QUICK FACTS
LOCATION:
Brattleboro, VT
URL: vermontjewel.com
FOUNDED: 2005
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2011
OWNER: Caitlyn Wilkinson
BUILDOUT COST: $750,000
AREA: 1,500 square feet sales floor; 3,000 additional square feet
EMPLOYEES: 3 full-time; 3 part-time
TOP BRANDS: Jabel, David Connolly, Camelot, Benchmark, Ashi, Nancy B, Endless Jewelry, True Romance, Nicole Barr, Rembrandt Charms, Kameleon, Quality Gold. Estate department: Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, Patricia Von Muslin.
ONLINE PRESENCE: 3,122 Facebook Likes; 4.5 Stars on Yelp.

RENAISSANCE FINE JEWELRY

OWNER DESIGNS STORE TO ACCOMMODATE A FULL LIFE AS WELL AS A REWARDING CAREER

STORY BY SUSAN GRANGER |
PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER DAVID PHOTOGRAPHY

OWNER
CAITLYN WILKINSON

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

CAITLYN WILKINSON, owner of Renaissance Fine Jewelry in Brattleboro, VT, can go days without stepping outside of her store, not even to grab dinner or a night’s sleep.

She lives upstairs in the 1850s Greek Revival bank building on Main Street, which she bought and meticulously renovated into a jewelry store in 2010. The 1,500-square-foot showroom — aglow from four crystal chandeliers with walls painted Renaissance’s signature red with ivory and gold moldings — fills the first floor with bridal, contemporary and estate jewelry.

★★★★★
YELP REVIEW:
➜ My partner and I came in on the last weekend of January and bought two wedding rings. It was such a great experience! Marissa showed us all of the unique pieces from estate sales, and we had fun looking for what we needed and also talking to her about all of the great pieces they had. We spoke with Marissa and Dan for an hour or so before deciding to check out some other places. Without any pushing to sell us something, they wished us good luck finding what we needed. It was a little over an hour before we were back and ready to buy from them. The process was painless, and they made it very fun for both of us. — Natalie T., Northampton, MA
TRY THIS
Create a Positive Work Environment
➜ Renaissance offers employees vacation and sick days, as well as emergency time off and free parking. “A positive work atmosphere is very important to us, the door to the owner’s office is always open,” Wilkinson says.
PLAYLIST
➜ Mostly classical music, such as Claude Debussy, with some jazz mixed in.

The second floor is a transitional space, both public and private, where Wilkinson meets with clients and has her office. “I did a large kitchen with a 15-foot granite island, which opens to the dining room where we sit down with groups to eat,” she says. The kitchen is located where the bank’s original executive offices had been, where many deals might have been struck at the turn of the last century, Wilkinson says. Now it’s the ultimate place for serious client entertaining.

The third floor is her family’s private space — living and bedrooms.

With her professional and personal life all in one location, often 24 hours will pass without Wilkinson ever leaving the premises. “That happens all the time, especially in the winter,” she says. “I just go up and down the (brass-gated elevator) with my pocketbook and bag of stuff.”

A LIFELONG PLAN

WILKINSON’S FASCINATION with fine jewelry began early. When playing with Barbies, she’d save all of their accessories. By the time she was 12, she was studying gemology and asking her parents to give her one piece of jewelry for her birthday each year. At 16, she approached a prominent Vermont jeweler and asked for a job.

“He said, ‘Come back when you grow up,’” Wilkinson says. So she did.

College followed with studies in business management, courses with the GIA and part-time work in a mall jewelry store. By age 20, Wilkinson was managing a designer jewelry store in downtown Burlington. “I received a wonderful education about the jewelry world from my mentors there,” she says.

Just as her career was poised for takeoff, Wilkinson started experiencing serious health problems from multiple sclerosis.

“My doctor said, ‘You’re going to be in a wheelchair by 40,’” she says. That devastating news could have sidelined all her plans. Instead, it did just the opposite. It fired her up. Suddenly, owning her own jewelry store wasn’t just a dream, it was an imperative.

Living with MS “was part of my decision to start my business,” she says. “I needed to support my family. I needed a place where I could work as my disability was getting more and more severe.”

In 2005, Wilkinson and her mother, Wendy Lillie, launched Renaissance Fine Jewelry in a storefront on Brattleboro’s Main Street. Five years later, Wilkinson purchased the historic Savings Bank of Vermont building and transformed it into her dream store.

Though it’s unnoticeable to most clients, the building was designed to accommodate Wilkinson’s potential health needs. All the doors are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair; the floors are level. She spent more than $100,000 on the elevator alone — a 1935 Otis — to bring it up to code and to make it functional for someone with a disability. It “was all part of trying to provide a place where, if I was cognitively able, I could still work,” she says.

As an added benefit, the store today is easy to navigate for families with strollers.

While her business was growing, Wilkinson was starting on a new experimental medication. “At that point, the hospitals here had no more treatments for me,” she says. “I was willing to take the drug. I knew the risks.”

When she was renovating the bank building, Wilkinson couldn’t walk the one block from her original store to her new location. Today, thanks to the medication, she’s been in remission for nearly seven years. “I’m not in a wheelchair. I can dance. I can run. I can do anything,” she says.

“I didn’t think I’d live to see my kids this age,” she said. (Her sons are 13 and 15.) “I don’t like to be disabled. I joke that disability doesn’t look good on me.”

A BUILDING TRANSFORMED

BUYING THE FORMER RED BRICK BANK BUILDING was key to transforming Renaissance into the store Wilkinson always envisioned it to be. But it didn’t come quickly. It took two years just to acquire the building.

“The owner was a 92-year-old former senator, well beloved in my community, and he never put it up for sale,” she says. “He took offers from buyers, and you had to apply. He even met my family to determine whether we were the kind of people he wanted to own this building.” After getting his blessing, Wilkinson commenced a full gut-to-the-studs renovation. Today, visitors enter through double red doors flanked by Greek Revival columns. The interior is open with high ceilings, large windows and period-appropriate architectural features. Classic ivory-paneled wood-and-glass cases with LED lights display the collections. The inventory includes estate and designer jewelry, contemporary, bridal and fashion lines as well as the store’s own designs.

“We are big fans of Pandora,” Wilkinson says. “It brings people in from every social level who feel comfortable shopping in our store, which is very important to us. They might start with a charm from Pandora, but come the big day in everyone’s life, they might be shopping for engagement rings and wedding bands.”

A display also is dedicated to rare finds, such as a sterling silver, turn-of-the-20th-century cosmetic purse from Boucheron, antique Cartier pens and an 1850 French tremblant diamond-encrusted necklace that converts to a tiara.

“The layout is designed to engage with our customers,” Wilkinson says. “We can assist from two sides (of the store) at the same time. We also have a workroom on the main floor with a jeweler’s bench, so people can watch us while we are working on their repairs.”

Another clever feature is a children’s play area. “I have kids, so I get what it’s like to shop with hyper little boys,” she says. “One of us will go help with the kids while the parents look.”

Renaissance’s employees go through extensive training, learning the inventory as well as customer-service skills. “We know the best experience is when people walk in the door, and we give them an ‘aha’ moment,” she says. “We do that. We send thank you cards; we have little gifts for children when they come in.”

The store also does custom design. It’s one of Wilkinson’s passions. Last Christmas, she helped a new client, who was working in Pakistan, design an engagement ring — all via Skype. “He sent me some pictures, and he had great taste,” she said. “I would send him pictures of designs, and we hand-fabricated it. It was an exquisite ring, every little detail was thought of.

“I’m completely honored to be part of these experiences,” she says of her clients’ big life moments. “Here I am helping them choose their wedding bands that will hopefully be on their fingers for every day of their lives.”


PHOTO GALLERY

 

5 QUESTIONS WITH
CAITLYN WILKINSON

1. What do you love most about owning a jewelry store?
I design custom jewelry, with my favorite being a gorgeous new design using parts and pieces from clients’ deeply sentimental jewelry, sometimes incorporating seamlessly up to four different family members’ jewelry. I love listening to my clients’ stories, getting to know them individually and, most of all, being part of creating new memories.

2. What do you look for when hiring for the gallery?
I look for people who are kind, committed and honest and have a natural drive to do their job and do the best they can do. That doesn’t mean you have to be the best at everything. If everyone in the store does (his or her) job well then the whole store flows beautifully. We’re a group of people who are very supportive of each other.

3. Do staff work on commission?
They have a strong base, incentive commission and benefits.

4. What’s your most important marketing strategy?
Today you have to be more than a jeweler. People have so many places they can shop. We want to be friends with our clients. For us, the boundary between client and friend is quickly washed away. They’re still our clients — that’s most important — but we bring them into the fold of our lives in a way. ... We also do a lot of radio ads. So my voice is well known. I’ll go places around town, and people will recognize my voice.

5. You mentioned that you have a nickel allergy. Do you carry jewelry that has nickel in the store?
If it has nickel in it, it has to be rhodium-plated. Our focus is nickel-free so I can be comfortable living here.

5 COOL THINGS

1.HISTORY ALL AROUND
The store’s three-story red brick building was built in 1859 and served as a bank for 150 years.

2. NO PARKING TICKETS
As part of its customer service efforts, staff members feed clients’ parking meters and make deliveries to disabled customers.

3. TRAINING THE NEXT GENERATION OF JEWELERS
Wilkinson hires high school students who are part of Future Business Leaders of America. She trains them extensively. They’ve done sales, marketing and social media.

4. MORE THAN A QUICK NOSH
If a client is hungry, staff members will dash to the second-floor kitchen to whip up plates of olives, pate, cheese, fruit and crackers and serve it all on a silver platter.

5. PARTY POLITICS
A sidewalk improvement project in downtown Brattleboro caused major headaches for local shop owners in 2015. But instead of getting frustrated with the construction workers, who were doing their jobs, Renaissance threw a pizza and beer night for them at the store. It showed the store’s appreciation for their work, and “we subsequently got some business out of it,” Wilkinson says.

what the judges say

Peggy Jo Donahue:
I love the emphasis on jewelry’s long history, the embrace of the town’s young folks, and the warm friendliness of being in someone’s home. This is a place where a glass of wine or a meal is at the ready.

Rebecca Overmann:
Connection with your community is not only critical — it’s what makes the business fun and rewarding.

Christine Medawar:
I love how much they are a part of the community and love to eat out or entertain. I believe networking is so important and should be a big part of any business.

Benjamin Guttery:
I love that they target disabled consumers that normally would not be able to stop by store easily. That’s going the extra mile for your clients.

Ruth Mellergaard:
I love red, so I love this store. Red is a color promoting energy and life and Caitlyn’s story tells me that this reflects her and her store. Bravo!

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