• Claire

UNDERSTANDING FINE JEWELRY PRICING

In many ways, Fine Jewelry is similar to any other retail product. Like the clothing you wear or the food you eat, everything that goes into making jewelry is accounted for in the cost, and prices can vary widely depending on many factors like quality, rarity, and supply and demand. Understanding these factors can feel overwhelming, so I will help break it down as best I can. Hopefully, after reading this article, you will feel confident when shopping for fine jewelry. One thing to note: I am covering fine jewelry only - vermeil items (gold-plated silver), fashion jewelry like gold-plated base metal, and gold-filled jewelry is not fine jewelry.


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On the most basic level, here are some things that are factored in when pricing jewelry:

  • Materials (metal purity, diamonds, gemstones, etc.)

  • Labor (design, CAD, wax, setting, polishing, engraving, QC, etc.)

  • Special skills (hand carving, education/skill level etc.)

  • Overhead (studio rent, electricity, tools, office supplies, shipping, marketing, etc.)

  • Intangibles - material rarity, time, expertise, etc.

  • Supply and demand

...and so much more.


There are also ethical questions to be asked when shopping for jewelry, such as, "Are the materials used in this conflict-free?" and "Were the people who made this jewelry paid fair wages to do so?" It might come as a hard pill to swallow, but something had to be sacrificed when you find fine jewelry at low prices.


#1. TRADITIONAL BIG-BRAND RETAIL

Let's first look at the kind of jewelry you are likely most familiar with - traditional, large retail brands (think David Yurman, etc.); brands that are sold in their free-standing namesake stores, big-box department stores, and independent boutiques. Large retailers have just as many (if not more) factors to consider when pricing their items, but they have what most small businesses don't - investors, parent companies, i.e., lot's of money, and access to resources. Many of these brands keep their pricing model comparable to the market but lower their internal costs significantly by manufacturing their goods overseas. This doesn't mean the quality of the jewelry is poor, but that because they manufacture their items in such high volumes, the most cost-effective production is outside of the US. In places like India and China, the cost of goods and labor is cheaper, so big brands can pump out hundreds if not thousands of the same design for a fraction of the cost of doing so locally. These are the fast-fashion brands of the fine jewelry world -- it's more affordable, but not for ethical reasons.


A WORD ON FAMOUS DESIGN HOUSES...

A common question one hears when working in the jewelry industry is, "Are places like Tiffany and Cartier worth it?" The short answer? No. Once upon a time, when these household names first came to fame, they were home to the most skilled and in-demand designers and artisans out there. Nowadays, the pieces they sell are manufactured overseas by machines, but their pricing is still the highest on the market. Buying from Tiffany or Cartier is like buying a designer handbag - you're buying the name. It's a status symbol. If you still want to own pieces from these brands, I'd suggest buying them vintage as you have a better chance of owning something made by hand.

#2. RETAIL - SMALL BUSINESS, ARTISAN

My favorite type of jewelry to buy is from small businesses and designers. These could be anything from a one-and-done solo designer who makes every.single.piece herself (like Always Aleda) to a slightly larger brand that sells their items direct to consumers and can also be found in boutiques (like Charlie + Marcelle). "Shopping small" and "supporting small businesses" have been buzzwords for many years now, and a lot of consumers are wondering how they can make sure the jewelry they buy is part of this ethos. Of course, the best way to stop feeding the fast fashion monster is to shop with small brands - and this will likely mean you will have to pay more. But it's worth it. I'll explain.


One of my favorite small businesses is a clothing store in my neighborhood, Milk Handmade. Every holiday season, the owner, Hallie, reminds us why shopping small is so important and what that means for you, the consumer. I will include an excerpt from one of her posts here, as it perfectly highlights why the higher price tags are nothing to resent; in fact, they're the opposite.


"Shopping small isn't always cheap, but it is worth it, and here's why:

1. You're getting a good value. The markup on pieces produced locally is much lower than those produced in overseas sweatshops.

2. You're supporting your neighborhood. For every $100 you spend at a locally owned business, $68 stays in the community, vs $43 at a national chain.

3. You're helping the environment. Fast Fashion has had a disturbing and irreversible impact on our earth.

4. You're supporting women. Nearly all of our designers are women."


I want to add #5 - You're helping ensure the people who made these goods are paid fair wages for their skill and labor.


Like Hallie said, shopping small isn't always easy, but it's always the more ethical option.


A Word On Pricing Variability Within the Small Business Market...

Of course, there is a lot of variability within the small business and artisan jewelry community regarding pricing. I wish I could tell you exactly why this is, but with so many variables that need to be considered when pricing an item, it's hard to know with certainty. Is that frustrating? Incredibly. I can't tell you how many times in my career I have found a designer, looked at their prices, and thought one of two things - either "How in the world do they think they can charge that MUCH for THAT!?" or, which happens more often, "How are they able to charge THAT LITTLE for that?" In regards to the former - I've stopped judging. In my experience when it comes to small businesses, I've never met someone deliberately charging too much and trying to rip someone off. If their price seems high, it's because their cost to make it is high. In regards to the latter response, wherein I don't understand how someone is charging so little, I have some ideas:

  • They don't know better - I have been this person. Whether it is inexperience or imposter syndrome, I have previously priced my products solely based on the cost of materials and completely forgotten to consider all the other things that go into running a business. I had not factored in essential items like my time or the costs of running the business, the level of education and expertise of those making the jewelry, or even paying myself into my prices. In short: I had forgotten to look at my business like a business and priced my items in such a way I could never keep up with the costs of running my brand. I think a lot of small business owners struggle with this.

  • They are trying to be competitive without knowing the complete picture - Any business owner will look at the market for similar items to ensure their pricing is in the right ballpark. Many people do it incorrectly and compare themselves to brands with more resources (or even resellers) who don't have the same production costs and end up underpricing themselves.

  • They currently do not sell their product in stores - and therefore didn't include a wholesale pricing model in their markup. For a consumer in this scenario, you are paying close to wholesale - which is exciting! Except this also means when the brand grows and wants to sell their designs to stores (be it big box or local boutique), they are going to have to raise their prices to include a wholesale margin, which means you -- the consumer -- will now have to pay more for the same things. So while you might balk at a designer raising their prices, I promise you, they aren't ripping you off - they're growing! And they need to adjust prices to reflect that growth and cover the wealth of new costs they are about to encounter.

  • Jewelry is a hobby/not their primary source of income - Sometimes, a jewelry designer is lucky enough to have financial security outside of their jewelry designs. They look at it as a passion instead of a business and aren't necessarily interested in making a profit or growing - they simply want to create cool shit and cover the costs that enable them to continue to create cool shit.


#3. RESELLING

We have arrived at the most mysterious type of jewelry, pre-owned. It is here the consumer might find the best deals and rarest finds but also encounter the most frustration and confusion. While buying pre-owned jewelry will alleviate you from the cost of labor and "new" materials - there is still quite a bit that goes into reselling. However, this is also the realm wherein transparency and consistency can go awry.


VINTAGE + ANTIQUE


First, let's talk about vintage (20+ years old) and antique (100+ years old) jewelry. I will openly admit this is not my area of expertise. Selling vintage and antique jewelry requires a particular skill set and knowledge base. From different designers, eras, hallmarks, and motifs to rarity and knock-offs - it is its own world. When shopping vintage, I feel most comfortable with industry pros who know it inside and out because pricing vintage is intimidating and easy to mess up. Aside from the obvious things like the value of the materials, pricing will vary based on things like age, rarity, if it is connected to a historical person or event, etc. Here are some questions you might consider asking a reseller before purchasing a vintage or antique item.

  • What is your background in jewelry?

  • How long have you been selling?

  • Does this item have a maker's mark or date stamp?

  • What period is it from?

  • How was it authenticated?

  • Do you test all the diamonds and gemstones before you list an item?

  • Do you test the metal purity?

  • How rare is this item?

  • Does this item or any of its stones have any damage I should be aware of?

  • How common was this motif for the era?

An experienced vintage seller will likely include the answer to all these questions in their listing or tell you about them before you even ask, as well as have the item well documented and photographed.


There are several great reasons to shop vintage and antique. First, just like shopping for vintage clothing, it is one of the most sustainable forms of jewelry. Second, there is some truth to the "they just don't make it like they used to" mantra. While tradespeople can still craft a ring with filigree to rival the times - they are a dying breed, and it will cost you significantly more to get vintage motifs made new. Third, there is a certain romance to antique pieces. Fourth, they carry a rich history. I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.


GENERAL RESELLERS


Now let's talk about general resale, which may or may not include vintage and antique items, but primarily comprises pre-owned items less than 20 years old. On the one hand, you can find incredible deals on jewelry. On the other hand, with all the different ways resellers can source their items, pricing is often inconsistent from one thing to the next, which can confuse a consumer. The classic factors like the cost of materials and demand/supply still contribute to pricing, but in different ways than in traditional retail.


A reseller could get their inventory from various sources (scrap, estate sales, other resellers, auctions, eBay, etc.). Therefore the pricing is not always based on industry standards. For example, when resellers get their goods from scrap piles, they aren't buying the items priced as finished pieces; they are only paying for the cost of the materials. Whereas when they are buying from auctions, they might be paying closer to wholesale pricing. Thus, when they sell, even if the items are similar, they may not price them for the same.


Supply and demand play a HUGE role in jewelry pricing, as it does in most industries. A good example is to think of something like a basic cable chain. Everyone in every part of the industry sells cable chains. They are easy to come by and not difficult to make. A reseller can sell these quickly and cheaply because they are abundant on the market. In contrast, take something like a snake chain; they are in high demand right now but are low in supply as pre-owned/vintage, and hard to make new (and therefore expensive). The pricing on pre-owned is still less than new/retail, but their demand combined with their rarity means even as pre-owned, they won't be priced the way a pre-owned, easy to come by cable chain is.


Here are some questions you can ask to help you feel comfortable when shopping from resellers:

  • What is your background in the jewelry industry?

  • How long have you been selling?

  • What method of testing do you use to confirm the metal purity of a piece?

  • Does this item have a maker's mark or date stamp?

  • Can I see a photo of it?

  • Do you test all the diamonds and gemstones before you list an item?

  • Does this item or any of its stones have any damage I should be aware of?

  • Can I see photos?

Suppose you know an industry professional you are already comfortable buying from. In that case, it also doesn't hurt to ask them if they are familiar with the reseller or have heard anything about them. The jewelry industry is a small community, and most people are happy to direct you to other sellers they know and trust.


A Word On Payment in the Online Jewelry Industry...

Something essential to take into consideration is how a seller asks for payment. If someone asks you only to use PayPal friends and family, mark something as a gift, or they don't include applicable sales tax, etc., it should give you pause because that's fraud. There was a lot of outcry following the new Venmo regulations being put in place to flag business transactions being conducted on personal accounts (because it takes a % of the sale as a fee). Here's the thing: transaction fees are an expected cost of running a business and should be accounted for in a pricing model. When a seller doesn't want to deal with fees or doesn't make customers pay tax (where applicable), that is a red flag. Trust your gut when buying things online from people you don't know. Additionally, it is your job as a consumer to shop with integrity, so please don't ask any seller to fake a shipment to an address that would aid you in avoiding paying sales tax. That is also tax fraud, and you are essentially asking someone to risk jail time and losing their business so you can save a little money.


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Well, heck. This was quite the doozy of a post. However, I hope this article helped you feel empowered and knowledgeable. When shopping for jewelry in the future, you should feel comfortable and excited. So let's finish it up with some good do's and don'ts for the industry as a whole, shall we?


DO's and DON'Ts of Shopping for Fine Jewelry

  • DO consider what type of company you are shopping from and how their situation impacts their pricing.

  • e.g., don't expect a small business artisan jeweler to match big box or reseller prices.

  • DON'T think the gram weight of a product is the be-all and end-all of why a piece costs what it does

  • that's like only buying clothes based on how much fabric was used in them - that's only a fraction of what makes up the cost

  • DO feel free to ask questions - no jeweler expects their customers to experts. Just be respectful -- there is a big difference between asking why a particular design is more expensive than another and asking someone to break down their costs to make it.

  • DON'T send a jeweler an item from another brand and asking why their item is priced differently.

  • In a similar vein, don't ask one jewelry professional if they think the work of another is "worth it." You are blatantly expecting them to give you their professional expertise for free.

  • DON'T ask a person what their pricing model, markup, cost, etc., is.

  • Do you do this when you buy jeans at Nordstrom? No. So stop.

  • DO expect pricing may change over time - especially in jewelry when the pricing of materials is constantly changing.

  • DON'T ask a reseller where they source their stuff - if they told you, they would be out of a job.

  • DO ask if a seller offers layaway or financing - these are great options to make a dream piece more attainable.

  • But also understand that not all sellers can take the financial risk of layaway

  • DO support small businesses as often as you can.

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Have any other jewelry-related topics you want me to tackle? Let me know in the comments!

Until next time.


Cheers,

Claire



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