Joel and Jennifer McFadden’s chic design studio in Red Bank, N.J., reflects the character they always envisioned for their work environment. The atmosphere is relaxed yet filled with visual excitement, especially in the custom jewelry pieces displayed in the cases, on the walls, and on a monitor in the salon window.
The path that led to this successful enterprise began in Charleston, S.C., where Joel McFadden helped in his grandfather’s store from the age of 12, first running errands and then practicing bench work. By the time he was 18, he had apprenticed with his grandfather’s business associates—stone setters, fabricators, casters, and other specialty jewelers—and had set his first diamond.
His enjoyment of bench work and eagerness to learn more took him to Tennessee as a stone setter and then to Alabama, where he did general bench work and got his first opportunity to design jewelry. He moved back to South Carolina and continued honing his bench skills with general repairs and setting, but he longed for the creative challenges of design. After a move to Massachusetts, he applied his organizational and management skills in running a repair shop, but when an opportunity came to break away and go on his own, Joel seized it.
Jennifer was instrumental in setting the new business on track, handling the administrative work on a part-time basis while attending law school. When a jeweler friend in New Hampshire suggested they join the group at Scull & Co., it was Jennifer who attended sessions wherein recommendations were made that redirected their business.
In 2003 the McFaddens moved to a bigger location (4,000 square feet), which included a street-level showroom, four bench jewelers, a private office, and Joel’s dream shop. Shortly after, they received some sobering business advice: To be the most successful in their operation, they needed to become more like their competitor down the street.
The McFaddens took a long look at their business and realized they had strayed from their dream. With a growing family and the responsibility of caring for loved ones also weighing on their minds, it was clear a change was in order. That same year Joel was introduced to Gemvision’s Matrix jewelry CAD program at the Massachusetts–Rhode Island Jewelers Association conference.
They made an appointment to see Joe Romano, the owner of Scull & Co., to further determine how they could optimize their store in Greenfield, Mass., but on the way to his office, they decided to close that store, focus on custom-designed jewelry, and relocate. They spent nearly a year evaluating and selecting a community and another six months choosing the location—in the affluent downtown area of Red Bank, N.J.
It was a year and a half well spent. Now Joel has the time and freedom to do all the custom designs, and he shares the jewelry bench work with an apprentice. Jennifer works full-time in the inviting storefront for which she directed the design. She handles the administrative, financial, and managerial responsibilities of the salon as well as customer relations.
“The real trick to success is to focus on being a custom store and not to dilute your message,” says Joel. “We advertise in local magazines with color ads showing our work. We have lots of photos on the wall showing the most recent creations on our Wall of Fame. We have a great window with a slide show running. Foot traffic by our store is huge. Word of mouth is a driving force too.”
Referrals account for a large percentage of new business. “Once they find that there is a store that specializes in [custom design], they get very excited and tell everyone,” says Joel. “Pride of ownership is important to our customers. They are confident in our abilities and also know that we won’t duplicate their piece, so they feel more comfortable telling their friends.”
The custom design process begins with Jennifer, who greets customers and discusses their style and design preferences. Then she shows selected photos from a library of previously designed pieces that reflect the client’s requests. She determines the particulars and defines the parameters for Joel’s designs.
After a review with Jennifer, Joel transforms the information into a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. He creates 80 percent of his designs on Matrix software, and, at 25 hours per week, he’s considered a power user. He has also won and placed in several jewelry-design competitions with Matrix-designed rings.
Although Joel estimates it took him a year to become truly proficient with Matrix, he calls the computer-aided-design process “smooth and seamless” compared with traditional designing. “Hand fabricating jewelry is very time consuming, and the work doesn’t always come out the way you hoped or the way the customer envisioned it,” he says. “Hand carving wax is a time-consuming and risky venture.”
He says the major benefit of designing with CAD is the ability to show a customer what her jewelry will look like before he builds the piece, ensuring what he calls “a meeting of the minds” between him and the customer. “Flash videos allow me to show the piece from all angles, so there’s nothing missed,” he adds.
Once he prepares a presentation demo, Joel can make any changes right in front of the client, who usually gives approval on the spot. He can also accommodate clients by sending designs and communicating via e-mail. Once a sale is made, Jennifer wraps up the details, receives a deposit, and schedules the delivery date with the client.
On average, custom pieces take two weeks from the date of approval, though they have delivered finished work in as little as seven days. When the McFaddens unveil a custom design, they try to make it a special occasion. “If it’s an engagement ring, we deliver champagne with the piece,” says Joel.
Customers are asked to sign a photograph of their piece for the Wall of Fame, a gallery of autographed images of McFadden designs displayed in the showroom. The Wall has received a lot of attention and is a conversation piece for passersby.
“There is a huge difference between our old business and our new one,” Joel says. “We are now a service company, and we sell primarily our skills and expertise. Our old business was about turning inventory and working with smaller margins. Our custom store is about being creative, scheduling our work, and focusing our attention on delivering the unique and personal jewelry our customers want.”