Getting Creative

Patina Gallery
Patina Gallery’s location in downtown Santa Fe almost guarantees a steady stream of shoppers.

Contemporary jewelry galleries are going to great lengths to attract new customers and turn them into repeat customers. Great atmosphere, fresh and unusual pieces, championing good causes and good communication all play big parts. So do special events and gallery nights.

We talked to four gallery owners about the market for jewelry, what’s selling, and what advice they might share. The galleries all benefit from their locations: three are in tourist towns, one is in an upscale neighborhood. All four said it’s the carefully chosen selections and personalized service that attract customers. Yet each has chosen to emphasize a different attribute that makes them stand out.

Curatorial Approach

At Patina Gallery in Santa Fe, owners Ivan and Allison Barnett pride themselves on showing “soul-stirring works” in an artistic atmosphere.

“The bottom line in the new world of retail is fine crafts, handmade things,” said Barnett. “People only want to be in a place where they’re getting something very special.”

The Barnetts consider themselves curators who hand-pick a selection of jewelry and present it in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing. Ivan, an artist who grew up in an artistic family, said, “More than anything, the perspective Allison and I bring as seller and maker simultaneously is to really respect the artist. We have the sensitivity to let the artists do what they do best, and it allows us to get the best from them.”

Barnett does two things to make sure that both customers and artists are happy: he always pays his artists on time, and he makes sure there’s always something new in the gallery. “People say they can come in at any time and count on seeing something unexpected.”

Artists whose work is selling well at Patina include Boris Bally, who uses retired road signs to create his pins and brooches, and Claire Kahn, who creates bracelets and necklaces from woven or crocheted beads. An exhibition of collaborative studio jewelry and paintings by Steven Ford and David Forlano, two more gallery favorites, runs March 23 to April 7.

Catering to the Crowd

The resort town of Vero Beach, Fla., home to The Laughing Dog Gallery, has a lot of stores selling high-end jewelry, said co-owner Susie Wilber. “Our perspective is a little bit different. We cater to the baby-boomer crowd.”

For those customers, jewelry is not an investment, it’s a treat. “We try to find things that are different—and we stress American-made.” The gallery also lets the jewelry “speak.”

“Over the years, we’ve worked to foster an environment where people feel comfortable enough to relax and stay awhile,” Wilber said. She credits the gallery’s “greeters”—three bull mastiffs—with helping to establish a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. “People stand around and pet the dogs while we show them jewelry.”

Even if customers don’t buy anything on their first visit, the experience usually results in people returning or recommending the gallery to family and friends. And it’s not unusual to have multiple generations as shoppers or to see the same people year after year, Wilber said. “It’s another reason I have to look for new things.”

Top sellers include Somers, whose pendants are popular, Suzy Landa, who makes rings with square stones, and Dahlia Kanner, who works with unusual metals.

The gallery hosts shows to benefit local partners, such as the humane society and the McKee Botanical Garden. “We try to make sure our events are different from the usual trunk shows,” Wilber said.

Keeping in Touch

Because its customers are not all from Durango, Colo., communication is a major focus at Sorrel Sky Gallery. Located in the Four Corners region of the country where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet, the shop welcomes tourists year-round. With so many people from out of town, said owner Shanan Campbell Wells, “we’re careful about staying in touch with customers.”

That includes making sure gallery e-blasts are full of eye-catching images and useful information—such as what pieces might feature Tangerine Tango, chosen by color authority Pantone as its 2012 color of the year. Sorrel Sky also hosts lectures. Recently, to commemorate Valentine’s Day, Dr. Linda Schott, dean of arts, humanities and social sciences at Fort Lewis College, spoke on “What’s Love Got to Do with Jewelry?”

“She talked about jewelry as adornment and about the symbolism of different stones,” Wells said. “Of course we gave her tons of images of stones.”

The gallery’s top artist is Ben Nighthorse, who creates exquisite statement pieces with Native American motifs. Other major sellers are Toby Pomeroy, who uses recycled materials, and Elizabeth Showers, who focuses on turquoise and who gives a percentage of every sale to an organization that fights eating disorders. Another popular artist is Nelly Cohen, whose Cherie Dori line is “really sparkly.”

Courting Collectors

Communication is also important at Taboo Studio in San Diego, but co-owner Joanna Rhoades said the gallery takes a different approach.

“We focus on individual artists,” she said, “and try to introduce new designers and unusual jewelry” all the time. Rhoades, whose partner is Jane Groover-Maydahl, places the shop “more in the craft market than in the fashion and trend market. A lot of our customers are collectors. They want to get to know the artists.” The gallery also does a brisk business in custom-designed rings and other items.

Taboo holds four major shows a year. “It’s an event,” Rhoades said. “Customers who’ve been with us start to make connections and meet other people. There’s also a sense of excitement at seeing new work.” In addition, Taboo hosts gem shows, where a dealer talks about the qualities of a particular stone and passes it around. “It stimulates customers to pick out a stone, then we custom design a piece just for them.”

Gallery artist Steven Brixner designs rings, pendants and bracelets and also does custom work. Micki Lippe is another popular artist whose necklaces are full of charms and found objects. Taboo also carries work by Beth Solomon and Susan Chin.

Individual attention keeps people coming back—from as far away as Paris, France, Rhoades said. “As soon as they land in San Diego, they come right to the shop.”

Right Place, Right Purchase

There may still be some cracks in the economy, but all four gallery owners said that establishing yourself as an inviting, exciting destination keeps customers coming in and coming back. Consumers in general may be more particular about their purchases, but people who buy art jewelry know what they want when they see it.

It’s human nature, said Barnett. “People still want to embellish themselves.”

For more images from these fabulous galleries, check out the Spring 2012 issue of NICHE.

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