What’s Hot, What’s Not

Getting a Better Fix On Emerald Fillers

Jewelry is fashion, whether it’s new, modern, modern-classic, or stylized pieces from the past. To satisfy your customer, you need to know and stock what’s fashionable. What styles are selling in today’s antique and estate market? To find out, we asked retail jewelers what they feel is hot—and what’s not.

Who’s selling what. Jimmy Smith of Jimmy Smith Jewelers in Decatur, Ala., seems to be in the right place at the right time. What’s selling in Decatur? “Pieces in white gold or platinum, with filigree, are always in demand,” says Smith.

That’s the Edwardian style that everyone in the estate business seems to be buying. Edwardian is the period between 1901 and 1914, after Queen Victoria died and her son Edward VII became king of England. This period jewelry focused on diamonds set in platinum. Because of its malleability, platinum can be used in very thin wire yet have enough strength to hold the stones. The thin wire mounting doesn’t draw attention away from the stones. In fact, it looks as if there’s no mounting at all to hold the stones in place. Platinum enabled jewelers to create very delicate styles, with lacy ribbons and bows—what’s often described as embroidery in metal. Now it’s hot again.

But what was stylish a decade ago may not be fashionable today. And geography can affect the popularity of a particular style. Of course, some styles have staying power over a broad area. Says Smith, “Big diamonds, of a carat and above, are selling very well.” Come see Jimmy. He’s got plenty of diamonds.

Does the same hold true in Arizona as in Alabama? Al Molina of Molina Fine Jewelers in Phoenix would definitely agree with Smith. But he has a different perspective on what “big” means when it comes to diamond jewelry. Big diamonds, to Molina, are anything over 10 cts. And while most jewelers would give their eyeteeth to make a 10-ct. diamond sale, size is just the half of it.

“The bigger, better, quality goods sell best,” says Molina. Internally flawless, VVS, D, E, and F colors, with fine make—these are the “better-quality goods.” Molina believes the Baby Boomers in particular are looking for quality. “Commercial goods are dead,” he says. “This is a trend which we should see for the next 10 to 15 years.”

In addition to diamond solitaires, stylish period jewelry sells well for Molina. He says he can’t keep an art deco bracelet in stock. “It’s hot—very much so!” he says.

Michael Larsen of Altobelli Jewelers in North Hollywood, Calif., sees similar trends. The Edwardian and deco white metal filigree bracelets, pins, and rings are selling very well. However, “it’s a little more collector-oriented here,” says Larsen. The more educated buyers are asking specifically for a particular style, metal, or stone. So Altobelli Jewelers keeps a good inventory of estate jewelry on hand, encompassing everything “from the antique Victorian pieces to contemporary,” says Larsen.

Because the Victorian period covers such a long time span, it’s typically broken down into three different segments, each with its own style. It begins with “early,” the Romantic period from 1837 to 1860. The “mid-Victorian” period, when the jewelry seemed to copy old, even ancient, designs, went from roughly 1860 to 1885. The “late-Victorian” period comprises the late 1800s to the early 20th century. More than a century old, these pieces can properly be termed “antique.”

If customers are asking for Edwardian and deco, what aren’t they asking for? “Nuggets, ’70s jewelry, and even the ‘retro’ stuff is a little tough to sell these days,” Larsen says. Altobelli is committed to buying and selling period jewelry, and a portion of the store’s estate case consists of pieces it has purchased outright. Other pieces are on consignment—“a very heavy mix,” says Larsen.

Pass if you don’t know. If the estate jewelry market is so good for these jewelers, why don’t more jewelers enter it? One reason may be lack of knowledge. Says Larsen, “So many jewelers rely solely on their vendors for the expertise. They don’t have anyone on staff who really knows the different styles of the periods, so they leave it alone.”

Craig Underwood of Underwood’s in Fayetteville, Ark., doesn’t do much in estate jewelry, but not because he and his staff don’t know what they are looking at. On the contrary, they know all too well. “I’m sure there are some great buys, but there are a lot of skeletons, too,” says Underwood. “They’ve been repaired who-knows-where, or with what-kind-of-solder. There’s just a lot of risk.”

When you weigh the risk against the chance that it may be a valuable piece, some feel that to protect yourself, you should offer to buy estate jewelry only for scrap value. “You don’t know the integrity or history of the piece,” explains Underwood. Basically, “it’s used jewelry. And less than 10% of what you see is the really nice stuff.” If it’s not one of the 10%, and you own it, “you may be married to it for life.” Underwood would rather create one-of-a-kind pieces than worry about the integrity of an estate piece. “Today, we’re making hand-engraved, hand-chased mountings, reminiscent of the old stuff,” he says.

And it’s not just the independent jeweler who’s staying away from estate jewelry. Mary Todd-McGinnis, vice president of Seattle-based Ben Bridge Jewelers, says that now that the company has more than 50 stores throughout the West Coast, it’s just too difficult to establish and maintain that many estate departments. “Ten to 15 years ago, we did a lot, but you really need to be able to keep a good collection,” she says. Edwardian and art deco, art nouveau, and retro all sold very well. Except for a few pieces, the company has sold whatever inventory it had.

Location, location, location. In some instances, taste differs by region. And trends are sometimes more fleeting than you might expect. Alan Daily, manager of Roger Butler Jewelers in Selma, Ala., says his store has been through several estate jewelry cycles over the past few years and has rolled fairly well with the changes. On the heels of the 1997 movie Titanic, which featured a sapphire and diamond necklace in the Edwardian style of the day (1912), sapphire and diamonds sold well last spring.

This year, however, Daily and his staff may have misjudged the latest style. “The antique filigree trend has tapered off a lot,” says Daily, somewhat bewildered. He thought the platinum and white gold Edwardian styles would be popular for a while longer, as they seem to be elsewhere—but not in Selma. In fact, he still has a few filigree pieces remaining. Says Daily, “We’re thinking we’re sittin’ pretty with them, and we’re even in the midst of our 35th-anniversary sale,” but they still aren’t selling.

Cameos—which had been very popular in the past—and the more “traditional” estate pieces are now slow to move. “Surprisingly enough, what we have found is that a lot of colored stone pieces are selling well,” says Daily. Tourmalines and sapphires are especially popular. Customers are looking at these more modern pieces in estate jewelry to get a “substantial savings,” he says. They capitalize on pieces that can be purchased by the jeweler at lower costs than the more popular and older diamond-set estate items.

That approach plays well in the San Francisco Bay area. Georgie Gleim, owner of Gleim the Jeweler in Palo Alto, Calif., says it’s quality that sells. Sure, the style of the period counts, but only if the piece is well-made. “Average” jewelry doesn’t sell. Small, average, commonly worn items are merely secondhand jewelry, says Gleim. Old earrings with no particular style—and there are thousands of them—are a prime example of what doesn’t sell.

Edwardian and art deco, however, sell very well and fairly consistently for Gleim. “We’ve been selling estate jewelry for so long that our customers have a better understanding of it,” she says. Of course, large, old diamonds sell nicely for Gleim, as they do for Molina. Gleim recently sold an 11-ct. L-color old European cut.

Estate jewelry liquidator Bernie Barber Johnson in Colorado Springs, Colo., likewise finds that the “old guard”—savvy estate jewelry clients—want big stones, “not a lot of the Vegas look.” Almost at the opposite end of the spectrum, these same discerning customers favor fine designer jewelry, too, says Johnson. “They love designer jewelry, the very esoteric pieces,” he says. “Some of my conservative clients want not only the best and biggest, but also want a bargain. And they want to bargain.”

But it all comes down to this: The important pieces, those that have quality, are the ones that sell. “Give them the finest piece you can buy, the finest thing you own,” says Johnson. “That’s what they want.”

“So many jewelers rely solely on their vendors for the expertise. They don’t have anyone on staff who really knows the different styles of the periods so they leave it alone.” — Michael Larsen Altobelli Jewelers North Hollywood, Calif.