Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry is well known in the antique jewelry world and its due in no small part to the efforts of co-owner Suzanne Martinez. Since joining the company in 1995, Suzanne has used her background as a gemologist and jewelry historian to find and restore thousands of vintage engagement rings and other jewelry. She joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about her history in the industry and what we can expect from Lang next. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Suzanne Martinez, co-owner of Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry. She is a gemologist, jewelry historian and entrepreneur in addition to wearing several other hats. Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry is known for their large selection of antique and vintage engagement rings. Today we’ll hear more about her jewelry journey. Suzanne, welcome to the program.
Suzanne: Thanks for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. When did you start liking jewelry? Did you start with antique jewelry? Tell us a little bit about that.
Suzanne: My journey really started as a child and it wasn’t a jewelry journey yet. I had a grandmother who collected geodes, and I was always fascinated by these rocks you could cut in half and they were filled with crystals. I lived on a piece of rural property that had a lot of boulders that had little garnets in them. I picked all the garnets out of the boulders and those were my little treasures as a young child. I was always a crafty person. I liked using my hands. I liked making things. My mom was a fine artist, so there were always crafting things around my house. I was stringing beads and making bead necklaces by the time I was about 10. Then, when I went into high school, our high school had a jewelry department. I was probably the youngest in my class at 13 when I started. All I wanted to do was make jewelry. Unfortunately, you had to be a junior to start taking jewelry classes. Of course, I didn’t know this, so I decided, “Well, I’m going to take it anyway.” I went to night school with adults and the teacher was so impressed that I wanted to make jewelry that much that he let me take his classes. We became fast friends and I spent the next four years spending as much time as possible in his jewelry lab making jewelry.
Sharon: Wow! When you say jewelry department, was that metalsmithing?
Suzanne: Mostly silversmithing. The term silversmithing is misunderstood. Silversmithing is really raising hollowware and silver. So, it wasn’t silversmithing, but we didn’t work in gold, so metalsmithing is probably the better word for it. Mostly we worked in silver because that’s what students could afford.
Sharon: When did you know that you wanted to do this professionally and make your livelihood through jewelry?
Suzanne: I continued to have a workshop even when I was in college studying Latin American cultural anthropology, which is also of interest to me. I’ve always liked Latin America. I always continued to make jewelry, and when I finished college and decided what I wanted to do, I went to work. I took a job at an American Gem Society store in Santa Rosa called E.R. Sawyer Jewelers, and they’re still around. They’ve been around, I think, for well over a hundred years. There was a gemologist working there. Previous to that, I had already started taking the GIA courses through correspondence, and he encouraged me to go to GIA because the hands-on training in person at GIA is so much greater than what you can get through correspondence study. Within six months I was there, and the rest is history. I absolutely fell in love with gems and everything about jewelry.
Sharon: Did you go to the Carlsbad campus? Which campus did you go to for GIA?
Suzanne: I have been a gemologist for over 40 years and the Santa Monica campus was where all the studies were done on the West Coast. I don’t even know if they had the New York school yet. I think it was just Santa Monica at that time. There was just a handful of classes, maybe four classes at a time. It was a great experience.
Sharon: It sounds like it would be.
Suzanne: I’ve seen lots of gems.
Sharon: How did you become the owner of Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry? Did you start working there? How did that come about?
Suzanne: When I finished GIA, I met my soon-to-be husband at GIA, and we moved to Hawaii and started a business there. We wholesaled colored stones and diamonds and were manufacturing design jewelry as well as running the first gem lab in Hawaii. I was there for 10 years, so I appraised thousands of items of jewelry and I got to see the breadth of jewelry that was manufactured outside what I made. I fell in love with vintage and antique jewelry because it was so unique. Knowing and understanding manufacturing through making jewelry, I had a much greater appreciation for the older pieces because of the way they are made, more so than something that was cast, which is what most of the jewelry that we were making was, cast or hand-fabricated.
I met Mark Zimmelman, who is my partner. He and his father—he’s third generation. His grandfather was no longer with them, but he’s third generation. Estate buyers was one of the hats that they wore. I used to sell jewelry that we would buy, because we were buyers and sellers of all different things. When we had estate jewelry, I would sell most of it to Mark Zimmelman. When I moved back to California in 1988, 1989, Mark and I reconnected, and he told me about his store. He was so excited about it. He asked me if I was interested in working there, and I said, “Well, my daughter’s really young. I work around her schedule at this point in my life,” and he said—and our love affair was sealed right there, because antique jewelry was what I wanted to do, but when I had my daughter, I had an epiphany. It was really before that, because I’ve always been an environmentalist. Even as a child, I was very conservative about not wasting and I was an early recycler. The jewelry business is a little harsh on the environment, as we all know at this point because we’ve become more aware of it. I was aware at the time, especially being a gemologist and seeing through my studies—you study mining sites and you see what they’ve done to the planet, especially metals. The mercury poisoning here in the San Francisco Bay continues to reach out of the gold mining areas up in the gold country of California. I decided I wanted to stick with appraising, buying and selling and stick with things that were recycled, as far as jewelry was concerned. I was a little bit ahead of what most people were doing. Not everybody understood what I was doing, but that was my decision. That was how I was going to spend the rest of my jewelry life. So, I made it happen, and Lang was the perfect vehicle for it. Mark and I became partners when he bought a store with his father in southern California. They bought Frances Klein, who was probably the first person, especially a woman, to have an antique jewelry store in the United States. She was very well-known, and when she retired, she sold her store in Beverly Hills to Mark and his father.
Sharon: How interesting! I never knew that because I’m too far from the Frances Klein store. By the time I came in there, much later, they didn’t have much jewelry. I didn’t even think of it as a jewelry store, in fact. I think it was probably not the original location.
Suzanne: The original location was the first location that Mark moved into. She was strictly antique jewelry; that was the specialty. I believe it’s where the Harry Winston store is now in Beverly Hills. When the building was sold, we moved around the corner—Mark did—to Brighton Way, but the whole of him taking over the store meant that he needed someone to run his store in San Francisco. This was about 1995. We decided to become partners at that time, so he had someone to run the store here while he was away.
Sharon: The Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry store.
Sharon: In San Francisco.
Suzanne: Correct, yeah.
Sharon: Tell us about the store. Everybody knows the name, at least in antique jewelry. Talk about San Francisco; tell us about the store, who your customers are, your demographics and everything.
Suzanne: Lang has had quite a journey all by itself. It’s named after Jarmilla Lang, who was the original owner who Mark bought the store from. He bought the store in 1991; she opened the store in 1969. We just celebrated 50 years, which is quite an accomplishment.
Sharon: Wow, congratulations!
Suzanne: This summer we were awarded small business legacy status in San Francisco. There are only 200 legacy businesses. It’s something that is granted to businesses who have something to do with the local San Francisco culture, not just a corporate chain store. There has to be a very local feel to store. We’re very proud of that. We are in almost exactly the same location as we were in 1969. We’ve been on the same block of the street for that long. Five years ago, we moved into a new location because we ran out of space. We started an e-commerce business. We got our first URL in 1998, and that was before there were e-commerce platforms, so we didn’t start selling until we built our own platform. There were no Magentos or eBays or things like that yet, so our world is very small. In the antique and estate jewelry world, a lot of us know each other. I certainly don’t know everybody in this business; I don’t mean to say that, but we are a small group of people because it’s a very niche market. We realize that there are far more customers for our jewelry than there are here in the Bay Area. Our internet business is about half of our business and we sell stuff all over the world.
Sharon: Tell us about your antique engagement rings in the wedding ring market.
Suzanne: Half of our business is selling antique and vintage diamond rings for engagement. Most of those rings are from the 1950s and earlier. That’s really what we specialize in. I would say the majority of the rings are from the art deco period, from the 1920s through the 1930s. The demographic of our customers are the people that are buying their first engagement ring, who are, of course, from 25 to 35 years old typically. Then we have people that are buying their second ring, or they’re celebrating a special anniversary and know that we sell diamond rings.
We’re known for true vintage rings that are lovingly restored. If it can’t be restored, we won’t buy it. Restoration—a lot of people don’t understand that term—can mean many things, but it’s not unusual for an old ring to have the prongs worn down, so we replace the prongs, or there are little cracks in the gallery because it was sized down or up and it cracked the metal. We will make sure and fix that. We’re very fortunate that lasers have been in use for jewelry restoration because it can be done seamlessly and invisibly, which is a good restoration; you don’t even know it’s been done. Our goal is to sell high quality pieces that can last somebody over a lifetime.
Sharon: When did you start seeing this trend toward vintage? What do you consider vintage? You said 1950s and before.
Suzanne: Vintage is a word where the usage of it has changed. When I was first in the business, vintage meant probably something from the 70s and earlier. It was a term to mean something older, whereas what vintage really is—art deco is a vintage; it’s a time period. It refers to time just like a bottle of wine. A vintage is the date when it was bottled, but that has changed now. Vintage is the term people use instead of antique because the word “antique” is definitely on the outs. They think about dark, brown furniture when they think of antiques, and that’s unfortunate. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this or not at all the antique shows. We have a show here in San Francisco; it used to be called the San Francisco Fall Art and Antique Show. Now, it’s just the San Francisco Art Show. They dropped antique from their title. A lot of people are doing that because the term “vintage” has moved in its place, and it’s confusing for people.
Sharon: I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s true. When you started, were vintage or antique rings as popular? It seems to be more recent, but not I’m not on the front lines.
Suzanne: In the 1990s, white metal became popular again. When that happened, a lot of the engagement ring styles were reflective of the art deco styles, very traditional and geometric. Art deco is such a broad category because there are so many different designs, but in the 1990s, because white metal came back, there was a lot of retrospective from the earlier white metal periods. I think there was an interest stylistically. We nurtured it as well. When I first started running Lang, I started acquiring diamond rings because I realized that was the direction we wanted to go. Most jewelry stores, half of their business is engagement rings. To be able to be successful and continue collecting all the other beautiful, true antique and vintage jewelry that we have, we had to have that bread and butter to do the other part of our business, which we absolutely love. So, I started curating diamond rings a long time ago, and I think because of that, we have the largest collection of anybody I know. We are very fortunate to have all the variety. One of the other things we’re doing right now is repurposing old diamonds. Diamond rings, a lot of them are worn out when we get them and we can’t reuse them, so we have what we call the Lang Collection. It’s not a big collection, but there are few things we have that have been inspired by art deco and Victorian and Edwardian styles. We created a few special rings that we put old diamonds in. We use recycled gold and use sustainably acquired diamonds as well. That’s what the customer wants. We’ve progressed from the 90s to now. Even though we started doing this a long time ago, now the customers have caught up, and it’s very important for them to have socially responsible jewelry that they wear. The story about the jewelry is really important to them.
Sharon: I’m sure that adds so much to the aura. What other trends are you seeing in the antique and estate jewelry market?
Suzanne: That’s hard. I wish I could say there was one particular trend. I will say Victorian jewelry has definitely come back. There was a period where it was soft. I think the reason it’s coming back is there are a lot of people interested in the history of jewelry, and they’re sharing their information on Instagram and Pinterest. We have all these passionate people and that’s translated into more sales for those kinds of pieces because people want to acquire these beautiful treasures from the past. I see with Victorian, people don’t necessarily need a very expensive piece of jewelry to have a really well-made, unique, beautiful piece of Victorian jewelry. I think people want to have something that no one else has. You’re going to come in our store and see that every piece is unique; every single piece is different from the next piece.
Sharon: That’s a real selling point, in terms of not having the same ring or the same diamond on a chain that everybody else has.
Suzanne: It’s reflective of the customers. Our customers are as varied as our jewelry is. They’re all one of a kind. They don’t want to have jewelry like everybody else. They don’t want that Tiffany key on a chain that is very popular in other circles. They want to be unique.
Sharon: Right. You started something, or you’re developing something, called Antique U, Antique Online?
Suzanne: Antique Jewelry University began when we first had our website. When we started our website, there were all kinds of navigation points, and one of our navigation points—I think it was called knowledge at that point—nobody clicked on. I was so disappointed. So, we decided to start a wiki. It was originally a wiki because we thought our community was going to want to share their information, because I’m all about continuing education. I’ve been involved with the GIA alumni for almost 30 years. For me, it’s all about sharing knowledge. I thought there would be a lot more people like myself out there, but it turned out we had a lot of spam from Russians. So, we had to make it a closed wiki. Now, we migrated it to WordPress so it’s easier for us to manage on the back end, but it’s all about jewelry history. We’re working on two different paths for customers or people that visit our website, and this is our new project. A lot of people come and they are beginners. They’re just learning about antique jewelry and jewelry history, so we have a primer so they can get the basic information. Then, we have much more advanced information. We have a large maker’s mark gallery so people can research maker’s marks. We have a lot of people in the trade who, when they get an unusual mark, they send us the image and any information they have so we can add it to the gallery. It’s really encyclopedic. We have been doing this since we opened our website, so it’s been almost 20 years.
Sharon: It’s a tremendous resource. You’ve been in the market and you’ve seen ups and downs, so what advice would you give to somebody just getting started selling jewelry?
Suzanne: I see there are two people interested. It’s people that want to become sellers, and there are also buyers, but I think they both have to start at the same place. You need to get educated. They should read Antique Jewelry University from cover to cover. That’s a really good place. I’ve even made some videos so people can learn how to date pieces of jewelry based on their findings, learn how to tell difference between a Georgian reproduction ring, and one that is original and authentic. See as much jewelry as you possibly can, which means going to jewelry stores like Lang and seeing what we have. I think that is the best place to start. We’re also very fortunate that, because of the internet, you can look online at places. Look at the beautiful Pinterest boards where people have collected all the Lalique Jewelry images in the world in one place. That’s another great resource. We’ve become active on different Instagram feeds. We put jewelry on Instagram almost every day. If you have an opportunity, GIA Alumni has meetings all over the world. You have to learn about gems as well as jewelry. It’s very comprehensive. What I do every day is—I’m a forensic gemologist/jeweler. I look at pieces of jewelry. I look at them closely with a loupe and a microscope, and I try and figure out what its story is. The jewelry usually tells me what its story is.
Sharon: I have seen you in action and I know that you—we’ve talked to a lot of people on the podcast who know what they’re talking about, but I have been impressed with the depth and the knowledge you add when you can look at a piece of jewelry and say, “Well, it’s from ABC.” I have seen you describe a lot of different details that others might not know. You can tell you’ve been doing it a long time and you’re focused on the details.
Suzanne: Being a gemologist, that’s what you learn when you’re at GIA studying. It’s all about the details. As a business owner, I spend a lot of time making sure I am giving the best information I can to my clients, and it’s hard. Starla Turner is my partner in jewelry, and the two of us lecture together. We’ve known each other for close to 30 years, and we’ve traveled the world going to places where jewelry is from and going to conferences. It’s all about seeking out information. Don’t stop, just dive deeper.
Sharon: There is so much to learn. It definitely is an ongoing process. Suzanne, thank you so much for being here. To everybody listening, we’ll have Suzanne’s contact information and information about Lang 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 review 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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