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Variety can bring a whole new market share.

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JORDAN BROWN STILL recalls the Victorian ring that made him fall under the spell of antique jewelry.

“It was a diamond that piqued my interest and grabbed me, a 2-carat mine-cut diamond, a darker stone,” he says. “I wondered, ‘What is this cut? Is it real?’ I’d only seen brilliant cuts before.”

For Jordan, his father Steve, and his brother Nicholas, every day is a treasure hunt at Once Upon a Diamond in Shreveport, LA. He describes their inventory as mixed up and interesting with no apparent rhyme or reason, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “In one case, you can see a century of styles: 1940s, late 1800s, retro, modern, mid-century, a piece made two years ago. It’s a fun way to look at jewelry.

Izzi Krombholz puts her own spin on antique and vintage jewelry with Haus of Mourning.

Izzi Krombholz puts her own spin on antique and vintage jewelry with Haus of Mourning.

“That’s what grabbed my attention, the variety of it,” he says. “People started coming to see us to find that variety rather than just the contemporary, normal pieces you see everywhere. No matter how strange or unusual, there’s somebody out there for it. We are never afraid to take a chance on an interesting piece.”

Brown learned much of what he knows about estate jewelry organically, by frequenting antique jewelry trade shows, particularly in Las Vegas and Miami. “I’ll walk along an endless row of dealers and see a piece that piques my interest,” he says. “When you have a conversation with the dealers, you see they are just as interested as you are, and they can tell you all about it.”

In INSTORE’s 2022 Big Survey, only 7 percent of respondents identified “estate” as the category that most helps them stand out from their local competition.

Josh Perry of Perry’s Emporium in Wilmington, NC, a business founded on estate, says he would love to see more retailers get into the category rather than scrap everything they buy, if they buy over the counter at all. “They could make more money and a lot fewer treasures would be destroyed,” he says.

Lauren Priori, who owns four stores in the Philadelphia area and Washington, D.C., specializes in custom engagement rings. But one of her four stores is devoted exclusively to estate jewelry. “Estate is amazing for a lot of reasons,” Priori says. “A lot of stores are not comfortable buying because they’re not sure how to price things, but there is a huge competitive advantage if you are able to buy. I’d encourage people to figure out what the market value is. People need cash now and the margins can be great.

“We’ll buy anything from broken chains to huge diamonds, it runs the gamut,” she says, although most of what she’s been selling have been 1950s and 1960s era bracelets and cocktail rings with large gemstones. “We have been seeing a trend in yellow gold, but estate is so personal that it’s a little less trend driven.”

Finding a niche in antique or vintage styles can open up a whole new market segment.

Izzy Krombholz’s Haus of Mourning combines Goth fashion with Victorian jewelry to make a style statement.

Izzy Krombholz’s Haus of Mourning combines Goth fashion with Victorian jewelry to make a style statement.

Krombholz Jewelers in Cincinnati, where Izzi Krombholz works with her father, Lee Krombholz, has carried secondhand jewelry for more than 70 years, specializing these days in 1960s to 1990s vintage. “Our estate business is our No. 1 gross-profit-producing category,” Lee says. “It is a business that takes years to develop, because you must become known as a trusted buyer in your marketplace. The key is to be able to buy quality jewelry locally and then supplement it with fill-in jewelry from national dealers.”

Last year, Izzi started a secondary business called Haus of Mourning, which features Victorian jewelry, along with Goth clothing and lifestyle items. At 32, Izzi was searching for a more polished, mature version of the Goth aesthetic that didn’t make adults look like teenagers.

“I love mourning jewelry,” Izzi says. “Victorians were so sentimental. The Mourning Period happened when Queen Victoria lost her husband, and that became her embodiment in a way, an expression of mourning. Jet and onyx became super popular. The jewelry was literally dark.”

Izzi looks for gems and jewelry that have potential to be repurposed. “I love turning stick pins into ring tops or making little charms out of them. I do keep some antique pieces as-is, but other things that we wouldn’t sell as-is, I re-create.”

Whether estate clients are shopping for Victorian mourning jewelry or an Art Deco engagement ring, they want to stand out from the crowd with their jewelry choices.

“It used to be that everyone wanted to look like their neighbors, their peers,” says Beth Bernstein, author of The Modern Guide To Antique Jewellery. “That’s not true anymore. And antique jewelry is instant customization.”

Bernstein says it’s important to recognize that while estate is an all-encompassing word for the department, to be called antique jewelry, it must be at least 100 years old. The term “vintage” takes over where antique leaves off and continues to about the 1980s. “You need to know this to make sure your clients understand the difference.”

Estate has the potential to be an important profit center, and buying it over the counter can be a valuable service to offer clients. Vadim
Krivitsky of Oak Gem Fine Estate and Designer Jewelry says your clients may be offended if you tell them the same treasure you sold to them for a premium price is now worth nothing to you. “Retailers have to know how to handle their client who says, ‘I would like to sell this.’ If it’s a piece they bought from you and you charged them $30,000, how do you offer $10,000 with a straight face?”

When in doubt, ask a trusted expert, says Krivitsky. “If it’s an Art Deco bracelet, I can say it’s worth $20,000, but based on the experience of a jeweler who isn’t knowledgeable about estate jewelry, it may look to them like $3,000.”

Ross Nacht represents the fourth generation of Bernard Nacht & Co., a jewelry wholesaler based in New York City. “Everything is one of a kind,” he says. “That gives you the advantage, because if it’s here in your case today, it might not be there tomorrow.

“Find a vendor who is a trusted partner and who can provide all of the information needed about each piece, including information about its time period. That gives the sales team on the floor a bit more confidence.”

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Kate Pearce is a New Hampshire-based jewelry designer and appraiser whose biggest source of profit was buying and selling estate jewelry before she retired from retail. “To be tactful, if it wasn’t anything we could use, we’d say, ‘It’s lovely but not for us.’ Or If it was a fantastic, high-end piece, but not something for our market, we’d offer to broker it for the client using our network of dealers and auction houses. A brokerage commission is assessed for this service.” She says it’s vital to confirm that the seller is the rightful owner of the items. Have an authorization/ agreement form ready for signature and verify the seller’s identity with government issued photo ID.

Although estate is not the primary focus of his business, Bill Warren, owner of Gold Mine Fine Jewelry and Gifts in Hudson, NC, has built a new customer base by hosting buying events that regularly bring in $100,000 over three-day weekends. He partners with John Angelo of All Facets Gemological Corp., whom he met on the jewelers Facebook group, Jewelers Helping Jewelers.

Warren always schedules a preview night and invites only five of his top estate clients, who enjoy the privacy and might spend $50,0000 before the event officially opens. “We live near a resort town,” Warren says. “The only way we get those people to come off the mountain and come see us is if we have an estate event.”

The estate side of his business was spawned in part because attorneys who hired him to evaluate estate jewelry often asked if he knew of anyone who would be a buyer for the jewelry. “So, I let them know that not only could I help them appraise the pieces, but I was a buyer as well. The result was a new revenue stream for the business.”

Craig Husar offers estate-buying events three times a year at Craig Husar Fine Jewelry and Designs, partnering with National Rarities of St. Louis. “There’s enormous need and incredible opportunity to buy estate jewelry from clients,” Husar says. “If you buy right, you can make nice margins on estate jewelry. It’s a differentiator that stands out.”

Krivitsky is primarily a retailer who buys jewelry at his appointment-only showrooms in New Jersey and Florida, and sells most inventory online, specializing in 1950s and newer, signed designer jewelry. Because he concentrates on brands such as Tiffany, Van Cleef & Arpels and Bulgari, he benefits from the millions of dollars those brands have already spent on advertising. “Maybe they saw a Tiffany Love Bracelet somewhere and they’re looking for that. It’s cut and dry. It makes their life easier and my life easier.”

THE
LEARNING
CURVE

Wholesaler Rebekah Anderson of Earth Pebbles Gemology has found her purpose in “saving” estate jewelry from being melted. “There’s depth and history and heft and story,” she says. “Jewelry shows a journey through someone’s life. Once they’re gone or they decide they don’t want it anymore, it’s cool that someone else can continue with that jewelry and add their story.

“If you’re going to source estate and vintage, you need to make sure you are purchasing items from someone who knows what they’re selling, has evaluated and graded the piece and done the math. Ask fellow jewelers who are carrying vintage and estate jewelry for referrals. Buy from trade shows. Most of the vendors have to be vetted in industry-only shows. Once you’ve found a couple of vendors you trust, ask them to educate you on the pieces that you’re buying. You don’t have to know everything, but you should know what era it is, what materials were used, and the story behind it. If you don’t know the full story, but you do know what era it came from, you can educate yourself on that era and how the jewelry was produced.”

Bernstein says it’s important to motivate your staff to learn each piece’s story and provenance. “Even if it’s not a famous maker or a signed piece, you need to know the provenance, the hallmarks, the country, the period. Certain hallmarks in England will let you know it was made in Birmingham in 1895, for example. You’re getting these pieces that have an instant story behind them. While you don’t need to personally become an encyclopedia of hallmarks, it’s a good idea to invest in books about hallmarks.”

Eighty percent of what Julie Walton Garland sells in Franklin, TN, is pre-1940s vintage and antique jewelry.

How Retail Jewelers Crack the Estate Code

Warren says it’s important to find the right partners to fill in any gaps in knowledge. “Even if you don’t think it fits your jewelry store operation, but you get a nice art deco piece in, there are all kinds of vendors who will buy the piece. Don’t be afraid to take a picture of a piece if a customer wants to sell it, shoot it to a dealer and just ask them.”

It’s Gretchen Schaffner’s job to sell online all of the over-the-counter buys her boss makes for Eytan’s Designs in Sherman Oaks, CA. Schaffner used to get frustrated trying to place jewelry in an exact time period until she realized she had unrealistic expectations. “We have a library full of books about vintage jewelry, and we’ve wasted a lot of time poring over them trying to find the answer on this or that bauble, and there is no definitive handbook that helps with dating jewelry that doesn’t have telltale hallmarks. We wish someone had told us early on, “Hey, put down the books, nitwit. Just narrow down a 40-year period, disclose the lack of clues, and move on!”

Eighty percent of what Julie Walton Garland of Walton’s Jewelry in Franklin, TN, sells is pre-1940s. She agrees that if you’ve done what you can reasonably do to ID the piece, it’s not doing anyone any favors to guess. “If you can’t point out a couple characteristics of the piece to back up what you’re saying, then you probably should not date it,” she says.

Josh Perry’s dad and uncles founded Perry’s Emporium by selling vintage jewelry out of the trunk of a car before opening their store in 1991.

Because they’ve built their reputation on paying more than scrap prices for pieces that can be resold, they attract 20 to 35 sellers every day.

“You never know what’s going to walk through the door,” Perry says. “A Tiffany & Co. solid gold 25-year medal for the NYPD with the original ribbon that hung on the officer’s neck came in last week.

“Buying something takes just as much skill as it does to sell something,” he says. “You have to have empathy for the customer to know what they’re going through and why they feel the need to sell this piece. And you have to be fair with them. When you are sympathetic, you will tend to overpay. Being empathetic yet reminding yourself you are in the business to make a profit is very important.”

WHAT DO
YOUR
CUSTOMERS
WANT?

Antique and vintage trends are as cyclical in popularity as other categories of jewelry, Bernstein says. “You didn’t see hoops for years, and now you’ve seen hoops for 10 years,” Bernstein says. “It’s like that in vintage, too. If you can get that formula down, you’ll be successful.”

Sometimes celebrities will spark mini-trends. Brown recently took several calls for antique diamond brooches, for example, several of which he had had in stock for a while. A quick Google search revealed that Rihanna wore three of them during her Super Bowl halftime show. “Somebody brings something back in the spotlight, and people realize how beautiful it is,” Brown says.

Bernstein says mid-20th century is trending now, especially in yellow gold, as well as the retro period, including wider bracelets. “The Georgian era, popular for so long, has taken a back seat to mid-century modern and the 1970s, such as Elsa Peretti and Bulgari. It’s more wearable.”

Krivitsky says ‘70s jewelry is hot right now among people who perhaps remember admiring the look on their parents. He also notes that Victorian rings, moveable 3D charms, and gypsy and insignia rings are sought after by younger shoppers who are converting charms to wear as pendants.
At Perry’s Emporium, slide bracelets are strong, as well as gold chains, estate watches and any kind of color: Emerald, ruby and sapphire pieces are going fast.

THE
ENGAGEMENT
RING

Priori says estate engagement rings appeal to her clients because they are unique and they are perceived as sustainable because they’re not newly mined.

Ring shoppers may believe they know which era or style appeals to them, but when they try it on, they may well change their minds, Bernstein says. “Train your salespeople not to push,” Bernstein says. “If you see it’s not really right for them, you can then find what is.”

Consider wearability, as well, Bernstein says. Anything earlier than Victorian are too fragile for the daily wear of engagement rings. Art deco in platinum is the most durable. Edwardian styles in platinum or platinum over gold without pearls are great. Sturdier Victorian styles such as five-stone or cluster rings make a wonderful choice, as well.

At Bernard Nacht, Edwardian, Victorian and art deco are always in demand among ring shoppers, but because many want yellow gold currently, Victorian and Nouveau are at the forefront, Nacht says. Also in demand are uniquely shaped stones, anything with an open culet, old mine and old European cuts.

“But I think with estate jewelry, everything will constantly be relevant and people will always be interested in it,” Nacht says. “These pieces are timeless.”

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SELLING
ONLINE

When Garland began working with her dad, second-generation owner Mike Walton, in the business, he supported her ideas for expanding their omnichannel options, one reason Garland believes they are successful today. Online presence and sales have made such a dramatic difference that Walton’s has had to double their staff to keep up with the additional business.

Brown sells jewelry across five online outlets, including the store website, eBay, Etsy, Ruby Lane and Chrono24. “By offering this access to our business from multiple avenues, we’re able to take risks on more unusual pieces that may fit other locations’ tastes better,” says Brown. “We can sell pieces across the world and not just wait and hope someone from this area buys it.” Brown includes four- to eight-sentence descriptions of each piece on the website. His goal is to be honest as well as descriptive. Detailed photographs don’t lie and Brown won’t either; he will always mention a crack or a patina. “I’m happy to repair it or polish it, but if you like it the way it is, I’ll leave it alone.”

DISPLAY
IDEAS

Craig Husar had a visit from display expert Larry Johnson, who noted that estate jewelry was displayed at his Wisconsin store like everything else. “Larry said, ‘You’re missing an opportunity to tell the story about how this is unique.’” Husar asked a staff member who collects vintage books, perfume bottles and other trinkets if he could borrow pieces from her collection. When he used the props to display estate jewelry, it suddenly came to life. “Customers know immediately that it’s unique,” Husar says, “and sales have escalated because of that. It grabs people’s attention.”

Croghan’s Jewelers in Charleston, SC, has a section of the store dedicated to antique and estate jewelry, which is hugely popular with millennials and visitors to the city, says owner Mariana Ramsay Hayes. “People walk in here and see this antique and estate jewelry and get caught up in the aura of where they are, of wanting to buy a Charleston antique, and then they walk into the other side and see beautiful diamond and designer collections.” Often their customers find creative ways to mix the two, creating stacks of rings drawn from both areas.

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Alex and Gladys Rysman are the third generation to run Romm Jewelers in Brockton, Mass. And after many decades of service to the industry and their community, it was time to close the store and take advantage of some downtime. With three grown children who each had their own careers outside of the industry, they decided to call Wilkerson. Then, the Rysmans did what every jeweler should do: They called other retailers and asked about their own Wilkerson experience. “They all told us what a great experience it was and that’s what made us go with Wilkerson.” says Gladys Rysman. The results? Alex Rysman says he was impressed. “We exceeded whatever I expected to do by a large margin.”

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