Jewelry shopping remains a search for prestige, luxury

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For centuries, jewelry has symbolized a certain degree of prestige, luxury and ceremonialism. Egyptian pharaohs were entombed with gold trinkets. Debutantes were, and are, given strands of pearls as part of their rite of passage. Couples exchange rings along with wedding vows at the altar. Men who find themselves in the doghouse present gifts of diamonds and gold to their better halves.

When buying jewelry most people compare quality to price. Jewels, regardless of how modest or grandiose, are checked for flaws and imperfections. And most shoppers want to know whether a purchase will stand the test of time.

No matter where people are buying, the motivations tend to be the same. International retail giant Wal-Mart has been leading jewelry sales for several years, said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing. “Today it’s one percent of their sales,” she said. “There’s a propensity of people buying jewelry at Wal-Mart, and they’re buying pieces for under $100.” Unity Marketing, founded in 1992, is a marketing consulting firm.

But not all jewelry sold at Wal-Mart stores and Sam’s Clubs falls into the lower-end category. Those who have not perused the jewelry counters or Web sites of Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club may be in for a surprise. Wal-Mart stores carry diamonds certified by the International Gemological Institute. The institute is an independent appraisal and gem grading entity.

“Here’s jewelry, the epitome of luxury, at a discount retailer,” said Danziger, who is the author of “Why People Buy Things They Don’t Need” and “Let Them Eat Cake: Marketing Luxury to the Masses.”

Although Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club are discount retailers, both offer a number of pricey items. A diamond necklace weighing in at 56 carats is for sale at www.samsclub.com for $300,000. And www.walmart.com features wedding rings starting from $198 to $5,488. “They’re hitting very heavily into bridal,” Danziger said.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman did not respond to telephone calls or e-mails seeking information about the company’s jewelry business.

Because weddings and engagements are scheduled throughout the year, a change for the one-time traditional June dates, stability has been provided to the jewelry industry, said Marvin Beasley, CEO of Helzberg Diamonds. The holiday season, however, typically provides a big boost to jewelry retailers across the country. “It’s not unusual for a business to do 40 percent of its business in the last quarter,” Beasley said.

Robin Johannes, a gemologist at Johannes Hunter Jewelers in Colorado Springs, agreed. “We see our holiday business in the last 10 days (before Christmas),” she said. “We’re not on roller skates here until the last 10 days.”

Johannes Hunter carries sapphires, tourmalines, tanzanite, emeralds and colored diamonds to name a few. Jewelry at Johannes Hunter starts at about $44, Johannes said. One of the stores most notable sales was a tourmaline from the Brazilian state of Paraiba, a stone that sold for $250,000. “The mine is tiny, it’s only the size of a football field,” she said. “We have extraordinarily rare gemstones in our store that no one has ever heard of.”

Helzberg and Zerbe Jewelers Inc. in Colorado Springs also employ certified gemologists. There are “diamondtologists” at every Helzberg store, Beasley said, and the company has a “fair number” of gemologists. “What you hear at the counter should be 100 percent completely accurate,” Beasley said. “Training is very important to our business.”

Charles Zerbe, a certified gemologist appraiser, graduate gemologist and registered jeweler for Zerbe Jewelers, said there are six certified gemologists on staff at the store. Diamond rings seem to be the most popular selling items at Zerbe, he said, although the store does carry a variety of gemstones, watches and bracelets.

And the customer base is quite diverse. “We’ve got construction workers and we have developers,” Zerbe said. “It tends to be more of the women shopping and men doing the buying. The men really want to please their ladies. They really work hard and sweat their purchases.”

To help those folks who are timid about jewelry shopping, Zerbe offers “hint” cards that can be filled out by a shopper, taken home and left somewhere in plain view of a significant other. While Christmastime is the busiest for Zerbe, the store also sees a great deal of business for Valentine’s Day. “Sometimes we’re busy and we don’t do great business, or we’re not busy and business is good.” Zerbe said it is not unusual for repeat customers to visit the store to make the occasional $10,000 purchase.

Younger shoppers and window shoppers also come in from time to time. “We’ve got a bunch of young people come in and look at watches,” Zerbe said. “A lot are dreamers, some are planners.”

No matter if they’re young or old, higher or lower-income, most people want something impressive to call their own, Danziger said. “All income levels feel entitled to a level of luxury in their lives,” she said. “Most baby boomers have reached influence and most younger people have not.”

People buying jewelry, whether it is from a discount retailer or a high-end specialty shop, buy their diamonds and pearls for very similar reasons, Beasley said. “I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he said. Beasley said Helzberg sales teams are all taught that someone spending $100 may be purchasing an item they see as a luxury. “It doesn’t matter if the price is $99 or $9,999 – the motivation for buying is usually the same. This business is so driven by love and romance.”

Are diamonds from Wal-Mart any less remarkable than those sold at specialty retailers? There may not be a definite answer as to what qualifies as “luxury,” Danziger said. “Luxury is all smoke and mirrors,” she said. Wal-Mart provides certificates of authenticity for all certified diamonds, but they don’t package their jewelry in a signature, world-renowned box.

“Tiffany has created their box, their presentation,” Danziger said. “My Tiffany ring is better than my Wal-Mart ring&whether that is true or not, I don’t know.”

- Stephanie.Cline@csbj.com