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Cool Store: Thomas Michaels Designers Inc.

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A love of fine design and a commitment to customer service are the maine thing.

When the owners of Thomas Michaels Designers decided it was time to open their dream jewelry gallery, they found a prime spot on a main street in the seaside tourist town of Camden, ME, where they had lived and worked for 25 years. First, Thomas Michaels and Nora Hattman-Michaels reinvented the 125-year-old building with cool technology and a sleek arts and crafts interior. Then, in 2008, they opened their doors to well-heeled, luxury customers, some of whom arrive by yacht. But Michaels says that as great as their building, location and clientele are, it’s their reputation and skill as artists that ensure those customers return.

Quick Facts

Thomas Michaels Designers

Camden, ME

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OWNERS:Thomas Michaels and Nora Hattman-Michaels
URL:
www.thomasmichaels.com
AREA:
1,400 square feet
EMPLOYEES:
4 full-time, 2 part-time
FOUND:
1977

cool reason # 1: the road to retail

Thomas Michaels was heir to a family tradition of silversmithing — at which his grandfather was a master — and began crafting tabletop items when he was only 8. But as he left school, dining abruptly “deformalized” and the tabletop industry began leaving jewelry stores. Still, he continued to pursue his craft, albeit in a nontraditional way, at craft shows. But it was the couple’s jewelry that sold, first at craft shows, then in craft galleries, and finally in fine jewelry stores. “We were among the first people to start copyrighting jewelry designs,” Thomas says. “We innovated some cool, clean stuff but it was a struggle because jewelry stores didn’t know how to market designers yet.” More recently, they decided to design for and sell to consumers. Although they don’t make every piece of jewelry on display, they are very selective and also carry giftware, including Nora’s glass work. “We stay away from the commercial norm,” Thomas says. “There’s nothing here you’ll find in a typical store.”

cool reason # 2: diy store design

Their building was, to say the least, a fixer-upper. They excavated the basement, creating headroom for a stockroom, bathroom and galley kitchen, and eliminating a collection of old plumbing and heating fixtures.

They consulted engineers but not architects, preferring to design the space themselves. Everything was custom-fabricated, including the interior doors and LED lighting. Thomas created half-inch-thick glass shelves that can support hundreds of pounds but seem to magically float without visible hardware. Nora’s brother, master cabinetmaker Mark Hattman, engineered and built sleek cabinets with a matte black finish.

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The store’s focal point, an open atrium, is painted flat black and filled with theatrical lighting. For the asymmetrical façade, which reflects the lines of the interior, giant pieces of black granite from Quebec were cut and polished to create the foundation for a glass and bronzed aluminum curtain wall.

cool reason # 3: a happy place

Yes, customers are the priority, but happy employees make customers happy. When it comes to management, Thomas considers how he’d like to be treated.

“My people need to be happy in their own lives, so we are extremely flexible about personal issues, vacation times. There are no rules here. It’s based on what they need.”

Thomas says the staff’s friendliness, an overall sense of fun, and the store’s open, informal design all encourage sales in a low-key, non-commissioned way. They do whatever they can to break down barriers. “You can see our feet under the showcases. And we get our salespeople out on the floor; before they were behind the showcase. A lot of consumers come in fairly well armed with resistance and we are able to disarm them. We talk about everything else with them before it comes around to jewelry.” During the summer, which brings a huge influx of out-of-state visitors, Thomas Michaels throws its doors open and invites everyone in for a wine and cheese party.

cool reason # 4: display concept

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With the help of their son, Roth Michaels, Thomas and Nora are pioneering a multimedia display to showcase hundreds of their copyrighted designs. It includes a large format LCD display, sound system and local network control software. While idle, the system presents a series of high-quality product photographs and accompanying music. Using a wireless touchscreen device for navigation, the HD display can be used as a learning center providing detailed information on products and materials. But although imagery is important, it will never replace the opportunity to touch and examine the finished product. “We are master jewelers as well as designers and we need to show the quality of what we put together,” Thomas says.

cool reason # 5: marketing on the fly or on the phone

At the Portland International Airport (Maine’s main air gateway), passengers are greeted by images of Thomas’ jewelry on six large screens in baggage claim. The store also advertises in the waiting area of the private jet terminal at the regional airport. “Maine is such a diverse, spread out state, but everybody seems to go through one of the two airports, and they end up having to go through baggage claim at some point,” Thomas says. Thomas Michaels Designers is also one of 100,000 “Google Favorite Place” stores (based on search engine popularity). That honor came with a Google QR code in the front window that can be scanned by a smart phone to open pages about the jewelry, customer reviews, store hours and events. On the way out of the store, a client can even scan the QR code and post a review.

Store Interior

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Store Exterior

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Store Marketing

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Five Questions with Nora Hattman Michaels and Thomas Michaels

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO GO INTO RETAIL?
When we went into retail, we were able to go upscale. Instead of a bridge or medium- to high-priced designer line, it allowed us to get into the luxury end of the industry.

WHAT APPEALS TO YOU ABOUT THE JEWELRY BUSINESS?
We are really blessed in this trade. What we do as jewelers is get involved in the greatest gift between people. We enable someone to gift a piece from their heart and that is very significant. Why not have that gift be as exceptional as possible?

WHAT ARE YOU ABLE TO DO THAT YOU BELIEVE OTHERS DON’T?
One of the very biggest things lacking in the business is technical competence, and it’s getting worse. CAD is not making anybody a designer all the way from the concept to the finished piece. We are seeing too many problematic rings with both wearability and production issues. There’s also a lack of quality of stone setting. There is a huge distinction between “fine” jewelry and exceptional jewelry.

WHY DO YOU FEEL SO STRONGLY ABOUT THIS ISSUE?
Diamond and platinum and gold are noble materials and they should be treated nobly. Why as humans are we commoditizing these materials? That was one of the beauties of old world jewelry. It was exquisitely crafted. 

DO YOUR EMPLOYEES WORK ON COMMISSION?
I do not believe in commission. I cannot send that signal to my clients, no way, no how. If my clients got a fragrance of that it would be the kiss of death. And the last thing we want to have is sales people fighting over clients.

TRY THIS

When it absolutely has to be lobster

CONSIDER WHAT LOCAL SPECIALTIES you might share with customers as thank-you or Christmas gifts, particularly if you’re in a tourist destination. In Maine, it’s a clear choice: “We often ship lobsters overnight to clients for special occasions.”

TRY THIS

Focus your learning.

WHEN LOOKING FOR BENCH EDUCATION, you or your bench jeweler should focus on very specific skill development, Thomas Michaels suggests. “Learn how to do pavé and don’t do anything else until you can do it. Learn how to channel-set and don’t do anything else until you can do it.”

 

TRUE TALE 

WE HAVE AN ELDERLY FRIEND WE HADN’T SEEN FOR YEARS. She was in her late 80s the last time we’d seen her. She had a pair of gold-filled ball earrings that she asked me to be replated. We said, let’s just buy Doris a new pair of 14K gold-ball earrings. We bought them, and for years they sat in the safe waiting for her.We thought she must have moved into a nursing home and we lost track of her. Then one day, this young woman with a child comes in with Great Grandma in tow — a tiny, thin woman all dolled up with perfect makeup and nail polish. It was Doris! By then she was 99 years old. We exchanged hugs and we brought out her earrings. She put them on, looked at herself in the mirror and said, “Do you think they make me look old?” She was still that sharp. I said, “Not a day over 98.” — THOMAS MICHAELS

This story is from the September 2010 edition of INSTORE

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