A Fair Share

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Maintaining control of custom designs

In this occasional column, we talk to custom jewelers about the steps they’ve taken to protect their designs from customers looking to shop them around. This month, we speak with Dawn Muscio of D. Muscio Designs in Atlanta about how the deposits she requires at every stage of the custom design process help her to retain control.

Dawn Muscio ring

When Dawn Muscio is first approached by a client for a custom project, she’ll set up an initial consultation meeting with them to discuss their ideas. She doesn’t charge for the meeting, which usually runs an hour to an hour and half. During the meeting, she’ll discuss ideas the client has for the project and get a sense of how much they’re looking to spend, while also using the time to build a good rapport. 

“I want them to get comfortable with me,” she says. At the end of the meeting, she’ll ask the client if they’re interested in moving forward with the project. If they indicate that they are, she requires a $300 non-refundable deposit before she’ll “put pen to paper.”

She introduced requiring a deposit after having bad experiences with some previous clients early on. “I got burned a few times,” she says, noting the time she wasted working with tire kickers who would never commit to a project, and some clients who took her sketches to other designers. “When that happened, I said ‘I’m done.’”

Initially she required a $150 non-refundable deposit and waited to see if people pushed back. To her surprise, they didn’t. The goals of the deposit were to eliminate the time wasters who weren’t serious about a custom project, and to give those who were a financial stake from the start. That would make it less likely for them to try to shop her design around to another designer to have it made cheaper. She also wanted the deposit to cover some of the costs for her time and labor, should the client decide not to move forward. 

“I can easily spend five to six hours doing sketch concepts,” she says. “A lot of time goes into it. I can’t charge [clients] for all of it, but I need to be compensated for some of it. If I’m going to spend my time on this, they have to be serious.”

Over time, she began to feel that $150 wasn’t a high enough deposit, so around six or seven years ago she doubled it to $300. “I wanted to better cover my time, and I never had any pushback.”

In fact, she believes that since she instituted the non-refundable deposit, she’s had only two clients not opt to go through with the project. In both instances, the clients decided it wasn’t the right time for them to spend that kind of money. If such clients ever want to return to the project and move forward, their deposit will be credited toward the final cost of the piece. “It’s not lost forever,” Muscio says.

Dawn Muscio cufflinks

The deposit that Muscio charges covers only the sketches for review. She will usually prepare three to five sketches to show the client, with cost estimates for creating each design. Since the majority of her clients come in for face-to-face meetings, Muscio shows them the sketches in person. If they want time to think about the options, they’re not allowed to take the sketches with them, nor does Muscio allow them to photograph them with their smartphones.

For long-distance clients, Muscio will e-mail them an image of the sketches, but she includes a logo stamp on the image. While she admits that she ultimately can’t control what the client does with the image at that point, if they brought it to another jeweler, “I would hope someone with scruples would see my name and say, ‘We’re not going to copy this.’”

Once clients settle on a final design, Muscio requires another deposit to move forward with CAD rendering. At this stage of the process, she charges a 25 percent non-refundable deposit based on the estimated cost of the project. After the client pays the deposit and signs a contract, she’s happy to send them a digital image of the sketch they chose. But that occurs “only if they put a deposit down, and they don’t get all of the sketches—just the one they chose,” she explains. 

Throughout the entire project, Muscio makes it clear that the customer is purchasing the final piece of jewelry—not the design itself.

“They don’t own the drawings, those are property of the studio,” she says. Although Muscio maintains ownership of her designs, she notes that if she works with a client who opts not to move forward, she’ll never use the design she created for them for another client. 

“I won’t replicate it for anyone else,” she says. “They’re all one-of-a-kind designs.” And should the client come back at a later time and decide to finally move forward on the piece, Muscio will happily pick up where she left off.