It’s every jeweler’s worst nightmare – and it happens all too often.
Janine DeCresenzo and Megan Clark had their inventory stolen from a rental car while working a jewelry show in Portland, Oregon, last September. Thieves made off with about $300,000 worth of handmade jewelry, mostly of it one-of-a-kind. Marne Ryan had her handmade jewelry inventory stolen while breaking down her booth at the Pasadena Craft Show the year before.
Bring this subject up among jewelers and all kinds of harrowing stories come out. Theft happens quickly. Recovering from it takes longer.
“I’m just starting to figure out how to replace my inventory. I don’t want to make the exact same pieces I lost,” Janine told me six weeks after her theft.
Here’s how it went down. She and Megan stopped at a store after a day at the Art in the Pearl show, not knowing they had been followed. It took the thieves less than seven minutes to clone the car’s electronic lock, clear the trunk of both artists’ inventory, and make their getaway. Since there was no visible damage to the car, the women got in and drove away, unaware their jewelry was gone.
Janine’s signature pieces are designed around shards of coral from a collection her late grandmother gathered along the shore. The quirky shapes and textures of the coral dictate the designs, and while the coral wasn’t worth much in itself, the gems and metal Janine uses – not to mention the hours spent in the studio – represented a lot of income.
This is true for much of Megan’s lost inventory as well. Her signature work is designed around stingray, often with hand-textured mixed metals in unique geometric forms. The fact that both artists’ jewelry is so distinctive makes it harder for the thieves to sell – which can work for or against the artists.
Detectives from as far away as Los Angeles reached out after the theft. One has spent years tracking a Colombian group that targets jewelers. “The detective said it’s a good thing my stuff is unique because if they try to sell it, I have a chance of getting some pieces back,” Janine says. “But she also said they’re most likely going to just melt it and use it for materials, which is more painful.”
When I spoke to Janine, she was dealing long distance with detectives following up on the crime and scrambling to replace her inventory to sell at shows booked through the busy holiday season. “I’m still figuring it all out but I’ve learned a lot,” she says. “I’d like to do what I can to help other people avoid this nightmare.”
With the help of nearly $20,000 in donations raised via GoFundMe.com, a grant from CERF (Craft Emergency Relief Fund), and a deep discount from Rio Grande, Megan and Janine are hard at work in the studio and working the shows.
A few things they plan to do differently – and advise others to do if they’re traveling with jewelry:
Make plans for safe storage on the road. Consider renting a temporary security deposit box at a bank. When you’re booking a hotel, call ahead and ask if they have a security box or safe. It may be worth paying a little extra sometimes. Many artists compensate for the expense of travel and show fees with ultra-cheap accommodations. “We’ve all stayed in campers, cheap motels or Airbnb rentals that are very unsafe, not even thinking,” Janine says.
Enlist the help of security at jewelry shows. Megan and Janine have started asking show organizers to have the security guards introduce themselves. “That way, if we feel unsafe walking to our cars, we can get them to walk with us,” Janine says. “My plan is to shut my curtain after the show, put my work away in different places, and change into normal street clothes.”
She now carries her most valuable pieces on her person, enough to fit in an ordinary shoulder bag, but draws the line at lugging her entire inventory. “I think that would put me at personal risk,” she says.
Drive evasively after leaving a show. Safety guidelines issued by the Jewelers’ Security Alliance advise driving slowly when leaving a show or sales call, taking circuitous routes, U-turns, and paying attention to your surroundings. If you think someone is following, don’t hesitate to dial 911.
Janine and Megan were clearly followed. “I’m not used to looking around to see if anyone is following me. This is something I need to be more conscious of,” Janine says. “We made it easy for them because they saw us turning in and parked first. Then we parked near them, so they could easily clone my lock signal.”
Don’t leave jewelry unattended in your car. Most thefts happen from the trunks of cars, often while jewelers are having dinner after a show. This is the scenario Janine hears most often from jewelers who have been robbed. Take the time to get your jewelry in safekeeping after a day at a show. When loading or unloading inventory, pull as close as possible to a well-lit front entrance.
Use manual car locks rather than electronic ones whenever possible. Judging from video captures, the thieves used a device that cloned the sound of their lock. This allowed easy access to the trunk with no noise or visible damage. The entire process took five to seven minutes. Janine and Megan didn’t open their trunk and discover the missing jewels until they had driven to their friends’ house, allowing the thieves more than an hour to get away.
Look into jewelry insurance. Insuring jewelry inventory against theft from a car is not so easy. Megan had travelers insurance and was covered for some of her materials. Janine filed a claim with the travel insurance policy that kicked in when she charged the rental car on her American Express card. Unfortunately, the stolen goods were considered business property, not personal, and so were not covered.
What kind of insurance would cover such a catastrophe? Jewelers Mutual told Janine they wouldn’t cover her because she works from home, which is considered a risk. Another company said they would cover jewelry at her home studio but not for inventory stolen from a car. After much research she and Megan both ended up with a policy from The Hartford, which covers all pieces worth less than $500 and materials for anything over $500 – if they can show receipts.
If something like this happens, be prepared to present receipts for every item stolen. That means materials, not necessarily the jewelry itself. Janine and Megan now keep careful records of each piece they bring to shows, including cost of materials.
Use certified stones. Janine and Megan both had a few less identifiable pieces that would be easier to sell as is. Detectives asked if any of the diamonds were certified. Diamonds valuable enough to warrant GIA certification are sometimes sent to be re-certified. “That’s the only chance you’d have to get that stone back,” Janine says. “But most of my diamonds are rose-cut, not super fancy. Megan had nothing certified either.”
Don’t stash it all in one place. Jewelers I spoke to all seem to handle this a little differently. Some take all jewelry with them after a show. Some carry it on them instead of leaving it in a car. Others worry this puts them at personal risk. Some leave at least a few pieces in a locked crate in the booth, pulling the diamonds and covering the front of cases so a thief can’t sneak in undercover. If you take jewelry with you, you might want to forego the rolling luggage and use a shoulder bag that doesn’t mark you as a vendor.
Janine is looking into small, portable video surveillance equipment and tracking devices. “You can actually put a tracking device in a piece of jewelry and then monitor it. A microchip in your bag wouldn’t help because the first thing thieves do is get rid of your bag. But if it was inside a locket or set underneath a stone, the work could be tracked. It might buy you a little extra time.”
CERF+ is conducting a survey to discover what jewelry artists are doing to avoid theft, results to be presented at the SNAG conference in May. If you make and sell jewelry, you can weigh in here.
P.S. I follow Janine and Megan on Instagram and am delighted to see both posting new work and forging ahead with their art and careers. Follow their progress with me at @decresenzojwlry and @meganclarkjewelry.
With the exception of the first image, all jewelry pictured on this page is new and available for purchase. Contact the artists for details:
This is an expanded and updated version of a story published in Net Profits, the column I write for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine. I’m republishing it here on request. Much of this advice applies not just to artists who sell their jewelry at shows but anyone who travels with jewelry. Stay safe!
Want more like this? Subscribe and read posts hot off the press!