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John Paul Designs

Thrift-store chic

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John Paul Designs, Bend, OR

OWNERS: John Paul; YEAR FOUNDED: 1997; STORE AREA: 1,300 square feet; EMPLOYEES: One part-time assistant; URL: johnpauldesigns.com


JOHN PAUL, owner of John Paul Designs in Bend, OR, likes his handmade, rough-hewn jewelry to feel like it could be 100 years old. Appropriately, his gallery has a vintage motif, furnished with a metal library desk and cases and lockers salvaged from the now-defunct Magill’s Drug Store. The rugged-looking façade sports a lava rock wall, recycled steel and concrete planters and a 55-gallon Hangsterfer’s drum display that once held metalworking lubricant. The theme is true thrift-store chic, he says. “We have a very small space that manages to still have some breathing room. We like to think of the gallery as our own little retail living room.”

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1. INSPIRATION.  Paul became intrigued with handmade jewelry circuitously. As a child, he helped his father, an auctioneer in rural Wisconsin, sell a wide variety of stuff. He was mesmerized by the objects that had stories attached to them. He particularly liked simple, handmade things that were repaired and used over and over again. Eventually, he was inspired to create brand new jewelry that looks old, worn and imbued with character. He compares his weathered work to the doors on an old pine cupboard, where thousands of hands have worn away the paint to expose bare wood. “It is a feeling. It isn’t about perfection. It’s about warmth and pleasure.” Most of his business is custom wedding and engagement rings. Each ring is carved in wax by hand and hand-cast or hand-fabricated in metal. He uses polish, though sparingly, to contrast with the organic nature of the jewelry.

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2. LIVING ROOM VIBE.  Since Paul works pretty much alone (he has one part-time assistant, Amy Castano), he doesn’t live by many rules. You can bring your dog in. He serves coffee in the morning, and beer and wine around closing time.

“It is what it is and a lot of people — from wealthy San Franciscans to locals — like it. It’s a little bit like your living room. It’s really comfortable and not pretentious.” During a monthly gallery walk, Paul serves Miller and Pabst, or — in season — brandy with eggnog. After having to adhere to dress codes when he worked in other stores, he prefers to wear cutoff shorts and sandals in his own. “The very first job I had I started out at $5 an hour, and I had a dress code even though the owner highly discouraged me from coming out of the shop into the store. I never saw customers, so the dress code irked me.”

3. ADVERTISING.  Writing his rent check every month is the most important component of Paul’s less-than-formal marketing campaign. “Bend is so small that chances are quite great that every tourist will walk by my store,” he says. “It’s the rule of serendipity. If you find my store, you find it. If you don’t, you don’t.” He can leave it to chance for now, since he is overwhelmed with work from foot traffic and word of mouth, and not quite ready to hire more help.

Since he’s five doors down from a popular brew pub, patrons window-shop his store at night, which leads to business the next morning. “I purposely don’t put price tags in the front window, but I put out a lot of interesting pieces to make sure they come back.”

4. GENEROSITY.  “One of the hardest parts of my job,” Paul says, “is to realize that not everyone can afford my jewelry.” Occasionally, if a couple he likes comes in and falls in love with a budget-busting piece, Paul will do what amounts to twice the work for half the cost. “I consider it my pro bono work.” The most recent recipient of this service exclaimed, “Oh my God, oh my God, I never thought I would own anything like this in my entire life!”

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5. TAKING CUSTOM TO THE EDGE. Paul invites customers to view his portfolio, which reveals at least one surprise, commissioned by a tattoo artist. “He had a Chihuahua that had lost a front tooth and he asked, ‘Will you make this into a necklace for me?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do a Chihuahua tooth.” It gets weirder, though. A year later the client came across an old wisdom tooth and asked Paul to make it into a ring. “It had four large gnarly roots on it. I cut off the roots with a separating disc. That is the last time I will cut a tooth in half. It was the worst smell ever — to smell a tooth burning.” But the finished piece is displayed in his portfolio. “We always know when customers come to that page. People freak. It’s the only one that’s way the hell out there.”

Five Questions with John Paul

1. WHAT SETS YOUR BUSINESS APART? I make everything. I think people will pay more for that. You can go into a jewelry store down the street and walk out with a ring and they are going to reorder that because it’s a hot seller. So, you’re going to run into someone at a bar with the same ring.

2. CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE? Everyone wants a Three Sisters wedding ring (named for three neighboring volcanic peaks in the region). I have hand-carved one 15 different times, each a one-off wax. I ask myself, “Why do I not just mold a freaking Three Sisters ring and sell the hell out of it for cheaper?” But I just can’t seem to do it. And I can sell it for $700 bucks in silver versus $300 molded somewhere else.

3. HOW DID YOU START OUT? I opened the store in 1997 in about 300 square feet. Before that, I started out in my garage doing contract work. Every time I moved I got a little better and a little bigger. Initially the whole space was my shop. There was no gallery, no store, no cases. I started doing more of my own work, got some cases, put my work in there and stopped doing contract work. I started giving the gallery space more and more square footage.

4. WHAT’S IT LIKE NOW?
I have about 1,300 square feet, and my gallery space is less than half of that. I have a huge shop with nearly every tool that I could want this side of a laser welder. I’m kind of a tool freak.

5. TELL US ABOUT SOME OUT-OF-THE-BOX MARKETING. A few years back, we donated a signature dog tag to Bruce Willis. It was a gift from a comedy club in LA, and he wore it for his two-day stint in Las Vegas. Recently, after winning front-row seats to see singer Brandi Carlile, we got to meet her and have since sent her a personalized dog tag. We believe in having our work worn by musicians and believe others will notice. We also believe in the tooth fairy.

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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