Fashion & Beauty

Selling the Family Jewels

A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, MyLittleBird was lucky to get some good advice on selling unwanted  jewelry from  contributors Lynn Sauls and Rebecca Crews.

But the idea of unwanted “jools” is an itch that keeps needing to be scratched, especially as we Boomers watch the unprecedented transfer of wealth from the dying generation to our own. Images of dollar signs just keep dancing in the back of the brain.
So we decided to gather some items of jewelry from several friends and take them to two experts steeped in knowledge of the jewelry trade and with a keen eye for what’s good and what’s not. Even more important, from their point of view, they knew what they would be able to sell if they took a piece off our hands.
I mixed things up: a rhinestone “line” bracelet with a diamond one. A charming (but costume) bow pin with bead flowers. Sterling silver flower earrings and gold flower earrings. I wasn’t trying to fool anyone (hardly!), just wanted to present the kind of “treasure” an average person might think was valuable.
The results were demoralizing in a way, but quite instructive.
As Sauls and Crews pointed out in their story: Just remember that the cost of owning jewelry is that you never get what you paid for it.
So with our treasures stuffed into plastic baggies, we marched off to see Kert Blodgett, director of sales at Charles Schwartz & Son, and Jim Rosenheim, chairman of Tiny Jewel Box, both in Washington, DC.
Both Rosenheim and Blodgett immediately separated the chaff from the wheat, not giving more than a cursory glance to the fake stuff. Their remarks about the real jewelry were interesting, differing mostly in nuance.
Both pointed out that some pieces (not necessarily those we presented to them) would do better in another market. As Rosenheim put it, “Putting the merchandise in the right place” is important.
Rosenheim, who has spent “63 consecutive Christmases behind the counter” of Tiny Jewel Box (he grew up in the family business), suggested that sellers might be well served by understanding the “bigger picture of the retail jewelry business.”
First off: Pins, brooches, “scatter pins,” are hard, really hard, to sell. Said Blodgett, “Clothes aren’t made to accommodate them” these days.” Rosenheim concurred: People buy rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Hard words to hear for those of us with all those inherited brooches, even if they’re made with real gold and gemstones. And, as both jewelers pointed out, “Old” doesn’t equal “good.”
The first question Rosenheim will ask himself when presented with a piece of jewelry is, Is it marketable? If yes, okay, What’s the wholesale price for the item? (If he can purchase the same piece from a wholesaler, why would he pay an individual more?) “Then I discount the wholesale price,” he said. Why? “Because I have an ongoing business relationship with the wholesaler. After six months, if I can’t sell a piece [that he bought from the wholesaler], I’ll send it back to him, maybe get a credit toward another piece. I’m not going to be stuck with it.” He added, “I can’t get [my money] back from you” as an individual seller.
That discount off the wholesale price will be small or large, depending on TJB’s cash position, how many similar pieces they have in inventory. “It’s a very pragmatic process,” Rosenheim said. And the lower price you, the customer, get can be considered “the cost of having a ‘final solution,’ if you will, to your need or desire to sell the piece.
“I have customers I sell to and buy from. I’m trying to be a resource for them. I want them to understand my thought process in naming a price for their pieces.
“Selling or buying,” he concluded, “people are owed an explanation.”
Blodgett said Charles Schwartz & Son has a similar intimate relationship with customers, taking an old-fashioned piece, for instance, and having a craftsman turn it into something more contemporary. Blodgett said that, for a somewhat substantial piece, he will sometimes put a seller and a buyer together, taking a small percentage of the selling price as a commission. (As he pointed out, auction houses take a lot more, often taking an additional 15% of the “hammer price” from the buyer, plus a commission and fees for catalogue photography, storage and shipping from the seller).
If an offer seems too low, Rosenheim said he will suggest that people get several offers on a piece. “Just because I don’t want it doesn’t mean someone else won’t.” And he pointed out there are companies, like Circa, that buy jewelry and then sell it back into the trade.
Blodgett advised one thing in this regard. It’s natural for people who have no idea what their jewelry is worth to first take it to an appraiser to get an idea. He sees this as a waste of a couple of hundred dollars. “The piece is going to be worth only what I’m willing to pay for it.” Good point: We’ve learned this lesson with houses, that they’re worth only what someone is actually willing to pay for them, no matter what we think.”
The hard part of selling jewelry these days, both men agreed, is today’s increasingly casual lifestyle (athleisure wear, anyone?). People don’t dress any more.
And as with everything else, there are ebbs and flows in fashion and price. Blodgett cited a loose 1-carat diamond that in 1977 cost $7,000; by the money-flush 1980 it sold for $65,000. And today, post-2008? You would get maybe $16,000 for it.
If you’re faced with leaving jewelry to your children or others and want to distribute it equitably, Blodgett suggested that you add up the cash value of the pieces at the moment and divide that way. “Find someone you trust,” he said, “and let them help you.”
Rosenheim sees his business as “selling pretty things to nice people on happy occasions,” not a bad way to see life. And his most interesting days? Well, every day, but probably most during the Watergate hearings, with a stream of visits from Washington Post reporters and editors “and four of the Watergate prosecutors, though I was always worried about having more than one of them in the store at the same time.”
—Nancy McKeon

3 thoughts on “Selling the Family Jewels

  1. Kathy says:

    Great story! This answers so many questions for me. I’ve always wondered about the thought process of pricing jewelry. I once took an antique diamond ring to The Tiny Jewel Box for repair. Had no idea if it had any monetary value, but it was a pretty ring. The repair cost $700. I asked the woman who did the repair if she could give me some idea of the ring’s worth. “Well,” she said, “it’s worth at least $700.”

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      A similar thing happened to my parents years ago. They sent a grubby old tea service off to be replated. It came back with an appraisal attached–for the exact cost of the resilvering. Good lesson.

  2. A valuable piece Nancy. Thank you. I’ll sit on my brooches until they’re back – or I become Secretary of State.

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