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Fishing for Success

A Virginia entrepreneur transforms a hobby into a one-of-a-kind enterprise on the Eastern Shore.

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Moonrise Jewelry, Cape Charles, VA

OWNER: Meredith Lusk; URL: moonrisejewelry.com; FOUNDED: 2005; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2021; AREA: 1,700 square feet; INTERIOR DESIGN: Covington Hendrix Anderson Architects, Artco Group; TOP BRANDS: Moonrise, Evocateur, Stuller, JP Diamonds, vintage and estate jewelry; EMPLOYEES: 8 (full-time and part-time); ONLINE PRESENCE: 4.5 Stars on Yelp; 3,400 Facebook followers; 4.9 Stars on Google Reviews; 5 Stars on Tripadvisor


Meredith Lusk

Meredith Lusk

EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, Meredith Lusk launched a craft business that has evolved into a vibrant and darling destination in her Eastern Shore hometown of Cape Charles, VA.

The owner of Moonrise Jewelry grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Her parents ran the local pharmacy, where a young Lusk sold seashell jewelry and magnets of her own making. For college, she went to New Orleans to study anthropology and Spanish but returned after graduation; the
Delmarva Peninsula called her home, where seven generations of Lusks have lived.

She got a job as a reporter for the local paper, but her desire to make art remained. So, she started making wire-wrapped jewelry in the evenings, selling works at craft and home shows. From the beginning, Lusk aimed to create more opportunities for local women with similar interests.

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A Virginia Entrepreneur Transforms a Hobby into a One-of-a-Kind Jewelry Enterprise on the Eastern ShoreA Virginia Entrepreneur Transforms a Hobby into a One-of-a-Kind Jewelry Enterprise on the Eastern Shore
A Virginia Entrepreneur Transforms a Hobby into a One-of-a-Kind Jewelry Enterprise on the Eastern ShoreA Virginia Entrepreneur Transforms a Hobby into a One-of-a-Kind Jewelry Enterprise on the Eastern Shore

“This area is rural — only 1,000 people live here year-round,” she explains. “One of my goals was to create a sustainable enterprise for me and other women who liked fashion and art.”

Passionate about the new pursuit, Lusk created the Moonrise Jewelry website in 2004. She also started renting spaces to work in and became known for handcrafted jewelry featuring orchids encased in resin. Then in 2007 on a Friday at closing time, a call came through on the landline to her studio. “Hello, my name is Stanley Major — would you like to buy some fish leather?” Lusk was puzzled by the caller, who didn’t offer to send samples or an explanation as to what the product was, so she politely declined. A year passed, and on another Friday late afternoon as Lusk was heading out the door, her studio phone rang again. The call was familiar. “Hello, my name is Stanley Major — would you like to buy some fish leather?”

“It was like Groundhog Day,” laughs Lusk. “I said, ‘Stanley, did you call here last year?’” He said he likely did. This time, she explained that she was interested in Fair Trade gems but not fish leather (whatever that was). She gently told him he needn’t call again.

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More time passed, the Great Recession struck, and Lusk became a new mom who moved her business back into her home to save money. Sales ebbed and flowed, and Lusk grew frustrated. “I had to come up with something really different to make my business stand out or else I was going to have to close and get a job,” she deadpans. Then, a seed that was planted years prior suddenly sprouted: Fish leather.

She Googled the term and up popped the name Stanley Major. She phoned him for samples, and he sent her salmon leather.

“It was so beautiful, the colors were so rich,” she recollects. “Cape Charles has a big fishing industry. Fish leather just made sense.”

A Virginia Entrepreneur Transforms a Hobby into a One-of-a-Kind Jewelry Enterprise on the Eastern Shore

A local artist epoxied a 12-foot coastal jewelryinspired mural behind the cash wrap.

The skins were an upcycled byproduct of non-endangered food species. After a year of experimentation, Lusk taught herself how to set it into jewelry. Large swaths were cut into asymmetrical strips for cuffs, and smaller scraps were repurposed as inlay in daintier designs. Bow ties, flasks, and other fish leather-adorned objects followed. She dug into this new focus, and it worked.

“The response was fantastic — fish leather took off,” she says. “It was comfortable, unique, and available at an approachable price point.”

As interest and sales snowballed, she outgrew multiple spaces and had to find a new supplier. She did in Iceland, a tannery that produced even more colors.

“They had silver and gold metallics and helped me propel the business to where it is today,” she adds. “Fish leather is a hook that draws people into the store.”

In 2021, she made her fourth and final move into a redesigned storefront downtown.

“We moved into a building that was 100 years old — the old Saks Variety store, which was in major disrepair,” she says.

She tapped architect Wayne Anderson to design the façade based on a 1920s photo of the building. In doing so, he restored transom windows and a canopy, then she added a custom mahogany door with oval glass and placed two special features outside: her grandmother’s iron garden bench and flickering faux gas lanterns reminiscent of ones seen in The Big Easy.

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Inside, the reno uncovered original pine wood floors that are now restored and brick fireplaces. Artco Group designed custom display cases for side-by-side selling in the center of the store, while French doors in the rear give customers a glimpse of brightly colored racks of fish leather in the studio where artisans work.

A focal point is a back-wall installation that serves as an interactive swatch board for the 150 different types of fish leather in stock. Clients are encouraged to customize colors, which are represented as a large school of magnetic fish that “swim” across a hand-painted river covering the entire wall. “Customers can take fish down off the wall to see how colors look next to each other,” Lusk explains. Most impressive of all: Her team made it, along with nearly every edit in the new interior, given they couldn’t afford a designer.

An exception to the handicrafts comes from a local artist, who epoxied a 12-foot coastal jewelry-inspired mural behind the cash wrap counter. One-of-a-kind paintings from the same individual dot the walls, and reproductions of the scenes exist inside cases on custom jewels created by Evocateur.

And though Lusk isn’t a bench jeweler, her collaborative skills are impressive. She used them to align with a master jeweler from Virginia Beach who gives her estate pieces on consignment and does repair work that now comes into the store.

A Virginia Entrepreneur Transforms a Hobby into a One-of-a-Kind Jewelry Enterprise on the Eastern Shore

“We work together to provide a greater range of products and services,” she says.

Another meaningful partnership takes place with the nearby Barrier Islands Center. For it, she created an Eastern Shore of Virginia map cuff that’s available exclusively at Moonrise. A portion of proceeds benefit the museum.

Eight employees later and with a prominent position on the town’s main drag, Moonrise Jewelry has seemingly arrived. Some incredible press solidifies the success. Spanx founder Sara Blakely recognized her mission to empower women, NBC’s “Today Show” featured Moonrise Jewelry as a
Top Product Pick, and the store has been recognized by magazines including Southern Living. Lusk has even been acknowledged by the Chamber of Commerce for her contributions to local tourism. Her efforts keep the Eastern Shore in the minds of many long after vacations have ended.

“We ship pieces all over the country to clients who want to be reminded of their connection here,” she says.

Five Cool Things About Moonrise Jewelry

1. ONLY GAME IN TOWN. Moonrise Jewelry is the only full-service jewelry store in Northampton County, VA. Store owner Meredith Lusk says demand exists for fine jewelry in her beachfront community of Cape Charles. “It’s becoming more of a retirement community,” she says. “People move here from Philadelphia and Charlotte.”

4. WOMEN. Moonrise Jewelry is 100% woman-owned and operated. Female artists, teachers, and therapists, among others, have all found their way to the shop to start a new chapter. Even the store’s name is a nod to the gender. “Moonrise is symbolic of feminine energy,” says Lusk.

2. HISTORY — AND LOTS OF IT! Not only is Moonrise located in historic downtown — in the renovated 100-plus-year-old Saks Variety Store on Mason Avenue — Lusk’s family can trace its roots in the area to the 1700s!

A Virginia Entrepreneur Transforms a Hobby into a One-of-a-Kind Jewelry Enterprise on the Eastern Shore

3. OLD SCHOOL COMMS. While she’s had a website since 2004, Lusk finds that “old school” marketing techniques work best. “Here, print is not dead, and everyone reads the free weekly local paper,” she says. Also effective: posting flyers on community bulletin boards in town hot spots (think coffee shop, post office, etc.).

5. FISH LEATHER. Have you ever heard of anyone else selling it? Probably not, and that’s why Lusk bills herself as “the world’s leading designer of exotic fish leather jewelry.” While it’s not the only type of jewelry she sells, it is “the hook,” she jokes, that draws in visitors. “Our website is the top Google search result for fish leather jewelry.”

PHOTO GALLERY (12 IMAGES)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • LESLIE MCGWIRE: : The store has a unique design that flows beautifully with the type of jewelry it sells. It is bright and inviting, and the restored original pine floors look great with the color scheme, fireplaces, and brick wall.
  • KATHLEEN CUTLER: Moonrise’s captivating story and unique products (I had never heard of fish leather!), alongside the prominent display of press recognition, resonated deeply with me. However, what truly stood out was the custom bracelet, tailored to their area. This remarkable attention to detail is an inspiring example for other businesses in tourist markets.
  • MEGAN CRABTREE:To receive recognition from the CEO of Spanx and even “The Today Show” is a testament to her excellence and dedication to craft. What stood out to me the most was how she utilized the team’s talent and creativity to decorate the store when they had no budget for a professional.
  • MARIE McCARTHY:The exterior is so beautiful and eye-catching. Fish skin is interesting. It’s nice to see a shop embracing their brand so fully.
  • ELIZABETH ross BREWER:The magnetized fish artwork is so creative. (Customers can pull each fish off the wall to pick their favorite colors). Meredith meticulously redesigned the store and brought a new level of sophistication to her neighborhood.
  • Meredith Seeds:What a unique expression of brand within the store.

 

Try This: Collaborate with Others.

On the Eastern Shore, locals say “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Lusk takes that seriously, partnering with noncompeting businesses and organizations. In an arrangement with the local Barrier Islands Center, for example, she created an Eastern Shore of Virginia map cuff that’s available exclusively at Moonrise. She donates 15% of the sale proceeds back to the Center.

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She Wanted to Spend More Time with Her Kids. She Called Wilkerson.

Your children are precious. More precious than gold? Absolutely! Just ask Lesley Ann Davis, owner of Lesley Ann Jewels, an independent jewelry store that — until the end of 2023 — had quite a following in Houston, Texas. To spend more time with her four sons, all in high school, she decided to close her store. Luckily, she was familiar with Wilkerson and called them as soon as she knew she wanted to move on to bigger, better and more family-focused things. Was she happy with her decision? Yes, she was. Says Davis, “Any owner looking to make that life change, looking to retire, looking to close, looking for a pause in their career, I would recommend Wilkerson. Hands down!”

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