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Female store owners find strength in numbers while bringing balance to the jewelry industry.

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When Cathy Calhoun, “the queen” of the retail jewelry industry, declares that women are taking over the world, you might want to take note. Calhoun is the owner of the bi-coastal Calhoun Jewelers, president of the American Gem Society from 2010-2012 and the 2017 recipient of the Robert M. Shipley Award.

Cathy Calhoun and Libby Good

Cathy Calhoun hosts her friend, Libby Good, during a beer tasting at the bar in her Royersford, PA, store. On tap? Yuengling’s Hershey Chocolate beer.

“When I first got into the business, I remember going to a jewelry show. The suppliers were all men at the time, and they wouldn’t even look at me,” Calhoun recalls. “They didn’t feel I was worthwhile to talk to. Sometimes, even today, if I take a manager to a show, they will direct the conversation to the man. I always have to laugh. It was such an old boys’ club for so long.”

Women bring to the industry a natural affinity for trends, fashion and detail, as well as a seemingly innate ability to multitask, Calhoun says. “Women are taking over the world, not just the jewelry industry,” she says.

Still, there are signs that remnants of that old boys’ club lingers. A 2018 Women’s Jewelry Association Gender Equality survey, in which more than 90 percent of respondents were female, found that 30 percent of jewelry retail employees say they have been deprived of equal opportunities for advancement, 38 percent say they have been affected by pay disparity and 50 percent have witnessed discrimination or harassment in the workplace. As a response to the survey, the WJA in November debuted a new benefit for members called Negotiable. The learning program offers a collection of resources — videos, assessments, worksheets, and more — which can help its members build their ability to negotiate a promotion, a better vendor contract, or higher sales.

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On the other hand, women’s leadership in jewelry companies and organizations such as AGS, as well as a burgeoning population of female jewelry designers, have had an inevitable, incremental impact on gender equality in the industry overall. And anecdotally, at the retail level, female store owners are taking the lead on selling directly to women, who represent a significant area of revenue growth.

Millennial Chae Carter is a case in point. Carter began working with her mom at Carter’s Jewelry when she was only 20 years old; not long after, she took over the business and began daydreaming about her ideal store. She began living her dream in Petal, MS, two years ago. “I dreamed of this store and I designed the whole thing,” she says. “It’s pretty, shiny and bright.”

Her new destination store hit the $4 million mark last year in a town of 10,000. Fans of her social media are driving four to six hours to visit her, and customers have left 467 Google reviews with an average 5-star rating. “They say they don’t know of anything else like this,” Carter says.

Carter’s sales staff is all female. She encourages an entrepreneurial attitude. “We do a lot of training. I like to promote women’s empowerment. I ask, what do you want to accomplish? We lift each other up.”

Chae Carter and the team at Carter's Jewelry

For Chae Carter, second from right, every day is a celebration of female empowerment at Carter’s Jewelry of Petal, MS. Many customers stop by every week to join in the celebration.

One of her challenges is keeping the inventory and the store’s appearance fresh because many of her female customers stop in every week. “As women, we like to shop when we’re sad, happy; we’re emotional shoppers. So we’re like therapist jewelers: Come sit down, let’s gossip. We know everything about them when they leave.”

“Even when men shop for a woman, it makes sense to shop with a female sales associate,” she adds. “Because what we want as women is to have our guy come home with exactly what we want and blow our minds.”

One way Carter and her female associates make sure it’s the right thing for the woman who will be wearing it is by encouraging men to think in terms of storytelling. “If you have three kids, we’ll suggest looking at three-stone pieces and then tell her, this made me think of you and our children. It’s harder for men to show emotion and talk about that stuff, but we’ll force it out of them.”

Consultant Andrea Hill of Hill Management Co. says leaders, no matter their gender, are as individual as snowflakes, but studies of the ways men and women lead do reveal some clear differences. “Men tend to be slightly more willing to take risks, and women tend to be better at working out win/win solutions. So, how is the jewelry industry changing as women gain more control in management? I think it is becoming more balanced — both in how we manage and how we serve the customers. And this is a good thing.”

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Some women say this balance of power has been a hard-fought achievement.

When jewelry designer Viviana Langhoff launched her career in the jewelry retail business 12 years ago, she would send her husband with a post-it note to do business with her manufacturers. He not only got more respect, but he got a better deal, she says, even though he had only a vague notion of what he was requesting.

But Langhoff, who owns a store in Chicago, says as more women become actively involved in the U.S. jewelry industry, the tide is turning, in large part because women are supporting one another. Her involvement in the Chicago chapter of the Women’s Jewelry Association made her realize how cooperative other women in the business can be.

In the past, Langhoff says, women could navigate the jewelry business with ease only if they were employees associated with a well-known company or they were part of a jewelry legacy. Otherwise, it took a long time as an independent entrepreneur to be taken seriously. 

To avoid a daily struggle, she has surrounded herself with people who are forward-thinking; the manufacturer she works with now is led by 30-something brothers who have a fresh vision. “You have to be savvy and you also have to have resilience, which I do now.”

Whether suppliers or manufacturers are being disrespectful because of gender or because they are disrespectful in general, Hill says, “Stop doing business with them. I’m serious about this. Anyone who is still behaving in these outmoded ways has made a choice — even if that choice is as simple as ‘I don’t want to change.’ There is more beautiful jewelry, excellent tools and equipment, packaging, and display products out there than any one retailer could possibly use, so eliminating one vendor and replacing them with a better partner will not hurt your bottom line.”

Even the legacy factor was not always a guarantee of ownership. Kate Peterson says store owners didn’t always want to pass along their business to a daughter. “There was a time in a family business when it was hard for women to take over, because what do you do with the kids?” Peterson says. Even now, some consumers walk in with the expectation that the jewelry store owner is “some guy,” Peterson says.

“Consumers have weird ideas about who should own a business. They can be standing right next to the owner and ask if they can talk to the owner. Women on the bench have the same issue. People walk in and say, ‘Let me talk to your guy back there,’ and the woman on the bench says, ‘I am your guy back there.’ I don’t believe they do it maliciously, but people operate from their own experience. But convincing them otherwise is not hard.”

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Of course, there are plenty of notable exceptions. Borsheims has had female leadership for the past 25 years, with Karen Goracke at the helm for five years. Eighty percent of Borsheims employees are female, and leadership is predominantly female. “So for us,” she says, “it’s just business as usual.”

Business as usual, for Goracke, means a family-friendly work environment and more of a focus on work/life balance before that was even really a phrase.

Karen Goracke of Borsheims

Karen Goracke, president and CEO of Borsheims.

“For instance, I worked here after college, then decided to stay home with my children when they were young. As my kids grew up, I was welcomed back at first part-time and then full-time, growing into my current position as president and CEO. It’s been a wonderful place to work with colleagues who embrace and lift up other women.”

Goracke says women can provide a unique approach to leadership. “We tend to have higher emotional intelligence, which can be a powerful strength. The mindset of running a business strategically but with an emotional approach has been instrumental to our success over the past three decades.”

In terms of running the business, Peterson says, “women are more likely to buy for fashion and personal taste than strictly by the numbers. I’ve watched the difference between how women and men buy diamonds in Antwerp. A man looks at a spectacular diamond and calculates how it will fit in the inventory. A woman looks at it and is literally jumping out of her seat about it and posting it on social media. It’s a level of emotion that drives an excitement that is different in a lot of stores now.”

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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