What makes certain jewelry good?
December 2, 2005 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Jewelry design? Suppose, for the sake of conversation, I'd like to know about key designers and what makes for "good" jewelry.

I recently was in a conversation where someone mentioned his girlfriend's love of jewelry from Tiffany and I kind of threw out the default complaint about jewelry being a waste of money and how the materials often involve exploiting forced child labor, etc. I realized that I actually know very little about the jewelry industry.

Outside of the rarity/quality of gems and precious metals, what is prized? I know that custom jewelry is often designed for those who can afford it, but are there big name designers of mass produced jewelry or are different stores just known for styles? I've seen a lot of seemingly generic jewelry and for such an expensive item I would imagine there's more to the story.

Note that I'm more interested in higher-priced items that include precious materials, although craftier designer items may apply too.
posted by mikeh to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Aside from crafstmanship and the quality of the materials...

Certainly there is an element of buying into the brand when someone shops at a Tiffany or Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, etc. Having been around women who do buy from these places, I've found that a lot of it just seems to be for signaling their status to others in the know. (And "taste" is of course conflated with "being expensive" in these cases.)

I'm also sure that the bigger names engender trust in the buyer. I remember a news expose several years ago when a reporter bought similar pieces of jewelry from several stores--everything from a discounter to a well-known department store to Tiffany. In the case of every store save Tiffany, the gemstones (emeralds, I think) had been monkeyed with in extreme--glass injections to fill in cracks, that kind of thing. That said, even Tiffany irradiated their stones to improve color, something they cop to doing on their Web site.

Speaking of Tiffany, did you know that Avon Cosmetics, purveyor of Skin So Soft and cheapo jewelry, owned Tiffany from the mid 70s through the mid 80s? Mention that to someone who swears by Tiffany--in my experience, usually the social strivers who can only afford the ridiculously overpriced silver jewelry--and watch their faces fall.
posted by Sully6 at 9:29 AM on December 2, 2005

I prefer jewelry from artists. I have some great pieces that are originals. Some of my favorites include Rone Prinz and Sarah Nehama. Both have websites, Sarah's isn't updated very often. Both do "one of a kind" pieces along with pieces that they remake.

Have you been to an American Craft Council show?

Artists that are involved with the shows have to be invited to participate. They are judged on their work.
posted by 6:1 at 9:49 AM on December 2, 2005

There's a strong correlation between jewelry and art.

Some pieces are just details, meant to accent the wearer's appearance. Occasionally, a piece is meant to take center stage. And just as in the art world, some pieces are meant to exclaim "I can afford this" (or in the case of cheezy knock-offs "I wish I was wealthy")

Most Tiffany designs are simple and relatively classic. They're likely to match almost everything, and are unlikely to be very showy. They're akin to buying a print of a classic photograph, or gown by Nicole Miller.

On the other side, you can deal with custom jewelry designers who will make pieces on commission, designed to work as part of a particular person's style, or for a specific occasion.

Better jewelry prizes design, craftsmanship and materials over the obviousness of price.

Regarding the materials, Tiffany's (and many other jewelers) have zero-tolerance policies towards conflict diamonds, and there has been a significant push for jewelry made from ethically sourced materials across the industry.
posted by I Love Tacos at 10:08 AM on December 2, 2005

Besides the cost of raw materials, the price of jewelry is driven by the quality of workmanship and performance, the market demand for works by a particular designer, as well as premium pricing where items are intentionally priced higher to convey something about the product (quality, exclusivity, etc.).

The price of a particular piece of jewelry typically reflects a number of these factors. The girlfriend probably likes Tiffany because the jewelry is of a high quality, she may prefer the style of their jewelry, or she may like it from a conspicuous consumption standpoint.

Marketing execs say people make purchases based on their hearts and their heads. Jewelry is not a purchase from the head - it's an impratical investment and generally supports some ethically-shady companies. Buying solar panels for your house would be much more pratical way to spend your money, for example. But of course, they're a reason why men don't propose with solar panels...

Purchasing jewelry is an emotional decision. Tiffany is able to charge above-market prices for their pieces (say, something non-unique, like a 6-prong round diamond solitaire platinum engagement ring) because that ring will be stamped Tiffany & Co. on the inside band and it will come in a little blue box. This evokes a different emotion and experience for the purchaser and recipient, than a ring identical in composition, quality, and craftsmanship, from a lower-end retailer.

There is also a segment of the high-end jewelry market which mirrors designer fashion. Just as a dress designed by a particular designer will demand a certain price, so will a piece of jewelry made by a certain designer. The price of these pieces have very little relation to the cost of the raw materials.

This doesn't even touch on the price control structure in the diamond industry which is truly frightening. You can start reading here if you're interested.
posted by peppermint22 at 10:13 AM on December 2, 2005

I know you said "outside of the rarity/quality of the gems" but I think you're being too quick to gloss over this factor. To an untrained eye (e.g. mine, and perhaps yours) all diamonds (pearls, what have you) look roughly the same, so you naturally focus on the design. To my girlfriend (who sells pearl jewelry for a living and has roughly 99% of her net worth tied up in a single Tahitian black pearl necklace), the design is secondary. She focuses much more on the quality of the gems, as do her customers. It's not unheard of for somone to buy, say, a pearl ring just for the pearl, discard the ring and have it remounted on a different design (sort of like buying a house for the land and demolishing the house to rebuild).
posted by zanni at 9:47 PM on December 2, 2005

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