Yes, You Can Sell Platinum!

I just can’t sell platinum right now. It’s too expensive.”

It’s a common refrain among retailers, even in higher-end stores, but Platinum Guild International begs to differ. The organization’s goal, of course, is to get retailers to sell more of the metal, but its executives recognize the challenges jewelers face in today’s market. So PGI has urged platinum manufacturers to develop designs that use less metal but still deliver the quality, look, and heft that consumers expect from platinum jewelry.

“There’s tons of platinum retailing for under $3,000—and it’s not flimsy,” says Michael O’Connor, PGI USA senior vice president of marketing and communications. He cites a selection of men’s wedding bands from New Jersey–based Lieberfarb that retail for $800 to $899, a platinum and diamond engagement ring mounting from New York–based Ritani that retails for less than $2,500, and some rings that go for less than $2,500—with center stone included. Jenny Luker, PGI senior vice president for manufacturer and retail programs, mentions an Indian firm, Seema Gems, that during a recent visit showed her trays of platinum bridal product all retailing for under $2,500. “Sets, with centers!” she says enthusiastically.

“Retailers should tell their suppliers, ‘This is the price point I need. What can you do for me?’ and let the manufacturer find a way to address their need,” says O’Connor.

“In the [recent] past, designers took gold designs and simply did them in platinum, but you have to design for platinum, for its own unique properties,” says Huw Daniel, president of PGI USA. He cites early Cartier jewelry, whose lacy, delicate looks could only have been achieved by using platinum. That, he says, was the reason for using platinum in the first place. But since the renaissance of the metal in the 1990s, when designers simply executed their existing molds in platinum, pieces have been heavier. Yet the metal’s strength makes it possible to use much less of it in creating jewelry, he notes. “We’ve gone full circle. Now we’re back to designing for platinum.”

Leading this charge is renowned designer Scott Kay. One of the first to hop on the platinum bandwagon in the early 1990s, he’s now one of the first to take to the drawing board to reengineer pieces for today’s market.

Kay cites $2,500 as the sweet spot for platinum engagement rings, so his firm set out to create an engagement ring that retailed for less than $1,000. “It’s not that we hit that number, but it did allow us to look at the metal differently,” says Kay. “Our research found people will spend 50 percent of the price of the stone on the mounting. So when a retailer wants to open an order, we always ask what is their average-size center stone sale, and at what price. By laying out the stones, it forced us to reengineer so that we can hit the sweet-spot price points without sacrificing quality.”

But customers don’t necessarily want a skinny band, so the challenge was finding a way to decrease weight without sacrificing width. The secret, says Kay, is adjusting the height, because consumers pay far more attention to width than height—especially in men’s bands. Most retailers don’t know what height their best-selling rings are, anyway.

“Bands that were 120/1000 high came down to 70/1000 high, which in a 6 mm band is about half price and [a little more than] half thickness,” Kay says.

He pulls out two men’s rope-style bands to demonstrate. The original version, 6.2 mm wide and 120/1000 high, retails for $5,200. The reengineered version is 6 mm wide and 90/1000 high and retails for $2,970. It’s slightly less wide, but when Kay models it on his hand—which is a pretty sturdy hand—it doesn’t appear significantly different from the original. Other tricks he’s developed include tweaking the way stones are set—instead of raising beads, he creates seats for the stones—and creating some airy designs that offer a 6 mm wide look but incorporate open space, rather than solid metal throughout.

Lieberfarb president Mark Schonwetter says his firm has reengineered its rings to use a lighter gauge of metal, making the final product more affordable. “It’s not thin like tissue paper, but it’s not as heavy as it used to be. Still, if you take the ring into your hand and compare it with other metals, it still feels substantial. It still feels like platinum. It doesn’t feel lightweight,” he says.

A delicate design aesthetic is how Mercury Ring, Englewood, N.J., keeps prices in check. “We aim for a low pennyweight, and low total weight [in accent diamonds], but still well made and well designed,” says president Phyllis Bergman. With accent-stone qualities at G–H/SI1, Mercury’s mountings retail for $800 to $2,500.

The point, says PGI’s O’Connor, isn’t necessarily to go head-to-head with gold in pricing, but to make sure the difference is as minimal as possible. “Our research has found 81 percent of customers surveyed do want platinum [rings],” he says. “We live in an aspirational world—people don’t want to go back. So, if an aspirational customer has a choice of four metals, with only a few hundred dollars’ difference between them, why not get what they really want?”

“People still want platinum,” agrees Bergman. She says her son, Jeff, pointed out that customers of his generation often don’t know platinum used to be cheaper. “A guy going out to get engaged today doesn’t know that platinum used to be $600 or $700 an ounce. So unless he compares it side by side with 14k in the store, he just knows he wants platinum—and that it costs what it costs,” Bergman says. “[For a lower price] you’re not going to get a big piece with carats and carats all around, but you can still say ‘my band is platinum.’”

While most platinum jewelry is bridal, platinum fashion is still viable, says Luker. To illustrate, she takes off the necklace she’s wearing. It’s a platinum and diamond pendant on a platinum chain, made by the Indian firm Shrenuj, and she says it’s one of several firms in India and China that are making affordable, well-made platinum fashion jewelry. Admittedly, it’s not going to be a big, bold piece—but it’s an attractive, updated classic that’s likely to sell easily in many American stores.

Phyllis Bergman’s eponymous fashion line is available in platinum as well as 14k, 18k, and palladium. She says the platinum fashion pieces are designed using the same premises as the bridal jewelry—delicate looks keeping pennyweights and total diamond weights down. And Scott Kay says there’s still a viable market for heavy, solid pieces—when JCK visited his salon at the Centurion Jewelry Show, he had just sold a solid platinum men’s bracelet with a skull center—very biker, very heavy, and, undoubtedly, very expensive.

“Retailers say they would do platinum fashion but they’re not shown any,” says Daniel. Luker argued back, “But when I was in India, manufacturers there had bags of it. Bags! But they said they never got any requests [from Americans] for it.”

Mark Schonwetter said it’s a matter of ingenuity and awareness. “We have to try to make something to revive the platinum market [in the United States], and you have to make people aware of you all the time.”