After the Storm

Throughout New Orleans, hopeful signs fill the shop windows: “Proud to Be Here!” “Open for Business!” and the ubiquitous “Help Wanted.” But they alternate with “For Sale” and “For Lease” and boarded-up storefronts. Locals shop when they can, but the tourist district is eerily quiet compared with a year ago.

For most jewelry stores here, news of an approaching hurricane last August was a blip on the radar. Hurricanes are a routine annoyance that time of year, and the word around town was that New Orleans was going to miss the worst of it.

On Saturday, Aug. 28, when the evacuation was announced, Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather, vice president of sales and marketing for Mignon Faget, was at Faget’s home, going over last-minute details before a business trip. … Richard Lee Mathis, owner of Symmetry, checked his family into the downtown Hilton, known as the sturdiest hotel in the city. The mayor and police force were headquartered there. … Katy Beh, owner of the Katy Beh Gallery, was driving home from a vacation with her family and barely made it before “contraflow,” when entry into the city was blocked and all traffic was directed out. Like everyone else, she had 24 hours to board up home and store, grab essential files, and pack for the usual two-day evacuation.

It never occurred to anyone that the levies would break, leaving them stranded for months, struggling to do business from remote locations, their employees scattered around the country and their stores unattended—in some cases, flooded, looted, or burned to the ground.

Katrina taught jewelers lessons about survival and commitment, dramatically altered their customer base, and forced them to rethink their businesses. A few familiar stores did not survive, including Bedazzle, a French Quarter fixture since 1977. Others are finding salvation in two things: the Internet and the fleur-de-lis.

Symmetry

Richard Lee Mathis believes checking into a downtown hotel the night Katrina hit was his first mistake. “You could feel the building swaying in the wind,” he says. When the water began rising the next day, he drove uptown to check his Riverbend jewelry store, Symmetry, before evacuating. He found the iron doors pried open and display cases shattered.

“Looters came the minute the winds stopped blowing,” he says. Ninety percent of the jewelry had been packed up but some sterling remained. “That was enough to cause them to smash seven cases.”

Spotting four looters breaking into a neighbor’s place, he made his second mistake. He grabbed his gun and went after them. “We put so much time and love into this business for so many years,” he says. “My temper got the better of me.”

The looters took off but Mathis immediately regretted the impulse. “That was really stupid,” Mathis says now. “They could have been armed.” He packed his computer, relocked the gate, and evacuated to Missouri. A local TV newscaster heard of the drama and ran an interview with Mathis and images of the looted store. He put a Web video of the program on symmetryjewelers.com and spent the next two months doing business via Web site and e-mail.

By the time he returned in November, his brother was overseeing a major renovation. Because of the damage, business- interruption insurance kicked in and they were able to cover payroll for 11 employees during the closing—a lifesaver for the eight who lost their homes.

Symmetry reopened Dec. 3 with 30 percent more space, five times more storage, improved working conditions, and a new consultation office. “We could never do this before, because we couldn’t afford to close for three months,” Mathis says. He had his best Christmas season ever and the best January and February in five years—despite the disabled St. Charles streetcar that brings downtown visitors to Riverbend.

Fleur-de-lis designs are selling out and engagement and wedding ring sales are booming: “It’s like the phenomenon of post 9/11,” Mathis says. “People are realizing how fragile life is and making commitments they were putting off.”

Mignon Faget

For local legend Mignon Faget, the fleur-de-lis has been a lifeline. More than any other local jeweler, Faget built her business (mignonfaget.com) around such regional symbols. Her sterling and 14k jewelry appeals to local collectors as well as tourists. These days, Faget’s icons are selling faster than rhinestone flags after 9/11.

When the storm hit, Faget was fully stocked in preparation for her biggest sale of the year in September and had just bought all the metal for the holiday season. “We were terrified. We were cash poor and fully inventoried but couldn’t reach the merchandise,” says Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather, vice president of sales and marketing. “We were looking at losing the whole company.”

Faget’s store in Lakeside Mall had severe roof damage, and her Canal Street gallery was looted and damaged by rain and fire. Looters took $20,000 worth of merchandise and cash, including a courier bag ready to be shipped. “We didn’t know whose jewelry was in it because it had already been rung up,” says Bairnsfather. “That was the most upsetting loss.”

Her own house under seven feet of water, Bairnsfather returned to the city in early September, set up shop with seven others in a stuffy office at the deserted Lakeside Mall, and began shipping mail and wholesale orders in 103-degree heat. What had been 20 percent of their business became 100 percent.

Before the main store on Magazine Street reopened Oct. 12, some warned that no one would be buying jewelry. But the store was mobbed. A gold fleur-de-lis line advertised in the local newspaper sold out in a day. By the third, they were doing $8,000 in sales. Staff and customers hugged and wept. Police officers bought jewelry for wives they hadn’t seen in a month. Women brought in bags of jewelry tarnished from sitting underwater for weeks. “One man leaving town bought his wife some fleur-de-lis jewelry so she could have a piece of New Orleans on the first night in their new home,” Bairnsfather says.

Originally scheduled to open last November, a new store in Baton Rouge will be completed in April. Meanwhile, the staff dragged some old cases out of storage and set up shop there. For the Feb. 10 reopening of the Canal Street store, Faget came out with the Fleur de Lis Rebirth Pin, a “badge of courage,” donating proceeds to Louisiana Rebirth. Another new line of hearts etched with the Mardi Gras slogan, “If ever I cease to love,” sold out before Valentine’s Day—1,200 pieces in two weeks.

“Missing the September sale meant a million-dollar loss but fleur-de-lis sales made up for it,” Bairnsfather says. “We have 85 percent of our staff now. We’re bringing them back, one fleur-de-lis at a time.”

Katy Beh Gallery

A couple blocks away, Katy Beh has moved to the opposite side of Magazine Street, into a new store, twice the size. “The space became available after the storm and we jumped on it,” she says. A former New Yorker who represents many fellow Rhode Island School of Design grads, Beh’s gallery looks like it belongs in SoHo and her customers are mainly out-of-towners.

While evacuated, she relied on the Internet to keep in touch with neighbors and employees. Via e-mails and blogs, she was able to track the status of friends and neighbors and learned that her home and store were intact. Three weeks post Katrina, she and her husband returned to the city and “looted the store ourselves”—taking jewelry, computers, and files and setting up a makeshift office in their Jackson, Miss., rental. “I had orders to fulfill,” she says.

Business was down 20 percent at the close of 2005 but December sales matched the previous year. “We’re back on track,” Beh says. She launched a redesigned Web site (katybeh.com) in March in an effort to ramp up e-commerce: “I have to make up for the loss of tourism somehow, and the population here is cut in half.”

Despite that, more business is coming from locals. “It’s all about team New Orleans now—supporting neighborhood businesses,” she says. “The conventions aren’t here yet. It will take a while for hotel rooms and flights to reopen. I do believe in the future of tourism, but there is no way to gauge that.”

“It’s like my store has been picked up and dropped in a totally different city,” Beh muses. “New Orleans was always about enjoying life, and the truth now is, it’s really hard to live here. New Orleans is not for sissies any more. Everything is harder to do. You’re constantly looking at this damage.”

What accounts for the healthy jewelry sales? “Everyone is buying for themselves, saying ‘life’s too short.’ People are indulging in what makes them feel good.”

Thomas Mann Gallery

At the end of Magazine Street, beyond the pedestrian bustle, Thomas Mann sells his jewelry and metal sculpture in a contemporary art gallery. Like Beh, Mann is feeling the drop in out-of-town visitors. For those who know Mann as a pioneer of art jewelry, particularly mixed-metal and found-object collage, his gallery is a destination.

Unharmed, the store reopened with a limited staff on Oct. 22. Along with 40 other retailers, including Beh and Faget, Mann took out a full-page ad in the Times-Picayune on Nov. 6, announcing that Magazine Street was open for business. Locals came in droves, starved for somewhere to go, and ready for serious retail therapy.

A dozen employees returned after Katrina but Mann had to replace three metalsmiths. Business was down about 12 percent, the result of seven weeks of lost retail and wholesale production, but Internet sales doubled after marketing director Helen Redman began pushing e-commerce after the evacuation.

“We were planning to make format changes on our Web site [thomasmann.com] before Katrina but, based on the response, we’re picking up the pace,” says Redman. How much can the Web compensate for lost foot traffic? “It’s certainly helping. Losing momentum going into our strongest season—that really hurt us. The wholesale business is what we do best.”

While Redman focused on e-commerce, Mann did what he does best: making art out of chaos. In the weeks after the storm, he collected found objects and took photos along the Gulf Coast, which he turned into wall-mounted collages, designed around pieces of jewelry. The resulting exhibition, “Thomas Mann: Storm Cycle, An Artist Responds to Hurricane Katrina,” opened at the Bellevue Museum in Washington and will tour the United States, landing in New Orleans for the first anniversary of Katrina.

Meanwhile, Mann has resurrected a sterling-and-bronze fleur-de-lis from his archives to “tremendous response” and turned his water-meter magnets, inspired by the city’s quirky sewer covers, into a line of jewelry. “We can’t keep those in stock,” Redman says. “The city’s water facility plant is a very hot item here.”

Mann and four other galleries staged a “fine art with fine wine” event in February, with a local vintner matching wines to exhibitions. “People poured in from the minute it opened,” Redman says. “It showed us again what we can do if we all pull together—and that our locals are here to support us.” More cooperative events are being planned.

“We’ve been here 18 years and we are determined to stay,” Redman says. “We’ll find different ways to make that happen until the city bounces back.”

Adler’s

Adler’s Lakeside Mall store reopened in late October with a touch of wry humor in the window displays: diamond-draped MREs (meals ready to eat), those foil-wrapped meals FEMA was distributing by the truckload. It was common knowledge among New Orleanians by then that Adler’s—their version of Tiffany—had suffered a devastating blow.

The flagship store on Canal Street was looted, vandalized, and flooded, and their store in Oakwood Shopping Center was destroyed by fire. “We call it ‘Smokewood’ now,” jokes Tiffany Adler. The Lakeside store and a French Quarter antique store, Waldhorn & Adler, had minimal water damage.

The flagship store reopened Dec. 19, but is suffering from the drop in pedestrian traffic in the tourist district and is running a five-day schedule with reduced hours.

Maria Cotrell, co-owner of the now-defunct Bedazzle, says 50 percent to 70 percent of the business in the French Quarter was based on tourism. Many small businesses folded because they couldn’t wait for vacationers to return. Adler’s is more concerned with the diminished local population.

Before Katrina, Adler’s had 120 employees; now they have 67. “We’re also down one store,” Adler adds. “A third of our staff can’t come back because they don’t have places to live. It’s forcing us to reassess our operation, reassign job descriptions and duties.”

Many remaining employees lost their homes and possessions. “But they come to work every day,” Adler says. “We’re doing what we can to aid them financially, find them housing and transportation. We have to be as patient as we can, because we’re dealing with a lot of loss.”

Insurance has helped, Adler says, but the company is still trying to track missing inventory. “Not a tremendous amount was there to be looted,” Adler says. “We’re trying to decipher what was sold, looted, lost during the storm or in sales transactions when our computers were down for so long.”

The Internet proved crucial during the evacuation and the company has been putting more focus on their Web site (adlersjewerly.com) ever since. “We didn’t have cell phone or interstore e-mail access—no communication and 120 people scattered we didn’t know where,” Adler says. “Through our Web site we were able to start a dialogue and find our employees.”

Management is now collecting detailed employee contact information, instituting an exhaustive evacuation plan, and moving computer backup out-of-state. “Our server was down for three months,” Adler says. “When vandals were burning buildings down, we realized we would be completely lost without our physical plant. Everything was here—our insurance policies, our bank records—and we couldn’t get to it.”

Fortunately, jewelry is selling. “I’ve heard of a lot of engagements, a lot of babies, and a lot of divorces. People are dealing with post- traumatic stress disorder in different ways,” Adler says. “Jewelry is an impulse buy. It’s a quick fix, it makes you feel good, and it’s portable—you can evacuate with it the next time!”