Walking into Eve J. Alfillé Bijoux D’Art is an unforgettable experience. The Evanston, Ill., gallery is a work of art and creative merchandising.
Eve Alfillé designed the gallery and all the jewelry in it. The gallery’s feminine colors, living-room furniture and drapings of tulle and velvet are faintly reminiscent of a Victoria’s Secret store. So is the classical music in the background. But there the resemblance ends, because the gilt and velvet work in tandem with sculptured plaster, broken glass, wood, even chicken wire.
The entire space has a rugged archaeological feel, a dreamlike quality and a sense of energy. Visualize Indiana Jones setting up camp with Oriental rugs and Louis XIV chairs. Then add jewelry and objets d’art created from some truly unusual gems and minerals, and pearls, pearls and more pearls.
If the dreamy quality comes from the decor, the energy comes straight from Alfillé. In addition to designing the gallery and all of its contents, she also trains the goldsmiths and lapidaries who work with her. Talk to her, and it’s easy to see how, in seven years, she and her husband, Maurice, built a thriving business of 15 to 25 employees.
The first word Alfillé uses to describe herself is “prolific.” In fact, the 1,800 sq. ft. showroom (the entire gallery is 4,500 sq. ft.) isn’t big enough to show all the pieces she creates. But she keeps on designing, often well into the night, when she feels most creative.
Alfillé’s eclectic background includes academic degrees in business, historic linguistics and medieval poetry. She worked as an archaeologist and stockbroker, then became a self-taught goldsmith and jewelry designer 20 years ago.
She attributes her ability to express ideas in many different ways to her French heritage and exposure to different cultures (her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 16). Her work as a field archeologist also plays a role in her designs (she worked on the Kernerman dig in Mexico in 1957 and the Jerusalem Wall excavations in 1972, specializing in pottery restoration). Like any archaeologist, Alfillé is passionate about connecting history to the present. “I want to share my vision that although we are here now on the timeline, `now’ includes an accumulation of the past,” she says.
The designs: Alfillé’s jewelry virtually demands you to stop and look closer. Her designs span a wide range, from soft, flowing lines of gold and pearls to bold metal pieces reminiscent of cave art. She works with natural, uncut minerals; she revives antique forms of cutting such as briolettes; she uses the most modern of gemstone carvings. She can work in polished gold and platinum and in rough textured gold – most of which she alloys herself to get exactly the color she wants.
Alfillé has won numerous Chicago-area design awards and in 1990 received a first-place Spectrum Award from the American Gem Trade Association. She also lectures and teaches frequently in the jewelry industry and at Chicago-area colleges and art schools.
If Alfillé is passionate about the importance history plays in design, she is equally passionate about the need for form to have function and for history to meet modernity. And if the French are stereotypically portrayed as being immensely practical and pragmatic, Alfillé is stereotypically French. She is acutely conscious of her customers – about 75% of them are women who buy jewelry for themselves. To meet their demand for added value, Alfillé designs virtually all of her jewelry to be convertible to some degree. The drops in drop earrings can be removed or substituted, for example, and pins double as pendants or pearl enhancers. A brooch often can be separated into smaller brooches, necklaces often are reversible and her pearls and beads are always ready for a creative enhancer or shortener.
Alfillé frequently hides a few small pearls or tiny gems on the inside of a piece. Not only do these hidden treasurers serve as a ballast or weight to keep a pin or pendant hanging straight, they also make the wearer feel special because she’s the only one who knows they’re there.
“If you’re going to buy an expensive piece of jewelry, you’d better be able to wear it a multitude of ways, from casual to office to evening,” says Alfillé, illustrating her point with a brooch that is reversible and can be separated into a pendant and stickpin (also reversible).
Ergonomics are crucial also. She checks to make sure necklaces lie comfortably on the neck and don’t flip when the wearer moves. Earrings have to be comfortable or the wearer will take them off, toss them on the desk and possibly lose them. Daughter Diane Alfillé, who left AT&T to work with her parents two years ago, says she simply attaches her “phone” earring to her lapel. “When I worked in business, I used to see women throw their earrings on the desk all the time. `Wear it!’ I’d say, and show them how.”
Eve Alfillé says she understands women and their needs when it comes to jewelry. “Too many men in the jewelry industry just don’t understand [how to sell to] women,” she says. “They don’t understand that it’s not just a beautiful product you have to sell; it has to look good, it has to feel good, it has to make the woman feel special and it has to make her feel like she’s getting her money’s worth.”
Creative merchandising: Just like Alfillé’s jewelry, her gallery is based on form, function and practicality.
Alfillé designed the gallery itself and most of its fixtures; painter Celeste Sotola created the actual surfaces, based on Alfillé’s vision. The gallery showroom has a main selling floor and several smaller boutiques set apart by creative use of dividers and furniture. For example, a divider made of broken glass and mirror sandwiched between two glass panes sets apart an intentionally small diamond room. It’s designed so an engaged couple are almost forced to cuddle. The fixtures and lighting are sleek; deep blue-gray is the predominant color. “I chose the materials partly for economy,” she says, “but also to create an impression of modernity mixed with an ancient, fairy-tale quality. I don’t like the hard, high-tech glass-and-steel look.”
Tucked neatly behind the divider is the cashier counter. Nearby, Alfillé created a small wedding ring salon by placing a purple velvet and gilt love seat and a matching “mother-in-law” chair (you’d be surprised how many in-laws come, she says) around a small coffee table. The area feels set apart from the general selling floor, but it’s open and airy “so the groom doesn’t feel boxed in. He’s probably still sweating from buying the engagement ring,” Alfillé says with a laugh. Alfillé keeps the rings in an antique printer’s cabinet and simply pulls out trays to show the seated couple.
Her gemstone room – set apart with wood and chicken wire – has the look of a comfortable science library. Big books, sleek lighting and leather chairs share the space with microscopes and antique chests filled with trays of loose stones.
Pearl passion: The other boutique in the showroom – the pearl room – is Alfillé’s pride and joy. A wood and fiberglass archway decorated with shells and sea horses forms the entry to this boutique, with curves that evoke the lapping of ocean waves on the shore. Inside, delicate chairs surround a gilt and glass coffee table; an antique Oriental lacquer chest holds an enormous collection of loose pearls.
Though Alfillé is captivated by jewels in general, pearls are her passion. Half or more of the jewelry she creates is designed around an odd-shaped pearl, designed to be worn with pearls or has pearl accents. She also likes colored pearls, but she admits they aren’t as popular in the U.S. as in other countries “The American ideal of beauty is blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes, well-suited to white or slightly rose pearls,” she says. “But many, many women don’t conform to this ideal and would actually look better in other colors of pearls, like cream or yellow.”
Just as Alfillé is drawn to unusual gems and minerals, she is drawn to unusual pearls. Yet again, passion and practicality meet. Though many of her pearl pieces contain Biwa, South Seas and other costly pearls, she’s just as fond of more affordable baroque pearls.
And she’s eager to share her love of pearls with the public. Four years ago, she founded the Pearl Society, a local pearl appreciation club that meets in her store bimonthly to hear lectures from such pearl experts as Fred Ward of National Geographic magazine and U.S. pearl farmer John Latendresse. Alfillé also is treasurer of the International Pearl Association, a two-year-old organization that sponsors an annual conference of pearl industry members.