NEW YORK — Ask any new jewelry designer how their business got started and chances are the response is: “I started it as a hobby, making pieces for myself and friends.”

The accessibility of the basic tools of the trade — with the wide availability of baubles, wires, and clasps at bead stores or online — and to some degree, the skills of jewelry making, have led to a flood of rookie designers hitting the field, in a way that’s not possible in the apparel arena. Perhaps that’s because having a way with a sewing machine — and the ability to meet minimum fabric orders — isn’t something the average Joe or Josephine comes by easily, while anyone with a little patience and color sense can string together beads from the comfort of their living room.

In turn, jewelry departments from Barneys New York to Fragments to posh neighborhood boutiques are open to — and in many cases, building their reputations on — new talent.

“So much in fashion today is about young designers — all those young talents coming up,” said Michael Eigen, whose namesake Madison Avenue store was founded in 1995 as a launch pad for talented jewelry newcomers. “People want new, they want different and these young designers can work really quickly. They are not chained to one specific style from 30 years ago that they are still plugging along with.”

But it takes more than just a bagful of beads and some spare time to string together a successful jewelry business. WWD surveyed a handful of showroom and store owners on the five commandments of making it in the jewelry business today.

Besides Eigen, who also has a store at New York’s Grand Central Station, those interviewed were Lauren Kulchinsky, vice president and fine jewelry buyer at Mayfair Diamonds & Jewelry, a jeweler with doors in East Hampton, South Hampton, Commack and Woodbury, N.Y.; Jim DeMattei, owner of ViewPoint Showroom in Manhattan, and Janet Goldman, president of Fragments, a combination of showroom and retail outlets in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Know How To Sell The Designer, Not Just The Jewelry“The common denominator of jewelry designers who do well is that they can come in and sell their jewelry,” Eigen said. “Your jewelry has to fit what we do, the neighborhood, what the area does. But you have to come in and be a personality. You can’t just have great jewelry. In this day and age, it doesn’t sell itself.”

Of course, the first step is to sell the line to a prospective account. Not surprisingly, cold-calling is not high on the list of the retailers’ recommended moves.

“I believe in sending a package first and following up with a phone call,” said Eigen. “It’s much nicer if I can say, ‘I like what you sent me, why don’t you come in and sit down.’ ”

Presentation is also key. “Never walk into an interview with jewelry in plastic baggies,” said Kulchinsky. “Invest in velvet rolls or necklace busts.”

Retailers also noted that displaying the right attitude can also go a long way.

“It’s better to be honest and humble,” said Kulchinsky. “Know where your things come from. If you are uncertain whether your black diamonds are irradiated or not, say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out.’”

One area where jewelry hopefuls need to do their homework is the stores they want to pitch.

“Research where you’re going,” said Kulchinsky. “If it’s a store you want to be represented in, they should give you a trial period. Certain companies have certain ways of getting you in…they try you out for a certain time, or say, ‘Let’s try a trunk show first.’ If it doesn’t feel right, you should walk away.”

Know The Business

Don’t neglect the latter half of the phrase “jewelry business.”

For most young designers, consignment (or memo) programs define their first dealings with retailers. A store will often only pay designers for what sells, with their cut being a minimum of twice the wholesale-to-retail markup, according to DeMattei.Once the jewelry is on consignment, “it’s going to be six months to a year before you see results that are substantial, even if a line’s a real runaway hit,” said Eigen, who estimated that a designer who saw $100,000 wholesale in first-year sales would be doing well, with $50,000 being the average.

Neiman’s Stephen Magner, vice president of fine jewelry, measured a promising first year in terms of units, not dollars.

“If you’re in two to three stores and you sell 20 pieces to several different people in the first six months, that would tell me that customers like it and we ought to pursue [the line] in more places. Twenty pieces doesn’t seem like a lot, but in the price range we deal with, it can be significant.”

For the most part, though, consignment is merely a stepping stone to building a bigger business, usually with the help of a backer.

“I think you have to get some kind of backer to be able to launch your business,” agreed designer Julie Baker, whose first fine jewelry collection was picked up by Bergdorf Goodman three years ago. “You can’t supply stores with consignment all by yourself. And then you can expand…you get your p.r. company, your advertising, your rep, your showroom. These things are all really important to get your name out there. Financing helps for sure.”

But DeMattei, whose showroom specializes in formulating marketing plans for businesses whose volume has reached $500,000 or greater, said that for the rookie designer, manufacturing concerns outweigh questions of marketing.

“A lot of times for young designers, whether they are dealing in precious metals, or even costume jewelry, the challenge becomes manufacturing,” said DeMattei. ‘I mean, God forbid you get a $100,000 order. A lot of the young designers don’t have the tools to deliver the goods.”

Kulchinsky suggested that fledgling designers be able to answer the following questions: “What happens if a stone breaks? Can you repair it? How long will it take? Are you set up economically to handle a guarantee? Can you resize or refinish the ring? If I order again, will the color be the same?”Know The Baubles

Eigen suggests that designers work with contractors to make sure a design can work from a production standpoint. Retailers accustomed to dealing with young designers can typically point them to able contractors.

“A contractor can say this works in a mechanical sense, instead of finding out after that it doesn’t and wasting money in model costs,” he said. “He’ll tell you right off the bat and save [you] a lot of time and effort.”

“Something might look good in a box, but when you put it on, it’s uncomfortable,” said Kulchinsky. “You have to make sure if it’s a big ring, you can still close your hand when you wear it.”

Know The Customer

Kulchinsky called a strong client relationship “the best tool a designer can have.” To that end, retailers said not to underestimate the power of the in-store appearance.

Eigen concurred: “The main reason that Erica Courtney does so well is that she comes in here and every woman wants to be her best friend. Like an actor or a musician, a designer should have a fan base. Building rapport between clients and designers is even more important than it was. You should be able to sit down with someone and work within their constraints.”

Be Creative And Individual

“Copying other designers is a big no-no,” said Goldman. “If you put something on the table that’s reminiscent of other designers, that just tells me and my staff that you aren’t thinking in an original way. And we must have original design. I say to new designers: Give me something that comes from within, don’t be afraid to do something different. Go shopping, look at ads, read magazines: If there’s something there you were thinking of doing, don’t do it.”

Chasing trends is another common pitfall.

“There’s a [type of] designer that will only follow trends; they’ll pick up whatever’s happening and they’ll sell well for awhile, but they’ll lose momentum,” said Eigen. “As a little store, we don’t have resources to buy into everything trendy and sit there and do nothing. We want things that are more continually stylish.”In the end, “It’s about believing in yourself…[and] about finding someone who believes in you,” said Goldman. “So many people come back to me years later to say, you know you gave me advice, and it meant so much to me. Sometimes that’s all it takes, someone you respect to tell you that you have talent.”

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