Over his 25 years as a jewelry dealer specializing in vintage 20th century pieces, Erik Yang has paid his dues in the industry, and it has paid off. He joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about his journey, including how he chooses pieces for his clientele, who his favorite jewelry designer is and why he’s decided to sell his pieces online. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, my guest is Erik Yang, founder of The Lush Life Antiques. He is a prominent dealer in 20th century vintage and contemporary modernist jewelry. In recent years, Erik has segued from exhibiting at shows to selling exclusively online. He’ll tell us about that and the rest of his jewelry journey on today’s show. Erik, glad to have you.
Erik: I’m happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your podcast.
Sharon: I really appreciate it. You’ve had quite a jewelry journey. Can you tell us about it? When and how did your interest in jewelry start and what made you decide to become a dealer?
Erik: I’ve thought about this for a long time, because people have asked me. My interest in jewelry started very, very early as a young child, and I’ve always had this weird passion for jewelry. I would never in a million years have expected myself to end up in this as a career.
My earliest memory would be of my mother, who had a lot of jewelry back in the day. She worked for Marshall Field’s and had wonderful things. She had a garage sale and was selling a lot of her costume jewelry for 10 cents and 25 cents, and I basically stole it all and hid it in our playroom because I thought it was too pretty to be sold. I got in trouble about it because I wasn’t supposed to take it, but in the long run, it was all Schiaparelli. It was all signed costume jewelry that’s very covetable by today’s standards, but back then in the 70s, it really wasn’t important. That’s my earliest memory of loving jewelry.
My career didn’t go on the route that I wanted it to, and I ended up basically selling off things that I had collected in peddling, and it became a career maybe 25 years ago. That’s where I’m at now. I never thought for 25 years I would be selling vintage costume jewelry or vintage antique jewelry for that matter. Our lives take us in different directions, right?
Sharon: Right. I was reading an interview with you and it said that you were working on your Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology.
Erik: Yes. I was pre-med, but medical school wasn’t working for me, so I decided that I would go for—I worked in a laboratory for two years. I oversaw two labs, and I did the buying and purchasing for the labs and oversaw and trained new people that came in. At the same time, I was dabbling in the antique business, and at one point, I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was like putting a square peg into a round hole and it just wasn’t me, so I walked away, much to the despair of the dean of my department.
Everybody wanted tme to stay on and continue, but I said no and walked away and started in the antiques business. My dean said, “What are you going to do for a living? How are you going to make money?” And I said, “I’m going to get to the flea market next week and just sell some stuff I collected.” I’ve been doing it ever since. It seems like I’ve not made a dent, but it’s been an interesting journey. I didn’t start out with jewelry necessarily; I started out with random objects. I did have a lot of Bakelite jewelry in the early days, but like I said, I have been doing this business for 25 years and seen its changes and its evolution.
Sharon: 25 years go by quickly.
Erik: Very fast.
Sharon: How did you come up with name of your business, The Lush Life, and what does it mean to you? What did you want it to mean to your clientele?
Erik: The business name was sort of a joke to me. As I said, I didn’t start with jewelry. I started with objects, and I really loved mid-century and art deco design. A lot of things from that period incorporated Bakelite on the handles or in furniture, and one thing that I really loved early on was early cocktail shaker design. So I created The Lush Life—well, first of all, it’s a very famous Billy Strayhorn song from the 1930s—but I loved the double entendre of it, with a little drunkenness, mostly fun. It was a pun with the name. I specialized in barware when I started, so I had all of these lovely cocktail shakers with Bakelite handles and I had a case of Bakelite jewelry. That’s where it started, and as the business progressed, or as I progressed in my business, it became more and more jewelry-oriented. I kept the name because I thought, “Well, it promotes that kind of luxurious life that I like to promote.” At this point, I’m in the process of rebranding it to my own name. Lush Life will continue, but I would like, in the next couple of years at least, to rebrand it towards a future website or a future development promoting it more with my name. When I started out, nobody knew who I was, but at this point, I’d like to just say, “Oh, well, it’s Erik Yang Jewelry.”
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. It’s an interesting history. When we had talked, you mentioned that you buy jewelry primarily based on fashion, and whether it’s signed or not is secondary to you. What do you mean by fashion when it comes to jewelry, and is there a particular type you like, or a particular era or designer? What attracts you?
Erik: I’ve always bought things that I thought were really beautiful and I never looked at the name. In my earliest recollection, people said, “Oh, we want this.” I was given a list of names, and I looked for those labels and those pieces and I thought, “Oh, this is ugly. They couldn’t possibly want this.” I just went by my own guide and I used to buy things that nobody wanted.
Early on, I was buying Chinese export silver jewelry because it was so beautifully made and so intricate, and it had so many beautiful gemstones, but nobody wanted it. In today’s market, the Chinese market is through the roof and those are pieces that I bought for $10 and they’re selling for $700 and $800 now. It’s dramatically changed.
To go to the fashion aspect, like I said, I always bought for the look. If I thought something would coordinate with a black strapless or the classic evening gown, I bought those kinds of things. If it had a label of Chanel, if it had a label of Dior, it was an added bonus. I do like to buy those labels, but I also like to buy things that are nameless, that are really cheap, like a lariat that can be thrown on, worn, walk out the door and you look fabulous with it. My interpretation of jewelry has always been that, and I’ve always had a mix of that.
One of my favorite designers—because you asked about that—I have one particular designer that a lot of people don’t know, but her name is Cissy Zoltowska. She was a Viennese countess, and she produced jewelry under the name CIS. She did a lot of things that were private label and she also produced under her own label. She made jewelry for Dior and Balenciaga and all of the major fashion houses in France, and her work is extraordinary. I have a great passion for her pieces. I worked with a couple of major collectors who have extensive pieces of her collection, so I’ve been lucky to see and handle these things and understand their construction, because each one is completely one of a kind, and I think that’s why I like her work so much.
A side story with that: I was doing a show in Los Angeles, a little pop-up shop event, and a gentleman came in and we started talking. I was actually not selling costume; I was selling Native American jewelry. I told him that I sold costume, and he said, “Have you ever heard of a lady named Countess Cis?” and I started gushing. He immediately started crying and he said, “She was my best friend.” He said, “I’ve gone to numerous flea markets and antique shows and asked people, ‘Do you know who she is?’ and nobody knew who she was.” She’s a little bit more known now because of the internet, but I remember him just tearing up, and we were both like, “I want to interview you. I want to do an article about you and your memories with her.” She was apparently very, very ostentatious and outgoing, and her jewelry really said that. So, to tell you about my favorite jeweler, it would be her.
Sharon: Wow, interesting! Did you discover her through a collector?
Erik: I bought a collection many years ago that was from the founder of the Houston Petroleum Club, and there were numerous pieces of Countess Cis. My understanding was that the husband or his wife would fly to I. Magnin in New York and Bergdorf’s and buy her seasonal wardrobes, and there was a large amount of this jewelry. I didn’t know anything about it when I bought it. All I knew was that it was really, really special and I put it away. It was maybe two or three years later that I started understanding what it was and who the maker was, and I sold most of it to private collections and to museums. That was my earliest handling of her jewelry, and I’ve since looked and tried to find it. It’s not really common. It was very, very exclusive at the time.
Sharon: Tell us about your customers then, the kind of people who are going to be buying Countess Cis or the other unique pieces you have. I’m sure you have longstanding clientele, but how do new people find you, and what is your client base today?
Erik: My clientele has been very strange for many years. I was fortunate when I started, because I met some of the top collectors for several categories and they knew I had an eye for what they liked. This is way, way, way before cell phones. I remember calling people collect at a pay phone and saying, “Oh my god, I just saw this,” describing it over the phone, and they said, “O.K., go ahead and buy it. We’ll wire you the money.”
Things have changed dramatically since then. I picked up Bakelite and Mexican silver and Native American and costume jewelry, you name it, but the customer base—like I said, I was very lucky early on. Subsequently, when I opened my website, I developed long-term clients who bought regularly. I actually had a couple of clients who would send me an email and they’d say, “Oh my god, I don’t owe you any money,” because they had long-term layaways. I’ve met and developed wonderful friendships from these people as well. Some of these people have not bought in years, but I still see them all the time and they’re wonderful people.
Currently, I sell through four different venues here in my state of Texas. I also sell to other states, so overall, it’s a very diverse clientele that I have right now. I have the 20-somethings and I have the 70-somethings, and it’s very different. Each age bracket and each stage and each city has a different look. It’s just a matter of trying to stay on top of it all and trying to pick out what they want, and that’s a big challenge.
Sharon: Do people just stumble onto your website and see a piece and say, “I have to have it”? Or do you still contact people before you post it? How are you doing that?
Erik: My website is in interim right now because I’m trying to relaunch it as another label, so I’m not putting new things on. For many years, I was probably the only one online that had what I had to offer. With the burgeoning of the internet and many, many luxury resale websites, I have major competition. Going forward, I’m going to try and compete with them, but yes, I did have a lot of regular customers that I would email, and at this point, I do. I basically text my customers when I find something I think they would like and I say, “Oh, this is great. I’m at this antique show in Baltimore. I’m absorbed and this is beautiful. It would be great for your collection. Here it is.” That’s how I’m working for the higher-end pieces, but I always have to keep stock, so I’m going to multiple shows, not just antique shows. I go to all the new venues. I go to the Coterie in New York. I go to all of the new jewelry accessory shows throughout the U.S. to see what’s happening and to try and keep on top of what’s coming out, because there are a lot of things that are being reproduced. There are some earrings that in China are $25, but the antique version would be $4,000, and it’s really hard to compete with that, when they’re coming out at that level.
Creating a new clientele is hard. Most of my clientele has been created through shows that I’ve done and through my website, and just through personally being at the store, whichever store I’m working at. I do a lot of pop-up events or trunk shows. I can get their vibe when I see them, and I tailor a lot of what I buy towards those people.
Sharon: Being online offers a lot of opportunity and there are a lot of challenges, but what made you decide to go exclusively online, as opposed to exhibiting at shows around the country?
Erik: I did shows for many years. I started selling online exclusively auction-based, and I wasn’t feeling that I was gleaning the funds that should have been made on pieces I thought were really wonderful. I decided to start doing some of the higher-end shows. I did some of the modernism shows, the Baltimore Summer Antique show. I’ve done the Houston show, Miami Modernism, Miami Antique Show, the Pier Sale, on and on. I liked dealing with more of a retail clientele, when people are there and they can handle it and see it. Jewelry translates so differently in person, and that’s one thing that a lot of people don’t understand. I did better at shows, but with the internet and everything that’s happening, clientele are not coming into the shows anymore. It’s dramatically changed, and it’s very expensive to set up at these events and I don’t think people realize that. Booths can be upwards of $3,000 the first day and $2,000 for the showcases, not to mention your travel, and then you have to hire somebody to help you. It is very, very expensive, so I decided I was going to take a hiatus for a while and go back online, and that’s what I’ve done for the last year and half. It’s allowed me a little bit more freedom, although it is extremely laborious. It is 16-hour days a lot of times. I don’t know if many people realize it, too, that even selling online is very time consuming.
Sharon: I’m sure. There’s measuring and describing in detail and answering questions. I talk to a lot of people who say they don’t want to buy online because they want to feel it and see it and try it on.
Erik: I agree. I think that what’s happening, as one of the “younger” vendors in this venue—I’m not so young—is everybody’s all about buying online at this point, but I think it’s going to twist around. It’s going to go back to holding it, seeing it in person, experiencing it in person, because that’s what I do. I buy almost nothing online. I want to see it; I want to hold it; I want to see the quality, and I think we’re going back in that direction. It’s going to take a while. It might be another generation. A lot of these great antique shows were so wonderful because you could see everything and see things you’ve never seen before and hold them, and then people would be there to educate you. It’s kind of a lost art.
Sharon: It could be that things will change, just like direct mail is making a comeback. Everybody said it was dead, so it wouldn’t surprise me if things turned around. You mentioned that you’re one of the younger dealers in this business, but you’ve been in it a long time. What’s held your attention for so long, and what would you say are the secrets to success? What would you advise those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Erik: I don’t have any of the secrets to success or otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here; I would be on the beach in Cabo. It’s a lot of hard work. You have to be very dedicated if you want to do this as a business. My first sale was when I was 14 years old and I’ve been a dealer since I was 21, 22. I was shocked that anybody would want to buy any of my mid-century modern. I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t believe anybody would want things like this.” Now it’s the big thing. I have been asked by several people who are younger, much younger than I, what is the thing to buy, what should I buy now, what should I invest in, and I say, “I don’t know.” I really don’t know. They look at it in a much more analytical way than I do. I say, “Go with your heart. Buy what you can afford.” What I’m seeing if I ever go to estate sales, which I never do, I see everybody’s looking everything up on their iPhones to see what it’s selling for online. They probably should do that, because that will set a level as to what you can pay, but I always went with my heart and overpaid for a lot of things, and I made money off them.
And yes, I have made a lot of mistakes, but over 25 years, I feel like I’ve paid my dues at this point, and that’s what I tell younger people who ask me. I say, “You’ve got to pay your dues.” When I’ve bought from vendors and they say, “I have a store,” and I’m like, “Where’s the store?” and they’re like, “Oh, it’s on Etsy.” And I’m like, “Well no, Etsy’s not a store. You have a platform. You have an Etsy platform. You don’t have a brick and mortar. You don’t deal with employees. You don’t deal with taxes. You don’t deal with all of this.” Although I’ve never had a brick and mortar, I’ve been in many brick and mortars. I’ve worked very intimately with many, many people in brick and mortars, so I really do understand. I would say for a younger generation, you’ve got to pay your dues. It’s not easy. It’s not a quick sale online. It’s not “buy it at an estate sale for $10 and sell it for $100.” You’ve got to understand what’s happening, and a lot of the younger people are not going to do the research. I think that’s what my background in biomedical studies was all about: research. I think that’s why I survive, maybe.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. I talk to a lot of dealers, and some say when I ask, “I don’t know what it is,” and that’s great. I really appreciate it, but some will make some guess or have no idea, and they clearly don’t want to do any kind of research on it.
Erik: Right, and like I said, I’ve made many mistakes. For example, I was walking my dog a couple of days ago down the street, and there was an estate sale four doors down. I didn’t even know about it, and I went in and there was a collection of Chinese roof tiles. They were very expensive, and I made an offer on them and she accepted, and I said, “Let me go home, drop off the dog. I’ll come back with a check.” I immediately was like, “Why are you doing this?” I looked online and I thought, “Oh god, you made an offer that’s three times what they’re selling for online.” You have to do your research. You have to be a little bit careful. She wasn’t really happy when I got back ten minutes later and said, “I’m not buying after all,” but you have to be a little careful these days. The market’s all over the place.
Sharon: It sounds like you have paid your dues and it has paid off. Erik, thanks so much for being here. We really appreciate it. To everybody listening, we’ll have links to The Lush Life in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com.
That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and 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. Thank you so much for listening.
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