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Artistic Endeavor

Tennessee jeweler wanted the kind of gallery you might find in Europe or Manhattan, not Memphis.

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Bartholomew Jewelers; Memphis, TN

URL: bartholomewjewelers.com; OWNER: Laurie Bartholomew; FOUNDED: 1995; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2012; COST OF BUILDOUT: $22,000; AREA: 1,012 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 2; FACEBOOK: 532 likes; ETSY ADMIREERS: 346


IF NOT FOR THE TIPOFF of the front sign and jewelry-box wooden cases in the windows, you’d feel like you’re entering an art gallery when you walk into Bartholomew Jewelers. Shadow-box frames hang along silver-painted walls, divided by a sleek row of tall wooden cases lit by low-hanging pendant lamps.

All contain jewelry designed by owner Laurie Bartholomew, but you can’t see that until you get close and begin to loop through the room, staring at the spot-lit contents.

“Art gallery” was precisely what the owners had in mind when they designed the store they opened in 2012 — the kind of gallery you might find in Europe or Manhattan, not so much in Memphis. The designer’s husband and partner, Garen Shrader, is a painter, so the couple had plenty of experience marketing fine art. They decided to present Laurie’s jewelry the same way.

They chose to locate the store across from a high-end salon in the Laurelwood Collection, a shopping center in the heart of Memphis that gets a lot of foot traffic — and just the right clientele. Bartholomew sees this now as the smartest move of her career.

Something about staring at individual necklaces in a frame makes you recognize the elaborate enameling and unusual colored stones for what they are: miniature artworks mounted in metal — wearable, framed paintings. As soon as the new store opened, Bartholomew says, longtime customers began remarking on pieces they’d passed over a dozen times: “Wow! I’ve never seen this before.”

“Before, my jewelry was in crowded, conventional display cases and customers didn’t really see it,” Bartholomew says of her previous stores. “Being artists, we thought it would be better to display it like art — because it is my art.”

The experiment worked. While overhead rose substantially, sales nearly doubled the first year the store was open.

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A Family Affair

While Bartholomew Jewelers is not a family business in the conventional sense, the store and brand have become a family project. All product in the store is designed and produced by Laurie who can be found working at the bench behind the sales floor, while her husband and an assistant man the counter.

Shrader helped design the studio and showroom, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors installed to expand the narrow, shotgun space and allow customers to try on the jewelry. “Instead of just a little counter mirror that shows your face, you can see your entire figure and picture what you would wear with something,” Bartholomew says. “I think it really helps, especially with earrings.”

She and Shrader hired her nephew, Justin Wilburn, a skilled woodworker, to build the freestanding cases based on a snapshot Bartholomew took many years ago of a gallery she visited in Amsterdam. The cases are so tall, customers peer into them almost at eye level.

Another family member, Justin’s wife, Molly, has become the face behind the brand, the model seen in all advertising for the store, from small display ads to direct-mail event invitations to full-size billboards.

Emerging From The Bench

After getting her BFA in jewelry making in 1983, Laurie Bartholomew spent 12 years at the bench working for local jewelers before opening her first independent showroom in 1995. Over the years, she developed a core group of customers.

Her first shop was all but hidden, 300 square feet in a four-story office building. Her second was larger but presented the jewelry in a conventional way. Both were within a few blocks of the current location.

Jewelers in Memphis are concentrated mainly in one square mile, and Bartholomew has always worked at the center. But while she was well known as a bench jeweler, she wanted to do more original design. Customers who came to her for repairs and basic wedding bands often missed the distinctive pieces she was creating on her own, until the new location opened.

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DIY Style Parties

Bartholomew is fast developing a reputation for throwing in-store parties that involve champagne and impromptu jewelry-design collaborations. She serves as both hostess and quick-draw sketch artist.

While the store’s showroom is all about showcasing her original designs, the events allow Bartholomew to build her rep for custom design while taking advantage of all that experience at the bench. She now has four annual parties she advertises online and in print media. In May, she invites a gem supplier to come in and display his stones, inviting customers to shop the trays as she sketches designs around their gemstones of choice.

In September, customers pour in bearing her “restyle party” ad and bags of jewels they no longer wear — outdated pieces inherited from relatives, wedding rings that no longer suit them. “As you get older, tastes change,” Bartholomew says. “If you’re over 40, you don’t like little, dinky jewelry. Or you have jewelry that is so ’80s, you would never wear it, but it has a lot of good stones in it.”

As the women sip champagne, nibble canapés, and compare horrors, Bartholomew mingles, sifts through their piles and brainstorms with them. First, she focuses in on what kind of jewelry they wear and what’s missing from their wardrobes. Then she starts sketching out ideas, explaining pricing options.

At her last restyle party, a woman from California came in with a pile of buried treasure. Magical transformations included a pendant fashioned from a huge, asymmetrical diamond brooch the woman thought was hideous. Bartholomew isolated one section they both liked, added a chain, and bought the remainder as scrap metal. The woman left thrilled. “She said it was just like Christmas,” Bartholomew says.

The restyle party boosted September sales and, at the crucial start of the holiday shopping season, attracted new clients.

Make ’Em Feel Good

Many people ask “Where’s Laurie?” as soon as they enter the store.

“They just want to tell me what they want, so that’s fine,” Bartholomew says. “Even if it’s something someone else could have handled, I go up and talk to them. I try to keep track of whatever I’m working on, so I can get back to it later.

“I don’t care what they’re buying,” she says. “I’ll take the time, see what they need, make them feel good. We try to make everybody feel like they’re the best customer.”

PHOTO GALLERY (10 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Bartholomew Jewelers

1. CUSTOMIZABLE PIECES. Much of the jewelry in the store is customizable, allowing customers to choose color palettes in the enameling or have personal messages, quotes or song lyrics stamped on a word bracelet. “These pieces are very popular because they allow the client to play a direct role in the design,” Laurie says. “There are not many jewelry stores in Memphis that enable the customer to deal directly with the person making their jewelry.”

2. GEMSTONE PARTIES. Another way she encourages design participation is by holding an annual gemstone party, a trunk show of sorts where a gem dealer covers every surface with trays. Customers sift through stones as she moves around the room, suggesting designs. They can take their treasures home but most have a ticket made up and stash them at the store. This event attracts 30 to 40 customers and many commissions.

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3. LOYALTY REWARDS. Realizing most sales were coming from word-of-mouth, Bartholomew set up a reward system. Any time a sale results from a referral, customers receive a thank-you gift card for 25 percent off their next purchase. Preferred customers can also borrow statement pieces from the showroom to wear at special events. (These loans also provide the store free publicity at high-profile events.)

4. WISH BOOK. Since most jewelry in the store is self-purchased by women, and men often feel uneasy choosing art jewelry, the store keeps a wish book listing favorite pieces beside customer names “for future reference by husbands and boyfriends.”

5. DOGGY MASCOT. Sheila, their 4-year-old Australian cattle dog, comes to work with her owners every day. “She is great with clients and a perfect attraction when kids are in the showroom,” Bartholomew says.

Try This

  • Fresh flowers, artfully placed
  • Chilled champagne on special evenings, weekends, and “whenever appropriate”.
  • Schedule annual events on the same weekend each year “like auction houses,” so customers know when to expect it.

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