UpFront

IJO PURCHASED BY MEMBER JEWELER

Richard S. Swetz, 60, purchased the Independent Jewelers Organization (IJO) for an undisclosed sum on Feb. 18. Swetz made a cash purchase of the organization, which is said to be the world’s largest jewelry buying group with annual purchases estimated at more than $56 million.

Jeffrey M. Roberts, 40, will continue to serve as president and CEO of the group, which also provides marketing support and education services for its membership.

This news was announced at an IJO semi-annual meeting in Palm Springs, Calif., that attracted an estimated 1,300 people, including jewelers, their families and jewelry suppliers.

Swetz, who lives in Wayne, N.J., recently sold Chandel Jewelers in Midland Park, N.J., which he had owned for 20 years. He also sold his 50% ownership stake in three other independent jewelry stores. Under his management, Chandel’s annual revenues reportedly grew from $100,000 to over $1.6 million. Previously, Swetz spent two decades with Tappin’s Inc., working his way up from stock boy to vice president and general merchandise manager. The Cedar Grove, N.J.-based company then had 38 stores.

Asked about his plans for IJO, Swetz said, “I will be very slow in making changes at IJO, but I will not be afraid to make them when necessary.” He plans to work full time as owner of IJO for at least the next year. One goal is to increase the group’s membership from 800 independent jewelry stores to 1,000 by the year 2000.

Strengthening IJO’s educational programs is another top priority, based on input from members. IJO used electronic voting technology for the first time in Palm Springs. This provided instant feedback about the effectiveness of IJO programs and useful data about the group’s demographic make-up.

“Our goal is to educate jewelers to make them wiser and richer so that they’re doing more than just meeting basic needs,” says Swetz. “We’ll continue to have a buying room, but we must educate our members so they can properly use it.”

Swetz has been active in IJO for decades as a member and a workshop leader. He most recently served as a paid consultant to the organization’s store visit program.

William F. Roberts Jr., 73, who founded IJO in 1971, had expected to sell the organization in mid-1996. He even spent $130,000 for a retirement party at Toronto’s Casa Loma mansion. But that deal fell through.

As part of the new purchase agreement, Jeff Roberts, Bill Roberts’ son, was designated to succeed Swetz as owner of the organization. “Jeff is doing a marvelous job,” says Swetz. “He’s next in line.”

IJO has a 10-person full-time staff that is expected to remain in place. One addition is a new marketing director, Maureen Anderson. – Jessica Stein Diamond

CHRISTIE’S TO SELL ‘CONTRABAND’ GEMS

A $500,000 collection of colored diamonds seized from a convicted drug dealer by the U.S. government will go on the block at Christie’s April 7 magnificent jewelry auction in New York.

The diamonds were confiscated by the U.S. Customs Service in 1995 after the unnamed Tampa, Fla.-area drug dealer was convicted in a Florida Federal Court of importing and distributing narcotics.

The collection includes 15 unmounted fancy intense purple-pink diamonds, ranging from 0.41 ct. to 2.21 cts.; a 3.04-ct. fancy intense blue diamond; a 1.12-ct. fancy vivid yellow diamond; and a ring with an approximately 2.5-ct. fancy intense pink diamond surrounded by small round cut fancy intense yellow diamonds.

Christie’s New York jewelry director Simon Teakle says initial pre-sale estimates ranging from $15,000 to $50,000 per stone were intentionally “very conservative.”

“This is the first time that the U.S. Customs Service has sold such a collection of diamonds through a major auction house like Christie’s,” says Kristina Messner, spokeswoman for EG&G Services of Fairfax, Va., which administers the Customs Service sales.

The Customs Service chose Christie’s “because in our market research into colored diamonds, we found that they had to be offered in a special environment,” says Messner. “Christie’s had very good contacts with that market.”

Customs has auctioned some $20 million worth of goods – including jewelry and gems – for the Asset Forfeiture Fund in the five years since it began seizing and selling assets of convicted drug dealers. “Jewelry is a popular way of laundering money,” says Messner, adding that most jewelry auctions are conducted by Larry Latham Auctions of Indianapolis, Ind.

This group of diamonds was seized in 1995 as part of a plea arrangement, Messner explains. “The dealer purchased these diamonds with drug money. He was a gem collector, but his primary business was narcotics.”

The proceeds of this and other sales go toward education and law enforcement programs to help slow the drug trade.

BURTON HALPERN DIES; PROMOTED ISRAEL TRADE

Burton Halpern, a public relations specialist who represented the Israel Diamond Institute for 34 years, died Feb. 10 after a long illness. He was 69. Moshe Schnitzer, chairman of the Institute, credited Halpern as “the man who put the Israel diamond industry on the world map.”

In addition to the Israel Diamond Institute, Burton Halpern’s roster included such Israeli clients as Koor and Rav Bariach, Bank Leumi, the First International Bank and Bank Hapoalim, which he represented for over a decade. He also worked for the Ministry of Tourism, the Haifa Tourism Development Association and the Diplomat Hotels.

Halpern was a journalism graduate of Syracuse University and later was editor of a New York State weekly newspaper, served as a U.S. Army PR specialist in the Panama Canal Zone and was editorial director of the Public Relations Management Corp. and partner in Freeman-Halpern Associates in New York. He authored Tell it to the World, a book on public relations. He is survived by two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.

JEWELRY AUCTION SALES Topped $455 MILLION IN ’97

The worldwide jewelry auction market eased a little last year after three consecutive years of hectic growth. Christie’s reported from its London office that sales totaled $455 million last year, a 5% drop from 1996. The company said its own 1997 sales of $253 million were off about 7.5% from the year before, but it remained “auctioneer of choice” as the leading seller of jewelry for the fourth year in a row.

Sales in the U.S. were hit very hard last year, dropping 23% to $74.6 million. By contrast, European sales were off 12% to $125.1 million and those in Asia were up 51% to $53.1 million.

Christie’s blamed wide publicity about colored stone treatment as well as a shortage of important diamonds for the overall drop in sales. It noted that while enhancing the beauty of gemstones has been around for many centuries, “new techniques have emerged which have driven the process to more dangerous levels.”

In 1997, Christie’s was the first auction house to disclose treatments publicly, including special explanatory notes in all its catalogs warning buyers of possible treatments.

In spite of its financial difficulties, the Asian market showed remarkable growth in 1997 for Christie’s. Its business in Hong Kong included a jadeite necklace which sold for $9.4 million in November, making it the most expensive jewel sold in any auction throughout the world in the past two years.

In other jewelry auction news, Sotheby’s announced that it will sell the Thyssen Meissonnier Tureen, property of the Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon Family Trust, during its Impressionist sale on May 13. The item, one of a pair designed by Juste-Aurele Meissonnier and executed in Paris between 1735 and 1740, is expected to bring more than $8 million.

“The Meissonnier tureens are the most exciting pieces of silver in the history of Western decorative arts,” said Kevin Tierney, head of Sotheby’s New York silver department.

GOLD JEWELRY SALES HIT RECORD IN 1997

Gold jewelry sales reached a record $11.6 billion in the U.S. last year. The total was up only 2.8% from 1996, largely because many catalog showrooms closed in the first half of the year, the World Gold Council reported. However, sales in the final quarter totaled $5.1 billion, up 6% in dollar value and 6.1% in units from the previous year.

“The increase in female self-purchase, gold jewelry wardrobing and the continued importance of gold in the gifting category have contributed to the positive demand trend for six consecutive years,” said Robin Scheer Ettinger, vice president of jewelry, the Americas, for the council.

Department stores showed the largest gains in last year’s final quarter, with gold jewelry dollar sales up 12.3% from a year earlier. Chain jewelers reported gains of 5.6%, while discount stores/catalog showrooms were up 4.1%. Independent jewelers’ sales increased by only 2.5%.

Earrings had the greatest sales growth, with full-year dollar sales up 8.4% and fourth-quarter sales up 10.1%.

JIC GIVES A BOOST TO VALENTINE’S SALES

Valentine’s Day is an increasingly important gift occasion, say many jewelers, and the Jewelry Information Center gave their sales a big boost this year with a new video news release. JIC estimates that between 17 and 18 million consumers saw “Messages from the Heart” before Feb. 14.

The two-minute video includes a short history of Valentine’s Day and features diamonds, colored stones, pearls, gold and platinum jewelry – all suitable gift items. The video, co-sponsored by a perfume company, was released to 100 top U.S. television stations and picked up by several major news services.

In further support of Valentine’s Day, JIC president Lynn Ramsey reached an estimated three million viewers of CNN when she discussed the significance of diamond engagement rings. JIC also released a story to 10,000 newspapers.