Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ten Things I Learned in 2010

It is snowing outside, and the wind is howling.  So long as you don’t look down at the cars, Jersey City feels a tiny bit like a Winter Wonderland.  The year is drawing to a close.  This is when we reflect on what was good, or bad, about the year that has gone by, and make New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not the reflective type, however, not in that sense anyway, and I make resolutions whenever they occur to me.  My new year begins in September.  But taxes have to be filed, which means I have to sort through tons of receipts in the coming weeks.  And all those pieces of paper yield a picture of sorts, from which I can draw conclusions.

1. Tie bars are back in style.  Alternatively: I am one of very few people who still makes them.  In philosopher’s lingo, these two hypotheses are empirically equivalent: I sold over 250 tie bars this year.  240 of them (or something like that) were plain, which is too bad given how much I love gems.

2. December is not the busiest time of the year on Etsy.  I have to count this out, but I don’t even think I sold more tie bars.  I just sold them individually, as opposed to 5 or 10 at a time to a summer wedding.  In terms of other jewelry, business was about the same.  November, in fact, was better.

3. Sales do not slow down after the holidays.  Ok, it is a bit early to tell.  But I still have 10 custom orders pending.  And I’ve had six sales since December 24.

4. Etsy success tips don’t work.  I tried the gift certificate, I changed my shipping options, and I did a few other things that the Etsy success emails suggested.  Nobody bought the gift certificate, nor did sales increase from any of the other tips.  This makes sense: send a good tip around to everyone, a large number of people follow it, thereby diluting its success.  That’s why business success secrets are, well, secrets.

5. Craft shows are a two edged sword.  You get up early, pull out your shoulder from carrying your stuff, set up for an hour or two, and then you hope that someone comes by and wants your items, and not those of the other dozes of competing jewelery tables.  If you get busy, that’s awesome, if not, you feel that you've totally wasted your day.  Time does not grow on trees, and the German in me hates nothing more than to throw it away.  I may have to rethink some of these shows.

6. Etsy sales and craft show sales don’t overlap.  I’ve sold perhaps 50 pairs of wire-wrapped briolette earrings this year.  Only one pair was sold on Etsy (to a local customer).  It was the same with wire-wrapped and beaded necklaces: the ratio was perhaps 1 in 5, Etsy to craft show.  I think that stuff just gets drowned on Etsy.  Everyone and their mother knows how to string, and anyone can now buy beads at wholesale price from India over the internet.  On Etsy, meanwhile, I sell post earrings and rings with hard to find gemstones.  And - yes - tie bars.

7. I have too many beads.  That’s definitely a lesson learned.  I’m going to have to join Bead Hoarders Anonymous.  Or sell down, which is the plan.  So the wire wrapped and beaded stuff I will make in coming weeks will be more opulent and “wasteful”.  I plan to keep prices low and just sell sell sell.

*** And now for my top three – what I've gleaned from a year in the diamond district ***

8. The guys there told me this in the beginning.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll get cheated.  I didn’t believe it.  Not in America, with all those consumer protection laws.  I take it back.  The Street may be one of the easiest places to get cheated in America.  Now this lesson should take up an entire blog entry, so you’re going to have to wait.  I had to analyze why this is, and I’ve come up with what I think are some good hypotheses.

9. The Street is dying.  Slowly.  Two reasons come to mind.  The obvious one is the economic downturn, and jewelry, after all, is not an everyday use item like food or clothing.  The second reason is the internet.  Companies like Blue Nile are killing the diamond trade, and other companies offer beads and gems to the public at near wholesale prices (about double the wholesale prices is my estimate, where retail is 3-5 times the wholesale price).  Gem sales on TV are doing their own bit to pretend to the public that they are getting good deals (hint) when buying gems direct.  I personally don’t think there are very good deals to be had that way, but evidently enough other people believe it.

10. This last lesson follows from the previous two: once you get past the steep learning curve with high end gems – and it is steeper than I had thought – and once you have made some trustworthy connections, you can get great stuff at a great price.  Sometimes you have to buy parcels, mostly you pay cash by way of making the deal immediate and non-refundable, and very often you have to take your time to sift through unsorted material.  But it pays off.  I had a hunch about this before, and I am certain now that the emeralds I have, to give just one example, can’t be gotten anywhere else, or at anything like the price that I paid. 

A little selection from my Columbian Emerald Parcel

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holiday Rush in the Diamond District?

There’s certainly a noticeable change in the diamond district these days.  But not all of it is for the better.  As my tie bar orders are going through the roof (I thought I was selling jewelry, but ok), I found myself having to rush into the city on short notice to get more wire.  A great opportunity, I thought, because there are some other things I could get done the same day.  It’s now or never, after all.  I have two more shows this year, and then that’s it until March.

I had wanted to get my favorite setter, A. to burnish some diamonds into tie bars for me, but I couldn’t even get near him at first.  Three other guys were surrounding him, waiting for their jobs to get done.  A half hour later I found him busily setting away while chatting on the phone; Armenian music was blasting from the computer in front of him.  But at least there wasn’t anybody else waiting.  “Too busy,” was the response to my request.  And did he do the order from last week?  “No, got sick.”   At least he did that one on the spot for me, though. 

The other outfit I use was overwhelmed as well, so I asked my polishing service if they knew someone.  “Maybe,” the polisher said, and took my stones and tie bars.  Four hours later, I received my first real rush job: two totally unusable pieces of junk.  The stones looked like they had been jabbed into the silver by someone in bad need of glasses.  I returned them to the polisher, to go back to whatever setter he had dug up for the job.  “Maybe they can be fixed,” the polisher thought.  I doubt it.  It was a dumb idea on my part, really, with Christmas just around the corner.

Since I had to wait for several last minute engravings, and for two rings that I wanted to have set, I decided to make good use of my time.  I borrowed a hammer and mandrel from a jeweler to hammer a pattern onto a ring that is supposed to be my aunt’s Christmas present.  There I was, dinging away while sitting at D’s gemstone booth, when I got approached by a woman working for the silver dealer in the back.  “Are you going to be done soon?  This is giving me a headache.” “Yes,” I said.  Why was she annoyed?, I wondered, since this is a loud exchange and there are always jewelers at work.  But I don’t rent a booth there, so I guess I had no right to ding.

Other than that, the day was peaceful.  Way too peaceful in fact.  The number of people wanting to buy D’s gemstones aside from me that day?  Zero.  Nobody buys gemstones in December, unless it’s an emergency.  So all the gemstone dealers are broke – just in time for their own holidays, which are correspondingly meager.  Money doesn’t start flowing again until early spring, when jewelers are stocking up on new inventory.  One hopes, anyway.

One person did show up.  He needed a stone cut to fit into a setting, within the hour, so D. shaved it down on his cutting wheel.  He shaved a little too eagerly, as it turned out, because he cut the stone too small.  So much for that rush order.  D had to cut an entirely new stone. 

Aside from that, another dealer misplaced a $30,000 parcel of diamonds that was supposed to go to the GIA lab for a certificate.  (Even a $30,000 parcel can be really small.)  I don’t know if it got found, I only know it hadn’t turned up by the time I left.

I got home late.  By the time I was all done it was nearly 6:00 p.m.  And then I spent another few hours shipping out tie bars.  Tie bars without gem stones, that is.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December Birthstones: Is Tanzanite a Good Buy?

As most of you who read my blog know, I don’t think much of birthstones.  My own birthstone is pearl, with alternates of moonstone and alexandrite, but my favorite gems are emerald, sapphire and tsavorite.  All of these go well with my skin tone and with the colors I like to wear, which should really be more important.

While the association between zodiac signs and specific gems goes way back, the list of birthstones was standardized some time in the last century by the Association of Jewelers in America.  That list only bears a passing resemblance to the zodiac birthstones and the various other birthstone lists that are floating around.  And since Tanzanite was only discovered in 1967, it wasn’t on any of the old lists anyway.  It was only recently added to the December birthstones - for marketing purposes.

Melted Tanzanite Ring - SOLD

When first discovered, Tanzanite, which belongs in the zoisite family, was dirt cheap.  Nobody knew about it, so there was no market for it.  An old time jeweler told me once that he was given Tanzanite for next to nothing in the early 1970s.  Other dealers have told me the same. 

These days, the Tanzanian government controls production, and since Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world, I am assuming that the Tanzanian people profit very little from this.  Prices have risen significantly since the early days.  Tanzania is the only country in which Tanzanite is found, and there are only 4 mines or so in which it is produced.  Serious flooding issues have created difficulties for mining, so it isn’t clear how much Tanzanite is actually available.  Lastly, there’s a government ban in place which prohibits any Tanzanite to be shipped to Jaipur for cutting (many, if not most of the worlds gemstones are cut in Jaipur).

All these factors make it tough to judge if Tanzanite has any true collector’s value.  And there’s one more issue – the most serious one to me.  Tanzanite is a very soft stone.  It can crack during setting – this has happened to me more than once.  If you have it set in a ring, don’t wear it every day, and take it off before doing any chores.  My stone dealer D., who carries very little Tanzanite, which dates to the early mining dates, is no longer buying any more.  His materials consist of smaller, lighter, stones which show no evidence of heat treatment.  His reason for not trading in it is that often, jewelers will borrow a stone to show it to a customer, but they will put it in a mounting first (so it looks really nice).  If the customer turns down the stone, it may come back to D. scratched or cracked.  If D. does not carefully re-inspect his merchandize, he may not notice and then no reclamation is possible.  Or the jeweler will simply claim that he didn’t crack the stone, and these sort of disputes are hard to settle.

Tanzanites are pretty much universally heat treated.  During the earlier mining days, some deposits found on the surface, where they were exposed to sunlight (which provides natural irradiation), were naturally light purple.  Ordinarily, however, the material that comes out of the ground is brownish, and has to be heated to drive bring out the purple.

In terms of color, the most desirable Tanzanite has a rich dark bluish purple.  Lighter stones, the lavender colored ones, are less valuable.  In smaller sizes, however, that may be all that’s available because the depth of a stone is what creates the darker color.  If you re-cut a stone that has a rich dark coloring, you may surrender some of its color intensity.

My evaluation?  Tanzanite is a beautiful stone, you should buy if it you love it.  But if you are a collector, there are better investments out there.

My last pair of round Tanzanite Post Earrings