Talent Scouts

How Savvy Retailers Discover Designers Who Share Their Aesthetic Sensibilities

Handmade in Minnesota

According to Ellen Hertz, jewelry designers with big talent lurk in small places. To keep cases stocked at Max’s in St. Louis Park, Minn., a 5-year-old store with a niche in handmade goods, Hertz routinely shops the Philadelphia Buyer’s Market of American Craft and globalDESIGN. These annual shows are rich in handcrafted designs, helping her stock a minimum of 40 lines, including Natasha Wozniak, Todd Reed, and more. “I don’t want anything that’s mass-produced,” she explains. Merchandise needn’t be made in the United States—she recently picked up Julieli, an Israeli-made line—but Hertz has one sticking point: It must not “be made in a sweatshop.” She advises retailers in search of fresh new talent to look for prolific designers who produce multiple variations of looks, to value consistency (such as American-made) across all purchases, to shop with specific customers in mind, and to trust their gut: “While you can’t sell only what you like, you have to like everything that you sell.”

Shop Till You Drop

Moonstone Curl Ring in blackened silver, and 22k gold with a rose-cut moonstone; $340; Natasha Wozniak, Brooklyn, N.Y.; 646-339-6955; natashajewelry.com

“If you don’t like to shop, you should never own a retail store,” says Sandy Francis. She stocks her 35-year-old Bright and Shiny Things—tucked away in the western Colorado skiing destination Snowmass Village, Colo.—with sterling silver pieces like inlaid knives and authentic American Indian designs from the Tucson shows and the Denver Merchandise Mart; they’re big hits with Russian tourists (“they’ve never seen them,” she says). Meanwhile, the locals gravitate toward styles from Zina Sterling Silver, her best-selling line. “We have collectors looking for the newest work,” Francis says. And while she mainly carries lines that invest in marketing, she isn’t afraid of making a dollar commitment of her own. “I can’t tell a story without at least a $2,000 investment,” she explains. To get what she calls her “magic mix” of merchandise—ranging in price from $20 to more than $4,000, Francis is organized, takes good show notes, makes sound decisions (“I don’t buy anything that I don’t think will fly out the door!”), and rarely looks at price tags. “Budget is the least important consideration when shopping for your store,” she says.

Ladies Plan

Graham NE
Jacaranda open pod pendant in oxidized cobalt, chrome, and
18k yellow gold with 0.42 ct. t.w. black, white, and cognac diamonds; $3,295; Sarah Graham, La Quinta, Calif.; 800-670-0917; sarahgraham.com

When Robin Austin, the owner of 23-year-old Austin & Elkins in Alexandria, Va., wants to strengthen her store’s selection, she looks to other women—in particular, fashionable women who seem like the kind of customer she wants to attract. Austin finds trade fairs a particularly fruitful breeding ground. “If I see an elegant, stately woman representing a line at a trade show, it makes a good first impression—and I often stop to see the line,” she says. She’s landed numerous designers, including Breski and Dana*David, this way. Quality, value, and interesting designs—such as mesh styles from Adami & Martucci—are paramount, as well as exclusivity. “I prefer that designers not be represented within a 25-mile radius,” she says. Austin recommends retailers become better at listening to shopper requests, and pay close attention to what their customers are wearing. Last but not least, she urges buyers to wear comfortable shoes: “Nothing is more effective than a long walk up and down the trade show aisles.”

Road Tripper

Hinged Caviar beaded bracelet in silver; $995; Lagos, Philadelphia; 877-588-2401; lagos.com Deborah LaBonte’s job is never done. For the past 18 years, the owner of Positive Images Art & Unique Gifts in Austin, Texas, has not only taken her work home with her—she’s also brought it on vacation. In Santa Fe, N.M., she found Michael Jensen Designs, a maker of sterling and 22k gold jewelry, and in New York, she discovered ila & i. LaBonte is always on the hunt for designers of jewelry and gifts that will appeal to her customers. “My daughter is always saying, ‘Mom, we’re on vacation!’” she laughs. Regardless of where she makes her discoveries—in a shop along the coast of Oregon or in downtown Chicago—all designers must appeal to her sensibility: “It has to be something I would wear,” LaBonte explains. “I also never buy things that I say, ‘I don’t like that, but someone else might.’” Among the 65 lines she carries (and displays) in store are Barbara Heinrich and Petra Class, as well as Todd Reed—all of which she discovered at trade shows. However, another trick of LaBonte’s is to shop the occasional retail show: “I met Sarah Graham at the Smithsonian Craft Show many years ago, and her rings have continued to sell very well for us.”

Wait-and-See Policy 

Sahara Collection reversible Geometrix necklace; $525; Zina, Beverly Hills, Calif.; 800-336-3822; zinasterling.com

When considering a new designer for Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry and Watches, Susan Eisen takes her time—up to three years, in fact. “I study lines,” explains the El Paso, Texas, store owner. “I want to make sure the fit is right, so I watch a person’s progress, how their work changes.” All 16 lines in her store are neither too modern nor too traditional. Another caveat: They must be run by pleasant personalities—like Philadelphia-based Lagos, with whom she’s worked since 1992. (Firms she avoids: those that abruptly cancel show appointments, don’t honor exclu­sivity agreements, or have attitudes of superiority.) To find new talent, Eisen shops Centurion, the AGTA GemFair, the emerging-talent sections of shows, and, ahem, the pages of trade magazines.

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