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Jewelers nervous about higher gold prices

After reaching a 26-year high of $732 per ounce, gold prices have fallen 22 percent since May 12 to $600 an ounce. Jewelers are accepting lower profit margins, feeling pressure to raise prices and sometimes tweaking their designs.
John Atencio
Denver jewelry designer John Atencio holds gold bracelets and chains at his office in Denver on June 7.Ed Andrieski / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

After more than 30 years in jewelry design, John Atencio has built a reputation for heavier rings, necklaces and earrings.

So when gold prices topped $730 an ounce earlier this year, he became more conscious of how thick his pieces are — and the accompanying higher costs. Still, while retailers like Helzberg Diamonds say they’ve seen some designers using less gold in each piece, Atencio has been reluctant to change his style.

“When it got over $700, then the red lights were going off,” Atencio said. “Then it was kind of like: ’God, how high is it going to go and are we going to be in business?”’

Gold prices have fallen 22 percent since May 12, when they reached a 26-year high of $732 per ounce, but are still close to $600 an ounce. Jewelers are accepting lower profit margins, feeling pressure to raise prices and sometimes tweaking their designs.

Customers, meanwhile, are still coming. U.S. sales actually seem to be rising, said John Calnon of the World Gold Council.

“It’s a counterintuitive approach,” he said. “With gold in the news constantly, the consumer is thinking about gold.”

U.S. prices for gold jewelry are more dependent on the design rather than the gold itself, he said, and customers tend to buy it for adornment rather than as an investment. The gold council predicted that lower-income customers would buy within their budgets, while affluent customers might even buy more.

Sales were $17.7 billion in 2005 amid strong gold prices, a 4.4 percent increase from 2004. Calnon said he could not release the council’s internal forecast for gold jewelry sales this year.

Nancy Cook, 45, estimates she visits one of Atencio’s stores monthly and that she and her husband buy six pieces a year. During a special event this spring for some of Atencio’s best customers, she had her eye on a gold and pearl piece but hadn’t decided whether to buy it.

“I have noticed a difference in prices, but if I like the piece, I really don’t worry about the price of gold,” said Cook, a landscape company owner who lives in suburban Denver. “I also think of it as an investment, because I also have four daughters.”

Despite higher costs, jewelry designer Ippolita expects to do $20 million in retail gold jewelry sales this year, which would be a 100 percent jump, president Lauren Sharfman said.

Gold was $16 a pennyweight, or 1/20 of an ounce, when the designer’s line, known for gold bangles, was launched six years ago. Now it’s $35 a pennyweight, Sharfman said. New York-based Ippolita hasn’t raised prices on its bangles in six years but is eyeing an increase this fall.

“It’s very scary when you see it go up uncontrollably. The last three months were pretty scary,” Sharfman said.

Sales also are up for retail chain Ben Bridge Jeweler, said president Ed Bridge. He said the company, owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc., does not release sales figures.

Still, business is challenging. Since jewelers place orders months in advance, the erratic prices have made it more complicated for retailers to buy gold pieces, Bridge said.

“We’re merchandising now for the holiday season and we have to figure out what gold’s going to do,” he said. “It’s nicer for us if it’s more stable.”

Gold in stores now, for instance, was purchased before the spike in prices, but the retail prices haven’t changed.

“There’s a great deal of pressure buying all this product for the holidays now,” Helzberg Diamonds spokeswoman Stacey McBride said. “We’re going to have huge inventories when gold is at almost an all-time high.”

The online jeweler Blue Nile Inc. said in its latest quarterly report that it hasn’t been fully passing on the higher prices to customers, despite soaring prices for gold, silver and platinum.

Atencio, whose first store opened in Fort Collins, Colo. in 1976, said he has been raising prices little by little on new pieces by roughly 5 percent, but he can’t hike them by as much as his costs for fear of scaring off customers.

“In the case of other commodities like oil, you’re still going to drive your car,” he said. “With gold, people have a choice. It’s critical for us to maintain pricing so we’re profitable but live with the fact that gold is going through the roof. It’s definitely putting pressure on us.”