Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Buying Opals, Pro’s and Cons

I do not carry a lot of opal jewelry in my shop, but with the month of opal coming up, I can share with you my experience with this gem.  As you know, opal is a very soft stone and that makes it hard to work with – one reason I don’t carry it much.  Bezel settings look nicest, yet prongs are safest if you don’t want to crack the gem or expand an inclusion to the surface.  You need an experienced setter, especially if you work with harder metals like white gold.  Silver is far easier.  One trick that I have used is to backset the gem, where prongs are gently folded down behind it.  I have also used glue to hold down the stone, but the problem with glue is that the gem can come loose over time and fall out.  Or the glue dissolves in jewelry cleaner (especially if acetone is involved).

Currently, opals are mainly mined in two locations: Australia and Ethiopia.  But opals are also found elsewhere, i.e. Mexico and Tanzania.  Most of those do not have play of color though, whereas Australian and Ethiopian opals exhibit what we think of as typical in terms of color: blue, green, yellow, and if you are lucky, some red (that’s the rarest color).

Boulder Opal Pair
I personally prefer Australian opal.  There are several reasons for this.  One is simply that I think they are prettier, especially the boulder opals which already come with their natural sandstone backing that brings out the color.  The deeper reason is durability.  Many Ethiopian opals tend to crack over time as the moisture goes out (opals are 5% water).  And soaking them doesn’t help, in fact, it can make it worse because as the stone dries, it cracks even more.  Over time, some Ethiopian opals also seem to lose their play of color and turn white.  That may be because they dry out, I don’t know.  Lastly, prices of Ethiopian opals have increased drastically, and I frankly don’t see the point of paying that much money for something that doesn’t last.

Ethiopian Opal Beads
Australian opals also have problems.  There are a lot of set doublets on the market (not always identified as such), and many opals are smoked to make their body color darker and bring out the color.  This can affect durability as well.  Opal prices have gone up but at least the Aussie prices have stabilized in the last couple of years.  I love any type of Boulder Opal (I like Koroit but I love the ones from Queensland).  It has the most color, a strong sandstone back comes in nice sizes for good prices.  You can look on Etsy but also at Opalauctions.com, and get pretty pieces shipped directly from Australia.

When you care for you opal, definitely stay away from any kind of harsh jewelry cleaners.  Use soap and water, a baby toothbrush (gently), and leave it at that.  Don’t expect your opal to become a family heirloom – most don’t last that long – and make sure that you don’t expose it to too many chances to crack it.  No gardening, no cooking, with opals rings! 

Boulder Opals

Boulder Opals

Huge Boulder Opal

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Some Thoughts on the Challenge of Making Custom Quotes

Now that I have so many gemstones for sale, I get considerably more requests for custom quotes than I did in the past.  And I face new challenges.  I have been thinking that if I share some of these, perhaps I can get some suggestions from you as I develop price lists and a custom form for my new webpage.

               Making a quote minimally involves calculations on the following three factors:

1. Gemstones:  this math is easy if you have picked out your stone, but if I have to multiply out, say, sidestones for a pendant or ring, or diamonds for a halo, then that involves more.  I usually just “ballpark” smaller colored stones (1-2mm sizes) but I have to calculate out diamonds exactly.  Each size and each grade will change the calculation.  So a half pointer G/H VS is different from a 1 pointer G/H SI.

2. Metal cost:  this can be tricky.  It is easiest if I have an existing ring that I can weigh or that is one of my molds, because I have the weights listed in my mold sheet.  Then I multiply by the current gold price. If I have to make the ring from scratch, I have to consult a catalog that gives me the weights of metal strips in different mm sizes and thicknesses.  The weight is usually in 14 K yellow, so that involves conversions if it is platinum or 18k.  For silver I just ballpark because silver is cheap.  Another factor that influences weight is the finger size.  A size 5 is much lighter than a 9.  I have lists for that also, that is, how many mm metal strip I need for which finger size.  With gold, you need to be exact because just ¼ gram in weight can make a big difference.  I also have to calculate some metal loss, or the cost of the sprue, so I add a little % to each calculation.  Finally, settings can vary drastically in price, and there are no price lists that contain every single setting in every single size (for instance, bezels weigh more than prong settings, but some prong settings are more hefty than others, and each mm size makes the setting heavier).  Plus gold prices change every day so when you shop, you pay a % markup on that day’s spot price.  As you get more experienced, you learn to estimate better, and that helps.  But the rule of thumb in the market is not to underestimate because if you cut it too tight, you can very quickly lose money, especially when your markup is low (mine is very low by industry standard).

Metal Strip Price List for 10K Flat Wire
3. Labor: labor breaks down into several categories.  If it is a casting, then you add casting labor.  That’s only a few dollars, so that’s good.  If you have to make a mold, you add that in.  If there is 3-C printing or CAD work involved, that’s another price depending on the time it takes to make it.  If there is soldering, I have a rough idea of what each type of soldering costs and I add that in. Then there is setting labor.  Setting labor depends on stone size, bezel or prong, millgrain or pave.  And of course the number of stones.  So a ring with 12 sidestones that are 2mm, with a 6 mm center, pave, can be very different from a 3 stone ring that’s prong set.  Finally, you have to add polishing and plating costs (i.e. rhodium). 

Sample Page from Settings Catalog - Look at all those Sizes and there are Pages and Pages of this Stuff
Now this was the simple calculation.  When you get to a complicated CAD design then often you have to make a 2-D or even 3D rough drawing before you can get the pricing exact.  That means the customer has to be very specific about what she wants, or provide me with a budget first, otherwise the back and forth can be endless.  And if I have to send out 3 possible quotes involving three design alterations, I can easily be sitting for an hour just to do the math.

At the very end, I add my wholesale markup, which has to account for the following factors: my own time and labor which involves quotes, photos, seeing the order through, all customer communications, shipping time.  I work approximately 40 hrs a week just running the shop.  Then there is assistant’s overall time helping with the shop, shipping costs, overhead (computer cost, travel to NY, electric, etc), Etsy cost, PayPal or Direct Checkout cost, as well as development costs when I make new designs, putting orders together, accounting costs, and costs for items not sold, items wasted, items broken (not negligible!).  What does that add up to?  Very very minimally, you have to double your cost once you’ve worked out the initial item cost.  But a safer calculation is x1.2-1.5 depending on how much your other costs are.  Everyone in industry – just about any industry – tells you that even for wholesale, if you don’t do at least double, you will go under.  I frequently get chided by people for not being careful with my own costs, and I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty!  My shop does very well but I work hard for that.

Complicated enough for you?  Now you know why custom shops usually charge so much money.  By the time the customer is satisfied and the numbers are correct, you can have spent more time than it takes to actually make the piece.  Well, I’m overstating of course, but it is definitely more involved than what meets the eye.  That’s why so many shops just have basic designs and price lists based on those, as opposed to making everything to order.