New York City. March 18, 2021. Jason Baskin couldn’t be happier about The Gem Vault’s first virtual roundtable event, which took place on Facebook Live at the end of February.
“I’ve watched friends do live mineral and gem shows with normally up to 20 people online at a time, but we had 50 on at all times!” says the jewelry designer and gemstone cutter at the Flemington, N.J.–based store.
Many merchants are looking for creative ways to keep ringing up sales during coronavirus times, and virtual roundtables could be an option. In-person roundtables are a tried-and-true way for retailers, especially those with robust in-house design departments, to lure in colored stone collectors to shop special gems from cutters and dealers and then have custom pieces made by the store. In light of the global pandemic, live events have understandably not been happening, leaving industry scrambling to figure out new methods. This is why virtual versions of roundtables have arisen as potentially viable and profitable alternatives.
In fact, once people simply become aware of this way of shopping, some get hooked. “I sold a couple of rings to a girl in North Carolina who never came into my store at all,” says Laurie Kottke of Laurie Kottke Fine Jewelry in Minneapolis, Minn., about one virtual event she held with Roger Dery Gemstones. (She’s held two to date with Dery.)
How Virtual Roundtables Work
Platforms to produce virtual events include Zoom and Instagram and Facebook Live, among others. And just like in live roundtables, gems are numbered, but that’s where the similarities end. Since participants aren’t in person and can’t examine live gems and pass them from one seatmate to the next, specific studio setups are required to showcase gems on screens.
First, both the store and the stone dealer agree ahead of time as to who actually has the gems in their possession; according to interviewees, it’s a 50/50 mix. All stones are shown loose on a rotating turntable similar to a lazy Susan, with myriad empty trays set up for shoppers’ dibbed rocks to accumulate. Lighting of stones and tripods are key, as is an array of smart phone cameras for an event on Zoom—one should be focused on the dealer, one on a store host or hostess, and at least one on the loose gems. Also helpful: a slideshow presentation of photos and information about each gem, so viewers can see those details while someone is talking about the stone’s attributes and someone else is rotating the gem to catch the light. Alternatively, a camera could be pointing at a gem in a lightbox.
“It takes at least three people to do this right,” observes Lois Wacholtz, owner of Christopher & Co. in Champaign, Ill. Wacholtz and now-deceased stone dealer Barney Goff pioneered the roundtable idea in 1987; she has done four virtual events to date and has four more scheduled to take place this year. Her highest-grossing one, held over three consecutive nights with dealer Penny Nisenbaum, rang up $27,000 in gross sales.
The number of stones and guests also differ widely for virtual roundtables. For many jewelers, live event attendees typically number about 12, while there can be as many as 130 stones. Numbers of virtual guests can be much greater—consider The Gem Vault’s 50 guests—while numbers of stones are often less, anywhere from 30 to 80.
Stacey Friant of Ken Walker Jewelers in Gig Harbor, Washington, held a virtual roundtable in July 2020 with Artinian Gems, where 25 attended. Dealer David Artinian showed 30 gems total, and Friant sold 12 stones that night, ultimately making a custom piece for each. “It wasn’t as good as an in-store event, but I was happy with how it turned out,” she reveals. Her biggest sale of the night? A $4,000 cushion-shape royal blue sapphire.
Price points are another consideration, with many for virtual events lower than in-person ones. Friant’s gem selections started at just $100. Dery, too, oftentimes offers moderately priced stones at virtual events because of the obvious barriers in communicating the specialness of pricier gems online. “We’re not showing a $40,000 stone to start,” he says of his inventory, much of which is from East Africa, a place where he travels extensively and reinvests profits back into local mining and education initiatives.
His first virtual roundtable took place in March 2020 and resulted in the sale of seven gems. Dery often works with retailers with whom he’s traveled to East Africa, so their clients are interested in stories of his work on the ground.
“He’s not just selling stones to my clients—they are really buying into gems with a purpose,” explains Kottke, who held her first virtual roundtable with Dery in the summer of 2020 and who traveled to Kenya with him in 2019. At her roundtable, she had two couples and three individuals present, making at least one stone sale to each party.
Learning Curves & Success Stories
For sure, participants all must learn to be comfortable on the digital platform of their choosing and in securing the right mix of clients. Plus, hospitality was still a consideration. Friant hand-delivered the store’s signature baked cookies—white chocolate chip macadamia nut and cranberry oatmeal from Otis Spunkmeyer—to each person’s home. Wacholtz, too, sent snacks to locals, while Kottke shipped bottles of wine (where possible, depending on state laws) and cheese and crackers that arrived an hour before the event started. “People were just excited to get a gift at their door!” she maintains.
Kristine Wylie of Jewelsmith in Durham, N.C., held one event with John J. Bradshaw in mid-October. She invited 75 guests, and 30 attended, and her staff chose 40 gems from photos for Bradshaw to highlight. The store sold 12 that night and have made a third of those custom pieces thus far, gleaning tips to improve future events. Among them? More prep time and spacing out in-store staffers, who were each logged in separately. “When you’re too close you get a terrible echo,” she recollects.
To better romance each sale, they would also need to see stones in person before the roundtable, not just work from a list and images—information that would have been helpful to share in a slideshow presentation. “If it was difficult for us to remember the stones, then it was definitely tough for our clients.” The dibbing process, too, got a little complicated, with some clients texting store employees instead of doing so on the chat. Still, the overall experience was good. “This really opens us up to long-distance sales since we have a lot of clients who aren’t local,” adds Wylie.
Meanwhile, The Gem Vault’s Baskin is eager to roll out more virtual roundtables (his next one will be in early April), given the success of his first. The store made a few sales that night and even more in the days that followed, keeping the gems in store for a period after the live event. “People were coming in with lists to see specific stones or were calling about ones they didn’t pull the trigger on that night,” he says. Out of the 65 stones shown, upwards of 17 sold; five custom jobs have deposits, and four more are in the works, including a $20,000 emerald bracelet.
Virtual Event Takeaways
- Roll with the mistakes—laugh.
- Plan for a two-hour event.
- Employ old-fashioned clienteling to source the right guests and stones.
- Get a manicure. (Ungroomed fingernails can distract from the gems.)
- Role play on your platform before the event.
Purple sapphire from Roger Dery Gems
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