A Toast to Courage and a New Life

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”
–William Faulkner

There is a longstanding tradition in my family of being asked to present speeches and toasts at various occasions and events. It happens often enough that I garnered an early obsession with Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, that beloved compilation of all things wise and witty that can be opened at need or stood upon to reach the top shelf.

It took me more than a few tries of random page-opening to find the right words for this moment in my life, but I think Faulkner’s are a simple and elegant summary.

I have a new job and a new home!

Packing up husband, cat, and the million things it seems we’ve acquired over the last five years, we’re moving to a new town in our old home state.

Packing up skills, memories, and my trusty loupe, I’m changing jobs to forge a bright new path in my industry.

I never thought I would come to love the place we’ve been living as much as I did. The small town, slow pace, and ridiculously short commute made daily life pretty easy. I certainly never thought that a job I chose by accident would deliver an industry, career, and passion.

Now I gather my courage, finding myself in equal parts gripped by fear of change and uncertainty and uplifted by the prospect of wonderful new opportunities and a dramatic lifestyle shift. Our new living arrangement will allow for much greater freedom and access to so many things we love (food, art, culture) and my new job marries my love of the jewelry business with my desire to move it forward through technology and rapid growth.

I get a little philosophical I guess (a side effect of all that Faulkner, no doubt), but inside my brain is humming with constant activity and my gut is doing some strange alchemy with lead and butterflies. So much to do, so many changes all happening at the same time, and not nearly enough hours in the day or ink in my pen to keep it all straight. It’s time to be better than myself, to pull back the bowstring and launch. Off we go!

I’ll bookend this post with another Faulkner line, always apropos in times of change and personal growth: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.

 

Jewelry and the “F” Word: Fashion

In a conversation with a fellow industry professional last week, I made this comment about the attitudes of certain types of clientele:

“We work in fashion. Why should we expect them to treat their jewelry any differently than their shoes or handbags?”

Death stare.

“We don’t work in fashion, we sell real jewelry.” Meow.

To me, this attitude is wrong on several counts. First of all, jewelry by definition falls under the broad umbrella of fashion items, along with any other accessory or article of adornment. It’s also governed by the same basic tenets (brand focus, trend awareness, color and style aesthetic), follows seasonal cycles, and even maintains a demographic pattern heavily based in income and access. All of these are hallmarks of fashion, regardless of price point.

To say that we are an industry apart implies that our buyers are not behaving in the same way as fashion buyers, and that is simply not the case. While some would like to think that selling a person on the sentiment or investment alone will close a sale, the simple reality is this: if buyers are convinced that one is enough, then repeat business is dead in the water.

The only way to build and maintain a healthy and growing industry is to encourage the idea that no purchase need be the last. You bought a wedding band? That’s wonderful, meaningful, and special — but what about another one for the other side, say for your anniversary? I’m tickled pink that you love your favorite dress watch, but wouldn’t you like something a little more casual — but no less beautiful — to wear every day? And wouldn’t those classic diamond studs look marvelous this evening when they’re dressed up with a set of diamond and sapphire enhancers? Of course they would!

My customers don’t own one pair of shoes, one bag, or one coat (especially in New England. Come on people, we have seasons!). Leave your arguments about consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and class divisions at the door: our entire industry — beauty and yes, fashion — relies on convincing the customer that he or she should have at least one more. Ten dollars or ten thousand (ten million and up, too), there is no time for semantic distinctions between your branch of the tree and mine.

 

Between Two Posts: Goal!

Actually, this is a post with more than one goal.

I mean that literally: it contains an outline of my professional and semi-personal goals, for the purpose of giving me a reference point for the future, general peer pressure, and filling the posting void this week.

I tend to vacillate between highly specific and über-generic goal-setting, thanks in no small part to my belief that most measures of success are not quantifiable. Put another way, I don’t like strict numerical goals because they scare the hell out of me. Nonetheless, here we go:

1. Give a talk/speech/lecture to a crowd of more than 10
Back in my teaching and public speaking days, this was more of a daily habit than something to work towards. But with a new industry came a change in role and shift in opportunity, meaning I haven’t been called upon to speak in a forum in a while. Not only do I miss it, but I feel that I can’t continue to be a “silent contributor” if I want to make any kind of impact on my industry. This voice needs an outlet!

2. Publish something longer than 500 words, with a byline
And no, a long-winded blog post on here doesn’t count. I’m talking about a paying gig that more than 5 people might actually read.

3. Finish my G.G.
Kind of obvious, but I want that knowledge and those skills under my belt. On your mark, get set, study!

4. Meet new people
I originally wrote “make new friends,” but that felt a bit limiting — why do these new people need to be my friends? They could be mentors, clients, associates, maybe even a new barista. I enjoy networking and generating great conversation out of thin air, but I don’t do it enough.

5. Talk about what I do, what I love, who I am
And eliminate the word “just” from my vocabulary. I’m just going to leave this here… thanks, Uma.

6. Embrace my personality
I stopped apologizing for my quirks a long time ago, but I continue to downplay the aspects of myself that I fear might resurrect the middle school bullying days. I’d say that’s far more uncool as an adult than any of the things that made me uncool back then.

 7. Improve the quality of my downtime
Golf with husband. Music with Dad. Shopping with mom. Coffee with those new people I plan to meet. Hiking and reading and singing and shooting (photos) and all of those things I love that have lately fallen by the wayside.

It’s a lot to pursue, but I don’t intend to limit myself to the upcoming calendar year. I like to think of long-term goals as “life improvements.” (Not to be confused with history’s notorious Five Year Plan, despite the five-stone diamond pendant in the featured image.)

What do you think of my goal-setting skills? Do you have any insight or advice for me? I’m all ears!

 

 

Brain Freeze

Well, here we go again. It’s been ten days since my last post, and I don’t expect this one to do much in the way of readership generation.

There is a simple fact I must face: during the holiday season, I go into survival mode. All extraneous brain activity ceases, including the portion that comes up with catchy titles and useful content.

Other bloggers seem to successfully navigate this time of year, but perhaps many of them don’t work the retail frontlines. And perhaps they have a normal working schedule, enabling them to surround themselves with family and friends when they’re not actually at work.

Anyway, this is more of an apologetic post than anything particularly useful or even entertaining for my readers (both of them). I love the joy on a customer’s face when we find just the right gift for someone special, and I cling to those moments to guide me through this exhausting, stress-ridden season.

So my dear customers, you’d better not shout. You’d better not cry. Santa and Hanukkah Harry are watching — and so am I.

 

Show Me Your Creds

Credentials.

Did you cringe when you read that word? If not, yours are probably more than sufficient to command respect in your field (or you simply don’t have any need for them). If you did, then welcome to the club.

We all know that in most businesses, it’s not just who you know and what you’ve done that matters. From your hiring manager and CEO to your own client base, people will grant you an automatic jump in trust and confidence if they see some form of alphabet soup on your business card. Often these suffixes designate levels of education completed or certifications received, which do have a certain amount of credibility attached — a doctor without the MD just isn’t a doctor — but they are rarely proof of talent or ability.

Growing up in a heavily academic-oriented household, I have always been aware of a singular fact: your credentials may get you a seat at the table, but they won’t help you keep it warm. Everyone has a story about Dr. So-and-so’s total inability to fill out an intake form and write the proper dosage of a prescription despite thirty years’ experience, two doctorate degrees, and a wing in the new hospital named after him. Yes, we nod sagely, he obviously looks great on paper, but he doesn’t really have what it takes.

In contrast, I feel that the Dr. So-and-sos of the world are the exception that proves the rule. Going through the standard educational pathways shouldn’t be considered merely as minimum qualifications, but as a starting point to a greater discussion about knowledge, practical application, and person’s developing interest in a field or fields.

Obviously this topic is on my mind as I work to pursue my own degree pathway, but it also factors into my current position as gemologist-in-training. Customers will occasionally ask what the “AJP” after my name means, usually followed immediately with “oh, does that mean you’re a gemologist?” Alas, I tell them, I’m in the midst of my studies and training, but haven’t yet achieved the coveted Double-Gs. When friends or family are doing the asking, I go into greater detail about my passion for evolving an industry that is at times stuck in its own past, my interest in learning alongside the great tastemakers of the current age, and my desire to make positive contributions to the industry as a whole.

Phew. That’s a whole lot of lofty goal-setting to combine with a GG and a current full-time job. But as I inch my way there, I keep the thought of earning my chair — and keeping it warm! — forefront in my mind.

Follow Up: Good. vs. Goods, The Other Guy’s Perspective

Well, this is convenient. Hard on the heels of my recent editorial on the current state of marketing in the jewelry industry, a features writer over at Racked (a fashion/lifestyle headline-style site) took on the issue from Signet Jewelers’ perspective — you know, the largest monopoly conglomerate covering such household names as Kay, Zales, and Jared.

The article is worth a read, especially if such figures as “$5.7 billion in annual sales” and “3600 stores” pique your interest. But free advertising and product placement aside, what does Signet try to say about their products and their massive share of the industry? They’re all about the (straight, middle class) man.

Women react to their marketing — all 10+ channels of it — with opinions ranging from “cheesy” and “gimmicky” all the way to feeling downright offended by the way the ads portray women and their relationships with men. The fairytale gifting scenarios and mass-appeal life event celebrations ring hollow for most, as is clearly removes any sense of responsibility on the part of the gifter to make an effort and understand a woman’s unique style. The emphasis is all on a come-hither ease of use, rather than any real meaning, romance, or sentiment.

The idea is to make the experience so comfortable, so ridiculously easy for the (straight, middle class) male shopper that he loses all ability to reason and simply buys what he sees the girl on the TV screen loving and crying about, with no consideration for his (ahem, or her) giftee’s desires and needs.

And this is how those poorly-chosen gifts end up here with us. They need broken delicate chains replaced with something sturdier to stand up to a tugging toddler. A watch strap that actually fits him. Three diamonds replaced in the micropave shank because she’s a hairdresser and they keep falling out. A setting lowered or swapped because the latex gloves she wears to the hospital every day are getting shredded by the prongs.

I appreciate the need for mass-market appeal, as I mentioned in my earlier post, because I believe it helps romance the whole idea of jewelry and not just that particular piece from that particular store. But this… is not what I mean. Offending an entire gender with patronization and general lack of nuance is not helpful. Convincing men to enter a store at holiday time and stand in line, zombie-like, to receive this year’s version of last year’s hit, is not the kind of experience this industry stands for.

My soapbox is starting to bend under the weight of my heavy disdain for these tactics, so I’ll leave you with this thought (from the article) for now: “Every time I see [one of their ads] on TV, I want to throw something at the screen… [t]hey are infuriating because they are an insult to my intelligence and emotions! I am not that easy to buy and gift-giving just isn’t that magical.”

[Editorial] Dear Advertisers, Sell the “Good” Not the Goods

Thank you, marketing geniuses and PR gurus. Thank you for your creative, imaginative, catchy, pithy, poignant, colorful, and popular efforts in finding a way to sell stuff to people. You are the driving force behind the way business operates today, and the sidecar companion to consumer trends. I can’t over-state how much I appreciate the difficult tasks you’re given, and how beautifully — and often, brilliantly —  you carry them out.

However.

In receiving the credit, you are doomed to hold equal share of the blame. Consumer behavior is your wheelhouse, and it’s on your head I squarely place the blame.

In your infinite branding wisdom, you have decided which names mean quality, and which do not. You place one style above another, often at the direction of said brand, without looking at the bigger picture. You push and push for something a client asked for, without ever considering what, exactly, you’re pushing on the unsuspecting consumer.

We, the retailers, are left to deal with your mess. We spend as much time in the day correcting misconceptions and re-educating the buyers as we do actually selling our own product. We have to explain, and present, and demonstrate, and explain again why a sterling silver chain from Big Name Company is totally undifferentiated from the one I have in stock. And why a name on the box means status to you and very little to me. Why our pearls are, in fact, nicer than the ones from the guy’s name you can’t pronounce, and why that is.

Untangling your mess has become a part of my daily routine. While I consider an educated buyer a better buyer, the learning curve can be steep — and that’s only with the willing ones, those who want to get to know their purchases. The rest leave me stuck between an honesty rock and moral hard place, where I won’t bad-mouth another store but refuse to perpetuate one of their many myths, truth-stretches, or occasional outright lies. Consumers’ heads are spinning, and the consequences are lower confidence and fewer purchases.

I think it’s time for advertisers to reverse course and focus on selling what I call, simply, the good. Sell beauty, romance, hopes & dreams, a lifestyle, a destination. Sell my customers on individuality, unique style, stunning color, attainable quality, and above all, sell them value. In doing so, your rising tide will lift all boats, allowing the entire industry to reclaim its previous place as worthy of trust and esteem. The fashion world is leading the way for individualism, constantly making room for personal expression and edging away from the concept of “out vs. in” culture. Jewelry is a branch of the fashion tree — a strong one, at that — and should be following suit.

We can’t afford to encourage the widening of the luxury/disposable gap, and that’s what your offhandedly thoughtless, us-versus-them advertising copy gets us. Allow consumers to embrace an idea, not just ideology, and they will return the courtesy by trading hard-earned dollars for dream fulfillment. A diamond was once forever, and should be again.

It’s time for an update, marketing mavens. Jewelry at all levels should sell because it is desired and loved, a symbol once more of occasions, commitments, successes, and my personal favorite… just because.

A Little Reminder

One of my primary roles here at work is to manage the inventory: accurate entry, tags, pricing, photographs, re-orders, show orders, invoice processing, etc. It’s a job that can be tedious from time to time (ahem, the Popular Bead Bracelet Brand era) but is usually rather interesting because it appeals to my inquisitive, detail-oriented brain and allows me to get my hands on every single piece of merchandise in the store as it arrives.

I also attempt what I call a self-inventory every so often, taking stock of my life and its various components and running down a list of places to improve, discard, or enhance. Recently my mind has been occupied with family, health, summer plans (golf lessons, new hiking boots), and of course my gemological studies. I tend to continue mulling over my educational material long after I’ve put it away for the day, which causes a disproportionate mental emphasis on the very technical details I’m currently learning. I end up totally engulfed in the bloodless and unromantic side of this industry, focusing all of my energy on numbers and figures and diagrams.

That’s great for test-taking and fundamental progress, but is ultimately useless in my day-to-day job until I work to distill it down into something I can use on the sales floor. I’ve been feeling waterlogged with minutiae, unable to climb onto solid ground from the watery bog of information overload.

So it was with genuine pleasure that I found myself on the business end of a diamond engagement ring sale just this week — and not a moment too soon.

The gentleman was polite and earnest; his female “helper” lived up to her job and was supportive but not pushy. We discussed settings & styles, diamond sizes & qualities, and priced out a few options. A brief lunch break on the sunny restaurant decks (them, not me) later, and a ring was born. Hooray!

This was not a “big” sale, or a tough one, or a thank-goodness-that’s-over interaction. The clean simplicity of selling a meaningful object to a happy and eager buyer was exactly the refreshing reminder I needed when terra firma seemed very far away. Clearly I required this experience in order to remember what we really do, what the purpose is behind all the numbers and calculations:

Joy. Happiness. Excitement. Love. Hope.

That’s our real business, our own small contribution to the betterment of the world. I am a facilitator, nothing more, as I gently nudge people toward an object that stands to represent all the best emotions we could ever want. And amidst the structure of carbon atoms and lengthy history of mining, I needed a little reminder about why I do it at all.

Is “Favorited” Really a Word?!

Success (n.): the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.

I know I’m not alone in feeling that sometimes success feels more daunting than failure. Failure is so often an end point, but success must lead to further and greater success in order for it to really count. This translates to more work, greater effort, and in the best of cases, potentially higher reward.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I feel like I’ve learned a thing or three from my recent adventures in industry-land. Putting new skills into practice has always been a main tenet of teaching — learn long division, eat it for dinner every night for a week —  and developing my voice and professional relationships will always need doing.

In a concession to my apprentice status, I began speaking up on a small scale, using my least-favorite communication tool to force me to stretch a little: Twitter. A few interactions (tweets? tweet exchanges? does one even “exchange tweets”?) later,  I received some easy and excellent answers to my question from two highly successful known quantities in the industry. I solemnly swear to write posts based on their suggestions, but both deserve some extensive time and thought to pull together.

Anyway, each person’s response was gracious, unique, and thoughtful, which I’ll admit felt somewhat intimidating:
They saw my tweet! They read it, oh god, did I make a typo? No, okay. Someone favorited my tweet! Is that even a word? Why is that a verb now? What the heck is a re-tweet, and what does it mean? What do I say now? Emoticons are unprofessional. Do not use. Wait, did they use one? Does that mean I should, too? I haven’t answered yet. Has it been too long? Do they hate me now?

Ahem.

This brief venture into the unknown caused the old worrier in me to surface, but only briefly. A silly thing, perhaps, to create such mental buzz about a relatively insignificant step, but progress is progress. Finding my voice and raising it to seek out answers to questions, advice and insight, or venture a comment or two is a brick laid in the foundation, and it’s obviously up to me to pursue the personal growth I need to reach my goals.

If I’m going to log this little foray as I success, I have no choice but to follow it up with more — and better — attempts. I’m open to suggestions from reader-experts: how do I build on this experience?

P.S. The former English teacher in me cringes at all this “nouning” and “verbing,” but I think I got the “favorited” thing correct. Right? Right??

Vegas Virgin No More!

What do you do when you realize all your dreams have come true?

Pay back old sleep debts!“**

…Well, that’s the response you’d get from me, anyway. I’m back home and back to work after a fabulous, grueling, exhausting, productive, fascinating, and altogether too short trip to Jewelry Week in Las Vegas. Many who know me are aware that attending this show has been a dream — a serious goal — for some time, and it’s easy to say that the entire trip did not disappoint.

I briefly considered writing some kind of day-by-day recap post, detailing the hours spent in supplier meetings, lunch offerings by category, and what time we went to bed each night. While I’m sure that would make for some riveting entertainment, I’ve decided to withhold that kind of information to maintain the mystery. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises for any future show-goers out there.

Instead, I can offer my impressions of an industry that is so vast, it spans multiple convention spaces in multiple hotels across a week of 10+ -hour days (this would be where the “exhausting” part comes in). It’s far more than glittering jewels, dazzling trays of diamonds, and ropes of precious pearls. It’s an international community, a unifying purpose, a parade of fashion from ultra-conservative to runway couture, a lifestyle and modus operandi that creates its own rhythm for everyone to move and dance to.

Many things surprised me: the variation in personality types from one rep to the next; differences in approach and business model that are totally opposite but equally effective; the integration of modern technology into an ancient craft. I received an almost daily shock each time I checked my watch, thinking it some sometime before noon, then realizing it was rather closer to 6pm. Also, it turns out that walking all day in heels is something I can do, but probably not something I should do (my feet haven’t looked so mangled since my time as a ballet dancer).

In essence, this show reinforced the idea that business and beauty are not mutually exclusive. We accomplished so much for the store in looking at both the short and longer-term goals, but did so in a way that felt refreshingly true to the highest standards of ethics, quality, and service. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to stand amidst the madness and quietly learn at the elbows of industry professionals, and in that regard it’s a privilege to be counted as a member of such a dynamic group.

In the process of making my way from one end of the show to the other and back again more times than I can count, I discovered that it takes a very particular brand of dedication to really achieve success here. In fact, I’ll throw in the good old p-word: passion. Yawningly overused it may be, but the word is apropos for the type of energy I felt. Frankly, I’m not sure how anyone could sustain the kind of hyper-fast pace and intensive focus that is required to just make it through the day, let alone a lifetime of business, without feeling a true emotional connection to the work.

**Bonus points for Name That Film. No cheating!