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Evolution of a Business

Jewelry designer reimagines her business on the coolest block in America.

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Sofia Kaman Fine Jewels, Venice, CA

URL: sofiakaman.com; OWNER: Sofia Kaman; FOUNDED: 2001; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2008; AREA: 1,000 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 1 full time, 4 part-time; ONLINE PRESENCE: 1,798 Likes on Facebook; 4.5 Stars on Yelp; shop-able Instagram account; e-commerce website


KAMAN HAD WATCHED the street for years, and when it began to gentrify, she snagged a space for rent that had been a clothing boutique. Also finding their niche on the mile-long stretch of eclectic, upscale retail are vegetarian restaurants, juice bars, a Pilates studio, an eyebrow artist, a Scandinavian design shop and places called Strange Invisible Perfumes, Mystic Journey Bookstore, Happy Socks and the Modern Dog. Pedestrian traffic is enviable and competition from other fine-jewelry stores is currently scarce.

“It’s a trendy spot and we see people from all over the world who want a taste of Venice and a taste of L.A.,” says owner/designer Kaman, who has also made her store a destination for custom wedding rings. Celebrities, too, are part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

Once buzzed inside through the jewelry store’s decorative iron doors, shoppers find a cozy, elegant scene, with French bulldog Sally napping on a fluffy sofa pillow and a bar cart stocked with refreshments.

Distressed concrete floors provide a down-to-earth contrast to the vintage French crystal chandelier, which creates drama in the space as it hangs from a 14-foot ceiling.

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The shop is minimalist overall; nothing overshadows the focus on Sofia Kaman’s jewelry, artfully displayed in custom cases (modern, with a nod to art deco) arranged to create a natural, leisurely traffic flow. Her own jewelry is mixed in with her curated vintage collection; much of her jewelry is vintage-inspired, so the different eras co-exist beautifully. “I wear old and new together,” Kaman says.

Tucked away in an alcove is a sit-down consultation area for ring shoppers. Upstairs, in the loft, are offices. She didn’t have to do much to the space. She changed the wall color and added a wall to the loft for privacy. The locking iron door was designed for the space. She was able to purchase the chandelier from the previous tenants.

Kaman opened her retail location in 2008, but managed to maintain momentum through the recession. She was too small to fail, she says.

“When you’re small, it’s easier to ride the wave,” she says. “The first year it was just me by myself, doing retail, doing production and doing wholesale.” When the economy stabilized, she was able to enlist help, including her husband, Geoff, who signed on full time in 2014.

 

Three Brand Pillars

Although Kaman has been in the space since 2008, she put a lot of thought into refocusing her business in 2012. She’d won a spot in a program called 10,000 Small Businesses, an initiative funded by Goldman Sachs to provide continuing education to small businesses poised for growth. It gave her a wider perspective than jewelry; other businesses in the program spanned the gamut from restaurants and car-part stores to fireplace-accessory vendors.

It was an intensive, 14-week program with the goal of writing a growth plan that addressed every aspect of the business from systems to marketing.

“At that point, I was more of a collector,” she says. “I had other designers here, too. I had to figure out what direction we wanted to go in. I had to ask myself, ‘How am I going to maximize these 700 square feet to create a cohesive experience?’”

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Meanwhile, her own collection had grown to make it feasible to carry only her own jewelry.

While she kept some wholesale accounts, she didn’t try to grow that part of the business. She continues to build quality relationships with retail clients in spaces that feel like a good match; she takes the time to visit those stores for trunk shows.

She also rebranded her company, formerly Kamofie & Co., to Sofia Kaman Fine Jewels, while devising a growth plan to focus on the three main pillars of her brand that made her unique: wedding and engagement jewelry, her signature collection, and a curated selection of vintage and antique jewelry.

Learning how to network was a big piece of the puzzle.

“You’re a part of a million different networks,” Kaman says. “People want to help people. They are a huge resource, so use them and work with them. I’m a pretty introverted person, so reaching out to someone I don’t know very well is not my first instinct. But I recognize that it’s important and I need to do it.”

Collaborations with a bridal boutique, photographers, event planners and florists in her neighborhood turned out to be an important piece of the plan, too. “Seemingly simple things have really enabled us to grow,” Kaman says.

By 2014, Geoff had joined the business full-time, bringing with him the professional programming skills that enabled a full website revamp and made it completely functional for e-commerce.

He’s also worked on custom web-based projects, such as an online quiz, which helps brides identify what style of jewelry would best suit them based on personality and preferences.

“Our growth plan has worked,” Kaman says. “It’s time for a new growth plan.”

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Obsession Takes Center Stage

Jewelry was a second career for Kaman. She had studied French and art history as an undergrad and took a jewelry-making class that opened her eyes both to the creative possibilities of jewelry and the jewelry industry in general.

“As a student of art history, I felt I was missing the tactile component and the art component,” she says. “But until jewelry, I hadn’t yet found a medium I fell in love with. I started making jewelry as a hobby that became an obsession.”

She earned a master’s degree in education and taught elementary school, but her interest in jewelry never waned. Her husband urged her to give jewelry a shot full time. “Geoff said you really have to pursue this jewelry thing and get it out of your system,” Kaman recalls. “I didn’t have a business background. But I knew I loved making jewelry that could be an heirloom or an artifact. So I started off slow, left my teaching job, worked in a friend’s shop. And now the rest is history.”

She launched her wholesale design business in 2001 as Kamofie Designs, taking her small collection store to store, and eventually working with a rep and going to trade shows. In 2005, she opened a jewelry showroom in the California Market Center and sometimes hosted other designers there for market week as well.

Now, in her reinvented retail business, she no longer goes it alone. She has a close-knit team, including a staff member who specializes in jewelry photography.

“I’m lucky to be married to one of our team members (he can’t escape) but after nine years, I’m grateful to have met and continue to work with an incredible group of people, each bringing their unique gifts, traits and positive power to our team,” Kaman says. “The key is matching a person’s responsibilities to their skills, talents and passions and setting it up for them to flourish. In turn, your business will flourish!”

When working with customers, whether they are shopping for a piece in the case or want to design a custom piece, Kaman and her team ask questions to help identify their style.

“That is always our approach,” she says. “That jewelry should be a reflection of personal style and not just a costume that you’re putting on that doesn’t feel natural.”

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PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Sofia Kaman

1. Made in L.A. The majority of Sofia Kaman’s products are locally made in a “small batch” production process in downtown Los Angeles. She designs one signature collection per year, available to her wholesale clients. Numerous other one-of-a-kind pieces and custom engagement rings are available only at the boutique. In the past several years, she’s also enjoyed traveling the world (France, Belgium, London, Japan) to source unique pieces for the curated vintage collection.

2. Dog-friendly. French bulldog Sally is often seen snuggling with the couch pillows. Sally has admirers who stop in regularly to say hi to her. Some weekends turn into a mini-dog park with visiting neighborhood dogs. “Luckily, our rustic cement floors are very forgiving,” Kaman says.

3. Sales made on social media. They have a custom-built, easy to use, shop-able Instagram feed. Clicking the link in their profile will take visitors straight to the items on their website that are featured in each post. sofiakaman.com/shop-the-look

4. Fun gatherings. In 2016, Kaman began offering a quarterly, two-day event called Gather, a combination multi-vendor trunk show and hands-on seasonal workshop. The idea came from talking with antique-jewelry-dealer friends, who run internet businesses but wanted an opportunity to show their collections in a retail environment. “I wanted to create an event that went one step further than a trunk show but also offered an educational take-away,” says Kaman. For the holidays, there was a wreath-making workshop. For spring and summer, they’ve experimented with flower-arranging, beginning calligraphy and a mother-daughter jewelry-making class.

5. Online quiz. Sofia and Geoff teamed up to develop an online quiz called “Discover Your Wedding Style” to encourage women to match their personal style to Kaman’s bridal designs. “It opens the door to a conversation,” she says. The quiz is designed to project the customer’s signature style based on her answers. Take it yourself at sofiakaman.com/wedding-style-quiz.

Do It Yourself: Give Your Business a Rebirth

  • Look at your store as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Brightening up the appearance could give your staff renewed energy and enthusiasm.
  • Have fun with your branding and logo. Think out of the box.
  • Ask yourself: What kind of jewelry or accessory brand can you add to your store that will generate traffic and lead to impulse purchases?
JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Monique Breaux: Love the online quiz! The jewelry is on-trend and fresh. The ads are spectacular. Keep up the good work.

Megan Whitmire: Great online presence! Marketing materials are very consistent, each with a clear message and show solid branding. The exclusive Wedding Style quiz, blog and buying capability on Instagram are great opportunities for engaging interaction with current and potential customers.

Bernadette Mack: Sofia Kaman has a great sense of romantic style and continuity in branding and marketing materials. So beautiful to look at and uniquely recognizable.

Josette Patterson: What I like the most about the store is the private room to the side. It has warmth and I love the color combination.


ONLINE EXTRA: 6 Questions with Sofia Kaman

What advice do you have for retailers who are developing e-commerce?
“E-commerce can’t be an afterthought. It has to be integrated in your client’s experience,” Kaman says. “It’s another opportunity for clients to have a similar experience to coming to the shop. That’s what our goal is. We want people to be comfortable and at ease (online or in the store), to have a beautiful space that’s functional, secure and easy to use. Geoff is function, function, function, and I’m fashion, fashion, fashion. So it’s walking a delicate balance from having a space that feels like a gallery, that feels aspirational and is presented in a beautiful way. But it also has to be accessible and shopable.

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How do you make sure it works from a technical aspect?
“It’s all about SEO,” Geoff says. “You can’t take your foot off the pedal for a minute and you have to be consistent. You have to have tech-savvy people to be able to sell online and pay attention to details. To grow it, it does take people power.”

Sofia, how do you think your background in education affects how you deal with customers? Does it help you to explain things?
Definitely. I am passionate about gems and love to talk about them. I find most of our clients also love learning about the materials, our process and our story, so it helps to be able to clarify key information for clients when making a big decision.

What kind of marketing do you do?
“We rely a lot on social media, Instagram, Facebook,” Sofia says. “We tend to have the most engagement from Instagram. Pinterest is a good tool for wedding and engagement, good for projects and weddings are projects. It’s all tied together. We create our own content for the website and for blog posts and newsletters. We have a photo shoot once every month or two months. We have a mini-campaign around it and that is our theme for the season, with a corresponding newsletter. I’m very conceptual so I like everything to be connected and integrated.”

What else is important when getting the word out?
Word of mouth and recommendations go a long way, Geoff says.

When you were studying art history, looking for a medium, what did you like about jewelry?
“To me its appeal was that it represented something that could last a lot longer than we do, using materials from millions of years ago found in the earth,” Sofia says.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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