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On Deposit

How should custom jewelers charge for their design time?

By Rich Youmans

Ask any custom jeweler when he or she should charge for design work, and the answer will probably be, “As soon as possible!” After all, they need to protect themselves from spending valuable time on a design, only to have a client change his or her mind and cancel the order.

But how should they approach that deposit. Should it be non-refundable? Refundable? Cover just design time, or factor in the costs of the total project? Which provides the best balance between protecting and not scaring clients, who may be nervous about putting money down on a concept they have yet to see?

To find out more, we checked in with two members of the MJSA Council of Custom Jewelers: Tom Linenberger, owner and lead designer of Goldworks in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Gary Dawson, principal of Gary Dawson Designs in Eu-gene, Oregon. Each approaches the matter of a deposit differently, but both have found their methods provide equal success.

Linenberger begins the process with a free one-hour design consult and then charges a flat-fee deposit before beginning any work. “The design consult...is where we discuss their design with them,” he says. “We then get a deposit toward the time to work up the designs in CAD, and loosely give them a total cost for the piece, including design, wax, cast, assembly, any thrumming, stones, setting, and polishing.”

The deposit covers two hours of design time, which is his average for a custom project. That fee not only helps to protect Linenberger from the whims of capricious clients, but also lends value to the design process—without it, he says, “clients tend to just want to play.” It establishes the fact that the designer’s time comes with a cost (and prepares “playful” clients for additional bills when their changes take the project in a new direction).

Dawson, on the other hand, charges a refundable fee that covers both design and production. Combining both aspects, he says, helps to keep things simple. “I want the client to easily get what I’m presenting to them,” he explains. “Most people can’t hold more than one concept at a time—if you e-mail somebody with three points to answer, they often only respond to one. Rather than breaking out separate fees, I present them with one—and that also helps me to reduce the time I spend with recordkeeping.”

With this method, he can base the deposit’s amount on the overall complexity of the entire project. And while that will lead to a higher fee than one just covering design time, the promise of a refund helps to allay concern among his clients.

While that promise might also seem to leave him exposed financially, he has found that having the fee cover more than just design work helps to better engage the clients with the process. And once those clients are engaged, they don’t back out—Dawson says that there have only been two or three times when he’s had to end a project prematurely, and in most cases it was by his choice.

While their methods may differ in details, both Linenberger and Dawson emphasize the need to give clients a clear understanding of the costs involved. Such transparency will ultimately lead to trust—and that can never come soon enough in any custom relationship.


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