Most of a small manufacturing jeweller’s business will be from customers who need to have a jewellery item custom-made.
Often this will be because the customer has an idea or a picture of what they want, but do not know where to find something exactly like it, or a person has gems or parts of other jewellery pieces that they want to incorporate into a new piece, requiring a custom design.
The customer will arrange a meeting with a jeweller they trust to realize their vision. This will be someone they choose based on a referral or from seeing their work somewhere else. A good first-time experience will often lead to a lifelong relationship between the customer and the jeweller.
Note: In larger jewellery businesses the person who meets the customer will be a professional jewellery designer, as opposed to just a sales person, but in smaller businesses the person who discusses the design will also be the person who will be involved in all or parts of the process of designing and manufacturing the piece. This can be the ideal situation for the customer because jewellery designers with manufacturing experience will be able to come up with practical and creative solutions in the moment. They can more easily steer the discussion towards a design that is beautiful, possible to manufacture, practical to wear and, hopefully, exactly what the customer wants.
Having something custom-made involves a bit of risk for the client; there is always a possibility that they will be disappointed with the outcome. Disappointment, however, is usually a result of a lack of communication, and can definitely be prevented. It is therefore the responsibility of the jeweller to run through all the options with the client, and to make sure that both parties are on the same page before the transaction can continue.
Communication: A physical meeting vs electronic correspondence
Jewellery commissions can definitely be discussed without the customer meeting the jeweller face-to-face. This often happens when the customer is far, out of the country even, but would like to have something made for delivery or collection later.
Note: The process of communication between customer and jeweller over long distances can happen via e-mail or social media communication platforms. Sending images, transferring money and having a package couriered has also become extremely easy, quick and safe to do.
Having said that, I have found that a physical meeting at the jewellery shop or studio is always the better way to do it, especially for a first meeting.
One reason for this is a practical one: examples can be shown, ring sizes are on hand, and options can be discussed in a relaxed and natural way. The jeweller can also determine better what it is that their customer wants, even when he/she has difficulty in explaining their own ideas. Also, the physical appearance, personal style, and mannerisms of the customer will give subtle non-verbal clues about what they will like, and these one cannot gauge as easily via a message or an e-mail.
Another reason is that an experienced jeweller will be able to steer the discussion to a final decision much more quickly when meeting a customer face-to-face. Too much back-and-forth communicating on the millions of platforms available to us today can become extremely tedious and disruptive to a jewellers’ schedule, and customers do not always realize this. Customers tend to arrive at a physical meeting a lot more prepared. They have some idea of what they want and their own busy schedules will allow them to stay with you for a limited amount of time, whereas on social media messaging platforms especially, it is too easy to attach yet another picture, or to change their mind about minutiae the whole time.
After the initial meeting
From here, communication will almost certainly be via electronic channels.
Keeping it on record
The most professional way to correspond is probably e-mail, where decisions can be on record and searchable if either the jeweller or customer needs to refer back to what was decided. One can also easily attach documents like quotes, invoices and valuation certificates to the mail trail.
Keeping it professional
Some jewellers have no qualms with handing out their personal cellphone numbers, where others have found that an excited customer will think nothing of contacting them constantly and even after hours, which can wreak havoc with the jewellers’ personal time and stress levels.
Larger jewellery businesses have to deal with a lot more people, and communication will by default be more official and professional. Communication will likely not happen via social media platforms, and will only happen during office hours.
After verbal, non-verbal and written communication, it is time to deal with the visual part of the process of communication.
This part of the discussion involves an image, where the customer will get an idea of what the end product will look like.
Note: This stage is extremely important, because this is where both the jeweller and customer will be able to ‘see’ that they are on the same page.
For example, what is ‘very thin’? Is it 1 mm or 4 mm, because in jewellery the difference is massive… Or what does it mean when the customer wants a ‘vintage’ design? To some, vintage is lots of detail, with leaves and flowers, but to others vintage can be an Art Deco design which is fairly modernist…
The over-the-counter sketch
The most basic type of design is the humble over-the-counter sketch. These are done quickly and in front of the customer. They are doodles. They are ideas jotted down; some are discarded and others explored further. It is a way to narrow down options and to get closer to the one that will eventually be turned into reality.
Apart from exploring ideas, the purpose of sketches like these is also to communicate scale and proportion. Even if a simple solitaire is being discussed, it helps to draw the ring and its parts at the size it will eventually be, as a way to manage the client’s expectations of what the end product will look like.
In the example below, the same elements were used in different configurations, using the sun and moon symbols that the customer indicated they would like in the final ring.
Did you know? Doodles like these do not have to be drawn on loose bits of paper. Jewellers have different preferences, but the sketches above were drawn on a device with a stylus (such as the Microsoft Surface Pro or the Samsung Note cellphone) using the free Autodesk SketchBook app. One advantage of having these sketches in an electronic format is that they can be saved to a computer and even shared with the customer, eliminating the chance of them ever being lost or misplaced.
Computer aided design or CAD have recently become a critical part of jewellery production, even for smaller businesses. Wax or resin models can be produced directly from the CAD design, and then cast into metal using the lost-wax casting method.
A CAD design can also be rendered into a realistic-looking image, with the colours, reflections and optical properties of metals and gems accurately assigned, which can then be shown to the customer to further help them visualize what the end product is going to look like.
One drawback of using CAD as a design tool is the sheer amount of work involved, especially if the design is complicated or if the customer keeps on making changes to the design. Where over-the-counter sketches can be drawn and re-drawn in a matter of seconds, CAD designs can take hours and small changes often result in the entire model having to be redrawn.
Another drawback of a rendering is that, in spite of its realism, many customers still struggle to interpret the design, no matter how many angles of the model is rendered. Customers often complain that their design does not look fine enough, that they wish it to be more delicate, where the jeweller knows that they are already on the limit of the metal thicknesses that he/she is comfortable with, and that the item will look much finer once it is manufactured.
As a result, I believe CAD should only be used as a last resort in the design process, when no amount of sketches or communication can satisfy a customer that you will be able to produce their dream jewellery item…
As with anything in this world, it takes practice to make drawings freehand, to think of designs in the moment, and to ask the right questions in consultation with a customer. The more experienced and confident a jeweller becomes, the more comfortable the meeting will be, both for the jeweller and the customer, and the more likely that your customer will trust you with their money, their dreams and their future business.
Remember that although the consultation and the resulting designs can be a fun and creative process for both parties, this process of communication should also serve to manage the customer’s expectations. It is equally important to discuss what the piece cannot be, due to budget or practical constraints, while striving to meet as many of the customer’s requirements as possible.
At the end of the day it helps to be honest, up-front and authentic in your dealings with people. I believe most people can see through a sales pitch or an exaggeration, and they are more likely to trust you if they can identify with you as a person.