It takes more than diamond rings to keep a jeweler afloat these days.
As customers rein in spending on jewelry, jewelers are finding other ways to keep their businesses going. Some do more custom work and repairs. Others are buying and reselling gold.
Like many industries, jewelry has suffered. Tiffany, a marquee name in American jewelry, saw its sales decline 20% in the fourth quarter of last year.
It's tough locally, too. For example, Michael Phelps, owner of Michael's Custom Jewelry on Main Street in Visalia, said his retail jewelry sales are down about 30%.
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Healthy jewelers are diversifying to withstand the recession, said Helena Krodel, spokeswoman for the Jewelry Information Center, a Manhattan-based trade association focusing on consumer education.
"The thing that retailers really need to do is differentiate themselves and decide how they can continue to be relevant in this day and age," she said.
Karkazian Jewelers in Fresno is doing more custom-made pieces, said owner George Karkazian.
"This is how we're surviving," he said.
Karkazian recently made a white gold bracelet inlaid with diamonds and a rainbow of sapphires for Victoria Currey of Fresno.
Currey had a tennis bracelet with diamonds surrounded by yellow gold she bought on a cruise 15 years ago. She bought the sapphires new.
Currey said she wanted something new and was bored with the out-of-style tennis bracelet, but didn't want to splurge on a new piece. So she worked with Karkazian to design a new piece.
"With the economy, you have to cut back on some areas of your life," she said.
Because Currey provided much of her own material, the price dropped from the $10,000 it would have cost new to about $2,700.
Wedding bells help
Jewelers say business will never get too bad because brides and grooms still buy engagement and wedding rings.
About 52% of all sales come from diamonds and diamond jewelry, said Krodel. Jewelers are relying on a variety of business strategies for the remaining 48%.
Karkazian said more customers are requesting repairs at his two stores, in the Riverview Shopping Center on Fort Washington Road and his new location on Shaw Avenue near Peach Avenue in Clovis.
That store isn't far from Karkazian's former location. But he rented there; now, he owns and says it's cheaper.
At Michael's Custom Jewelry in Visalia, repair business has increased about 15%.
The store uses a laser welder -- instead of soldering -- to make repairs.
"More people are getting things repaired," owner Phelps said. "They're not willing to go out and spend the money to buy something new."
Sometimes that's a diamond ring that needs new prongs. Other times it's eyeglass frames, handles on silver coffee pots or even dental bridges.
Phelps said he's been in business for 35 years and has learned to diversify to survive past recessions.
"Depending strictly on retail purchases, you'd be in pretty rough financial shape," he said.
Orloff Jewelers in Fig Garden Village has made buying gold a specialty.
The jeweler has bought gold jewelry -- for melting down and for resale -- and antiques for 50 years, said owner James Orloff.
Lately, he's shifted more toward the shorter-term practice of buying gold. The jeweler has hosted several gold-buying events, sometimes with people lining up for hours.
The profit on buying gold is smaller -- about 10% -- than the 25% he would earn on estate jewelry that has antique value.
But the turnaround time is quicker. The gold must be held for 30 days and a police report made in case it is stolen, but the store still sees a profit within weeks. Waiting for a piece of estate jewelry to sell sometimes takes six years, he said.
"Although I'm not making a big profit," he said. "I'm making a lot more little profits, and that keeps my boat floating."