Jewelry Journey Podcast

Dana Kraus took a unique path to the jewelry industry, which might be why she has a unique approach to collecting. As the founder of DK Farnum Estate Jewelry, she helps her clients refine their taste and often advises them to cut back the size of their collections in favor of quality. Her personal approach and expertise in 20th-century jewelry has endeared her to a loyal group of buyers—including millennial buyers, who are notorious for their lack of interest in estate jewelry. Dana joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about her path to jewelry and where she see the industry heading. Read the episode transcript below. 

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Dana Kraus of DK Farnum Estate Jewelry, which she founded nearly 20 years ago after a successful career in magazine management. Today, her business specializes in exceptionally designed, iconic 20th-century pieces. We’ll hear all about her jewelry journey today. Dana, welcome to the program.

Dana: Hello, Sharon, thank you. Yes, I did work for many years in magazine management. I was ad director at Gourmet Magazine, and I worked at Elle, Fortune and the Washington Post.

Sharon: Wow! What was your jewelry journey? Did you always like jewelry? 

Dana: In the 80s and 90s, we worked very closely with all the major jewelry houses. They were important clients of ours at these publications, most specifically Gourmet, which we repositioned as a lifestyle publication. We worked with Cartier; we worked with Tiffany, Van Cleef, and Verdura to market and promote their brands. So, I had the unique opportunity to learn about their products from many perspectives and to develop deep and abiding relationships with the people who ran these houses. Back then, I started a jewelry research and history library, which I continue to grow and use daily. 

Really, my jewelry journey relates to the fact that my husband and I moved to rural northwest Connecticut to raise our sons at the end of the 90s. Back then, remote communication for work was a lot more challenging than it is now. We had to reinvent ourselves to survive, and I was very fortunate. I had a broad enough client base, and one client who knew my sales track record came to me with a large of collection of Georg Jensen jewelry. I didn’t know much about it, but I had all this research available, and I ended up selling the entire collection. I started talking to some of my client contacts, and the president of Paddock Philipe took me to lunch one day—he was a friend—and convinced me that I should launch my own business, and DK Farnum was born.

Sharon: That’s an interesting story. It’s an unusual story I don’t hear very often, because it’s not like you were wearing all this jewelry.

Dana: I know, yeah.

Sharon: Did it create a love of jewelry for you?

Dana: Having worked at Condé Nast and Hearst and some other major publishing corporations, I didn’t dream about becoming an entrepreneur. Yes, I always loved jewelry, but it was logistics and motherhood that necessitated that I start my own business. I did love my clients in the jewelry world. It’s a sixth degree world. A lot of these business were family-owned by very engaging, interesting people. I knew I wanted to work with them, but I was offered one of the first job shares at Condé Nast, and it involved compromising to a degree that was not comfortable for me. I was fortunate to have the resources and knowledge base that allowed me to make the jump. Amongst these jewelry clients I had amazing mentors and friends who remain close to this day and who shared very generously. There was tremendous camaraderie, and as I said, I was fortunate to have a knowledge base from the work I did within the magazine world. It was not, “Oh gee, I love jewelry.” It was more, “How can I use my existing knowledge to put it into something meaningful going forward?”

Sharon: That’s interesting. As I said, so many people I talk with say, “Well, I always dreamed about doing this.” I presume the jewelry you were exposed to in the magazine world was current. It wasn’t antique—maybe occasionally, but it was promoting what the companies are doing now.

Dana: Yeah, that’s a very good point. That is true, and I did gravitate toward estate. Estate is just a fancy word for previously owned. You probably know all the nuances between estate and antique and vintage. I gravitated toward estate jewelry because there were certain eras that appealed to me and because my knowledge base fell primarily in those areas. To your point, I’m always approached by people thinking what we do at DK Farnum is so much fun and so glamorous and want to do what we do, but I would say that anything that looks glamorous always involves very hard work and good timing and an abiding commitment. There are many dealers out there, but not all have the gravitas it takes to keep a viable business going. I think it’s important to root people’s desire to go into the jewelry world with a solid business acumen and the understanding of what it takes to make a jewelry business thrive.

Sharon: That’s really true. I know it’s a lot of hard work, and it’s not like you’re rolling around in jewelry all day. It’s developing the clientele, knowing where the money’s going, knowing whether to invest this money in your business or to go out and buy another piece of jewelry.

Dana: These days, that smart factor is constantly being honed. There are all sorts of new social media. There are many different platforms upon which we can promote our business. There are some people out there that have chosen to promote their business on a single platform. I don’t know if those people are going to be around 10 years from now. I feel like it’s a jigsaw puzzle, and we’re constantly having to edit and revise our approach as time goes by, and in response to the way people are buying and what people are looking at.

Sharon: Can you tell us about your clientele? The age, what they’re looking at, how it’s changing? I’m always interested in that.

Dana: Sure. I would say most of our clients are repeat clients, which is as good as it gets. What we have seen recently, which is really encouraging, is that a lot of their children are coming to us. Those are our younger buyers, which is, again, a real honor. We also have many male clients and always have. I think that’s because men are not comfortable with traditional retail buying. They don’t like to shop, and we make the process a lot less painful. I also think there’s a huge trust component. A lot of our clients, both men and women, have this degree of trust with us because we’ve been around for so long, and because we come highly recommended by other people. It is word of mouth primarily; we don’t advertise very much. Age-wise, geographically, it’s varied. I would say that many of our clients live in places that don’t have ready access to the level of merchandise we do. It’s pretty varied, but it’s a fairly high-level demographic, because the price is gold is around $2,000 an ounce. When you think about that, most of our pieces start around that level. 

Sharon: That trust factor is so important. Having been a buyer for a while, adding to my collection, you have to trust who you’re buying from. There are so many dealers who won’t say “I don’t know,” or “I don’t know what that is,” or “I don’t know how old it is.” They’ll guess, or not even guess. I have a bracelet from LSU’s, a diamond tennis bracelet, and they said, “Oh, it’s Art Deco,” because that’s what they knew I wanted to hear. Later on I found out it wasn’t before the 80s.

Dana: Right, the vetting process is very, very important. That trust component comes from experience. Recently I had somebody who had a Boivin bracelet. It was not particularly old and the person paid too much for it. I felt the price wasn’t right. I am very candid about those things, and I’m willing to walk away from a sale because trust is—you can’t put value on that.

Sharon: One thing that always increases my trust in a dealer is their jewelry library. Tell us about yours. Can you tell us about how you use it?

Dana: As you know, because and you and I have interacted in this way, we spend a lot of time doing research. I research everything. We simply don’t present things unless we know what they are, and there are many ways to do that. There is, of course, the jewelry library, which you and I both have. There’s also the resource of human beings. Having been doing this for so long, I work with colleagues all over the world to vet pieces. People are very generous with their knowledge and I try to be as well. I grew up in Manhattan, and I was really fortunate to have the Metropolitan Museum and MOMA and the Frick as my extended classrooms. We took classes with Rosamund Bernier at the Met. I studied abroad in college and high school. I was always attuned to the decorative arts, and I’ve always been reading about them. They’re very much a part of my life.

Sharon: I’m envious of growing up with all that around you. Where did you study abroad?

Dana: I studied in Paris. I also studied in Spain in high school, but I studied in Paris repeatedly. I go there regularly, and when things were different before Covid, I spent a lot of time buying and selling abroad.

Sharon: I’m sure you’re going to have a lot of people emailing wanting to follow in your footsteps. So, you deal in unsigned pieces. If somebody brings in a collection with signed and unsigned pieces, will you take everything or just the signed?

Dana: Absolutely. We specialize in signed 20th-century pieces, simply because that’s what I know best, but we look for outstanding, iconic design, and that doesn’t necessarily mean signed. I recently got a collection that was all unsigned but everything jumped out at us. That was a visual engagement situation, and that can impact pricing, but there’s always an audience for fabulous design.

Sharon: Right. We’ve talked about your philosophy of less is more, about investing in better pieces and having fewer. Can you expand upon that?

Dana: Yes, fewer, better things is my mantra. I spend much of my time encouraging clients to edit wisely. We work with clients to help them better articulate their taste, and that often involves what I would call ruthless purging. I spend a lot of time in closets and drawers, either literally or figuratively. The business model that we set up in 2002 is a concierge one, so we get deeply involved with our clients’ collecting habits on both the buying and selling end. I would say this model has been adopted recently by others to respond to the changing buying habits during Covid, but we’ve been doing this for a very long time. We are poised to consult collectors in a meaningful way, and that usually involves editing. 

Sharon: When you say concierge, is that when a collector will come and say, “I don’t know what I’m missing. What I should be focusing on?”

Dana: Yes, we help them better articulate their taste. People sometimes get sidetracked. We all do this. I certainly do, too. Sometimes we get carried away and buy things and then say, “What was that?” We help clients hone in on what they genuinely need and want, and that is serious editing; that’s how a collector really works. They want to focus on whatever it is that want to focus on, and we help them continue to keep that focus.

Sharon: Focus is such an important word. I’m thinking about my own collection, because I’ve been collecting now for decades, and I look at it and go, “Well, I bought that one when I was in my 20s. Is that still me? I don’t know.” You must come across that. I look at things and say, “It’s not me today.”

Dana: Yeah, and that’s when it’s helpful to have another pair of eyes, and hopefully a pair of trained eyes. That’s when the dialogue begins.

Sharon: Can you do that virtually now? Or is the concierge someone who drives or flies to you? How does that work?

Dana: It’s a mix, Sharon. We’ve always done both. Because our clients are geographically diverse, we’ve gone to people and we’ve always done virtual, so Covid wasn’t that drastic a change. It’s a combination depending on the individual needs.

Sharon: You’re very fortunate in that you were doing virtual before everyone else, because so many dealers resisted for so long and are scrambling. One thing that surprised me is that some of your clientele are millennials, because we hear so much about millennials getting rid of their parents’ collections. They don’t want them. What are they interested in?

Dana: We’re finding that yes, there are some things they don’t want. I have millennials. My children are in their 20s, and, for example, they don’t want silver because they don’t want to have to polish it. But we’re finding that people of their age are definitely buying. We do sell watches, for example, and they are looking for specific watches and asking very good questions. That is what we are finding. People will always buy jewelry; I just think they are buying carefully, and we are selling fewer, better things. Like I said, the children of existing clients are coming to us and saying, “We’ll, we’ve inherited X, Y and Z. Where should we go from here? What’s a meaningful purchase for us?” We do a lot of custom work as well. We do a lot of engagement rings. We’re doing a ring for somebody right now who could buy anything, but she wants a “crazy diamond,” as she put it. We helped her find one, and now we’re creating a setting that’s very much a reflection of her taste.

Sharon: That must be fun. 

Dana: It is. I love it. It’s so much fun.

Sharon: Having a marketing background, I’m always interested in geographic trends. For example, brooches were really popular on the East Coast, but not on the West Coast. I think they’re coming back. What are you seeing in terms of geographic trends? Is there anything you can point to?

Dana: One general trend we’re seeing is what I would call wearable jewelry becoming popular everywhere. I think that’s because we’re changing to more casual lifestyles. We are getting requests for pieces that people can throw on every day. Let’s just say we’re not dealing in tiaras, and I think we’re dealing in less gem-y pieces as people become more casual. Having said that, I think people are wearing more jewelry in many ways, because we’re wearing—I mean, I’m sitting here wearing a cashmere sweater and a button down, and it makes me feel better to put on a pretty necklace and a great pair of earrings. That’s how we can up our game a little bit, and I think jewelry does that. Jewelry enhances and enriches our lives, and that’s how it should be. 

To your question of whether the brooch is back, I don’t think brooches ever went out of style. I think they are a type of jewelry where designers can express themselves more freely than in other jewelry forms. People who are collectors will always collect brooches and pins. I do think that, in terms of their wearability, they ebb and flow. It’s a question of the type of brooch. I don’t know if I answered that as specifically as you’d like. With East Coast/West Coast, you and I have talked about the different climates, and that dictates what people wear as well.

Sharon: That’s true, and it’s true—I was thinking about this last night—that we are all so much more casual. I’ve talked to other estate dealers who say, “Nobody wants the $200,000 pieces full of gemstones.” I shouldn’t say nobody, but people are more interested in what you’re talking about.

Dana: We are selling those, as I said, to collectors. For example, men are dressing much more casual and cufflinks are less popular. They are selling, and the special ones are selling to collectors, but let’s just say they’re not our bread and butter pieces.

Sharon: When you say collectors, how do you define it? Do you think of a collector as somebody who buys a piece for their collection and doesn’t intend to wear it? What is a collector to you?

Dana: That’s a very good question.

Sharon: That is a question I’m always thinking about.

Dana: A collector is someone who engages very deeply with a certain type of thing. They often do wear the pieces, but when they don’t, they’re fine with that. They just want to have them. They need to have them; they want to have them. We have a stable of collectors we know are looking for certain things all the time. If they’re collecting Schlumberger, we will be always be on the lookout for those pieces, because we know these people are deeply involved in them. We also have people who collect Gripoix. For example, I had somebody call me the other day—

Sharon: I’m sorry, did you say Gripoix? 

Dana: Yes. We’ll ferret out pieces for that person, and whatever they do with them, I think that is the collector’s prerogative. 

Sharon: Gripoix is glass. It looks like a gem, but it’s what Chanel made so popular, right? 

Dana: Right, it’s blown glass. It’s a technique. 

Sharon: So, it’s not so much what the piece is. They’re not looking for a ring or a bracelet, but does it have a certain stone, for example. Is that what you’re saying?

Dana: You asked me about what makes a collector, and I’m saying that collectors are people who are deeply invested in terms of their time and their resources in a particular thing or a particular designer.

Sharon: So what you’re talking about, it could be name brands, Belle Prone or Cartier or Van Cleef, or it could be somebody we’ve never heard of abroad, which I always think is interesting, when you come across somebody who was doing gold in Buenos Aires in the 40s or something. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot as to what a collector is, but it is a difficult thing to define in a sense. You have your own definition. There are pieces I buy knowing—my friend thinks I’m crazy—I have no intention of wearing them, but I want them in my collection.

Dana: Exactly. I think it’s analogous to other forms of collecting. Jewelry collecting, like car collecting or watch collecting, involves a certain type of person who goes in pursuit of whatever that item is and makes a point of enhancing their collection. We help them do that, and we share knowledge and resources and opportunities to do so.

Sharon: It sounds like you are a pursuer that people can come to and know you can ferret out a lot of different things. Dana, thank you so much for talking with us today. It was very interesting. It’s a unique background, and it’s surprising when I talk to somebody who isn’t like, “I dreamed about jewelry when I was three years old.” Anyway, thank you so much for being with us today. We look forward to having you again.

Dana: A pleasure, thank you so much.

Sharon: Thank you. We will have images posted on the website. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.