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Fast Rising Jewelry Stores: Z Folio Gallery

“We didn’t want to be just a shop. We wanted it to be a gallery,” says owner Zdena Jiroutova.

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Michael Mendizza and Zdena Jiroutova of Z Folio Gallery

ZDENA JIROUTOVA came to the United States to study philosophy. But sensing a market opportunity for the uniquely styled art glass from her Czech homeland, she was soon dragging a suitcase of optical crystals from town to town in central California to show to dealers and sell at trade fairs.

Thoughts about the complexity of the human condition were set aside, replaced by much more prosaic challenges: Navigating customs, building relationships with suppliers, raising capital and trying to find new customers. It was all a valuable business education. Just not very profitable. The margins on consignment were poor, and foreign exchange fluctuations further hurt her profits.

After two years of cold-calling retailers and wholesalers from Portland to Las Vegas, Jiroutova sat down to write a her first business plan, with help from Women’s Economic Ventures, an SBA-supported business center. A decision was made to move into retail and to add high-end jewelry to her mix.

With her husband, Michael Mendizza, Jiroutova settled on a retail space on the main strip of Solvang, a charming small town that serves as the southern gateway to California’s wine country, and Z Folio Gallery was born.

“We didn’t want to be just a shop. We wanted it to be a gallery, where people could interact with the inventory,” says Jiroutova.

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Unlike most initial business plans, the strategy was an almost immediate success. In its six years in existence, Z Folio Gallery has enjoyed average annual growth of close to 80 percent, with sales increasing from $50,000 (Jiroutova’s initial inventory) to more than $2.5 million. This year, they expect revenue to rise 23 percent, following on from 36 percent growth in 2011. The rapid growth allowed Jiroutova and Mendizza to open a second gallery in Monterey in just their third year in business and they are now looking to add a third location in Sausalito in the San Francisco Bay area. Final preparations are also under way to launch an online store that has been two years in the making.

“We’ve been staggered by how well the business has done,” says Mendizza, who attributes much of the success to putting the right product in front of the right number of shoppers. “Two million people a year walk past our windows in Solvang,” he says, while an estimated 4 million wander along the famous Cannery Row retail district, where the Monterey store is based.

If location and location are the first two components of their successful formula, the right inventory selection is the third. “Glass and jewelry make the perfect mix,” says Jiroutova, explaining that the colorful Czech glass is cut and faceted like jewelry to highlight the play of light.

Z Folio features the works of some of the best known glass artists to come out of the Czech Republic, including Bohumil Elias, the late Stanislav Libensky, and Tomas Hlavicka. “People walk in and see these brilliant colors, shapes, textures and world class quality of the glass and are just blown away,” Mendizza says.

While the tone of the stores is set by the art glass and Mendizza’s own large-format nature photography that hangs from the walls, the business engine is actually the fine jewelry, which accounts for 70 percent of sales.

Among the designers currently being featured by Z Folio are Bernd Wolf, Ed Levin, J. Kennedy Design, Etienne Perret, Atelier Munsteiner, Sarah Graham, and Alex Sepkus, for whom Z Folio is one of the top 10 retailers in the U.S.

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Chris Burslem is Group Managing Editor at SmartWork Media.

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