The Independents — A Love Letter

You’ve seen their sign, maybe their billboard on your daily commute. Maybe you’ve wandered by their storefront, pausing to peek at the pretty displays and wondering what else could be inside. It’s even possible you’ve stood in line at the grocery store behind their owner, your spouse has played golf or hosted book club with them, or your children have played baseball with their kids.

I’m talking about your friendly neighborhood independent jeweler, and the family that is very much a part of your local community.

With one store location or maybe a handful, these businesses have built their lives and livelihoods by treating you with courtesy and respect, running a shop that puts quality and the customer first. Unlike the revolving door and high-volume sales at the national chains, the familiar faces at an independent jewelry store keep all eyes focused on what the client needs and wants.

They might open a little early for an emergency watch battery change, or stay open past closing so you can pick up that special gift after a long day of work. They’ll send you a note to remind you of an upcoming birthday or anniversary — and they’ve kept a list of exactly what that special someone has been eyeing. Need it hand delivered, gift-wrapped, totally secret, even one-of-a-kind? They can do that, too.

With the ability to source colored gems, diamonds, designer brands, and specialty items from around the world, independent jewelers can and will go the extra mile. Many also staff talented bench jewelers and designers, who will take your dreams and translate them into beautifully crafted reality. Repairs big and small, sizings up or down, a new chain or watch strap: these gals and guys have seen and done it all, and they’ll happily do it for you.

An educated and dedicated team will be present for your most precious life events — you can’t be just a number when they know you by name! Independent jewelers love to share their knowledge, and they know that an educated consumer is a confident and happy client.

So the next time you find yourself in need of a gift, planning a special life celebration, or feel the desire for a beautiful, wearable work of art in your life, remember your neighbors. They’re ready to serve you, and they’re right around the corner — where they’ve always been.

Just Another Week in Paradise (NV)

April showers bring May… tradeshows. And June tradeshows. The ones that take place in a desert city mirage, full of glittering monoliths and towering representations of fairy tales and larger-than-life fantasies. Food, drink, and sparkling gems at every turn battle for dominance with late nights and long walks down streets that glow with neon promise.

In other words, fifteen-plus-hour days in heels with ceaseless talking, extensive walking (83782 steps), desperate hunger and thirst, exhaustion, dehydration, pain, stress, and general desert malaise. We call it Jewelry Week.

This year was a good one, all things considered, both for the business I was there to represent and for my own interests. I feel extreme gratitude for my show team, who collectively practiced their best “patience faces,” brought their dress-up clothes, and tolerated my singing and dancing at the Margaritaville table.

Additionally, I was honored to attend this year’s #VegasGems evening out — a dinner table full of some of the coolest, most intelligent, interesting, and influential women out there. Just listening to your stories was a pleasure, and I wish we’d had so much more time so I could continue soaking in your fabulousness and learning from the very best.

Oh, and I discovered that running a 5K up and down the strip at 5:30am is a little different from walking it, no matter how hard you train or how much water you drink. Time doesn’t fly quite as fast without conversations about broadway musicals. Who knew?

But as always, surrounding myself with the people and things of the jewelry world gives me a refreshment and renewed sense of purpose. If nothing else, this show brings me back to my center. When I manage to take a brief tour around the other halls of the show, greeting the folks I’ve come to know and giving myself some time to absorb the atmosphere, I feel reconnected to the pulse of what I love to do.

So now it’s back to the grind: day job, studying gems in the lab, freelancing, and building that little business into something bigger.

 

Under the Tucson Sun: Show Recap

Sunshine. 70 degrees. Palm trees mixed with cacti of all shapes and sizes. Fruit on the trees, vivid sunsets. Sounds like a vacation to this hardy New Englander.

Between wine and tequila tastings, evening stargazing, and too much guacamole, there was also this show called JCK Tucson.

This was my first time exhibiting at the lovely JW Starr Marriott Resort, and I enjoyed the smaller size and slower pace of this show compared to many of the larger ones. I actually had time for lengthy conversations with clients, which allowed me to really soak in their perspectives on everything from CAD/CAM integration and technology adoption to social media, synthetic diamonds, custom design, transparent sourcing, and the future of the global industry.

Subjects near and dear to my little heart.

Tradeshows are a great opportunity to take an industry’s temperature, and they provide a snapshot of both the financial and more personal sides of the business. In this case, I felt a general sense of positivity: things might not be the best they’ve ever been, but they’re not the worst and might be getting a little better. Many clients have taken the last few years of heavy industry closures and market uncertainty as a sign that they need to carefully consider and execute a plan for long-term sustainability. Many have concluded that adopting the right set of new technologies and breaking old, bad habits will serve them well in the immediate future — a clear sign of hope, and at least a tiny drop of faith in the industry to keep pushing forward.

This was the first show where my newly-acquired technical knowledge was equally as appreciated as my jewelry insight. Perhaps it’s due to some of the confidence bred of reaching a work milestone, but I felt significantly more comfortable discussing the inner workings of design, sourcing, production, and manufacturing along with the usual business content. Everyone, it seemed to me, is looking for efficiency in their process and a road map for reaching the next wave of buyers.

Maybe it was all that vitamin D after so many months without, but I’m feeling the groove right along with these intelligent and innovative thinkers. If every show could bring these feelings, I call that a true sign of success.

Who Broke the Crystal Ball?

There are a lot of things to like about my job: intelligent and talented colleagues, innovative and fast-moving core industry, free food and booze… y’know, the usual expected combination of perks at a tech start-up.

But the very best parts of my day revolve around the conversations I get to have with jewelry industry folks. They come from a huge range of specialties — retailers, designers, manufacturers, students, teachers, artists — and once we get to know each other a bit, many of them are willing to take a few moments to chat about the general state of the industry.

These conversations have given me both deep insight into the inner workings and relationships within the network itself, and a bird’s eye view of the US (and often global) jewelry industry as a whole. Useful and interesting stuff.

In a totally unscientific way, I’m been taking notes on these discussions and keeping track of what people seem to be saying. Here’s an overview of some of the most common topics and their subsequent commentary:

“The industry is changing.”
This is by far the most popular statement. It seems that nearly everyone is in agreement about the state of flux and evolution, keeping in mind that anyone talking to me right now is probably already embracing a certain amount of technology and the momentum to implement it.

But I perceive a certain level of apprehension mixed in there as well, particularly when some of the smaller shops are considering their long-term business plans. Comments such as “I’m buying this because my son/daughter thinks we need it” and “I hope you can teach an old dog new tricks” imply an understandable hesitation, but they also address the larger climate of uncertainty in the market.

“Nobody buys X anymore, they only want custom.”
If you’re handy with CAD or a designer-in-training, prepare yourself for desperate job offers and high expectations — but not necessarily an understanding employer. There is a definite skills and knowledge gap happening here, and it’s what I refer to as Magic Box Syndrome.

This tendency to demand good/fast/cheap/easy from technology is frustrating both for the people who don’t understand why it isn’t perfect, and for those of us trying to convince users that it’s still pretty darn good. That expensive computer program with beautiful renderings can’t make you a better designer if you don’t understand the fundamentals of jewelry construction (including CAM, casting, and at least some benchwork). Our little orange box can’t magically reproduce something your designer dreamed up if it’s unprintable, uncastable, and probably unwearable.

And what happens when, inevitably at this time of year, the conversation turns to the holiday season?

I’ve learned to brace myself.

While the majority of my clients are buying a 3D printer to expand or improve their businesses, I come across the occasional purchaser who is simply trying to save it. Three separate shops in the last week have lost their CAD people, and are trying to catch up on CAD/CAM themselves before the rush. Two other businesses I know are about to begin casting their own work, because outsourcing takes too much time (and therefore money). And of course, my manufacturing clients are facing increased labor and metal costs, high demand for fast turnover, on custom pieces and a huge uptick in small-batch multi-unit orders that will probably end up as quick mountings for engagement season.

“We’re in for a wild ride,” they say.

But the saner voices — less panicked, more curious and optimistic about the future — are predicting a time of general change toward custom or customized jewelry in a way that might just save the entire industry from itself. As I’ve mentioned once or twice, adapting our old business models to the new wave of consumers is the only realistic way to preserve the beauty of treasured jewelry pieces and still grow as an industry.

It is my good fortune to be in communication with such a wide variety of interesting people, and to hear firsthand how many of them are keeping their eyes on the prize and working to turn this big old ship around. I can guide and support them through at least a small part of that process, and hope that their eventual successes will pave the way for others.

A Tale of Two Evenings

I might be leading a double life.

Right in the middle of an otherwise normal (read: boring) week, I spent two back-to-back nights out, quite a bit past my bedtime. I’ll say up front that I thoroughly enjoyed them both, and that I wish every night out could be as successful as they both were, in their own ways. But the experiences couldn’t have been more different.

On Wednesday afternoon, I ducked out of work a little early to make it home in time to grab a snack and my favorite notebook. It was time for my first meeting as a board member of the WJA Boston chapter, and I was trying very hard not to feel a little anxious.

After a few hours spent planning and brainstorming with a handful of some remarkable women, I can say without any hesitation that this is going to be fun. There is a shared vision amongst these leaders to bring the local industry together, promote women in business, and focus on collaboration and creating a true community. I can get on board with this board, if you know what I mean.

With great courtesy, these women welcomed me as a young but eager member who is ready to contribute to their (our!) goals. I can’t thank them enough for the incredible amount of work they put into this organization on top of owning and running their own businesses and lives, but I hope they understand how much I appreciate them as mentors and role models as well.

So, that was Wednesday. Inspired and full of brain activity, I arrived at work on Thursday morning feeling pretty damn good. And then, shortly after a round of morning meetings, I remembered: the sales outing. Cue the uh-oh music.

As a reward for blasting past our collective sales goal last quarter, the team was given a 3-hour evening on the water to drink and be merry. Well, to drink and dance and sing and laugh and bond and essentially feel like college kids again… which, for some of the team, was like turning the clock back about three days. But a few cocktails and airbrush tattoos later, we sure did have a great time.

I know what you’re thinking. Waitaminute, you went on a booze cruise?

Yes I did. And I wouldn’t trade those hours of hair down, bottoms-up, early-2000s singalongs for anything. When I promised to say yes more often, I really meant it — for my career and my personal life.

As many of you are aware, our move back to the city was in part motivated by my desire to take on a larger role in the jewelry industry and give my career some new energy. I needed to meet more people, learn more things, and hit the ground running in a vibrant and forward-thinking community.

I can’t believe how incredibly fortunate I’ve been to find not one but two of these groups which, despite functioning in every possible way as polar opposites, have contributed significantly to my overall ambitions and quality of life. And while they occasionally stress me out and keep me up at night (again, for very different reasons), I realize that they also provide balance for each other. And this, in turn, balances me.

 

Do People Really Want to Buy From People?

Wisdom: born of experience, frequently hard won, and difficult to share. But those who have it do try to give those of us without it a tidbit every now and then.

In the past month or so, in various trade publications and even in a few conversations, I’ve witnessed this little nugget bandied about:

“People want to buy from people.”

Oh, how desperately I want to agree. I want to believe! As a former retailer on both the large and small scale and as a former educator, making that personal connection has long been my raison d’etre. There was no greater priority for me than to get on my client’s or student’s level, earning their trust and exceeding their immediate and future needs. It’s how I roll.

But as with so many things, I’ve recently started to call into question this longstanding truism, at least in the context of the kind of business I’m currently doing. I’ve spoken in the past about the challenges I continue to face in making the switch from selling jewelry to selling something else, but one of the greatest differences has been the approach to delivering on the client’s expectations.

This is not a business in which developing deep, long-term relationships is a priority. That’s not to say that we aren’t encouraged to build a rapport – in fact, the “discovery” process is a key topic of almost every sales meeting and workshop — but the timeline is intended to be as short as possible, and almost no consideration is given for clients who crave significant personal attention.

And you know what? More often than not, it works.

I want to be crystal clear: in no way am I making the case for lackluster relationship building, poor trust, and zero communication. But it’s important to consider that the modern consumer, regardless of age or demographic, has moved a large portion of their buying habits to the non-serviced world (a.k.a. the internet).

This translates to increased familiarity with products (thanks to extensive internet searching) and a surprising level of pre-established trust in a brand or company. People can and do offer up large amounts of their savings by typing in a credit card number and clicking a few checkboxes — we know they do it with diamonds (and really shouldn’t), but is doing it for a piece of equipment, no matter how crucial, acceptable?

When consumers feel confident, they’re willing to open their wallets. If that confidence comes pre-established (or takes little to no personal contact to reach), they come to the store with cash in hand, and are increasingly unwilling to sit through a discussion about their needs. As “experts” they’re confident enough to buy, and that’s all they want to do.

I already know the kind of havoc this can cause with jewelry buyers who didn’t bother to find out that emeralds are delicate, pearls need restringing, and rhodium wears away. The problems multiply with a piece of machinery that is user friendly when the user is friendly, and prone to tidal waves of sticky resin when they aren’t.

The best conclusion I can reach is that people might not want to buy from people so much these days, but they really, really should. It’s impossible to know everything, so why not let the subject matter experts — you know, the ones who are trained and willing to offer as much information as they can — give you a little help?

 

P.S. I can’t find attribution for this image, so please let me know if it’s yours. It’s perfect. I hate love how perfect it is.

Are You an Exhibitionist? Chapter II

Still woozy from the desert sun? Catch up here on Chapter I.

Even after spending nearly six months and three trade shows breathing in its atmosphere, the world of the vendor is still a foreign land for me.

They say old habits die hard, and as often as they’re wrong, this time they got it right. One of the greatest challenges in making this transition has been the shift in perspective from retailer to supplier. To a certain extent, my intimate knowledge of jewelry retail has provided some wonderful insight into how the product is really being used (or should be), and of course I understand how different pieces of the industry puzzle fit together. That’s proven useful, not to mention good common ground to establish with my clients.

But sliding away from a luxury selling mindset into a less glamorous more nuts-and-bolts category… that’s been pretty rough. Okay, it’s still rough, though I make a conscious effort to understand and embrace the product world I’m working in. It’s simply much easier to romance something that’s already beautiful.

To create romance around a product that is inherently utilitarian requires some serious creativity. The specs and dry facts take on a new level of importance to a buyer who actually plans to use the damn thing, and fostering a sense of desire takes second place to generating a need. Jewelry is beautiful and meaningful, but it has no necessity — and that’s what I’m used to selling.

In a way, this category is easier: here’s what this thing does, here’s why and how it will do good things for you. Basic math, right? But the jewelry industry has been dealing with many issues on an operational level these days (why else would there be so many seminars on how to manage everything from inventory to staff) that going over the time-money equation takes some thoughtful and patient explanation. This takes time and a certain careful handling of the “I’m not trying to tell you how to run your business” aspect of sales, for which I’m both uniquely suited and poorly situated.

I have never been “sweetied” and “honeyed” so much in my life. The bias facing young women in general and business women in particular is staggering, and the popular belief that my male colleagues would be more knowledgable about a technological product is patently absurd. But the male-to-male comfort zone remains, as even at this show I was often dismissed as the “cute blonde” who should find her (male) superior to make decisions or provide more information.

But so it goes. Complaining about gender inequality is shouting into the void, so I prefer the path of action. Proving my value, building a reputation, and learning to navigate the twisted paths of business relationships (not to mention serving my clients and my company) are all perched at the top of my priority list. Watching my mentors has led me to dabble a bit in mentoring others — an event worth its own blog post, in the future — and with that comes the sense of responsibility to other people.

 

 

Are You an Exhibitionist?: Jewelry Week 2K16

They meant “exhibitor.” I’m almost positive. Then again, this is Las Vegas…

My second trip to the big show resembled my first in only one significant way — I learned a whole hell of a lot — but in all other aspects, this could have been a completely different show. Traveling with such considerations as booth setup/breakdown, package arrival coordination, general booth management X2 (more on that later), and a personal agenda all mixed together make for a busy, buzzing brain. And yet, it’s still one of the highlights of my year.

Like other bloggers, I think it’s best to break up a longer recap into more manageable, bite-sized bits. This year in particular I’ve had a million things to think about, so it will take some time to corral them into some kind of order, sort, press, fold, and eventually stack them neatly for future reference.

As a gentle introduction, I’ll share with you a special little secret I’ve been keeping: thanks to far too much childhood exposure to Dr. Suess, I’m a dedicated closet rhymester. There’s nothing I love more than rhyming couplets, so to keep myself amused I’ve acquired the habit of crafting little phraselets and writing them down, usually never to be shared or seen again. But this time I’m putting them all together — no alterations, no edits, and in chronological order — to form a poetic tribute to my 8 days in the desert.

High heels, aching feet
Snapping pics to Insta-Tweet
Shaking hands and toothy smiles
Feeling like I ran for miles
Greeting friends, toasting “cheers!”
More fun than I’ve had in years
Early morning walk with friends
Talking Broadway, techy trends
Colored gems are back in action
Millennials are gaining traction
Selling, buying, closing deals
Debating diamonds: fake or real?
Sultry evening in the sand
I finally got to hear that band
Fresh designers go all in
Mandalay, the Trop, the Wynn
Packing up could take all night
We stayed awake until our flight
Business over, time to run
I hope next year is half as fun!

Vegas: The Starting Gate

Rounding the final corner! Down the home stretch! Hitting his stride! Photo finish!

I blame it on my birthday** but I’ve always appreciated horse racing metaphors. There’s something so universally appealing about them, so evocative of a brief but heart-pounding excitement shared by a crowd that seems to hold its collective breath until the race is over.

That’s a bit like how I feel about Jewelry Week, hosted annually in Sin City and attended by thousands of industry professionals in a business and social whirlwind. It’s a fast-paced week, requiring immense amounts of energy and serious willpower to both get stuff done and have fun doing it.

For those of us on the non-retail side of the booth, the connections and sales generated at this show can make or break an entire year’s worth of business (but y’know, no pressure). It’s an opportunity to meet with clients in person, announce new and exciting things (!!), and yes, scope out the competition.

Buyers who attend are also on a mission: spend well, spend wisely. The glitter of the show is an easy distraction for the spendthrift store buyer, as it washes everything in an enticing aura of beauty and incites a covetous round of gotta-have-it fever.

This is, of course, the point. Any show is only as successful as its revenue generation — in this case, not for the show itself, but for the sellers who attend it — so a careful eye is kept on the general mood throughout the week. Trends are spotted, new and innovative offerings are critiqued, and dollars are measured.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the changes facing the industry right now, including questions about what retailers in particular should do to attract consumers of all ages and levels. It makes me wonder: what can both buyers and sellers learn from this show? What makes it so successful as an event, and how do we generate that kind of madhouse, leave-your-inhibitions-at-the-door vibe in our own businesses?

Something else to consider: the show has added a new area to the already-crowded floor, dedicating a space to what was once “crossover” and is now called simply “bridge” jewelry. This category consists of sterling-and-gold pieces with fashion and trendy appeal, at prices intended to be higher than basic fashion jewelry but lower or just approaching that of the fine category. It’s the stuff millennials buy for themselves (in theory), and it’s a popular but ever-moving target.

I’m interested to see the category perform in its own arena and not as second fiddle to its bookend price points. I will also be curious to learn if this one-size-fits-most approach feels like a fresh idea that just might save the middle of the market, or simply a rehash of the “entry level” model we see in the housing and auto markets. The former inspires repeat business, self purchasing, and aspirational purchases down the road. The latter sets buyers up for disappointment and frustration, stalling momentum and causing sales to drop. We’ll see which side wins this coin toss.

And as usual, there will be a significant amount of M-word (Millennial) dropping in the exhibit halls. This ties in directly with the two ideas I just mentioned, and the prevalence of a heavy generational focus has helped me formulate a kind of consumer theory I’ve been kicking around: shifting the focus too far onto the fashion/bridge category could hinder the long-term, aspirational level sales, preventing sellers from converting the $500 spenders into $5K+ consumers. I have found that when someone is sold on “good enough,” it can be all the more challenging to grow them into larger or more frequent purchasers.

So as the flag is raised on this year’s show, I’ll be keeping in mind these questions (and other thoughts) to revisit after the fact. Here’s hoping it won’t be heavy going for attendees, and that everyone will have free rein to buy and sell and enjoy themselves. I know I’m chomping at the bit to be on my way!

 

**Kentucky Derby Day. Every year without fail, my father-in-law (a horse racing fanatic) asks me to name the winning horse, who also happened to be one of only three fillies to ever win the Derby.

Reading Reactions

Featured image is my father’s custom garnet ring, designed by Irene S. Sirois. Copyrighted design.

If I didn’t have to work, I would probably read. All day, most of the night, nonstop page-turning. Like most bibliophiles I have some preferred genres and authors, but if you put something with words on it in front of me, I’m going to read it before you’ve finished telling me not to (so please don’t). This means I have to practice extreme selectivity, because I simply don’t have time to read it all. In practice that translates to rationing my reading time, where my time currency is portioned out like my 8th grade allowance, with wild abandon sparingly and with great care.

So it might surprise you to know that I spend a daily allotment of what I lovingly call Industry Research Time poring over every blog, publication, article, Google Alert, LinkedIn Pulse, and Instagram post I can find. I take notes — actual, physical ones and purely mental ones — and attempt to connect the dots between what I’m reading and what I’m experiencing. I sift through opinions, corroborate facts, and weigh topics in an effort to determine what’s important, who’s talking about it, and how I think and feel about it all.

When you consume this much material, it’s inevitable to come across some things you simply don’t agree with. Most of the time this happens with op-eds and other opinion-based articles, and stems from having a very different perspective on the topic. Exactly such a case can be found in this article, published in the May 2016 MJSA Journal entitled “Is ‘Custom’ a Dirty Word?” which I encourage everyone to read.

The piece describes the challenges of defining what “custom jewelry” means — I subject I’ve discussed before — and goes on to describe how Lisa Krikawa of Krikawa Jewelry works around what she perceives as the extreme limitations of selling custom or customized jewelry. This workaround is to essentially remove the word custom from the conversation entirely, because she experiences the usual backlash of fear and distrust from clients who prefer to touch and try on their designs before purchasing.

To say that I sympathize with this position is an understatement, having sold both full custom and customized jewelry myself. And Krikawa’s actual conversations with clients reflect the realities of selling this type of product, in such a way that they feel heard and understood. This is exactly the right approach, and I couldn’t agree more with her process of offering examples from the showcase, hand sketches, and CAD models. It’s what I used to do, too, and it works.

In part, the solution to the touch me/feel me issue can be answered by the amazing technology I work with in my current profession. Using 3D printers to prototype quickly and cheaply gives the client a physical piece to touch and try on, even with temporarily seated gems so the full effect is present. Now the relevant questions — too tall? too thick? right size? in proportion? etc. — can be answered in real time, without the expense of fixing these issues after the fact.

My main argument with Krikawa’s approach is that by working so hard to eliminate a particular word from a client’s vocabulary, the opportunity to educate them about custom is lost. The process of qualifying a client for potential custom work does not need to turn them off or scare them away from a purchase; when handled with careful explanation, my nervous clients turned into my best evangelists for the custom process (hello, referrals!).

I have worked very hard to promote the idea of custom jewelry as the future on the industry, and feel that removing it from the conversation is counterproductive. I prefer to help the client understand and appreciate the opportunity, educate them as to the options, and explain how the risks are mitigated or eliminated.

There are few things I appreciate more than the people who expend serious time and energy making their clients happy, regardless of how they accomplish that feat. I hope the various opinions and theories about custom jewelry continue to expand and develop, especially as technology grows and offers more solutions to an often cumbersome process.

Please comment with your thoughts, I’d love to keep the conversation going!