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A six-part plan to give customers exactly what they want.

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FOR BRITTEN WOLF, custom design means giving customers exactly what they want. “I call it kittens and dolphins,” says Wolf, who owns BVW Jewelers in Reno, NV. “If you want kittens and dolphins holding the diamond for your engagement ring, I will make that ring for you. What closes the sale is that we make it clear to them they can be picky and design something no one else has.”

Jennifer Farnes, who built Revolution Jewelry Works in Colorado on custom design, encourages clients to add personal symbolism to their pieces to ensure they’re unique. “If someone loves a combination of a Disney ring and a ring they found on Etsy, you want to be sure you’re not replicating existing work because that’s not creative, and in some cases it’s illegal.” She’s incorporated thistles from a family farm into a design, juniper bushes for a guy who does gin distilling, elements of family crests and a lot of “geek” symbolism.

Ronnie and David Malka own Malka Diamonds in Portland, OR, a custom business supported by in-house designers and jewelers. “Customers feel ownership when involved in a custom project,” Ronnie says. “They’re excited and they’re going to want to make more.” One customer got so hooked on the process that she’s working on her fourth project in six months.

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A jewelry retailer’s ability to customize, especially when it comes to engagement rings, has been the biggest driver of jewelry purchases for at least the past six years, says Kate Peterson of Performance Concepts. Jewelers who are reluctant to offer their customers options are missing out on a robust piece of the market.

“A lot of business owners get scared off because they think they have to invest in Matrix training and a 3D printer. But they really don’t,” Peterson says. “You do have to have the flexibility to allow the customer to put their own thumbprint on what they buy.”

Step One:
Over-Communicate

1. One key to financial success in custom is professionalism. Custom clients do not want to have to call repeatedly to check on progress or worry whether a piece will be ready when promised. If the custom piece is an engagement or wedding ring, they want the experience to be a memorable and enjoyable part of their love story. There should be no surprises.

“So often, jewelers are under-communicating with their clients,” says consultant Kathleen Cutler. “Have one point of contact, one salesperson who is going to keep their pulse on the project and be the project manager start to finish.”

The store owner must set up a process that addresses deposits, pricing and how often changes can be made, and establishes the communication needed at each step. “When you can have custom that feels more like an orchestrated experience, people will rave about it,” Cutler adds. “Be proactive, not reactive.”

Tracy Matthews is the author of The Desired Brand Effect.

Tracy Matthews is the author of The Desired Brand Effect.

Tracy Matthews, jewelry designer and author of The Desired Brand Effect: Stand Out In A Saturated Market With A Timeless Jewelry Brand, says it’s important to ask each client how they’d like to communicate: text, email or phone call. Send detailed correspondence through email but follow-ups via their preferred channel. “Overly communicate what to expect at each phase of the process. Give each client an opportunity to ask questions, especially if they are making a big investment for the first time with you. If you don’t have a CRM or a system that allows for clients to review items online, consider using a cloud-based platform like Google Drive or Dropbox to share files and get approvals.”

When success builds on success, it creates an upward spiral. “If you spend more time working with clients and creating experiences for them, this will lead to working with fewer people but charging more,” Cutler says. On the other hand, undercharging, taking on too many projects and generally dropping the ball creates a downward spiral.

“The industry will continue to do really well with custom,” Cutler says. “Just matching the professionalism of the consumer could make every single custom jeweler $100,000 to $200,000 more this year. Just follow up. The money is in the follow up.”

Step Two:
Decide What Custom Means to You

2. Custom can mean almost anything to consumers, from choosing a separate diamond and setting to sitting with a designer or bench jeweler with pad and paper or CAD software and having a real hand in the design of their ring. Most custom jobs lie somewhere in between.

About 85 percent of the business at Blue River Diamonds in Gloucester, MA, is custom in some way while about 40 percent is custom from scratch. “I think it’s important to have styles that can be easily modified,” says Becky Bettencourt, who advocates prototype selling systems such as Stuller’s Ever & Ever. “Most customers need to have something to visualize, so having a variety of different styles that customers can try on is so helpful in narrowing down the process.”

Because full, half and barely custom each require a different level of commitment, expertise and resources, Cutler advises jewelers to divide their jobs into three tiers of complexity: Level 1 is customized, level 3 is full custom, and level 2 is the middle ground. Then determine how many of each project type your team can handle and plan accordingly. Accept deposits to lock in each opening. Says Cutler: “If you say your team has the capacity to do four slots each month and three are full, ask if the client would like to reserve the fourth spot with a deposit.”

Designers at Green Lake Jewelry Works, a Seattle-based business built on custom, offer the full experience to everyone who comes in, even those who seem to just want to tweak an existing design. “We sketch even when we don’t need to,” owner Jim Tuttle says. “Frequently they say, ‘I want one of those in rose gold,’ and the designer will say, ‘Let me draw you a tiny variation you might like.’ The designer will tweak the design, and at the end they actually have a unique piece that they tell their friends about.”

Ultimately, 90 percent of Green Lake clients opt for that full experience, which includes a video of their gemstone, information about the jeweler who made it, their own web page about the making of their piece, and photos of the process. These pages are shared with the client so they can show their friends. Green Lake has produced 10,000 of these story pages, some of which are linked to the company’s blog.

Joseph Jewelry’s design center

Joseph Jewelry’s design center

At Joseph Jewelry in Seattle, couples use a collection of prototype rings as inspiration, often drawing elements from several designs and incorporating their own ideas, says manager Tony Hoag. Clients can have a full custom design experience no matter their budget.

Designers check in with clients every step of the way to make sure they receive exactly what they want and tailor the materials to their price range, providing detailed descriptions to make informed decisions for their piece. It is a personalized experience that includes unlimited design modifications, printed wax models, appraisal for insurance, insured two-day shipping, a lifetime warranty, and free first sizing.

As the ring takes shape, CAD modeling and 3D printing of wax models give clients a precise idea of what the final piece will look like. “We ship (the models) for free, and we do that as many times as it takes to make sure they love it,” says Hoag. “There are no surprises. If they don’t love it, we’ll build them something else.”

Clients work with the entire team and communicate using a private online portal that’s part of a custom-built online system. “Our designers make it a fun, streamlined experience that many clients cherish as part of their engagement story,” Hoag says.

Gretchen Schaffner of Eytan’s Designs in Sherman Oaks, CA, says that while many customers love to see the process and appreciate the opportunity to chime in along the way, for others, seeing “how the sausage is made” provokes anxiety.

Green Lake Jewelry Works’ design center.

Green Lake Jewelry
Works’ design center.

“They see a wax of their ring and panic because they think their ring is going to be blue! And other custom clients get too involved, thinking that they can introduce fundamental changes — the diamond bracelet now suddenly needs to be an opal ring — without consequences,” she says.

The trick is figuring out which customer you have, says Schaffner. “If it’s that ideal client who loves getting a custom piece from a talented jeweler, then getting them in the loop will not only be fun for them, but it can also strengthen the relationship. If you’ve got a worrier, just show them the completed product and they’ll be delighted. If you’ve got a tinkerer, get a big deposit, and make it clear that any changes will result in charges for work already completed.”

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Step Three:
Build the Custom Team

3. Too many small business owners think they can tiptoe into custom, Farnes says. “The difference for us is we are manufacturing everything here.” If outsourcing, Farnes urges diligence in checking references. “There are a ton of CAD designers out there and maybe 20 percent are exceptional,” she says. “It can create bigger problems if you’re not dealing with someone who knows jewelry.”

Even if everything is done in house, says Farnes, having the best tech doesn’t mean you can instantly do everything. “You have to have the right combination of tech and talent, and to do that, you have to pay people,” she says. “You’ve got to be prepared to recognize the extra work. You need salespeople to sell it and jewelers to make it a reality. And they have to work hand in hand.”

Peterson says a full custom jeweler needs three things: No. 1, a salesperson/designer who understands how to talk to customers, will listen to what’s most important to them and will convert their vision into reality. No. 2, someone on staff who knows how to sketch or use CAD programs. No. 3., a metalsmith, in-house or outsourced, who is capable of fabrications or at least can work with a casting shop.

At BVW Jewelers, same-day CAD and 3D printing are offered.

At BVW Jewelers, same-day CAD and 3D printing are offered.

If you’re a designer and not a jeweler, it’s crucial, Bettencourt says, to have a good master jeweler in house or on contract, who is willing to have a dialog. “Some custom jobs are straightforward, and some take a little ingenuity, so having a master jeweler who can come up with creative solutions is imperative,” she says. “If you’re not equipped for in-house customization, partner with a responsive supplier who can tweak designs for you.”

At Green Lake, designers expect no less than perfection from the team of in-house bench jewelers. “I don’t know how many times we’ve sent a piece back to the bench for tiny, microscopic things,” Tuttle says. “Sometimes the designer says that’s not how I envisioned it or how I explained it to the client. So the jeweler yanks out a piece of filigree and tightens it up and adds an S curve, and that might be two more hours of touching something up. It takes new jewelers a while to understand that this job they’ve done elsewhere that they’ve done in three hours, we want them to spend seven hours on it.”

Farnes says that while not all salespeople are designers, if they are going to be on the floor selling custom, they should be able at minimum to use templates for sketching. Make sure that those ideas on paper will work as intended once a piece is cast. That’s when communication is most important. “And just because a design can happen in CAD doesn’t mean that physics will allow it to be created,” she says.

Recognize what kinds of designs have resulted in jewelry that is always coming in for repair, and refrain from creating additional “problem-child jewelry.” Custom creations shouldn’t come with issues. “People want to be confident that if they are paying for custom, the piece is going to last longer,” Farnes says. “It’ll give you a better custom reputation if you build custom a little better.”

The casting room at Revolution Jewelry Works.

The casting room at Revolution Jewelry Works.

Step Four:
Collaborate on the Design

4. Farnes encourages clients to send her a link to a Pinterest board they’ve put together. “Nine times out of 10, they have an aesthetic they like, but there are elements missing that they haven’t been able to find.”

The biggest challenge comes when someone is extremely indecisive. “If they don’t know what they want and we have a general design on paper but not many details, we encounter situations where it’s change after change after change,” she says. “If there had been more specifics in the sketch, there would have been less wiggle room on the design end. If someone can’t make the decision, you almost have to take the reins and make the decision for them.”

As owner of Ellie Thompson + Co., Chicago, designer Ellie Thompson handles all custom sales, meeting across a table with the client and listening intently. “I find out what the customer wants to achieve. What’s the most important thing? Is it using her mom’s stone, or finding the perfect shade of pink for a gemstone, or something else? I focus on that, present two concept ideas that check the boxes, find out which they prefer. If you get stalled, tell them there are stopping points along the way, like the CAD image they get to see first. Having that reassurance that they will never have to pay for a piece they don’t like really helps. Then review what you’ve gone over so far, listen and refine. Get close enough to get a deposit and move on to the next steps.”

Rebecca Larson of Barry Peterson Jewelers in Ketchum, ID, asks for photos to create a vision board. If the item is to be a gift for someone, she also asks for pictures of the gift recipient to get an idea of their style.

In some cases, though, the client seeks out a designer because they want a piece made in the designer’s personal style. Matthews, for example, only accepts clients who want her to design in her aesthetic. “To capture the vision, I ask for inspiration images and ask a lot of questions. Then I take my design style and turn that into something aligned with their vision. I also find visual examples and make mockups in Photoshop or Canva to explain things. Once we finalize a look, I turn that sketch into a CAD drawing so that the client can see the 3D of the piece and give feedback along the way.”

Clients at Green Lake Jewelry Works can watch the entire creative process.

Clients at Green Lake Jewelry Works can watch the entire creative process.

Step Five:
Close the Sale

5. When it comes to pricing, Malka says custom has clear advantages over tweaking an existing piece of jewelry. “If you are custom making it, you can let them know from the beginning how much it’s going to cost. We can price it at the price that makes sense for us and for the customer.” For example, if a client has a $5,000 budget, Malka may recommend putting $3,000 toward the stone and $2,000 toward the ring. “It’s very transparent, and I think transparency is everything right now,” she says.

At Green Lake, nothing is done beyond initial sketches until the client has put half down on the piece and full payment on the gemstones. When the design plan is in place, designers simply ask, “How would you like to pay for that?” and somewhat surprisingly to Tuttle, quite a few clients pay for the whole thing up front, even though they may wait up to 12 weeks for the finished piece. If clients have a referral, visit the store and meet with an artist, there’s an 80 percent close rate that day after an initial consultation of an hour or two.

Farnes, too, doesn’t charge for initial sketching. “But if you’re going to invest any more than sit down and sketch time, you have to get a deposit for a CAD or carving,” she says. “The deposit can go toward the custom piece. If it’s not completed, the deposit pays for your labor.” Farnes asks clients to sign a contract. “It’s so much easier to put $300 or $400 into having an attorney draft a contract for you than to be giving refunds left and right.”

Wolf closes custom sales by offering immediate gratification in the form of same day, in-house CAD and wax carvings without even requiring an appointment. After the client has agreed to design details on a sketch and paid an $825 up front design fee, he and his team work on the CAD while the customer goes out to lunch. After lunch, with the CAD approved, he can print a wax model in house in 30 minutes. Completion time is about three weeks.

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Step Six:
Get the Word Out

6. Malka realized she had achieved Instagram marketing success when clients began bringing her photos that she’d pinned on Instagram from her own collection, rather than photos from another store or designer. Until then, she didn’t realize how impactful Instagram could be. “We’re just all organic and SEO,” she says. “I do pay for Google Ads, but that’s about it. It’s blogs and Instagram and recommendations from previous clients.”

Matthews says the first step in marketing is to create a page on your website where potential clients can land to understand the process. The more you visually convey the experience through images and photos, the easier it is to sell custom work. She suggests using an intake form that includes everything needed to vet the customer. Allow the customer to book a free consultation using a calendar link. “Doing this up front helps you reduce any churn or indecision,” she says.

On your custom jewelry page and across your website, include any social proof icons for publicity or media coverage and a few customer testimonials.

Peterson says no matter the medium, get the right message out. “Understand what you really do. If you say you are custom design experts, and by that you mean you can make any ring in three colors of metal or turn a stone sideways, that’s not the same thing and it’s not legitimate. You better have the chops to back it up. But if it is the case that you are a true custom jeweler, then you do things like create videos that show the transformation from sketch to finished product. You focus on the process. By the same token, if what you’re really good at is customizing, say we’re great at making it your way.”

At Malka Diamonds in Portland, OR, all work is done in house.

At Malka Diamonds in Portland, OR, all work is done in house.

 

Virtual Custom
How jewelers bring the design process online

When jim tuttle began to sell custom jewelry online and developed proprietary software to facilitate it, he imagined that most communication in virtual sales would eventually be conducted via video. The hasn’t been the case because many of Green Lake Jewelry Works’ clients prefer other methods of communication.

“Ten years ago, I thought that everybody would be on a video chat,” he says. “It’s a nice tool for some people, but 75 percent of clients never video chat. The bulk of them do it with text-based communication, a little bit of voice, a little bit of video.”

Fifteen to 20 percent of Seattle-based Green Lake’s business is virtual, a percentage that has remained consistent throughout the years. Most customers find Green Lake through Pinterest, Instagram, SEO and general web searches that may or may not include Google Ads. “A substantial portion, maybe 20 percent, find us through a friend,” Tuttle says.

Online clients get the full custom experience. “We almost never make a ring without a back and forth,” he says. “Less than 10 percent say, ‘Make it and let me know when it’s done.’ At the very least, even if we don’t need to make a sketch, we will send them something during the process. We send sketches, CAD, a rendering, pictures of the wax, and photography of the benchwork, followed by glamour shots and a video at the end. All of that goes to the client via their page, and in a substantial number of cases, we print out a book and give it to the client, too.”

Sometimes, long-distance deals languish, even after the customer has paid a substantial deposit. One client paused halfway through creating a $12,000 ring after leaving an $8,000 deposit. Eight years later, the client resurfaced to finish the project. Another client in Texas committed to a necklace in the $150,000 to $200,000 range and paid $100,000 up front to buy rubies, but they didn’t need the piece until 2023. “There are plenty that take months and sometimes years. Almost all eventually show up,” says Tuttle.

Artists and jewelers at Green Lake Jewelry Works collaborate.

Artists and jewelers at Green Lake Jewelry Works collaborate.

Joseph Jewelry’s strategy in Seattle has been digitally focused for the last 10 years, which provided a strong foundation to persevere through the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, says manager Tony Hoag. The website and client communication portal are custom designed by an in-house web team. “This allows clients to have direct access to everyone on their project, including their design consultant, CAD designer, and gem expert,” he says. “Clients can post their own inspiration photos, view their CAD designs posted, and give feedback on the designs. The portal allows us to work with clients all over the world. They can message the team, make payments, access their warranty, view their appraisals, see previous projects, and save favorite pieces for future projects. Clients can design a high-quality, completely custom piece from the comfort of their own home. They receive the same high-end, personalized customer service they would receive in our showrooms.”

Jewelry designer and author Tracy Matthews believes it’s important when conducting business online to meet over a video conferencing tool so that it mimics an in-person meeting. Matthews has an intake form that asks a variety of questions ranging from information about the person she’d be designing for, their lifestyle and personality, to budget and ring inspiration. “That tells me up front if it’s a good fit or not,” she says. “If it seems aligned, I set up a consultation to speak about my process and next steps.”

After a contract is signed, she sources stones for the piece, sketches the design, and creates presentations with video walkthroughs that can be sent virtually through email if needed. Once a design is finalized, she quotes the project price and moves forward on getting the piece made by her team of jewelers. Throughout the manufacturing process, she shares progress photos and videos so adjustments can be made.

“My customers love the correspondence and process,” Matthews says.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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