11/19/2009 Stamford, Conn.--When customers take a seat at Russ Hollander Master Goldsmith to discuss reworking an older piece of jewelry or designing something from scratch, there is no mystery as to where the work will take place: not in the workshop of a caster or in the studio of a stone-setter across town, but right before their eyes. A service counter and a mahogany desk are all that separates the Stamford, Conn.-based retailer's 700-square-foot gallery space from its 550-square-foot studio and a 900-square-foot machine shop filled with bench-making tools primed for creating designs in the finest of materials. This transparency--coupled with a guarantee that their jewelry won't be of the cookie-cutter variety and that it may even cost less than a designer piece--helps coax consumers to buy into custom jewelry. According to the results of National Jeweler's Holiday/Q4 Inventory and Marketing survey, retail jewelers are gravitating toward custom, too. The survey found that 39 percent of participants said they would maintain their fourth-quarter custom-jewelry offerings at the same levels as last year, while 30 percent said they would increase custom. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of respondents indicated their designer jewelry offerings would be the same as last year, and 21 percent planned to offer more than last year. For Russ Hollander, owner of Russ Hollander Master Goldsmith, custom work's appeal lies in its ability to hit the bull's-eye of what a customer wants. "The whole branded designer thing was a 1980s, maybe 1990s, phenomenon," he says. "The content of that jewelry is pretty washed out because you have to appeal to a very broad audience. Because they needed to sell thousands of units instead of a hundred units, they had to dilute their message to appeal to more people. We can appeal to people individually. It's not diluted." As designers and their operations grew larger and larger, pricing rose too, he says. "The delivery method through so many hands and the requisite support and advertising put the consumer at a disadvantage," Hollander says, adding that each step tacked on added costs for the designer--and eventually the consumer--to absorb. Pinpointing price John Purvis, co-owner of Lakewood, Colo.,'s Purvis Jewelers, is similarly disenchanted with designer prices. "They've got fabulous designs, but fabulous tickets to go with them," Purvis says. "I have a tough time paying some of the prices that these designers want when I can do it for so much less." In business for 35 years, the retailer has won more than 20 awards for his own designs. Purvis says he is able to save costs by doing custom work himself and is also able to pass the savings on to customers. One challenge, however, has been keeping up with demand. One designer line the store does carry is Aurum, which Purvis describes as "very different and unique" from other brands yet reminiscent of his own custom work. "When I sell theirs, I don't make the same margin as when I make [the design] myself, but I don't have the time to make them," he says. For Hollander, margins are smaller on larger, more expensive pieces--which at the store can range upwards to nearly six figures for diamond-intense, platinum designs featuring hand-engraving and complicated construction--and are higher for entry-level pieces, those under $1,000. "We're making our living on labor, and then there's a more modest margin from the piece," he says. James Corry, co-owner of New York City's DVVS Fine Jewelry, says that while custom is always pricey, it remains slightly less expensive than some of the store's designer lines. Based on the materials and work involved in a piece, DVVS gives customers an initial consultation estimate, then works hard to come in under budget. "If it's much less, we're going to pass that savings on to you," he says. "We're always thrilled to be able to say it came out $100 less. Because we're so small and we work so hard to keep the price right, we end up being dollar for dollar less than designer jewelry." But Corry says that the store's designer business is hardly suffering--and is, in fact, thriving. "The designers we carry, they are so unusual, and we're actually finding that we're doing very well with Todd Reed because of his use of rough diamonds and octahedrons, rose cuts--it's all so exotic," he says. "Our customers are really loving that. Alex Sepkus has a fairly small engagement line, but it's a significant part of our sales. Our designers are so unique that people seek them out." The custom draw When customers at DVVS request a custom piece, it's often because they haven't found what they were looking for or they liked one aspect of one piece of jewelry they've seen and another aspect from a second piece, Corry says. Debbie Fox cites similar drawing points for the custom work offered at Fox Fine Jewelry in Ventura, Calif. "Custom work is driven by originality, or it's driven by the customer wanting to reuse their stones or their metal," she says. "In our area, we found that people were not impressed by designer names or they didn't know designer names, so we switched [to doing more custom work]." Word of mouth is among the biggest marketing vehicles Fox relies on for custom work, as traditional advertising vehicles haven't proved to be as effective because customers look at print ads and ask "How can I get this for cheap?" she says. Numerous retailers agreed that referrals tend to work best. "My custom has been really strong, it's what we do, what we're known for," says Paula Dawkins of Jewels That Dance in Asheville, N.C. "The more interactive we can be, the more knowledgeable I am, the more trust people put in me." Purvis Jewelers uses billboard ads, but the notes salespeople keep on each receipt reveal that repeat customers are the biggest point of call. "We'll generally have 2,000-plus receipts a year and probably about 70 to 80 percent of those will be a repeat customer," Purvis says. At Annapolis, Md.,'s Ron George Jewelers, owner Ron George says "conservative, yet unique" pieces, especially in platinum or white gold, have been among the biggest custom trends recently. "What's down is the meat and potatoes," he says of staple pieces priced around $200. "Upper-end design work is up for us." Among such high-end commissions was a custom piece featuring a three-carat intense-yellow diamond. The margin wasn't much, but the customer has returned--and that kind of relationship is one of custom's most priceless advantages, jewelers say. "By the time they've done a custom piece with us, we get to see them so much because we want them to sign off on each step," says Corry of DVVS. "They become a customer for life."