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Fresh Take on Old Favorite

Chicago gallery owner rebuilds stronger than ever after travails of 2020.

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Pistachios, Chicago

OWNER: Jessica Armstrong; URL: pistachiosonline.com; FOUNDED: 1991; Opened featured location: 2021; AREA: 1,000 square-foot showroom; 1,385 square feet total; INTERIOR DESIGN: Angela Murphy, Maks Design; TOP BRANDS: Heather Guidero, Pat Flynn, Elizabeth Garvin, Petra Class, Karin Jacobson; EMPLOYEES: 3; online presence: 5 Stars on TripAdvisor.com; 2,438 Facebook followers; 336 TikTok followers


ONE SECRET TO the success of Chicago jewelry gallery Pistachios can be found in owner Jessica Armstrong’s ability to trust her gut. Armstrong has discovered that the jewelry she buys from artists she truly believes in become best-sellers.

“When you fall in love with an artist’s technique, professionalism, style, or just really connect with them and their energy, it relieves you of the need to come up with sales strategies and angles to get the work to move,” she says. “Clients can sense the genuine interest and excitement we have for our artists. If I’m passionate about it, other people will be passionate about it.”

Art Jewelry Gallery Rebuilds Stronger in Chicago

Art Jewelry Gallery Rebuilds Stronger in ChicagoArt Jewelry Gallery Rebuilds Stronger in Chicago
Art Jewelry Gallery Rebuilds Stronger in ChicagoArt Jewelry Gallery Rebuilds Stronger in Chicago

For Kentucky native Armstrong, ownership of the gallery, established in 1991, is both a calling and a responsibility.

Jessica Armstrong discovered she enjoys making house calls.

Jessica Armstrong discovered she enjoys making house calls.

She moved to Chicago in 2016 with an advanced degree in jewelry and metalsmithing for an artist residence at Lillstreet Art Center. She also landed a job at Pistachios, where she was soon promoted to gallery manager.

When gallery founder Yann Woolley retired in 2018, Armstrong was highly motivated to continue the Pistachios legacy in the heart of Chicago. “The thought of an established gallery closing or retiring would have been a travesty for the art jewelry world,” she says.

She updated and refreshed the gallery while maintaining relationships with artists and clients who had helped make Pistachios a nationally recognized business. Her goal was to make Pistachios a contemporary art jewelry gallery that was beloved by amateur collectors and established patrons of the arts alike.

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But 2020 brought first COVID, then protests and riots, during which Pistachios was looted and dismantled twice, ultimately forcing Armstrong and manager Isabella Aimone to take the gallery completely online and rebuild from the ground up. Fortunately, online sales boomed as did virtual visits, and Armstrong discovered she enjoyed making house calls. “I would give them a box of jewelry while I sat in my car, and they would Facetime me if they needed an opinion,” she recalls.

Aimone says the community showed its support with encouraging emails and messages. “Something so devastating gave us a lot of strength and hope,” she says. “When I was working alone, I would look up and see the chefs at the restaurant across the street waving at me, checking on my welfare.”

While the gallery was closed for repairs, the lease ended, and Armstrong decided to move on. The new space she found on Wabash is only four-and-a-half blocks from the old.

Pistachios draws clients from the building above and its neighbors, too.

Pistachios draws clients from the building above and its neighbors, too.

“We had thought about getting into a different neighborhood, so we drove around for days and toured many different locations,” Armstrong says. “None of them felt like us or our clients or our brand. When we walked into this one, it felt right.

“We have four windows, so it’s brighter, there’s a vestibule, we can buzz people in and out. Even though we’re still downtown, we’re underneath a high rise, so we get the neighborhood flavor; there are 50 floors above us, and 50 across the street.”

They embarked on a full brand makeover, including rethinking the pistachio green color scheme. “I wanted the tone to be brighter, more inviting and comfortable,” Armstrong says. A carpenter built new cases to match the old; the old ones were repainted in a new color. They split the space into two, with room for rotating exhibitions of contemporary art jewelers with their bigger, bolder work displayed along a back wall. “It really keeps our dedicated clientele on their toes with new and exciting work.”

The shows are curated to fit the season. In winter, Armstrong explains, shoppers are more bundled up, obstructed by coats and gloves, and so they tend to wear smaller jewelry. Summers bring customers without those impediments, as well as more foot traffic. “We get tourists from all over the world, runoff from conferences and conventions. We do take into consideration what’s going on in Chicago as well when planning exhibitions.”

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Owner and manager formed a close bond through the turmoil. “I don’t think we could have done it if neither of us cared that much,” says Aimone. “It was a lot of hard work.” Armstrong agrees. “I couldn’t have done it without Isabella,” she says.

“It was a couple tough years, but we stayed very active online, sent out a lot of emails and we do a lot of social media,” Armstrong says. “We never used the word closing; we always used the word moving, first to online and then to our new location. But we still have people who walk by and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought you closed.’ And we’re finally getting our snowbirds back.”

What sets the gallery apart, Armstrong believes, is the personal shopping experience that contrasts with what’s offered at big box stores on nearby Michigan Avenue. To prioritize clients feeling comfortable, especially during a pandemic, they incorporated a dressing room for privacy.

Pistachios prioritizes product photography and magazine placement.

Pistachios prioritizes product photography and magazine placement.

“New clients often remark on how refreshing it is to have staff curate suggestions and engage with them, and our more dedicated clientele is able to come into a local business where everyone knows their name, their preferences, and treats them like family,” Armstrong says. “We happily make house calls and work to accommodate any needs that may arise and love helping with special events; clients often come in with specific outfits and use our changing room to aid in finding the perfect set of jewelry to match for their big event.”

Online sales are about one-eighth of the total now, a percentage that has grown since 2020. “When I took over the gallery, we had a website, but for Isabella and myself, it was important to make the pictures better, to keep it updated, to include more of our artists,” Armstrong says.

Armstrong travels the world (Germany, Poland, Paris, London, New York, Greece and jewelry shows in Las Vegas, Baltimore and Chicago) looking for the highest quality work to take back to her local clientele, with a catalog of over 100 international and domestic artists displayed in the gallery.

Above all, Pistachios is known for having fun with its selections.

“We take a bolder approach, have more one of a kind,” Armstrong says. “Honesty is huge. If I think they don’t like it, I don’t push that on them. I listen to their needs. We do have a good amount of traditional jewelry and we make sure we have bolder items, especially with the exhibitions.”

Manager Isabella Aimone, left, and owner Jessica Armstrong formed a close bond that ensured the business succeeded through challenging times.

Manager Isabella Aimone, left, and owner Jessica Armstrong formed a close bond that ensured the business succeeded through challenging times.

Five Cool Things About Pistachios

1. SUPER SOCIAL. Sophie Peterson, brand manager and social media coordinator, prioritizes product photography. The team has used social media, including TikTok videos of new products, to break the fourth wall between the sometimes-intimidating world of contemporary art jewelry and their followers. They’ve also given followers a behind-the-scenes look into the gallery’s daily operations, shining a spotlight on staff and artists alike.

2. ARTIST IN RESIDENCE. Armstrong has her own line of jewelry but not much time to add to it. “I’m almost oversaturated, so when I get home, it’s more paperwork than benchwork. I try to take a workshop a year to continue my education, to learn a new process.”

3. CASUAL TRUNK SHOWS. Visiting artists have a full display case for trunk shows and may stay as long as they like. They have the opportunity to work on custom projects with new clients. Sip-and-shop events also bring artists and shoppers together.

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4. DID I SEE YOU IN VOGUE? Armstrong has advertised in Vogue, Allure and the Chicago Reader. The Vogue experience was fun, and the ad ran only in Chicago. “Clients did ask about it! They said, ‘Were you just in Vogue?’”

5. WIDER HORIZONS. Pistachios is known for jewelry, but they have an expansive collection of objects, vases, and glassware throughout the gallery. “People really have fallen in love with the more whimsical work from artists like Brian Randa and Gary Bodker,” says Armstrong.

PHOTO GALLERY (13 IMAGES)

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • amanda eddy:Innovative wall displays make pieces feel accessible and draw you in for a closer look, almost like you’re at an art gallery. Floating glass spheres in the window display give a whimsical peek at what’s to come inside.
  • gabrielle grazi:Truly a haven for global artists and emerging designers. Curated collections, inviting space. Appreciation for design, jewelry as fine art with gallery displays and a museum quality aesthetic.
  • larry johnson: Wow! A very cool store with the sense that treasures unseen before await inside.
  • joanne slawitsky:The overall look of this store is inviting. The layout of their showcases and lighting is impeccable. Their contemporary product line from different artisans is quite impressive.
  • shane o’neill:The store has a beautiful and clean look. Exterior screams luxury. Nice marketing with good use of TikTok and great marketing creativity with the pistachios!

 

Try This: Give Away a Brand Symbol

“We give out pistachios with every purchase as a thank-you for visiting the gallery and to remember the name Pistachios,” Armstrong says. “Clients expect them now. It makes new clients smile, and spouses are especially excited about the bonus snack.”

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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Celebrate Your Retirement with Wilkerson

For nearly three decades, Suzanne and Tom Arnold ran a successful business at Facets Fine Jewelry in Arlington, Va. But the time came when the Arnolds wanted to do some of the things you put off while you’ve got a business to run. “We decided it was time to retire,” says Suzanne, who claims the couple knew how to open a store, how to run a store but “didn’t know how to close a store.” So, they hired Wilkerson to do it for them. When she called, Suzanne says Wilkerson offered every option for the sale she could have hoped for. Better still, “the sale exceeded our financial goals like crazy,” she says. And customers came, not only to take advantage of the going-out-of-business buys and mark-downs, but to wish a bon voyage to the beloved proprietors of a neighborhood institution. “People were celebrating our retirement, and that was so special,” says says.

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