Jewels and Justice
Last December, Mike Plummer waited in line behind a gaggle of ladies at the David Yurman trunk show at the Galleria Neiman Marcus. Dripping with diamonds and compliments, the ladies shook hands with the New York designer in town to promote his latest jewelry line.
Yurman, for those not up on status symbols, is the sculptor whose cable-coil design propelled him into name-brand fame and who rakes in an estimated $250 million to $300 million a year in retail sales. Texas is his biggest market. Plummer owns Diamonds and Time, a small boutique in a Richmond Strip office building where he buys and sells luxury brands like Rolex, Cartier and Yurman.
Earlier that week, an intense, curly-haired man had subjected one of Plummer's salespeople to a blitzkrieg of questions about Yurman merchandise. The curious thing was, that man looked a lot like David Yurman.
So when it came his turn to meet the designer at the show, Plummer asked Yurman why he had shopped at Diamonds and Time. After all, Yurman had all the Yurman he could ever want.
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And then, Plummer says, the crown prince of the jewelry world screamed at him in front of all those ladies. He called him trash. He said he spent a million dollars a year filing lawsuits against trash like him and vowed to squish him like a bug.
It turns out that Yurman is well known not only for his expensive jewelry ($19,000 for a diamond-encrusted gold watch) but for his litigious nature. In the last decade he has taken more than 40 companies to court in New York. Last November a jury found Yurman's cable design distinctive enough to merit trademark protection and saddled Dallas-based Prime Art & Jewel with over $1 million in damages for copying his jewelry.
Ever the charitable man (Steven Spielberg received the first ever David Yurman Humanitarian Award last year), Yurman declared he would establish a fund with his winnings to assist young designers in following his lead and suing nefarious copycats.
But Yurman also goes after people like Plummer who sell his merchandise without permission. After New Year's, Plummer received a letter from Yurman's lawyers accusing him of damaging Yurman's reputation and demanding he quit selling Yurman. Yurman Designs Inc. has selective sales agreements with stores like Neiman's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Deutsch & Deutsch.
"It is exclusive and you are not within the program," the letter read.
Plummer, 40, says he merely purchases pieces from estate sales and stores that either have overstock or are going out of business. Then he resells them at Diamonds and Time and on eBay at a discount. He consulted lawyers who told him that under the "first sale" doctrine David Yurman exhausted his copyright after he sold his jewelry to retailers. Plummer was entitled to buy and sell. Long live free enterprise.
"I don't alter the merchandise or do anything that would constitute trademark violation. I don't add diamonds and dress it up. I just resell it," Plummer says.
But Yurman's lawyer Maxim Waldbaum says authorized retailers are expressly prohibited under contract from selling to other retailers and that Plummer "willfully induced" them to breach their contracts. Plummer also had a Yurman catalog, which only authorized retailers are allowed. (Gasp!) Surrender it at once, the lawyers said.
A year and a half before, Plummer ran into similar problems with Rolex Watch U.S.A. The company asked him to stop providing warranty cards because it gave the impression he was authorized. Plummer says he learned his lesson. He stopped supplying the cards and started running nonaffiliation disclaimers in his ads, cards, and on his Web site.
But disclaimers don't satisfy David Yurman.
"If you have to buy a pair of glasses to look at the disclaimer, I believe there's some connection between the two even though there's a disclaimer," Waldbaum says. "We don't want him using his name. Would you want your name used without your authorization?"
How Yurman differs from other designer brands like Donna Karan that routinely end up in discount stores, Waldbaum didn't explain, except to state that jewelry, at least Yurman jewelry, is supposed to be sold in an opulent environment. Diamonds and Time lacks that atmosphere.
"You're not buying a pair of pants," sniffs Waldbaum. "You're buying an image, paying for something that's valuable. What Mr. Plummer doesn't get is that there are a lot of ways in which you sell products. He's not allowed to sell this product."
Plummer, who has worked in the jewelry business for over a decade, doesn't like being told what he can and can't sell. He says he tried to settle with Yurman a dozen times and even offered to stop selling new Yurman, but the proposals were too over-reaching. They prohibited him from any advertising and even from displaying Yurman pieces.
"Basically, my wife can't even wear it," Plummer says of the rules. More recent versions of the settlement demand that he pay Yurman's legal fees of $25,000.
In the last year and a half, between 60 and 80 cease-and-desist letters to other sellers ended in "appropriate action," Waldbaum says. But Plummer defiantly continues to run ads in the Houston Press declaring a "David Yurman blowout."
"If I'm wrong in what I'm doing, I'll stop doing it," Plummer says. "I'm not trying to break the law or anything. He just doesn't like it because I discount his product. He's going to run me out of business by suing me."
Little jewelers like him fold and accept the settlements because of legal costs. If he were watching his pocketbook, he would have settled a long time ago, Plummer says. Unfortunately he's fighting on principle. His legal bill already exceeds $35,000.
"You feel like you're in America, and then you get railroaded because you don't have the big legal guns," he says.
When Plummer told Waldbaum that he might have to file for bankruptcy, Yurman's lawyers amended the lawsuit to name Plummer personally, his wife, Lynn Plummer, another one of Plummer's companies and various "John Doe's," the authorized retailers that Plummer bought from.
Now, the crux of the battle is over one of those John Doe's, Haltom's Fine Jewelers of Fort Worth. Yurman claims Haltom's broke its contract when it sold to Plummer. Haltom's says it had no written contract to break, and sued Yurman in Texas. Lawyers are fighting over jurisdiction; Yurman wants the case moved to New York.
And all of this legal warfare is over a handful of jewelry. Plummer says he sold approximately $100,000 worth of Yurman at Diamonds and Time last year, on which he made a 15 percent profit.
Meanwhile, Yurman continues to expand. In June he opened a boutique at Saks Fifth Avenue in the Galleria furnished with mahogany cases trimmed with bronze. "There are people who only shop at Saks," he had kindly noticed. "Our responsibility is to our customers, and that's what a brand does."
A name brand also cultivates a look, a way of living, an attitude and oftentimes a legal team with pomp and swagger.
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