Helen Ver Standig, president of Wellington Jewels, the Washington-based "counterfeit" diamond retailer, has been chosen to receive the 12th annual Joseph Wharton award from the Wharton Club of Washington for her business and marketing expertise.
Ver Standig, who began her career in advertising in the 1940s, is known as "Madame Wellington," an identity personified by the familiar Al Hirschfeld caricature.
Wellington Jewels was started here after Ver Standig and her husband gave up their hugely successful advertising agency in 1964.
Shortly after, Ver Standig was contacted by a scientist who had come up with a process to make fake diamonds that were virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
"When the scientist approached me with the process, we did a complete marketing study on the diamond market and the simulated diamonds sold at that time," she said. "There really was no product on the market that was being sold to the vast market of people that could not afford a diamond and yet wanted a diamond-like product."
So Wellington Jewels was born. Originally started as a mail-order firm, Wellington now has eight retail stores -- two in Pennsylvania, and one each in Washington, D.C.; Chevy Chase, Md.; Tyson's Corner, Va.; New York and Chicago. It began as and remains a family-owned business.
"I couldn't go public," Ver Standig said. "I couldn't get along with the stockholders."
Wellington benefited from a highly successful marketing campaign. The marketing study showed that if simulated diamonds were set and marketed just like real diamonds, consumers would buy them.
"We sold it with a very tounge-in-cheek approach," said Ver Standig. "Very wicked, but very honest."
The company's specilizes in fake diamonds of all shapes and sizes. Each has 58 facets and is mounted in 14K or 18K gold or platinum settings. All the lapidary work is done in Switzerland. Fully mounted Wellington counterfeits sell anywhere between $110 and $25,000. The company also counterfeits emeralds, rubies and saphires.
"The largest group [of people who buy fake diamonds] is between 30 and 40 years old and they are professionals," she said. "Most of them say they don't want to spend money on a diamond and prefer to put their money elsewhere." Wellington also has a large number of very wealthy clients who, for insurance reasons, need copies of their jewelry.
"I don't believe diamonds are investments," said Ver Standig, who believes that the market is too volatile to be an investment haven.
Ver Standig will receive the Wharton award Thursday evening at the Chevy Chase Club. The Wharton School Club of Washington is a professional organization representing the Wharton Alumni living in the Washington area. Ver Standig teaches marketing at the Wharton School of Finance. She said she sees more and more people who want to go into business for themselves. "Any time is a good time to start your own business," she said. "You have all the freedom to express yourself in the sense of the opportunities the market offers."