QUICK FACTS
LOCATION:
Stowe, VT
URL: vonbargensjewelry.com
FOUNDED: 1978
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2014
STORE DESIGN: Gensler
AREA: 1,800 square feet
COST OF BUILDOUT: $200 per square foot
ARCHITECT AND BUILDER: Cushman Design Group, Sisler Builders
EMPLOYEES: 4 at Stowe; 26 total
TOP BRANDS: Alex Sepkus, Todd Reed, Paul Morelli and Mark Patterson
ONLINE PRESENCE:
5 Stars on Yelp; 5,262 Facebook Likes

VON BARGEN’S JEWELRY

SECOND-GENERATION OWNERS DEVISE CREATIVE CORPORATE CULTURE THAT PROPELS BUSINESS SUCCESS

STORY BY ELIZABETH KELLAR

OWNERS
JASON THOM AND JULIE VON BARGEN-THOM

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 edition of INSTORE.

DO GOOD, AND YOU’LL DO WELL.

It’s a simple philosophy, but one that Jason Thom and Julie Von Bargen-Thom have embraced. As the second-generation owners of Von Bargen’s Jewelry, the couple is building on the tradition started by Julie’s late parents three decades ago, even as they find fresh ways to stay on trend and in touch with the changing needs of their clients. The company has five locations in Vermont, including the newest location in Stowe.

Forging strong relationships with their customers — and employees — is all part of the Thoms’ strategy. “Our vision is very simple,” Jason says. “To leave the world a better place.”

ADVERTISING
Home-Grown Models
➜ Von Bargen’s team members appear as models in the company’s advertising.
PLAYLIST
Paolo Nutini station on Pandora Radio

TRY THIS
Go to the Source
➜ Each Von Bargen location has its own customer advisory board, made up of savvy, fashionable women, who meet quarterly to discuss inventory, merchandising and marketing. Sometimes they’ll include a field trip to a restaurant or a wine shop, but usually they meet at the store, where noise and security can be controlled. Wherever they meet, the store serves serve food and beverages — cheese, fruit, chocolate or a vegetable tray. Participants receive gift bags, including $100 gift certificates to the store, and sometimes gift certificates donated by other local stores. The group is very influential in buying decisions. If 15 of 20 women suggest a particular SKU, for example, it will definitely be on the store’s shopping list.
Trunk Show Preview
➜ Invite your best female clients to a trunk show preview evening. Then, turn that trunk show into an exclusive opportunity for those clients to discover new jewelry designs, cocktails and each other’s company, Julie Thom counsels. “This makes you the connector between them while also giving them power to be your advisers. Of course, this naturally leads to great positive energy and self-purchasing that night,” she adds.
★★★★★
YELP REVIEW:
➜ Von Bargen’s provides personal attention and no-pressure sales expertise with every transaction. They are friendly and knowledgeable about their great selection of jewelry. From bridal sets to that perfect gift of jewelry, they have it all. — Linda S., Etna, NH

JOINING THE FAMILY

IT WASN’T LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT for Jason and Julie. But it was close.

In 2002, Jason attended a Von Bargen family reunion. Jason was a longtime friend of the family, but had never met Julie or her parents, John and Leslie Von Bargen, who founded the first Von Bargen’s Jewelry in 1978. Within three months of meeting, Jason and Julie were engaged.

At the time, Jason was in retail consulting for big-box stores. Julie was finishing up a degree at Dartmouth College. She’d been raised in the family business, and even learned how to make jewelry from her father. By the end of 2003, Julie and Jason assumed their roles as the new heads of Von Bargen’s Jewelry with the opening of a new store in Hanover, NH.

TRANSITIONS

THE THOMS SET OUT TO ESTABLISH their own corporate culture, shaped by — of all things — a book on food: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan probes the problems with the American diet. After reading it, the Thoms found themselves taking a hard look at how they were living overall. They challenged themselves to improve, Jason explains, but realized that as business owners, they couldn’t simply leave that challenge at home.

“When you own a business, it is your life,” Jason says. “We wanted it to have a positive meaning.”

The Thoms decided that part of that positive meaning included cultivating a workplace where team members could shine. One of their newest initiatives is Von Bargen’s University, a professional self-training module focusing on essential aspects of their business. The concept is the brainchild of Jill Zborovancik, the Stowe manager.

Jason points to a time in American commerce when every shop was a mom-and-pop, and the employees were strongly invested in the success of the business. Now, he believes too many retail companies are sta ed by people who have not been encouraged by management to take risks, innovate and maybe even make a mistake that could teach them something valuable.

Jason calls that mentality “clerking, not working,” and it’s what Von Bargen’s is out to avoid, preferring to attract employees who want to develop personally and professionally. Jason says the Thoms encourage their employees to leave their community a better place, even as they strive to achieve their own dreams and goals.

That has meant giving their team members a chance to explore new ways to invest in the community they serve.

Sabrina Leonard, a team member in the Von Bargen’s Hanover store, was volunteering with a charity of personal importance when she learned there were women who wanted to donate estate jewelry to local causes, but lacked the know-how and resources to do so. She stepped up to help, and the result is Jewels for Joy, a program where Von Bargen’s appraises and facilitates the sale or auction of unwanted jewelry so it can be donated to worthy organizations. “We let someone take something and run with it, and it turned out to be a great thing,” he says. “We have a mechanism or another way to sell jewelry for people in a positive way that helps the community.”

The company also grants an allowance to team members looking to grow outside the store in ways that might ultimately bene t the shop. One team member pitched the Thoms on paying for her Zumba instructor training, and they agreed. Now, Jason notes that employee is not just healthy and fit; when she’s teaching, she’s also a Von Bargen’s ambassador in the bargain. “The proudest thing Julie and I have accomplished is this culture that we’ve empowered our team to think like entrepreneurs,” he says.

Julie agrees. She adds that strong client relationships are essential. After all, jewelry easily can be bought online, but in a business that’s built around milestones such as weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, people often long for a human connection. Listening is key to forming that connection, and that’s a talent Julie says she inherited from her mother, Leslie, who died in 2012 (followed by John earlier this year). “She authentically enjoyed learning about them,” Julie says.

AND SO, TO STOWE

WITH THE HANOVER STORE established and their new corporate philosophy squarely in place, it was time for the Thoms to kick back, relax and coast for a bit. Well, not exactly.

Soon, the couple was eyeing a spot in Stowe. They found a building that seemed ideal: an old house they planned to renovate. But once begun, the plan had to be scrapped and the house demolished. Undefeated, the Thoms began again, with the mission of creating a Von Bargen’s that blended seamlessly into Stowe’s postcard-perfect New England cityscape. The couple worked with Stowe-based Cushman Design Group on the project.

“I think we hit a home run,” Jason says. “People come in and feel like this store has been in Stowe since the beginning of Stowe.”

The store had its first sale shortly before Christmas 2014, and its o cial grand opening in February 2015.

While the exterior fits with Stowe’s style, the contemporary interior is equally in sync with what Jason describes as the understated tastes of their Vermont customers. Von Bargen’s clients appreciate high quality — the Thoms reject about 38 percent of the ideal-cut diamonds sent to them — but they are not dazzled by big bling, Jason says. While the other Von Bargen’s stores feature glitzy, crystal chandeliers to light clients on their way to the jewelry showcases, the Stowe store welcomes them with custom-made drum-shaped light fixtures from Vermont lighting company Hubbardton Forge.

Finding that happy medium for the community and the client is merely another way of bringing their life philosophy into their business.

“Everything we do, we ask, how far away is it from our mission and vision, how far away is it from the customer, how far away is it from ourselves,” he said.

PHOTO GALLERY

5 QUESTIONS WITH
JASONAND JULIE THOM

1. What’s one jewelry trend that excites you?
Clients’ interest in unique and one-of-a-kind artisan jewelry. Our best clients aren’t looking to have what everyone else has. They want to see and select something unexpected and uncommon, rather than mass market. — Julie

2. What’s something you’ve learned recently?
We had a customer commission a 7-inch-tall, 3-D leapin’ 18K gold frog. This project challenged our studio to think differently about how to manufacturer large-scale fine jewelry. Managing the client’s timeframe expectations went a long way to keep the process fun and not too demanding on the studio. Don’t let one big project shipwreck your weekly bread-and-butter operations. — Jason”

3. What’s the best compliment a client has ever given you?
“I shop with you because of how you curate your jewelry collection. And because of you.” — Julie

4. Who is your hero and why?
Everyone is fighting some kind of battle, and it’s important to recognize individuals that can get up every day with that fight and still find a way to have a good day. These people are my heroes. — Jason

5. What’s your perfect day look like?
Early morning time with my daughter. Yoga practice or a run. A full day of work, including interacting with best clients, spending time thoughtfully on our business and engaging with my team on the little fires and on the bigger picture. Then heading north to my favorite place, Lake Willoughby, for a family evening. — Julie

5 COOL THINGS

1. BE OUR GUEST
When the Thoms built the Stowe store, they had the foresight to finish the building’s upstairs as a cozy apartment. They’ve already donated the residence to several local charity events, pairing the stay with a Von Bargen’s gift certificate and a welcome present of the beloved Vermont beer, Heady Topper. The couple also plans to lend it to visiting vendors and high-level clients.

2. A CLASSIC CASE
How jewelry is displayed is almost as important as the jewels themselves. That’s why in Von Bargen’s, cherry wood showcases were handcrafted in Underhill, VT. The custom cases have an operational component, too, with retractable legs and removable trays designed to fit neatly into the vault.

3. BACK IN THE BEGINNING
We love origin stories, and this one’s pretty darn cool. In 1975, John Von Bargen popped the question to his love, Leslie. Then he made another announcement: He was going to take $400 in tools and materials and become a jeweler. Not only that, he promised to have a paycheck by the weekend. (Which he did: $200.) The rest, as they say, is cool store history.

4. TAKE THE V-LINE
In keeping with the Thoms’ philosophy of encouraging entrepreneurship in employees, the company recently introduced the V-Line. The jewelry is the brainchild of Ali Dumont, a manager in the Von Bargen’s Burlington store, who brought her designs to the Thoms before handing them off to an inhouse jeweler to bring them to life.

5. WHO’S THAT DOG?
About five years ago, Jason and Julie Thom turned to local photographer Chris Mazzarella for help in their print advertising. The Thoms decided to use Von Bargen team members rather than professional models. Ultimately, even Mazzarella’s pregnant wife and family dog took their turn in front of the camera, too.

what the judges say

Brandee Dallow:
The crisp, clean, classy and rich interior of Von Bargen’s is what makes it cool — and all of this perfectly complements the cool and snowy environment that is Vermont.

Debbie Fox:
Their website has powerful videos that speak to people’s emotions and life’s realities; Von Bargen’s personality is about being real and caring as opposed to being perfect and polished.

Becky Stone:
Von Bargen’s exudes a warm, genuine feeling — everything from the classic design of the storefront to the thoughtfully designed display cases and the fact that the store’s advertisements feature only staff members, not models, reveals an authenticity that makes Von Bargen’s feel trustworthy. The overall branding creates an impression of friendliness without sacrificing dignity or elegance. I love the idea of “buying fewer, better things.”

Todd Reed:
This story is a truly great one: a life of love and passion from John and Leslie down to Jason and Julie. They care so much about their community and their staff and family of designers.

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