Marianne Fisher is a fifth-generation principal of a six-generation vintage jewelry, gemstone, and natural pearl business, Paul Fisher, Inc. From their offices in New York, London, and Geneva, the company buys and sells pieces that are unique, special, and rare. They specialize in buying and selling in different markets, and Marianne purchases exquisite items for an international consumer base.
Talk about the history of your family business and how you got started.
Our family business started in Vienna, Austria in 1850, and we began with natural pearl dealing. Natural pearls, before 1920, were far more valuable than any diamond. For most of the past 2,000 years, natural pearls were the most sought after and valuable gems. From Indian Moghuls to Arab and European kings and queens, international royalty prized natural pearls.
In 1920, my grandfather began dealing secondhand jewelry because he realized that the value of the natural pearl was changing in the marketplace. He operated in Vienna, Switzerland, and London, and after the war, in 1945, my father and grandfather moved to New York and opened an office there. My dad worked with my grandfather for about 5-10 years before starting his own business.
My father became a special man in the industry. Back then, we didn’t have such an international world, and my father, having come from Vienna, Switzerland, and London, created an international business. He would buy from one place and sell in another, and as a part of building his business, he took on apprentices.
The first apprentice was a gentleman called Johnny Ullmann, and he started in 1965. After that, about every six months, my father would take on another apprentice. The apprentices came from all over the world, and my father gained an amazing reputation in the industry from doing this.
My father just passed away in December, and he worked every day of his life buying and selling stones and jewelry. He worked for 72 years in the industry, and he was 92 when he died.
I always knew about the family business, but I refused to join the industry for a long time. I was the youngest of six children, and my father required us all to get a university degree. He always told us we could apprentice, but we’d have to come and ask him because he wasn’t going to make us do it.
All of my brothers and sisters tried out the family business, and some stayed, and some didn’t. When it was my turn, after I got a psychology degree, I thought to myself, “I better try this. If I don’t, I’ll regret it.” So I started working part-time thirty-one years ago in 1989. From there, I really fell in love with the business and have been working within it ever since.
My father, however, was a bit of a chauvinist, and he was pretty tough on girls. I had four brothers and one sister, so when I first came into the business, he would say, “Go get me a coffee.” I didn’t feel respected, so I had a real motivation to prove him wrong. It’s still a man’s business today, but it was much more difficult to get respect as a woman back then.
Every week I was on a plane, and I traveled all over the world and met a lot of clients and industry players. I started buying and selling on my own, within the company, and eventually, many years later, I took over the company.
What’s your specialty within the industry?
Knowledge. The more you see, the more you know. I’ve spent so much time in the trade and traveling all over the world, and I’ve seen so much jewelry in and out of our office that the exposure has given me much of the knowledge I have today. My father was in the industry for 72 years, and he still said he learned something new every day. There’s so much history surrounding the rare pieces we deal with that it’s important to gain a really deep knowledge base, and the more jewelry and gems you handle, the more you know.
Another value that our company embodies is integrity. If you have a good reputation and good relationships, people want to work with you, and knowledge of what you’re handling goes a long way in maintaining your reputation. This industry can be riddled with false stones and inaccurate information. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, but if you have accountability, you protect your name and your reputation.
What are the different stages of bringing project from start to finish?
It depends on the project, but for example, we bought a pretty, beautiful Kashmir sapphire last year. The stone was beat up and scratched, but you could see the color underneath, and it was gorgeous. We had it re-polished and re-cut, and it turned into a lovely, lovely stone. Then we presented and sold it to a client we had in mind.
When we buy something, we’re always thinking, “Where would I place this?” There has to be more than one option, otherwise it doesn’t make sense to buy it, unless you’re buying it because you want to keep it.
I believe in my pieces, and I like to see them go to someone who is going to wear and enjoy them. Trade shows are very useful, but it is getting more difficult to connect with individuals and entities who are interested in what we do because people have to touch and feel and handle the pieces we deal, as opposed to viewing a photograph.
What types of tools do you use on a regular basis?
You always have to use a good loupe. A refractometer, which we use to measure the specific gravity of a stone and determine what kind of stone it is, is useful as well. For example, a precious topaz and quartz can, at first, appear very similar. Sometimes we use a microscope for the inclusions as well.
We also use light - fluorescent light - to see if stones fluoresce. It’s very important to see if stones and diamonds fluoresce.
Sometimes we use a moh gauge to measure stones in amounting when we can’t unset them. Some people use leveridge, but in the old world, we use the moh gauge. Even though stones may have the same size measurements, they have different weights based on what the stone is.
Back in the day, we used to use some of these tools more often because we didn’t have as much access to labs. Now it’s quite easy to send stones over to the GIA and labs to guarantee 100% certainty.
How did you get your gemological education?
I completed a one-week diamond grading course with GIA. The key for diamond grading is to be able to judge the color and the clarity and, again, the more you see, the more you know.
I also completed the gem identification course, which is where you learn to use the refractometer, microscope, and Chelsea filter for emeralds. If an item comes in, it’s really important that we know how to use these tools because they help us to identify stones. We need to know that information when we’re making offers on different stones and jewelry.
I used to attend a great summer course in Maine in the late 1980s, early 1990s. It was called ‘Jewelry Camp,’ and Dr. Satacoff ran it. There were some great characters in the industry back then. A woman named Dr. Annella Brown and Gloria Lieberman from Skinners gave fantastic lectures, and I learned a lot about the history of jewelry there.
In terms of experiential learning, I’ve worked with a fair amount of famous jewelers. We’ve sold to JAR and Hemmerle and other fantastic industry players over the years who have seen a lot of famous stones and offer a wealth of knowledge.
Tell a story about a memorable project you worked on.
1. I’ll tell you a good story that happened to my dad. At one point, he owned La Peregrina Pearl, which is one of the most famous pearls in the world. It was owned by Spanish and English royalty at different times, and it just recently sold about three or four years ago for $16 or 17 million.
My father went to deliver the stone to Ward Landrigan, who now owns Verdura but was at Sotheby’s at the time, and he was the one who sold it to Elizabeth Taylor. When she picked it up, she was playing with it in her hand, and all of a sudden, it dropped on the floor. Her dog was right there and gobbled it up. Obviously it was a crisis for everyone, and the only way they could get it back was to wait for it to come out the other end.
2. One story that taught me a valuable lesson was when my father had purchased a pair of very expensive emerald earrings from a Parisian dealer. It was probably 1991, and the whole family used to go to the auctions. Every May and November, we’d go to the Geneva auctions, and in February, we’d go to the St. Moritz auctions. We didn’t just go for the auctions, but we’d also trade and do business outside of the auctions, selling and buying with other dealers. It was a great atmosphere. We really had so much fun in the business. Back then, there were tons of dealers and retailers, and it was a great social scene.
Just before we went to the auction, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so he couldn’t go. He told me, when I went, that a dealer from Paris was going to hand-deliver the emerald earrings, so when my father’s business partner and I went to the auction, we met the dealer. I tried on the earrings, and people started looking and saying, “Those are so beautiful. How much? How much?”
I called my dad, and I asked him how much they were. He said, “They cost 360,000.” We calculated the French franc to American dollar conversion rate (about 7:1 at the time) and figured the earrings cost about 50,000 Americans dollars, so we sold them for $80,000.
I called my dad from a pay phone to tell him that we’d sold the emerald earrings, and he said, “Great! For how much?” When I told him $80,000, he was absolutely flabbergasted. I thought I’d made a great deal, but he said, “Marianne, they cost 360,000 DOLLARS.”
Can you imagine the panic? I was devastated, and I’ll never forget that feeling. I ran to the man I had sold the earrings to and explained the situation. He was an honest guy, so he agreed to give the earrings back, but he had given them to another potential buyer who was thinking about purchasing them.
When the gentleman I had sold the earrings to asked for them back, his potential buyer said, “Too bad, I own them now,” so in the morning, my father’s partner, the man I had sold the earrings to, two other guys who claimed they owned the earrings now, and I had a meeting. The two guys said they’d give the earrings back, but they wanted $10,000 for their troubles.
Finally, I called on Fred Leighton, who was there at the time and who was like a father figure to me. I told him the whole story, and he told the guys to back off. He stood up for me, and the guys returned the earrings.
I never forgot that. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.
How is the trade different depending on where you are in the world?
In the early ‘90s, I traveled to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore very often. I spent a lot of time going to Asia in the early days, and the reason I liked going there was because women are quite strong there.
When I went to Europe, I was always dealing with men. I always felt men were more respected than women in Europe. And when I went to Japan, no one ever wanted to speak to a woman, only a man.
But in China, the women were very strong. Even if you go nowadays to the trade shows in Hong Kong, or anywhere else, you’ll see that the Chinese women are making the decisions, and they’re running the stores. They’re really powerful, and I always liked that.
When I started in the business, if I was flying around the country in the United States, it would be, maybe, 20% women and 80% men in the business class section. In Europe, it was almost all men, and I’d be the only woman in the whole business class section. It always struck me how behind women were in business in Europe. I think it’s changed a lot, but back then, women were the real minority.
Culturally speaking, bargaining is a big part of business in Asian countries. You’ll say five thousand for a piece, and they’ll say two thousand. In the early ‘90s (again, when I was younger), I did a deal with this woman in Taiwan. She’s a good friend of mine now, but she was tough on me at the time. I’d bring my jewelry to her first, she’d keep fifteen pieces from my roll, and she’d say, “Come back to me in five days.”
I’d go to see five or so other people, but she was holding my goods, so I felt like I couldn’t show them to somebody else. I was depending on her to make some sales, and she knew that. She was pretty clever.
I came back to her on the fifth day, and she started naming different pieces, saying some were too expensive, some cost too much, but maybe she’d take this one or that one. I was so desperate to make sales that I made almost nothing. She chiseled me down, and I only made 2% profit, but I was happy to make the sale at the time.
When she finally wrote me a check for the deal, she took off another $500. I said, “No, that’s not what we agreed on,” and she said, “No, no, you can take that.” She handed me the check, and I had no choice but to take it.
So there’s definitely a learning curve, and I learned quickly. After that experience, I told her, “No, this is how it’s gonna be.”
Taiwan in the early ‘90s was booming. I would give her twenty pieces, and she’d sell 15 of the pieces. It was amazing. It was really a different world.
I used to go to the back of this other woman’s shop, and I would open my roll and display my inventory. She’d have clients come in, and I’d just sit there and watch them come and buy. And they would buy jewelry in the masses.
Whereas in America, people buy items at their marked value. You give them the price, and that’s it. It’s much more serious, and there’s no game playing. Europeans aren’t bargainers either. They aren’t consumers, they’re collectors. They have collections passed down in the family for generations, so they’re not traditionally big buyers.
The exception, however, is Italy. Italians, in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, were big buyers. They loved to show off wealth and buy big, gaudy jewelry, so if you were in Italy, you’d sell big, bluffy ruby and emerald bracelets. The stones didn’t have to be the highest quality as long as they were big and showy.
In England, the style was more conservative. The English liked fine, smaller pieces and stones rather than large stones. Nothing showy.
In Paris, there was a lot of buying, but not as much selling. People in Monte Carlo liked big rocks and flashy stones.
If you go to Texas, the local consumer likes big stones and flashy jewelry. If you go to Boston, there’s more of an emphasis on conservative circle pins, for example.
Asian clientele have always cared about very high-quality, certified stones, unless you’re in Indonesia or the Philippines, where there’s a little less money, and big, bluffy stones are more popular. For the Japanese, everything had to be meticulous and perfect, so anything that had flaws wouldn’t work there.
Every region has a different style, taste, or flair. That’s how we made money. I knew what to sell in which country. Varying tastes between geographic markets still exist today, but the industry has gotten much more international and is a little more homogenized. From generation to generation, however, a certain style and taste is passed down through different cultures and families.
How have the trends and industry changed over the years?
Because of globalization and the rise of big corporations, the industry has leaned heavily onto signed pieces. People today care more about the signature than the craftsmanship of the pieces. I think that’s been a bit of a problem in the industry. People would rather buy modern, lesser- quality pieces that have the signature than buy really nice, high-quality pieces that have better
value for their price. The emphasis on branding has changed the way the consumer views jewelry and gems and influences what they want to buy.
The Asian markets are also wary of buying pieces that don’t have a signature. That region has been an emerging market for the past thirty years, so when the clientele in the region began buying from foreigners, branding was a way for them to know they could trust the seller. They’re more trusting toward a known brand and more assured that they can trust what they’re buying.
What are some of the significant lessons you’ve learned in the trade?
I’ve learned to stick by my decisions. Do what you say, and say what you do. If you make a promise, you live by it. You can’t change your mind and be fickle. Sometimes you have to eat a mistake, even if you’re losing money. That’s how you build a good reputation in this industry.
As a wholesaler, I have an open policy with a lot of my retail clients that only have a finite amount of outlets. For example, if I sell to a small jeweler down in Arkansas who only has a certain amount of clients, and they buy five pieces from me at a trade show, they can always trade any of those five pieces back for another item in my inventory.
I really believe in my merchandise, and I don’t want retailers, or anyone else I sell to, to feel stuck or unhappy. I don’t want them to have pieces they can’t sell and for them to have a negative feeling about doing business with me in the future. Rare and collectible jewelry only appreciates, so I have nothing to lose by keeping an open policy. It’s also a sign of a good will, wanting the people you work with to perform well in the business.
It’s better to keep long-term relationships and make a little less money than to be greedy and make a one-hit wonder of a deal.
What are some differences between diamond dealing and gem dealing?
Diamond and gem dealing used to be similar. In my dad’s day, they didn’t have the Rapaport price sheet that determines what diamonds are trading for.
Now the rules are different because diamonds are a commodity, and everybody knows their price. The price is based on volume and weight, and the Rapaport controls the market. The mainstream diamond business is similar to buying on the stock market. The commoditization of the diamond takes away from its beauty and artistry, in my opinion.
On our side of the industry, however, we’re dealing rare, collectible jewelry that is one-of-a-kind and unusual. The Rapaport price for diamonds has dropped dramatically since the onset of the pandemic, but my jewelry hasn’t.
What are some of the major issues the trade faces today?
There are fewer and fewer good retailers. There used to be a hierarchy wherein the wholesaler sells to the retailer, and the retailer deals in the private sector. Retailers have to work hard to service clients, spend time with them, educate them, clean their jewelry, etc. The retailers are entitled to make money, and I don’t think it’s right when the trade tries to go directly to the client. It’s a mistake to have not supported the retailers over the years, and now they’re largely out of the business.
Now clients think rare, collectible jewelry and gems should be cheap, despite that these pieces are more beautiful and worth more than other items selling on the market today. Our pieces should be expensive.
The retailers, however, have also hurt the industry. They should’ve been buying from the trade, not just borrowing. There used to be some great secondhand dealers and estate jewelers all over the country and Europe, but now there are so few left. Unfortunately, they can’t afford to survive for many reasons. For example, in New York, the rent is too high. And how can estate jewelers compete with branded jewelry that’s advertised all over the world?
We have worked with some big department stores and some great sales associates who love what we do, and they pass that passion along to their clients. But most sales associates are afraid to touch what we do. They’d rather sell out of catalogue than explain why our stones and jewelry are so valuable. But when a salesperson does take the time, and they teach the clients and explain why these jewels are special, the clients are hooked for life because they understand the value of what they’re buying.
People want to feel special and unique. They don’t want to feel like everybody else. Our clients feel proud when their friend asks, “Where can I get one of those?” And they say, “You can’t. I have the only one.”
That’s the power of unique, rare treasures that no one recognizes because they’re a part of such an untapped market. I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and these stones and jewelry only appreciate in value. Once some of these name brand pieces are sold, they’re all discounted immediately because they can be made again. Everything that can be made again doesn’t have the same value as pieces that we deal that can’t be made again.
Today jewelers don’t spend the money or the time to make unique pieces. They want to sell in multiples because it’s not cost-efficient to make beautiful pieces. They make a thousand pieces of lower-quality items and spend money on branding and advertising because they’ll have a better profit margin in the end. For the same amount of money, they can make ten gorgeous pieces, but the process would take too long.
What distinguishes someone who is excellent in your profession?
When people misrepresent what they’re selling or they’re illegitimate, that’s really disappointing. Some people simply want to buy and sell, and they don’t really care about the quality of the jewelry. There isn’t necessarily anything bad about that, but I don’t think they have an appreciation for the jewelry itself.
You also can’t be too greedy. This is a family business. Everybody knows each other, and it’s a small niche. Your honor is everything. It takes years and years to build your reputation, and it takes one minute for it to collapse.