Although Lawrence Jeffrey Estate Jewelers is known as a leading dealer of antique jewelry and glassware, the brand earned this reputation without taking the exclusive approach that some other jewelry stores take. Owner Jeff Russak set out to create an environment that is welcoming to people with all budgets, and that approach has paid off with almost three decades of steady sales, both online and in-store in Litchfield, Connecticut. Jeff joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how he got into the jewelry field, how he chooses the pieces he purchases, and what trends he sees in antique jewelry today. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Jeff Russak, owner of Lawrence Jeffrey Estate Jewelers in Litchfield, Connecticut. The business focus is on antique and estate jewelry. Jeff, who has worked in the field for several decades, will tell us all about his jewelry journey. Jeff, welcome to the program.
Jeff: I’m happy to be here, Sharon.
Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey. How was it that you became attracted to jewelry or that you became a dealer?
Jeff: My first memory of jewelry was driving from Germany to Amsterdam with my father to go to the diamond cutters and pick out a diamond for my mother’s engagement ring. I grew up in my early years with my father in the military, and like most young folks who got married in college, they didn’t have a lot of money. They decided, “An engagement ring can come later when we have more money.” I remember spending time with my dad in the diamond cutters. There were these quiet, dark studios where you would come in, and then the cutters were sitting in these bright cones of light. I was standing in the shadows, watching what was going on. They were these serious, dour men who were doing things that seemed mysterious and magical to a five-year-old, but they were also very nice to me. Wherever I went, they gave me a piece of candy. That was my first memory of jewelry and being aware that it played a role in our lives.
Sharon: You were in the military. How did you get into selling jewelry and becoming a dealer?
Jeff: Growing up, my grandmother was one of the most prominent book dealers, actually in the world. She had an antiquarian bookshop in Stanford, Connecticut that was quite famous. At that time, when you wanted to buy a library, auctions often were not like they are today, where each thing is sold separately. She told me a story about buying the Milk of Magnesia Estate. There was the big house, there was a guest house, and there was a giant car barn that was also filled with things. You bought each building for one price and you got everything in the building. So, she had to buy the entire main house, the contents, to get the library she wanted. She also had secondary and tertiary shops and a full-time auctioneer to sell off all of that stuff. I grew up with her home filled with all kinds of things and learned about different types of antiques and silver, and also a little bit about jewelry.
Later, when I got into the business, I bought and sold books at first, which I enjoyed. I came by that naturally, but I knew about other things, and the decorative arts were always attractive to me. After I got married, my wife, Sandra, and I started to buy and sell as a hobby. We began at the very bottom, getting up at two in the morning and going to the local flea markets to sell and buy. I always had some jewelry, but I was cautious. I knew it was easy to make a mistake with what was not much capital, so the jewelry end of the business grew slowly over the years. At first we were more focused on buying and selling silver, which was a very scholarly pursuit, and it felt safe because there were a lot of reference books and the silver people were all anxious to talk about their passion. I loved that, so I grew up in the business in a scholarly way, learning from the older dealers and from the master collectors. Everyone would share, but as I got more and more into jewelry, I realized it’s a tough area to learn about. You have to be careful.
We grew slowly into jewelry. As we transitioned from flea markets and small shows and group shops to finally having our own shop about 30 years ago, we started with only one case of jewelry. Over the years, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I was interested in decorative arts and jewelry, so we had a shop a few miles out of town in a secondary location called Bantum in Connecticut, in Litchfield. When we moved onto the green, we let go of the furniture and the bigger things like that, and we focused strictly on jewelry, decorative arts and paintings. Gradually, we were able to acquire the real estate we wanted, and after a few years on the green, we were able to open about a 500-square-foot shop, which we used to teasingly call “the jewelry box” because it was only jewelry. Right next to it was a much larger shop with decorative arts and paintings, and then again, as we were able to get the space we wanted in the building we wanted, we transitioned into mostly jewelry and decorative arts.
It was a slow transition where I was careful to try to learn as I grew. It takes time. About 25 years ago, we started to be almost exclusively jewelry in terms of where most of our volume came from. We’ve always had a mix. Today, when you come into our shop, most of the shop floor is jewelry, and then there’s a large area that’s given over to museum-quality art glass. We’re one of the top dealers in rare stemware in the country, but anything that’s beautiful, fine art pottery—we’re a leading dealer in Stevan American glass, and it could be the art glass Stevan or the more practical stemware. We love that, and silver is always a part of what we do, but it’s interesting that in the decorative arts, it’s easier to carry the really important pieces than it is in jewelry. It’s a surprise, but it’s true.
Sharon: I was just wondering why that was.
Jeff: A really rare piece of Stevan would retail somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000, and an equivalently rare piece of jewelry would be more like a half a million to a million. So, there’s a practical consideration there. There are only so many pieces in the million-dollar range that one can carry, and for us, that would be none. We’re not quite there yet, but we have high hopes.
Sharon: There are only so many people who can buy that, too. Everybody’s going online. You sell online and you’ve seen people buy online, so what are your tips for buying online? I’m always perusing all the sites. What should I know about that?
Jeff: We were early adopters. We’ve been online for more than 20 years. We decided it was going to be important, so we made the commitment early on to dedicate resources to doing that. We also thought that online would be like the Jacksons. I’d be sitting there in my comfortable chair pressing that button four times a day, saying “Oh my god, Jane, I’m so tired. I had to press the button four times.” But it turns out that selling online is pick and shovel work. It might be more work to sell online than it is to sell in person. There are so many components to selling online and so many different people who specialize, whether it’s copywriting or copy editing, or taking the photographs, posting the photographs, editing the photographs; there are a lot of steps involved. We started to sell online early and we’ve always had our own website from the very beginning. We also always sold through other portals, let’s call them. Today, there are more portals. In the beginning, they took the form of online group shops, and then you also had online auction sites. Today, you have a variety of those sites with a few dominant species, and they tend to rule the online world. I think buying online is an interesting subject. I have occasionally given talks on it, and my 30-second rule is that it’s all about the return policy.
Sharon: That’s interesting.
Jeff: Anything you buy, as long as you can return it with no questions asked, it’s not a problem. I don’t care whether you’re buying through a dealer’s own website, from a secondary site, a portal, a group shop site or an auction house. You have to be able to return things if you’re not happy with them, because you aren’t being afforded the opportunity to look in person. I don’t believe there’s a clothing company in the world that sells online that you can’t return a garment because it doesn’t fit or because the color wasn’t exactly what you wanted or for any other reason. I believe the no-questions-asked return policy is the key to buying online.
Sharon: That’s good advice
Jeff: I think you will find that most reputable firms, that’s how they operate.
Sharon: Interesting. I’m always a little skeptical when I read about the return policy.
Jeff: I could literally name a dozen dealers, all of whom I’m sure you know well, and they all have exactly the same policy I do, which is if you’re not happy, return it. In fact, sometimes I’m incredibly impressed by how liberal the return policies are. I can think of a major dealer right near you; their return policy is 60 days, no questions asked. That’s incredibly generous, and it shows how much they value their customers and how much respect they feel for them.
Sharon: That’s interesting. To me, it’s how Amazon built itself. The fact that you can buy something on a different site, but I can buy it on Amazon and I know I can return it so easily, then you buy from Amazon, right?
Sharon: Even though they’re ruling the world.
Jeff: They’re a good example. They’re very large, but all of the other factors are important. You want there to be clear photographs and enough of them. You want the description to include all of the factors that are important, the size of the stones, the quality of the stones. You want to know there’s a condition report and that the condition report is going to include all the salient features, and this bears an issue. There’s a chip on the underside of the stone, but they show you a picture of it. Personally, I find that when you describe those things in words, it reads louder than it sounds when you say it in person. We tend not to put things online that have any significant issues or damage unless it’s something tremendously rare.
Sharon: That’s interesting. Despite the situation we’re in right now, you still have people who come into the store. Do people walk in, or do they happen to be coming by? How do they find you?
Jeff: The gallery is still active, even in this situation. I would say that online versus gallery, right now, we’re probably about 60 to 65 percent in person and about 30 to 35 percent online. Typically, we also participate in shows, and occasionally we send something to auction, but the predominant number of sales is generally had in the gallery.
Sharon: Are people looking for a specific thing? Do they come in just browsing? How does that work?
Jeff: I think some people come in with a mission. “I need a birthday gift,” or “It’s Valentine’s Day,”—that’s not a big one for us—or maybe they just want to give someone something. We had quite a number of people come in and say, “You know, my wife has been so amazing during the lockdown. I want to give her something and show her how much I appreciate everything she’s done and how amazingly patient she’s been with me.”
Sharon: I’ll have to talk to my husband about that.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely, I would. There seem to be more events in our lives. I find that when it’s boyfriends or husbands that come in either on their own or with their significant others, they are not the ones who put on the brakes. Those guys love to buy things for the people in their lives, so they’re often looking for a reason. That’s usually not an issue. Then we have a lot of casual shoppers. Our shop is in a rural area in Connecticut, and we’re as apt to have customers from Australia or Japan or London or Italy or New York as we are from two towns over. We’re very quietly at the crossroads of just about everywhere. We are to New York what Somerset is to London.
Sharon: I visited your store once and you are in a beautiful area. I remember a lot of greenery.
Sharon: When you’re buying pieces, what is it that attracts you? What’s important to you when you’re choosing pieces for the store to sell retail?
Jeff: I buy with my creative director. We work as a team, and we look at lots of pieces. We have sources in Europe where we look at many, many pieces at once, and the first thing we do is simply look at what we feel is beautiful, attractive, aesthetically interesting to us. First we separate out those pieces, and then we begin to pick the pieces up and touch them. We turn them over and look at the back of the pieces to see how they’re made and what they’re made of, how much pride the workman had. We’re looking for particular aesthetic choices, and then we’re interested in quality. Quality could be how the piece was fabricated or the make of the piece. It’s also the stones, how carefully the stones were chosen. We love buying in Europe because the European makers are very interested other colored stones. You find pieces with rare colors of tourmaline, or moonstones that are so superb and so blue, and American turquoise set in gold. The European makers appreciate the expensive turquoises almost more than the American makers of the Southwest, so you find that they are set in beautiful gold pieces.
Sharon: Interesting. Tell us about how your customers are treated. In some stores, it’s very off-putting because there’s a snootiness. How are your customers treated when they come in?
Jeff: It’s such a good question, and I had that experience was younger. There was this incredible Americana store in Cambridge where I was living—God forbid I should meet the owner—but the gentleman who ran it was this very put-together young man, probably just a little older than I was at the time, so in his mid-twenties. I was scared to death of him. He seemed so elegant, and I knew right then that if I ever had a shop, I wanted to make sure everybody felt welcome and knew they belonged there. If they want to spend a lot of money, we will cheerfully help them, but if they want something for $50, we’ll try and find something for that customer as well. We try to be very democratized. We want everybody to enjoy what we do. We want them to be able to look at and try on the expensive pieces they may never have desired to own, and we want to find pieces that are right for their budget. The funny thing I found about budget is that I have middle-class customers who come in and once every three years buy something for $5,000 to $10,000. I have a customer who owns a bank and never spends more than $350 on anyone in his life. It has nothing to do with how much money they have; it’s just their own personal idea of what they’re comfortable spending on a gift. By the way, that very handsome, effete young gentleman, when I got to know him was one of the nicest people I have ever met in the business. In this case, it was all me. I was the one who was reading that he might be unfriendly. He was really fabulous, and I got to know the owner. They were both very giving and taught me a lot about early American furniture.
Sharon: I guess that must have just been his way of protecting himself.
Jeff: I think he was so elegant that I assumed he was unfriendly, but I agree with you that there are shops where the staff is snooty. It does happen, but I think you and I would both agree that neither of us would ever be like that in our own stores. I want everybody to be comfortable and know that we value their customs, their trust, their patronage. It’s very important to us.
Sharon: A lot of times when I’m on Instagram, I want to ask about the piece. I just want to ask, but I know I’m not going to buy it and I don’t want to bother somebody. How do you feel about that, people coming in and just looking and asking?
Jeff: I think it’s a balance. Certainly, this is my favorite subject so I love to talk about it, but on the other hand, I am at work, so I do have things I have to do, whether it’s serving another customer or something in the back of the house. If someone is polite and they want to talk for five or 10 minutes, that’s great, but if someone wants to talk for a couple of hours, that’s a long time to talk to someone when you are working. I think it’s common sense.
Sharon: That makes sense. Where do you want to take your business from here?
Jeff: We would love to open a couple more stores. This store is flagship-sized, and we can do that because we own the building. I don’t think you were in the new store.
Sharon: No. I read something about the fact that you moved upstairs and I said, “I don’t remember going upstairs. I remember it on the ground floor.”
Jeff: Right, I think it was a little bit of a misnomer. We moved up the street about a hundred yards. We actually have less stairs. Before, we had three or four stairs you had to walk up to come into the shop, and now you walk in straightaway. We own a large building at one end of the street with beautiful, giant windows, which is fabulous. I would love to have two much smaller stores in different environments—probably more urban environments—so it would afford us the ability to sell a wider variety of things, because we have different audiences. I’ve thought about the possibilities of being able to hold almost trunk shows in our own shop, like one month the entire antique collection is in Litchfield, and the next month it’s in Omaha. That would be fun, to be able to share things with a wider audience and have the opportunity to sell a broader range of things. Obviously, people down south don’t necessarily buy what people buy in the north, and people in California have a different set of tastes as well. It lets you get into more trouble, and I think that’s what we want.
Sharon: How do you think West Coast tastes are different? I’ve heard things about how people back east wear brooches and people on the West Coast don’t. I think everybody’s wearing brooches; I don’t know.
Jeff: I think too few people are wearing brooches. I agree with that. Interestingly enough, I find that northern California is much more staid and less crazy than I thought. I thought they would be into art jewelry and very modern, different kinds of things. I found the taste in northern California to generally be more classic, classic goods, well-known names. Southern California I have less experience with. I think there, actually, people are more interested in things that are different. California is more oriented to antique jewelry than New England is.
Sharon: Really? Interesting.
Jeff: That is a surprise.
Jeff: My best markets for true, really good antique jewelry have been on the West Coast. It’s not that it doesn’t sell here; it does, but it sells really well there. We participate in the San Francisco Fall Antique Show, and that’s a terrific venue for antique jewelry. The more people you meet, the more people surprise you in delightful ways.
Sharon: That’s true. Jeff, thank you so much for being here. For everybody listening, that’s it for the Jewelry Journey today. Remember we’ll have pictures of pieces Jeff would like to showcase and share with us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional sharing their experience and expertise. You can find the podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please make sure to rate us. Thank you so much for listening. We greatly appreciate it.
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