … there are more chances to buy jewelry. I think [people are] more inclined to let something go because they can use that money for something else.”

Janet Levy also has come across more buying opportunities this year. “Of course you can never get enough of what you really want, like signed Cartier pieces from the 1920s, that kind of thing,” she says. “But in this last year, we’ve seen a lot of goods coming onto the market. I think there’s a group of people that inherited something … and said, ‘Ahh, I don’t wear this,’ [and decided to sell].”

Smaller, often less-expensive pieces are still plentiful, however, and these items can be starter pieces for customers new to antique and estate jewelry. They also can help build a relationship with the dealer or retailer. Camilla Bergeron maintains a plentiful stock of affordable gold earrings—”below $600 if I can”—because they serve as excellent add-on purchases.

Well-chosen stock and accessible prices are keys to success, she says. “Our business has been very strong. … The thing that I think serves us well is that we have a very broad price range, from $250 cufflinks to a $250,000 ring. I think it is less threatening to the customer when they know they can find something sort of reasonably priced, as well as the more expensive stuff.”

Homework assignment. Before making any moves—no matter how small—toward a focus on antique and estate jewelry, lay the groundwork, Martin Katz advises. “I think there are enough goods out there for mom and pops, provided they really want to do their homework,” he says. “Spend a year doing their homework—looking, pricing, checking, doing—and educate themselves.”

For those tempted to climb aboard, the antique and estate jewelry business can be both exciting and informative. “For those of us that do it,” says Levy, “I don’t think we could imagine doing anything else.”