Throughout the month of October, Retail Details will profile retailers who excel in selling pearls. What better place to start this month-long blogging project than the Pearl Gallery in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where store owner Chris Brehaut sells only pearl jewelry.
Brehaut didn’t create the business model, but she certainly bought into it—literally. In 1982, Brehaut began working at an existing store specializing in pearls. Three years later, the owner wanted to sell the business to dedicate her time to raising a family. In 1985, Brehaut purchased the business and decided to put her own spin on the pearls-only jewelry store.
Chris Brehaut, owner of the Pearl Gallery, and her son Dylan
The idea on how to best reinvent the store came to Brehaut in 1989, when she made her first buying trip to the AGTA GemFair in Tucson, Ariz. One of the initial challenges Brehaut faced when considering her position in her local market was distinguishing her store not just from other retail jewelry stores but the many tourist shops that also sold pearl jewelry, namely inexpensive pearl jewelry made in Hong Kong.
“Back then, I knew the key was to differentiate myself from the competition was to provide better quality pearl jewelry while offering designs locals and tourists could not find anywhere else,” says Brehaut. “And I needed to develop a niche in my market.”
After immersing herself in gemological books and reference materials, Brehaut purchased colored stones she thought would best complement the colors pearl varieties display based on the natural gemstone’s inherent iridescent qualities.
Early favorites for Brehaut included tourmalines, garnets, and later moonstones. “Tourmaline as a gemstone species has so many color varieties from pink and red to blue, green and blue-green,” says Brehaut. “Garnet varieties and moonstones of all colors to this day also remain some of my favorite gemstones to work with in creating my pearl jewelry designs.”
The buying trip resulted in dramatic changes in her business model. Instead of relying on outside vendors to fill her store’s displays, the self-taught designer created her own jewelry. Today 90 percent of the fine pearl jewelry sold is Brehaut’s own designs. (The other 10 percent of pearl jewelry sold in her store is the entry-level price-point jewelry that isn’t cost-efficient for Brehaut to produce.)
While Brehaut was building up the in-house design portion of her business, she started to invest in as many pearl varieties she could find, making her store the destination for all things pearls. These buying trips brought rare and unusual pearls back to her store, including pearls of notable size. That’s when sourcing large, fine pearls of 15 mm–17 mm on up became Brehaut’s niche in her then emerging business model. One of her favorite sources for large South Seas pearls is Northern Australia, home of Paspaley Pearls.
Chris Brehaut repurposes oyster shells for visual merchandising elements
“Combining large sizes of fine single pearls with rare and unusual pearls has defined my business for many years,” says Brehaut. “You won’t find this many pearl varieties or large-sized pearls in one store anywhere: not on the islands or the mainland,” says Brehaut. “I’m so specialized in pearls even other jewelry stores refer customers to my store.”
After more than 25 years in honing her store’s specialties, Brehaut has benefited from many referrals and repeat business, both locals and tourists. Many of her customers come year after year to make the annual pilgrimage to the Hawaiian island that includes a trip to the Pearl Gallery for some pearl jewelry.
“We also get a lot of referral business from people who recommend us to their friends who come to visit Kailua-Kona,” says Brehaut.
The success of her business model isn’t just about product. With every pearl necklace Brehaut includes a life-time restringing guarantee. “If the necklace breaks or needs to be restrung, I’ll do it for free,” says Brehaut.
Shiploads of tourists quickly fill the 300-square-foot store
Although her 300-square-foot store is small, Brehaut packs as many pearls into her cases as possible. During buying trips, Brehaut has also purchased the shells of the oyster species that produce the depth and breadth of the pearl varieties and colors sold in her store. Putting drill holes in these shells to display earrings, or draping necklaces over oyster shells is part of the sea life and nautical visual merchandising theme of her store.
Next week Retail Details will speak with Don Janson, a Boulder, Colo.–based store owner who specializes in multicolored pearl necklaces.
JCK would like to thank the Cultured Pearl Association of America for its assistance with this month-long blog series on retailers and pearls.