For the past 17 years, Ira Savoie has been appraising jewelry of all sorts for the people of New Orleans and beyond. Sometimes, it’s business as usual at his appraisals-while-you-wait studio; other times things get animated as he delivers an unwelcome truth.
With over 40 years of experience in jewelry, including an impressive retail career, Ira stays busy seven days a week at Savoie Fine Jewelry Appraisers. He is one of only 20 independent certified gemologist appraisers with the American Gem Society and the only AGS independent certified gemologist appraiser in Louisiana. He is a graduate gemologist with the Gemological Institute of America, a senior member of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers, and past president of Jewelers of Louisiana.
“I started as a salesperson and worked my way up to be the manager at multimillion-dollar stores,” including Bailey Banks & Biddle, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lee Michaels and Hausmann Jewelers, Ira says. “I started my appraisal business in May 2001, but even before that I had been working toward accreditation. It takes years to get that.”
Seventy percent of Ira’s work is done at his Metairie, La. office, just outside New Orleans; the other 30 percent is on the road. “We don’t buy or sell; all we do is appraisals,” says Ira, noting that it’s a requirement for his AGS certification.
Ira’s business - by appointment only - comes from all over. “When people buy online, they will come in for me to verify they’re getting the same diamond they thought they were purchasing. Local store owners will have me come over to look at a piece and ask me if it’s worth what they paid for it. A lot of jewelers just don’t have the time to do appraisal work, but it’s all we do.
“Other stores have called from out of state, wanting to know how to do things properly - and they’re successful with the hints I give them. I’ve appraised Super Bowl rings for the New Orleans Saints - if it’s a gift they have to pay taxes, and also they need an appraisal to get it insured. I even took pictures of the box the ring came in. You don’t see those every day!
“I also work for the New Orleans Auction downtown, verifying the merchandise being brought in. Other clients include the U.S. Customs, the IRS, and even Homeland Security - inspecting items they confiscated. I’ve looked at stuff for about every branch of government. It makes for quite an interesting workday. I tell them, just don’t put my name anywhere on that paper!”
Ira does appraisals in Baton Rouge once a week, and also travels to Houma and Alexandria for in-store appraisals. Additionally, clients mail merchandise from as far away as Maine.
“We have a port in New Orleans,” Ira says, “and people bring me stuff they’ve bought on a cruise. Sometimes I have to break the bad news and tell them that what they bought is not genuine. That happens two or three times a month.
“For estates, we see precious treasures and inherited vintage items,” Ira says. “And every gemstone has a fingerprint of God.
“I do a lot of estate appraisals where families just don’t know what they have. People come in who’ve inherited things; they were told it’s a ruby, and it’s not. They finally figure out that we’re telling the truth. Truth is the utmost thing in my business. It’s why education is so important in the jewelry business.
“This business is not for the faint-hearted. You can step onto a land mine and never know how it will work out. With certain qualities of diamonds, a local jeweler may grade the stone and it’s the wrong color. A jeweler once told me I was color blind, but I proved to him his stone was yellow, not white,” he says, noting that having the right tools is essential for a gemological laboratory. He is constantly upgrading the equipment in his studio. His diamond master stones for color grading are certified by the GIA and AGS.
“I’ve been in court to defend my appraisals, in cases that involved fraud,” Ira says. “You never know when you open the door what we’ll be dealing with every day.”
Ira does research on vintage pieces while also keeping up with the price of gold and diamonds. “It’s almost like you have to be a detective in this business, researching and looking for hallmarks. I like what I do; it’s why I do it. Since I opened this business, I’ve looked at 35,000 diamonds and 7,000 colored stones. We appraise diamonds, colored stones, pearls, watches, you name it. I’ve seen more large stones in this office than I ever did when I was in the retail business.
“At Savoie’s, we leave no stone unturned.”
An Appraiser’s Perspective
Ira says the trend during the next five to 10 years will be retailers abandoning their brick-and-mortar stores to start private businesses. A couple of factors play into that.
“I do appraisals probably 15 to 20 times a month for people who have bought jewelry from different websites, which means they’re not buying from local jewelry stores,” Ira says. “They’re not getting the customer service they want. Or they say, ‘They tried to push me into buying something I really didn’t want.’ Also, the prices are higher compared with what they can buy on the Internet.”
Aside from everyday appraisals, Ira is enthusiastic about continuing education, attending annual three- to four-day seminars held in major cities across the country. “The classes run from 8 to 5, so it’s busy. But I get to meet new people, I get referrals and get to learn how other people do their business. The education is on gems, treatment of diamonds and also appraisal work, so it keeps you up to date on everything. We have to stay on our toes. Education is a very important asset for jewelers, especially. If you don’t keep up with the times, you’ll fall behind.”
Ira imparts his own expertise as well, speaking to different stores and conventions including Jewelers of Louisiana and Texas Jewelers Association - and also offering hands-on instruction at his studio.
“I have a gemologist I bring in to help with measurements, and he gets training in the appraisal business at the same time. I also have four people working with me now, learning the business. One girl had been discouraged in the place she was training before; when she started working with me she was motivated to stay in the business. She is excellent; I trust her explicitly when she does an appraisal.”
At 63, Ira says he’ll keep going in the business - “until I can’t see or walk anymore. I want to help other people; it’s important for others to learn.”