Client Encounters Teach Valuable Retail Lessons

Placeholder Alt Text
Students at GIA’s campus in Carlsbad gather around Larry French, left, as he shows them the “Gran Dama,” a brooch designed by Gianmaria Buccellati. The brooch features white, blue, yellow and pink diamonds, and a 98.67 carat Melo pearl – believed to be the eighth-largest in the world – from Vietnam. Only about 80 Melo pearls are known worldwide. Photo by Eric Welch, © GIA
Success in the jewelry industry often requires drive and determination. 
That’s why when Larry French was turned down from a job at Van Cleef and Arpels in Los Angeles, he applied again. 
And again. And again. 
It took a total of eight attempts before owner Claude Arpels offered him a position. 
That determination is what took French from driving a tractor in a cornfield in Indiana to selling jewelry to celebrities and dignitaries around the world. The industry veteran spent 23 years at Van Cleef and Arpels before taking a position as store director at Buccellati Beverly Hills in the early 1990s. 
French shared anecdotes from his career with students at GIA’s Carlsbad campus on Nov. 6, 2013. Beyond accounts of famed actresses and rock stars, he imparted the advice for success he’s learned from his many years in the industry. 
He still vividly remembers the first piece of jewelry he sold, although not for its grandeur. 
“It was a crystal bead necklace for $1.99,” French said of his first sale in the costume jewelry department of a large store. He said he persuaded the customer to also buy the matching earrings for a dollar. 
French’s interest in gems began long before his stint in the costume jewelry department. “When I was a kid, I would read through National Geographic magazines and was fascinated with articles about golden idols with emerald eyes or stories about a new ruby mine,” he said. “The reason I got in this business was a real love of exotic stones and the history and stories behind them – which I find as fascinating as the stones themselves.”
French said he entered an essay contest organized by the American Gem Society (AGS) in the mid-1960s. He doesn’t remember what he wrote in his essay application, but said it was interesting enough for the judges to award him a GIA scholarship. He said the courses further sparked his passion for gem stones and his determination to pursue the job at Van Cleef and Arpels. 
French said he has had the opportunity to see and sell many remarkable gems throughout his career. He described some of the most notable pieces and clients, including an invisible-set diamond and sapphire ring for musician Elton John and a trip from New York to California with Napoleon Bonaparte’s crown in a duffle bag.  
One account, in particular, left the audience in awe. 
Actress Elizabeth Taylor routinely had her gems and jewelry cleaned at his Van Cleef and Arpels store, so it came as no surprise when her assistant dropped off “La Peregrina,” a 50 carat natural pearl, for cleaning. But after the assistant left, French’s associate noticed scratches. 
“There were deep scratches,” he said. “This was bad. I knew how famous the pearl was. There was no way I could prove the pearl wasn’t flawless when it was brought in.”   
He said he paced the store in a state of panic for an hour before he called Taylor’s assistant to try to explain the situation. The assistant only laughed and told French he knew the pearl was scratched – they were bite marks from Taylor’s dog.
Naturally, French offered this advice to students: always give a condition report.
He also described what he considers to be the most valuable piece of jewelry he’s ever seen – a garnet and pearl ring a young woman brought into the Buccellati store to be repaired. The ring had belonged to her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and she was heartbroken that it was in such poor condition because she wanted to wear it for her wedding. The store repaired the family heirloom so the client could continue the tradition. 
“Ever since that day, in spite of the great pieces I’ve sold in my life, I changed what I think creates value,” French said. “Value is not just carat weight … it has to do with the love that people put on jewelry, on what it means to them and their family.”
He said jewelry is the only business with such sentimental value.
When asked what advice he has for success, French shared a quote from Peter Carl Faberge: be noble. 
“If you can find a way to be [noble], you’ll certainly go far in your career,” he said. “Companies may go bankrupt … but you’ll be alright. They can't take that from you – no matter what happens.”

Kristin A. Aldridge, a writer at GIA, is a graduate of GIA’s Pearls and Accredited Jewelry Professional programs.