CAUTION: All words and NO PICTURES
A kind face, sharp eye and willingness to learn on the go can take you all over the world, but it can’t identify the origin of a sapphire upon request. I recently started working with a lapidary on Jeweler’s Row in Philadelphia, and to say it re-humbles me is an understatement. I have been to some of the greatest jewelry shows in the world: JCK, Vincenza Oro, Basel, Hong Kong and Tuscon. I have designed jewelry for celebrities and followed the creation process from buying stones, through manufacturing at factories in China, to showing the products live on television shopping networks. But, I cannot identify the origin of a gemstone by simply peeking at it through a microscope¹ which brings me full circle to how and why I entered this industry in the first place.
Standing in the Geology Department’s mineralogy hall at University of Nevada Las Vegas I felt a quiet calm. The sort of relief most people feel when they finally make it home after a long day was the over-arching aura, for me, amidst the sparkle of jagged uncut crystals. I was studying entrepreneurship at the time, but I wanted to stay in this hall forever. As things got rockier in my home and personal life, I promised myself I would build a life I wanted and eventually set forward with a personal mission to learn the jewelry industry from mine to final customer.
Without truly understanding any facet of the industry, I began daydreaming out loud and speaking with people about how to get into the world of fine jewelry and gemstones. I thought perhaps, someday I would own and operate my own import/export company with a small jewelry brand as a pet project to feed my creative hunger. Since I had always been good with my hands and understood aesthetics, I began looking into wire and beads. I first made myself a pair of earrings from silver wire and seashells. They were a success and I decided to debut them at a wedding I would be attending a few weeks later. At that wedding, I sat across the table from a woman who had been a gemstone buyer with Sterling for many years; she asked not only about my earrings but what I wanted to do with my life. Upon hearing the ingredients of my elaborate dream and probably recognizing that I still knew nothing of what I was talking about, she shared her story with me. I leaned in and listened closely as this woman told me about her adventures in Thailand and the Gemological Institute of America. Her recommendation was that I start Graduate Gemologist courses immediately, and abandon my college courses for the time being so that I could get the industry training I needed to make my dreams a reality. I scheduled a trip to Carlsbad to see the school of my dreams and was blown away by the facilities, only to find out just how expensive studying on campus would be. At the time, I had nothing but college debt and a career as a hula dancer, which although fun did not pay very well. But I saw a shiny world of crystallized adventure and I wanted in.
I returned to Las Vegas with one mission: to make and save enough money to attend G.I.A. on campus. I applied to every major jewelry store I knew of but no one would give me an interview because I had zero experience in luxury sales or fine jewelry. Before getting too discouraged I met a woman named Julie at a fashion show who represented a direct sales costume jewelry company called Park Lane. Julie and I chatted and I shared my dreams with her. She told me that while it wasn’t the natural or even genuine gemstones I wanted to work with ultimately, I could join her team and earn some extra money to set aside for my goals. Wanting to make some sort of progress towards my future I accepted and we began the first part of my jewelry adventure. It wasn’t long before I was hosting events of my own in restaurants like the one where I met my first fine jewelry boss.
Julie and I were set on revolutionizing the direct sales model we worked with. We put together flyers, mass texts and even tried pitching executive gift programs. We planned sales events for our Park Lane team partnering with restaurants on slower nights to offer a happy hour for anyone who wanted to join us and take a peek at our merchandise. One particular night we had set out our forms, displays and lights to make the jewelry really pop, but it was a terribly slow event with almost none of our customers even stopping by. Towards the end of the night a man stopped by with his two children. “Jackpot,” I thought. I approached him to make a sale for him to take home to the wife, only to be met with an array of questions like: “What are you doing here?” “[Why are you selling jewelry] in a restaurant?” and “But why are you doing this, what do you want to do with your life?” I finally gave in, figuring the man was obviously not going to be a customer so I may as well have a decent conversation with him. I told him my hopes of using the money I would earn from this company to pursue gemology and then work in the industry as a buyer and maybe a designer someday. At the end of our conversation this man introduced himself to me. His name was Ben and he owned a fine jewelry store on the Las Vegas strip. He made me an offer that changed my life. He said, “Come work for me and sell the way you do here and I will teach you everything I know.” I am still not convinced that Ben taught me everything he knows but he did begin me on the adventure of a lifetime.
Within my first few months on the floor, I had memorized every item of the inventory and read all the materials available, even the jewelers’ tool catalogs. Before long I was a go to source on the sales floor, having made it my business to know and understand everything one of our customers might like to know. I came in early, on my days off and stayed late for any opportunity to learn more. I practiced my sketching every day until I became good enough to sit with customers and design custom pieces for them on the spot; I then worked with the store owner to learn how to price the unique designs. Each custom order sparked ideas for full collections and elaborate brand possibilities. So when the time came for me to tell people what I thought my next step in my career would be I said just that. I wanted to design full collections and put together entire brand packages.
From what I learned with Ben, I was able to finagle a few meetings I probably didn’t deserve for the opportunity to impress the people that brought me to New York where I ultimately became a real designer and merchandiser. Just months after first uttering my desire to construct brands, an opportunity arose that I was not going to let slip through my fingers. I received a phone call that a buyer at HSN was looking for more brands and that if I wanted a shot I could put together a few different brand ideas to be pitched. I sent three concepts with sketches of jewelry and logos for the buyer to review. Her response was that she would need to see some of the designs in live samples before making a decision. It was definitely not a “yes” but it also was not a “no”. A few months after that I had another opportunity to sit in on a meeting with a TV sales celebrity who was looking to launch a new portion of her brand. This was my ticket into the mass market manufacturing world. I understood her when she spoke and was able to translate her words into sketches and then into samples which were ultimately bought to prove that I could build collections.
With one success under my belt I knew I wanted to transition to not only designing for an existing brand identity but also creating one. That was when I met my first actress who needed a brand created for television. Together, she and I built a beautiful TV brand from a few scribbles on napkins. As with each experience before I realized how much more there was to learn with each bit of information I logged. I found myself needing to now subscribe not only to Jewelry Trade magazines but to branding firms, blogs and general retail resources. I went to trade shows around the world to tag along with industry friends for trend analysis and forecasting and I took every opportunity to sit in on lectures.
Once we established the trends and the direction for the brand then there was manufacturing. Knowing nothing of the process, I was sent to China to get a grasp and work with the factory design teams in person. I spent weeks at a time trying to not only teach the trends and brand direction but more importantly learn how jewelry is made. With each design, I learned a little more about the possibilities and often times the impossibilities in creating jewelry. I consulted as many seasoned jewelers as possible to get a good understanding of how difficult or simplistic any given piece would be, and then tried to tailor the designs for our maximum output potential. Completing a beautiful sample collection was still only a small portion of the job to be done. I then had to learn how to price wholesale products and these constraints sent me packing to head back to the factories for less expensive products. As the project progressed, I learned not only what buyers wanted but also what the end customers wanted through their feedback and online reviews.
It is now only five and a half years after I realized what and who I wanted to be. I own my own small jewelry business, work with some of the rarest gemstones in the world alongside some of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met, and now more than ever before I feel the pang of wanting more knowledge straight from the source. Each morning that I walk in and see the lab equipment sitting behind the counter, I cannot help but feel a small covetous sensation for the ability to call myself a true gemologist. It never ceases to amaze me how more is both more and never enough. Is ignorance bliss because the more you know the more you realize you don’t know at all?
¹ [like Frank who you may hear about a lot from now on because he is basically who I want to be in many ways when I grow up which is also why I agreed to work with him even though he basically pays me in African artifacts and lunch. P.S. I am probably way misusing this whole footnote thing. P.P.S. Get over it.]