Jewelry Business Faces Economic Test
By Kate Archer Kent (Red River Radio) www.redriverradio.org
Mother’s Day is big business for jewelry stores. Those gifts in tiny boxes account for the largest amount of Mother’s Day spending, more than $2.3 billion dollars of bling-bling this year according to the National Retail Federation. But with an ailing economy, jewelry store sales have recently been lackluster. A program in Paris, Texas that trains the next generation of jewelers is down to just three students.
Serina O’Mori is hunched over her work bench, drilling pilot holes into a ring where the stones will go. O’Mori teaches stone setting at Paris Junior College. When she graduated from this program six years ago, she didn’t have any trouble finding a job in her native Portland, Oregon. But student Paige Duncan of New Boston, Texas, isn’t as confident about her future. Jewelry making is not an essential industry in the bigger economic picture. The expendable nature of the business makes it a little harder to find a job today.
“It’s a luxury industry. We don’t have to have the jewelry and gemstone industry. And it’s a little scary,” says Duncan.
Duncan will be attending a 16-month program at the Texas Institute of Jewelry to become a bench jeweler. She will take certification tests to reach the highest level, which is master jeweler. Program director Ulla Raus says she gets job postings for entry-level bench jewelers every day, and students will have their pick of working anywhere in the country.
“Typically what happens is an employer will send for a student and fly them out wherever they’re going to go to work, and set them down and let them do a bench test and then see where the skills are,” says Raus.
But with only three students left and many more faculty members, Raus is on a recruiting mission. Normally this program enrolls about 40 students. She blames the spike in gold prices for the precipitous decline.
“When gold became too expensive to buy with the American dollar there was a misconception with the public not realizing that people in the repair business and custom design, people that do the work, would still have a good employment,” Raus says.
The New Mexico-based Bell Group is a supplier of bench tools and raw materials to make jewelry. Managing director Alan Bell says jewelers are still placing the same number of orders, but they are being more frugal. He says that they are fearful of buying precious metals at peak prices. But, he says, their customers’ life events don’t follow the rhythms of the market.
“The occasions that cause people to buy jewelry, the birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and those sorts of things, they just keep coming,” says Bell. “People are going to continue to buy jewelry. There’s no question about that. The question is how much they’ll buy and what metal they’ll choose.”
Making jewelry is a year-round vocation as people are going to get married whether the economy is good or bad. People will always be in need of wedding rings.
That’s the view that Raus is conveying to prospective students. She hopes she has seen the worst of the economic fallout. One glimmer of hope is that she’s getting a lot of inquiries for the fall from high school students nationwide. She tells them there is one constant bright spot about being a jeweler:
“We sell love and emotion and I think that’s never going to end really,” says Raus.