Macklowe Gallery has been a destination for collectors of art nouveau furniture, Tiffany lamps and antique and estate jewelry for almost 50 years. In his two decades working at the family business, Benjamin Macklowe has become a self-taught expert on collecting these beautiful objects. On the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast, he talked about the history of the gallery, how people become true collectors and why you shouldn’t only buy signed pieces. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome back to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Benjamin Macklowe, President of Macklowe Gallery, the world’s premier dealer of museum-quality, 20th century decorative arts, including art nouveau furniture and objects, Tiffany lamps and fine antique and estate jewelry. Ben has been recognized in the industry as a thought leader and regularly lectures at industry and professional conferences. Macklowe Gallery was founded nearly 50 years ago by Lloyd and Barbara Macklowe. Today, under the leadership of Ben and his wife, Hillary, the gallery has rededicated itself to educating and promoting the next generation of innovative collectors. We’ll hear more about all of this today. Ben, it’s our pleasure to have you as a guest today.
Ben: Thank you so much, Sharon. I’m thrilled to be joining you.
Sharon: Delighted to have you. You come from a very well-respected and well-known family of collectors and gallerists. Can you tell us about your personal jewelry journey, your family and the history of the gallery?
Ben: I’d be happy to. Strangely, there’s an odd parallel between how my parents got into the business and how I did, in that none of us had any education at all, which is embarrassing, but it’s true. When my parents got married in 1964, they were poor as church mice. In fact, they didn’t have a full reception. They got married in the Rabbi’s study. They were trying to furnish their rental apartment, so they would look in The New York Times Sunday edition, which came out Saturday morning. There was something called the merchandise offerings page; it’s sort of the predecessor to Craigslist. They started buying used furniture because that’s what they could afford, but it got them looking at things that weren’t new as something special.
My mom was always a collector growing up in Brooklyn. She collected autumn leaves and pressed them between pages of books. She got very good at marbles, so she could beat all the boys at marbles and have different-colored marbles. She collected shells along the beach. It’s just part of who she is, and I think I’ve inherited that from her. My father has a wonderful eye and has become a collector, but it’s not in his DNA the way it is in my mother’s and mine, and I don’t joke when I say in the DNA. I actually believe that most collectors would be collectors even if they had no money. The money makes it possible for someone to buy special things, but that’s a different issue.
Anyway, my parents had no money and no clue. My mother was a school teacher teaching kindergarten in New York City at P.S. 158, and one of her fellow kindergarten teachers invited her over for dinner on a Friday night with my dad. This woman’s husband was the son of a woman named Minna Rosenblatt. For those of you who don’t know about the history of Tiffany lamps in America, Minna Rosenblatt was part of this vanguard generation of Jewish women after World War II who completely rehabilitated the reputation of Louis Comfort Tiffany, a reputation that had fallen into complete ignominy and almost anonymity at one point. She was one of the first people out of her home in Brooklyn, along with Lillian Nassau, Bea Weiss and Maude Phelps—all, like I said, Jewish women from the Northeast who started buying Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps, glass, metalwork, enamel and even jewelry, saying, “This is special artwork and America should know about it.”
Long story short, my parents went over for dinner, and Ms. Rosenblatt’s son and daughter-in-law had a Tiffany chandelier hanging over their table. My parents were just gobsmacked. They’d never seen anything like this before. They just didn’t grow up with these types of things, and they didn’t really know what Louis Comfort Tiffany meant. My father said to George, “This is beautiful. How much does something like this cost?” He said, “Well, my mom sells these things.” “Oh, really?” He says, “Yeah, this lamp was like $500.” This was 1965, and my father said to him, “Have you lost your mind?” And he said, “No, these are really valuable things,” and my father said, “$500 for a lamp?” which is funny, because now they say to me, “$500,000 for a lamp?” Anyway, the next day was a Saturday and Minna Rosenblatt was exhibiting at the old Madison Square Garden, which has since been replaced by Worldwide Plaza. My parents went there and bought a Tiffany vase from her for $35 on the installment plan, $5 a week for seven weeks. That’s actually what got them started.
Over time, they became mostly pottery dealers because that’s what they could afford. They were selling American pottery by Rookwood and Van Briggle, but my mother loves jewelry, and they started doing antique shows. At the time, antique shows were maybe three or four days long, and in the first four hours of the show you would do 80 percent of your business. Then they would sit around twiddling their thumbs, trying to find somebody else who was interested to buy their collectible ceramics over the course of the fair. My mother would walk the fair, and she’d see beautiful jewelry and notice—as she is a person who notices things—that the jewelry dealers seemed to be busy the entire show. She said to my father, “Lloyd, we have got to expand our offerings and start selling jewelry,” and he said, “Barbara, we’re pottery dealers. That’s all we do.” And she said, “Lloyd, we have to expand our offerings. I have a good eye. Let me buy some jewelry and we’ll do it.” Finally, he relented, but the rules were she had to buy items—by now we’re talking about 1967, 1968—that could be sold for $25 or less. With my mother’s taste, you could imagine that was incredibly difficult. So they bought a lot of silver jewelry, a lot of art nouveau, which was their first and abiding passion, a lot of Georgian and Victorian silver jewelry as well, and some enameled work by Liberty & Co., and that’s how they got started. My mom had one of those little glass-topped lean-to cases that you see if you go to a low-end antique show, and that’s how they got started.
Jewelry has always been a part of our world, but it’s always been in competition, to some extent, for funds and attention with the decorative arts. That really changed when I started working at the gallery 25 years ago. I’ve always had an affection for jewelry. I love beautiful women, so I love to see women look even more beautiful, and to me there’s nothing sexier than a woman who comes into my gallery, who finds a piece of jewelry she loves and buys it for herself. The self-purchasing woman is quite literally my favorite person on earth. I got into the business very much by accident as well. I had taught elementary school for a few years after graduating from Tufts University, and my time teaching was quite unsuccessful. I went to Baltimore with Teach for America. I don’t know if you know that organization.
Sharon: No, I don’t.
Ben: It’s sort of like the Peace Corps for American teachers, the idea being that if you take somebody who might not have an education degree, but is smart and eager, you can plop them down in some of the neediest places in America and they will be successful, which appealed to my 20-year-old idealistic self much more than my 48-year-old hard-beaten man. I went to Baltimore and I worked very hard at it, and I failed miserably and got fired after my first year. But I stuck it out and did a second year of teaching, and then I came back. I was done with Baltimore. It wasn’t a place for me, and I really didn’t know what to do with my life. I had no idea. I was 23 years old and pretty lost.
My father went on a business trip and the flu ran through Macklowe Gallery, and the only people standing were my mother and a secretary. She called me up, cunning mother that she was, and said, “Would you put on a suit and be a warm body?” I did, and I still haven’t left. I discovered quite quickly my passion for the process of running a business, but particularly for the love of beautiful objects and sharing that with people. That was 25 years ago. I’m going to be celebrating my 25th anniversary at the gallery in November, and I think I’m the luckiest guy around to be able to do this every day.
Sharon: That’s really interesting because I wondered if you had a choice, since you grew up in a family business. It sounds like you had a choice. You were free to do what you wanted to do, but in a sense you didn’t, because, as you say, it’s in your DNA.
Ben: I think that’s a great question, and if you speak to anybody in a family business, particularly the antiques and jewelry business, a lot of them will tell you, “Oh, I accompanied my parents to antique shows every weekend. By the time I was 8, I could read silver hallmarks without having to reference the book.” That was not me. I wanted to play first base for the New York Yankees and I was absolutely determined that was going to happen, and my parents were determined, even though they were working six days a week, that family time was for family. Even though we occasionally went to museums, we never went to antique shows. They never took us shopping. Family vacations were never in a place where they could do business. They were quite deliberate about it. They didn’t take us to Paris, like they could have. They took us sailing in the Caribbean. Once they had some money, they took us sailing in the Caribbean or to Fire Island, someplace where there was no possibility of them happening upon an antique shop.
I asked my parents about that and they said, “We knew we weren’t spending as much time with you guys as we wanted, and we wanted the time to count.” I think particularly now in our screen-obsessed times, creating a fence around your family time is important, so that’s a nice thing they did for me. I really did have a choice. Once being first baseman for the New York Yankees went by the wayside, I thought that I would do something in the world of ecology and environmental things, but I wasn’t good enough at science or really interested enough in science to pursue that kind of degree. The business-oriented environmental degrees that exist now didn’t exist 30 years ago, but that’s O.K. It all worked out exactly like it was supposed to because I’m definitely in the place I’m supposed to be.
Sharon: It sounds like it. You mentioned collecting and that collectors have it in their DNA, but how would you define a collector? When does somebody cross the line from somebody who buys things to a collector?
Ben: That’s a great question. One of my clients, who is a truly diseased collector, God bless him and his wife—and they’ve been married for almost 50 years—his wife said to me that when she first started dating her husband, she was invited for dinner at his parents’ house, and the parents turned to Paula and said, “Listen, if Burton has one of something, it’s going to become a collection, so you have to be willing to indulge. This is part of his personality.”
I really think that it’s different for every person. Some people are starting to collect from the first piece, and other people don’t consider themselves collectors and they’ve published books of their collection. One of my clients from Hong Kong just sent me three books of his collections of porcelain, paintings and lacquerware, all absolutely top-dollar, museum-quality things. In the introduction, he wrote, “I don’t consider myself a collector.” Some people have to convince themselves that they’re not really collectors, because otherwise they’re going to think they’ve gone insane.
Then there are other clients for whom collecting is not only something they recognize themselves as doing, but it also actually gives form to their life, and that’s one of the lectures I give. I give a lecture called “Why Collect?” and we talk about this in-depth. Obviously, there are people who do it for social status; there are people who do it purely to fill an aesthetic need; but a lot of people do it for social connection. One of my clients, who’s not a very wealthy man—he’s from New Jersey; he was a high school math teacher—but he loves art nouveau. I assure you, Sharon, he knows more about French art nouveau than I do, because he has not only gotten every book, he’s read them cover to cover. Every opportunity he has to travel, he travels somewhere on an art nouveau pilgrimage. That’s how somebody becomes a collector. They become a collector in their hearts first, if they ever consider themselves one, but there are lots of people who have collections but wouldn’t admit to it.
Sharon: You could write a book on the psychology of collecting and the different kinds. It sounds really interesting.
Ben: Thank you, maybe I will one day.
Sharon: You must have people who come in and say, “I have three pieces of this. I want to add to my collection.” What constitutes a collection, and what do you advise them for their next piece?
Ben: My favorite people are the ones who are curious and willing to take the time to explore their taste. It’s increasingly rare, I have to say. What we are getting, which is interesting, because there’s so much information available on the internet, is a lot of people who are walking into the gallery more fully formed in terms of their taste, even if they haven’t purchased yet. A lot of my younger customers are quite focused, which is exciting. I love that, because we can have a much higher-level conversation than I can with the average person, who might be perfectly capable of buying anything in the store, but comes in with a pre-buyer’s remorse because they don’t want to make a mistake. They don’t want to seem like a fool.
I have a 24-year-old woman working for me named Madeleine O’Hare. She’s brilliant and has a graduate degree in art and a great brain, and she said to me the other day, “You know, Ben, almost every customer that I’ve worked with here, the subtext of what they’re saying to me when they ask about price is, ‘How bad are you going to be fucking me?’” Sorry I cursed, but it’s very worthwhile, because there is no set price for anything in this world. We’re not Aramex, where we have 500 of this and 200 of that and 20 of that, and don’t negotiate. There’s always this concern amongst people who walk in: “Am I getting a fair value? Is this thing real? Are you taking too much of a profit?” All these things are ultimately valid, but they really get in the way of the process of enjoying yourself, because everything we do is about pleasure. It’s all pleasure, and if it’s not pleasurable, then we’re not doing our job right.
A lot of what I do when I’m working with customers is, I first try to figure out what inside of them is resisting enjoying this experience. Sometimes it’s, “I’m out of my depths here. I’ve only got $5,000 to spend,” and in the Macklowe Gallery that doesn’t get you quite as much as it does other places. Sometimes it’s something else. I had a Chinese customer in a few years ago with their daughter, who was going to college in New York. She spoke some English. I speak about 12 words of Mandarin, which was hilarious because as I said them to them and they started to reply to me, I didn’t understand what they were saying. Anyway, they bought some jewelry from me, brand-name jewelry, two pieces of Van Cleef and one piece of Tiffany, but they were very interested in Tiffany lamps. I walked them around downstairs, back when our gallery was on Madison Avenue and there was a sort of subterranean garden of Tiffany lamps. For anybody interested in Tiffany, this is an exciting place to be. It’s one-stop shopping. I heard his wife say something to him in Mandarin, which I didn’t understand, and he replied to her in Mandarin, “W? bù zh?dào,” which means I don’t know. I turned to the daughter and I said, “What is it your dad doesn’t know?” And she said, “He doesn’t know if any of this stuff is real.” Isn’t that fascinating?
Ben: Before we can even talk about aesthetics or budget or anything, first we have to get past the psychological barriers to figure out why you’re here, so that’s really my first job. It’s really a psychological job. Some clients want you to be very chatty and others want you to be very quiet. So, it’s a more complicated question, because I love when somebody comes in and says, “Hey, I bought three pieces of French art glass and I like what I have and I know that you’re a good dealer, and I’d like you to help guide me to discover my taste and work within the budget that I have.” That’s great. Nothing makes me happier than that, so that’s what we really go for.
Now, jewelry’s a little different, and I think it’s worth discussing. In French, the word for paintings and sculpture is “les arts majeurs,” which means the major arts. Everything else is “les arts mineurs,” the minor arts. Glass, jewelry, furniture, ceramics are all minor arts, and if you look at the prices of things at auction, it’s still absolutely the way the world works. You get a painting by Rembrandt, its $100 million if it’s great. The lost masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci sold at Christie’s recently for $450 million. These are numbers that are inconceivable to people from those periods, compared to what furniture or decorative arts of the same quality from those periods are selling for now. A really great piece of furniture by Riesener or Weiss Weiler from the 18th century was just as expensive, maybe more expensive, than any painting made in the period. Now, of course, that’s not the case, because tastes have changed and painting is considered the most important art. I forget how we got to this. I’m sorry. I’m talking in circles. Remind me of the question, please.
Sharon: We talked about building the collection.
Ben: Oh yeah, sure. Here’s the interesting thing about jewelry. Because of its functionality as something to adorn a person, until very recently, very few museums considered jewelry to be noteworthy. They were happy to have it given to them, and if it fit within the aesthetics of the museum, they would occasionally show it or they’d sell it and buy something else they really wanted. If it was archaic or archaeological jewelry, they would show it in their antiquities section, or if it was medieval, maybe they’d show it in their medieval section. But anything made from 1800 forward, museums just didn’t know what to do with it. They had no interest. I think there has always been this unnecessary and illogical prejudice against jewelry in American museums, but even to some extent in European museums because of its commercial aspect or its wearable aspect. It’s really foolish because jewelry is quite literally the first art form. Human beings have been adorning themselves with jewelry since way before the cave paintings at Lascaux, thousands of years before.
Finally, thanks partially to Susan Kaplan, who endowed the Curator’s Chair for Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and partially thanks to the Toledo Museum and some other museums, now The Metropolitan Museum is finally starting to come into the 21st century, thanks to Beth Wees and others who are the curators over there. We’re finally starting to see jewelry being considered an artwork, so what we’re seeing now is that what is considered collectable by the museums is becoming part of the conversation of what is collectable for private individuals as well.
Sharon: That’s interesting. It’s nice to see a lot more being exhibited and giving it the emphasis that it warrants. I don’t know if you can be a collector without making mistakes. I hadn’t thought about that before, but I recently made a mistake, not a really expensive one. It’s part of the process, I think.
Ben: You are so right. When I started working at the gallery, my father said something to me which I’ll never forget. He said, “Ben, if you don’t make any mistakes, you’re not buying enough.” You see that with some collectors. They are so cautious because they’re so afraid of making a mistake that they miss great opportunities, both great opportunities for quality and great opportunities for price. Galleries like Macklowe Gallery, we buy so much, Sharon, that every now and then we get great purchases, and we love passing those along to our customers. I have a beautiful Galle cameo glass vase right now, covered in fern, and I’m asking $2,000 for it.
Sharon: Oh, my gosh!
Ben: I bought it in a collection with other things that were expensive, and I decided that I was going to bring it in for a very low amount of money, and whoever gets there first is going to get a bargain. That’s what makes it fun.
Sharon: I’m sure that vase will be gone very quickly. You recently brought on the contemporary jewelry of—is it Neha Dani?
Ben: Neha Dani, yeah.
Sharon: You’re representing her exclusively. Can you tell us about the line? This is the first time you’ve done it, isn’t it?
Ben: It is. My wife, Hillary, and I have been looking for a contemporary jeweler who was not already at Bergdorf, Barneys, Sacks, etc., because New York’s a crowded market. We were looking for a contemporary jeweler who we felt reflected the gallery’s core values in terms of creativity, exclusivity and craftsmanship on the highest level.
Neha was introduced to us by a woman named Linda Buckley, who used to be in public relations for Tiffany & Co. and with whom we’ve had a cordial, professional relationship for 20 years. I mentioned to Linda one of the times we saw each other, “We’re looking for a contemporary jeweler whose work we think we can get behind.” She put two and two together and introduced us to Neha’s work, and it was a very quick, gut decision. I looked at her work and I thought, “This is breathtaking.” I loved the fact that, with very few exceptions, she’ll only make each piece once. It’s a painstaking, laborious process for Neha, because everything is influenced by nature, both by flowers and leaves and underwater sea life. There’s a background of thought behind everything, which is very consonant with art nouveau because art nouveau is not a botanical movement; it’s really an emotional movement; it’s really an intellectual, symbological movement, and a lot of Neha’s work, although it doesn’t look art nouveau at all, it definitely appeals to the same person.
Her work is like the opposite of Van Cleef and Arpels, which is Alhambra jewelry. All that Alhambra stuff is great. I respect it. It’s one of the most successful things done in the 20th century in terms of jewelry design, but it’s the safest piece of jewelry that you can buy. It requires no stretching of your lens, no stretching of your aesthetics, no stretching of your emotions. But there’s a reason for this, and I talk about this in collecting. I don’t know if you know this, but social psychologists have done long studies about human emotion, and one of the little tidbits that I took away from it was so fascinating, and it talks so much about collecting. The primal human fear is to be murdered. Logical, right?
Ben: The second most primal human fear is to be humiliated publicly. Every woman knows if they buy Alhambra, they’re never going to be humiliated publicly. They might not put that into words. They’re like, “Oh, I saw it on my friend,” “Oh, I saw it in the ad,” “Oh, everybody has this.” That’s what they’re really saying. What they’re saying is, “This is so completely acceptable.” When related to Neha’s jewelry, you have to have somebody who’s much more confident in themself because it’s strong; it’s gemmy; it has very bold color sense. I think it’s magnificent, and that’s why it makes sense for us because a lot of our clients are women like that. They’re women who are going to say, “I don’t want what everybody else has. I don’t want something I’m going to see coming and going on my girlfriends. I want to have something that nobody has.” Several of the pieces of Neha’s jewelry we’ve sold to art collectors; we’ve sold to musicians. I can’t say their names, but famous musicians. A famous artist as well bought a pair of earrings for his wife recently, a New York-based person. I think her work is really interesting and I’m happy to talk about it in more depth if you’d like.
Sharon: I wanted people to know about it. It is definitely intricate. Just looking at it, it’s awesome, and I mean that it makes one full of awe.
Ben: And it’s a long process. She starts with an idea. One bracelet she made was when—she lives in India, and it was fall and— she saw eucalyptus leaves falling from the tree and she thought the way they twisted was so elegant. She had this inspiration, and then she had to do the 99% of perspiration, and she carved it out of wax, six, eight, ten times until she felt like she got the form she wanted. Then she had to figure it out with her bench jeweler, how to make this twisting, almost Mobius strip-like piece of eucalyptus. How do you make it so it fits comfortably around a woman’s wrist so it doesn’t dig in, so there are no pinch points? How do you hinge it so that it works properly? What treatment do you use to the gold? How do you set the vein of the leaf with diamonds across both sides, so that it looks like a continuous design? A very, very strong design sense she has, and she is also willing to entertain complexity. I think that is probably the thing that turns me on most about her jewelry. It’s incredibly complicated to make, but it doesn’t look incredibly complicated to wear. The jewelry doesn’t wear the person; the person wears the jewelry with Neha.
Sharon: From the pictures I’ve seen, she’s not afraid of intricacies. I’m sure that’s quite challenging to do, and it looks very easy to wear. Let me ask you this: you mentioned names, Van Cleef and Cartier. I recently heard you say that 50 percent or more of estate jewelry is unsigned, but that the signature really only becomes important when it elevates the piece. What do you mean by that?
Ben: Thank you for asking. Look, we live in a world where the large brands, whether they be Cartier or Christian Dior or any of them, are so powerful that they carry a cachet that makes the customer very, very happy to spend money there. They work very hard at it, and they deserve their success.
What I think has been lost is that a lot of people—and the same is true in the art world—most people aren’t buying with their eyes anymore; they’re buying with the ears. What I mean by that is, I went to a client’s home the other day who’d bought a few pieces of jewelry from me. She said, “You have to come over and see my art collection,” and I said, “I would love to.” I got there, and it was one famous name after another. It was all contemporary, Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol and some Kiefer. It was all good art; don’t me wrong, but I asked her—I’m not going to say her name—I said, “Ms. So and So, could you tell me a little bit about what you like about this painting?” And she said, “Oh, he’s a very important artist.” We kept going around, and it was either, “He’s a very important artist,” or “My art advisor said this person is worth owning.” It doesn’t mean that she didn’t end up with good things, but she’s not a collector. She didn’t go through the process of figuring it out.
Back to this question of signed versus unsigned, which has leaked into the world of jewelry as well. There’s no point, unless you’re really a label whore, to buy an engagement ring at Cartier. If you’re buying a diamond solitaire with a six-prong setting, it’s no better there than it is from your local jeweler wherever you live. It’s a relatively meat-and-potatoes thing. To me, to pay a premium for that makes no sense. However, if you want to buy a tutti-frutti bracelet from the art décor period and you can afford to buy one that’s by Cartier, you are darn right to do so, because they invented the idea of it; they perfected it and it’s considered the absolute standard. If you’re buying collectible jewelry to collect, that’s where you’ve got to go.
Now, not everybody has $1 million to $2 million to spend, which is why there’s a different market, but I think a lot of the jewelry that’s by the big houses that’s been made over the last 100 plus years is absolutely worth buying for aesthetics. If you’re creating a collection where you hope it’s going to have enduring value, it’s worth paying the extra amount because the world we’re living in now valorizes signed things so much more that it does create great safety, if the amount of money you’re spending on this jewelry matters to you. The $5,000, $10,000, $100,000, $200,000 that you’re spending, if one day you’re going to need to sell it, it matters. If you’re making $30 million a year, it doesn’t matter. It’s a rounding error. Also, there’s so much beautifully wrought, beautifully conceived, perfectly executed jewelry without anybody’s name on it, and it’s sad if somebody’s unwilling to entertain purchasing it because they don’t know who made it.
Sharon: You do see a lot that isn’t signed and you go, “It doesn’t matter. This is just gorgeous,” or, “It’s so well made or so unusual.”
Ben: Sharon, in your collecting, what criteria do you use?
Sharon: That’s a good question I’m not sure I have an answer for. I think I look for what’s going to fill in, in a sense. I have to like it and I have to feel its quality, but I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking, because so many people are like, “I just buy what I like and it doesn’t matter what kind,” and some people are more, “I have this collection and it has to be signed.” That’s certainly not me, but that’s why I’m asking about it, because I’ve mulled it over in my mind.
Ben: I have one client who—I haven’t seen her in many, many years—but when I first started working at the gallery and I knew nothing about nothing, she called us up from Ohio and I answered the phone, because that was my job when I started working at Macklowe Gallery, and I said, “Hello, Macklowe Gallery,” and she goes, “I’m looking for mourning jewelry.” Moron that I was, I said, “Well, our jewelry can be worn at any time of day.” She was very patient with me. She said, “No, young man, mourning jewelry refers to Georgian and Victorian jewelry that’s made to commemorate a loved one who’s passed away,” and I said, “Oh, we might have some of that. Could I get your number and call you back?” This was a person where that was her focus. She thought that this whole cult of remembrance that was largely, as you know, instituted by Queen Victoria for her love, Albert, that this was something worth exploring and it spoke to her soul. She was obviously very comfortable not buying jewelry that was signed, because none of that stuff was ever signed by a jeweler. It might have had the name of the person who’s deceased on it, and if that doesn’t creep you out, that makes it kind of hard.
Sharon: It does creep some people out, yes.
Ben: By the way, sorry to interrupt, estate jewelry fully creeps some people out. It is incredibly difficult to sell any estate jewelry to anybody from China.
Ben: It’s this whole thing about the energy of the person who wore it before; it’s only recently that the well-to-do Chinese are starting to get open-minded enough to buy estate jewelry. I always thought it was sort of absurd because if you’re buying a brand-new piece of jewelry, it’s still been touched by a lot of people, but nobody listens to me when I say this stuff.
Sharon: I was really interested in the fact that on your website, it says you and Hillary are focusing on educating and promoting the next generation of innovative collectors. What level of interest do millennials have in antique and estate jewelry? You hear so much about the fact that they don’t care. What are you finding?
Ben: I tend to give long answers, so I apologize.
Sharon: No, please.
Ben: That can be answered in two seconds. The world has changed. People dress casually. Homes are open plan and people don’t go out for formal affairs the way they did 40 years ago, even 20 years ago. As a non-manufacturing jeweler, I have to try to find a way to address that societal change in how I buy jewelry, but I also have to address that change in regard to the people who I’m selling to. Look, I’m 48. I’ve got customers younger than I am, all the way to—I had one customer who’s 96, God bless him. The customer you’re talking about, the modern-world customer is somebody who’s 25-50.
First, the millennials care a lot about the story. It has to be a legitimate story, not a bullshit story. They care about why they should care about something. I know there has always been this talk about experiential retail, and it’s a hard thing to do in a business like ours, but we’re trying to figure it out. For us, the real entry point is education. I think I have an advantage over my wonderful employee, Madeleine, who has a master’s degree, or anybody who might even have a Ph.D. in art history, because I didn’t actually go to school for this. I’ve had to learn it in the way most of our customers learn it, which is little by little and drip by drip. When I give my lectures, I’m not sitting there quoting dates and names and dry stuff that you can read in a book. I’m trying to help people make connections between societal changes, economic changes, changes in the roles of women, changes in manufacturing capacities, all this different stuff that makes what you’re looking at much more interesting. I always feel like if I can help people get a vocabulary by which to assess the things they’re looking at, then I’m going to create a collector.
This customer I mentioned who has these beautiful three books that he sent me, I was looking at the porcelain with my father and I said, “I feel like I need a lot more education to be able to appreciate these pieces,” and he said, “I feel the exact same way.” I want to be the person who gives my potential customers, regardless of their age, that education, so that they can say, “You know, I actually do like Victorian jewelry. I had no idea the Victorians were so modern,” or “Gosh, I hate art deco jewelry. How did I think I was going to like it? It’s not my taste at all.” I don’t care what you like. I just care that you like something.
You had talked earlier about collectors coming to me having bought one or two or three things. Once they’ve started, I’m great. The hardest thing is to get somebody to commit to the first piece. I always tell people, if you buy good things from a good dealer and you don’t like them in a year or two years or three years, you can sell them. It’s not such a big deal. Maybe you’ll make money. Maybe you’ll lose some money. It doesn’t matter, because you’ve started to train your eye. That’s why I always say to people who are interested in going into this business, if you can, get a job at an auction house. You’ll see so much, but you’ll never be an expert until you have to risk your capital.
Sharon: That’s interesting. Ben, thank you so much for being here. I could talk to you for another couple of hours. It’s so interesting. Thank you so much.
Ben: Oh, shucks!
Sharon: To everybody listening, we’ll have the gallery’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
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