Designer Dilemma

November 1998


Designer Dilemma

Appraising designer jewelry presents unique challenges – valuation isn't based simply on materials or common retail markup. How the collectors' market values the designer's name is important too

When you visit an art gallery, you find a wide selection of work and styles within each medium – oil paintings, alone, are done in many different styles and methods. When the gallery sets the price for an individual work, it seldom looks at the cost of the elements (oil, brushes, canvas) and would rarely consider the number of hours taken to create the work. Instead, the critical elements for pricing start with the artist's name and then the individual work as it represents the artist. The value of one of Picasso's works is not based on what it would cost to reproduce a similar work by a lesser artist. The most important element is that Picasso's works are collected by those willing to pay large sums to add to their collections.

Our industry is awakening to the value of designer jewelry as mass marketers battle over price points. Designers, studio artists and galleries cater to those desiring distinctive and unique pieces, something that speaks of our personality. While the industry moves in these directions, appraisers are being left behind, for a variety of reasons.

When examining a piece of jewelry that would qualify as designer jewelry (see "Designer Defined"), an appraiser faces several problems. The first and most important consideration is determining what that designer's work brings in the market. Many studio designers use a "bricks and mortar" approach to pricing. They add the elements of their cost (materials and labor), determine what markup they want and price the item accordingly. However, there are a growing number who price an item based on what their name commands. Unless the appraiser is familiar with that designer's position in the market, the appraiser can't tell how to value that item. Before the appraiser can research the item and the designer's position in the market, he or she must recognize it as a designer's piece.

One major problem facing the appraiser is the recognition of a trademark. Many lesser designers use only their initials in block letters. The obvious question: how many JDs can there be in the U.S. and beyond?

Another problem is the lack of a clear trademark. The mark may have been on the piece, but was poorly imprinted or partially removed by a polishing process and is now indistinguishable. If the mark is readable and distinctive, the appraiser must find out who the designer is. The client may know. Other designers may know. Even though there are trademark reference books, many marks are not included. If the appraiser discovers whose mark it is, he or she must then locate the designer and find out what that designer brings in the market. If the designer sells through galleries, the appraiser must contact galleries. If the designer has a private studio, the appraiser must contact the designer. Often an appraiser can't answer all these questions, and a large number of items can't be properly valued.

What's Collectible?
Art that is collected has unique value based on its collectibility. A 1990 book by Daloma Armentrout, Art Jewelry & Metals: Makers, Markets, Meanings(6034 W. Courtyard Dr., Suite 305, Austin, TX 78730), states "collectible markets operate under an elite competition to acquire, rather than broad competition to provide, often leaving price competition in the dust..." Studio-metalsmiths' works often are distributed at artist-dictated prices through exclusive gallery representation – the context is one of "art in collection." However, jewelry art is collected only in a limited fashion. Most of those who are indeed designers are not collected.

In general, you don't commonly see a used item that has been designed going to galleries or auction houses and bringing a special price because of its collectibility. Collectors are not competing with each other to buy pieces of these designers. The question must be asked at this point: are the works of these designers something we can classify as art? While they are art, their collectibility can modify the methodology necessary for valuation. If a designer's work is highly collected, market data (actual market activity of similar items) is necessary. If not highly collected, basic research into the designer's pricing policies and how his or her work is sold in the market is the starting criteria. Proceed cautiously with valuation.

It should be noted that "designer jewelry" is still priced below comparable studio-time efforts in other media and most pieces are bargains relative to other art forms. Considering design and materials values, much of the finely wrought production of designer-goldsmiths is priced competitively to finer commercial production. Most typical jewelry retailers have not yet realized this opportunity, but design devotees and collectors have; thus, the gallery movement flourishes. Jewelers would do well to learn from galleries, which go out of their way to collect works, to refine the presentation of certain works and to educate their clientele about materials, processes and approach to metals production.

Related Issues
Armentrout's book sets a good groundwork for some of the pitfalls the appraiser faces. Some of these include whether certain married metals can be tested without damaging the item and how to set aside this problem. In addition, sometimes items are altered by someone else after the original artist sold them. The artist may disclaim the item because it has been altered contrary to his or her standards. In Oregon a recent lawsuit was filed to protect an artist's rights as to the display of a piece of art by the artwork's new owner. Several states are considering statutes that give artists continuing economic rights that may extend to how an item is refashioned or melted down, or provide for future compensation or royalties when an item is resold. The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 extended creator's rights to include these areas. (A short article cannot discuss all the considerations an appraiser should have regarding designer jewelry.)

The designer who is sensitive to what drives these markets – in the contexts Armentrout describes – creates "art jewelry" or "designer jewelry." The person who is not in touch with these elements is viewed as a craftsperson only and not a designer or artist. The appraiser is merely the analyst of this market, sampling what the market buys or rejects and reporting on the market's judgments. The appraiser has a duty to the artist to understand what he or she has rendered in the context of the market. The appraiser is not the "judge" who decides what is and isn't art, but the reporter of artist's success in the market.


 Designer Defined

In the 1990 bookArt Jewelry & Metals: Makers, Markets, Meanings, author Daloma Armentrout seeks to define the collectible jewelry market, and designer jewelry's place in it, yet doesn't offer any one standard definition.

According to Armentrout, designer jewelry (jewelry art) "caters to value as meaning: a thirst for information, the new, the unusual, the expressive, the emotive, the personally enhancing, the prestigious, the controversial. It is important to remember that adornment (jewelry and costume) carries a heavy cultural load in signifying social position, financial status, relationships, accomplishments, alliances and associations, spiritual affiliations and sexual codes ... value is related to the behaviors of collecting, the investment of objects with meaning and worth, the relationship of producer to consumer, and the context of exchange. These beliefs and behaviors create markets."

– AG

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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