Porter LyonsNEW ORLEANS
OWNER: Ashley Porter / LOCATION: New Orleans / URL: porterlyons.com / OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2016 / FOUNDED: 1989 / AREA: 1,850 square feet / EMPLOYEES: 7, part-time / BUILDOUT COST: $60,000/ ARCHITECT: Mark McDavitt / ONLINE PRESENCE: E-commerce enabled website; 4.5 Stars on Yelp; 6,246 Facebook followers
Wander past the Porter Lyons jewelry store in New Orleans’ historical French Quarter, and you’re bound to do a double-take.
You may ask yourself: 1. Is that a life-sized ostrich holding a large jewelry case? 2. Have I indulged in one too many Sazaracs?
If the ostrich sculpture doesn’t hook you, you’re sure to notice on the threshold official store greeter and French bulldog Gaston wagging his whole body, daring you to keep walking without scratching behind his ears.
And then there are those enticing wicker basket chairs dangling from the ceiling that can be seen through the romantic open shutters.
The whole scene offers a laid-back New Orleans-style invitation to passersby in the city’s iconic, 300-year-old French Quarter, where many a retail magnet, passing parade or street musician vie for tourist attention.
This is all before you’ve even really seen the jewelry.
Once you take a peek inside, you’ll get a better view of those hand-carved ostrich sculptures, designed by Porter and made by a local artist, as well as hand-forged triangle wall displays for a gallery feel, hand-built heart of pine wood slats for the juice bar, and dreamcatchers made by Porter, who was inspired by New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians’ beadwork and costumes.
You’ll be offered a drink — sparkling water, kombucha, cold-pressed juice from the juice bar. Multi-talented artist and designer Ashley Porter is likely to be on site as well.
Porter, who grew up near San Francisco, took a circuitous route to designing jewelry in New Orleans.
Her link to New Orleans is a good story, too. Her grandmother, Olga Lyons, was born in New Orleans and is descended from the Lyons family, which traces its history in the city back to the 1860s. Civil War veteran Isaac Lyons started his pharmaceutical supply business in 1866 in New Orleans. The company’s best-known product was a sugary-sweet syrup known as nectar, which became a New Orleans soda fountain staple for decades under the name nectar soda.
When Porter came to the city for college on a cross country scholarship to Tulane University, something struck a chord with her. “Seeing all the live oaks, I knew I had found my new home,” she says.
At Tulane, she studied marketing and studio arts, then stuck around for a master’s degree in finance. After that, she moved to Los Angeles for a job with Merrill Lynch. In L.A., she also earned an associate’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, where a school project inspired her to design alligator belts with Louisiana in the back of her mind. Next stop on the career ladder was New York, where she worked for Ralph Lauren and Balenciaga. “I felt very disconnected at a large corporation, and I felt like the things I was doing were so far apart from the end user. Our culture wants to support local artisans and life is richer when we are more connected. I feel the greatest satisfaction when I can make something with my hands.”
“I’ve always loved jewelry,” she says. “It can act as an amulet, reminding you of a time or place or person.”
Even so, a career in jewelry was a happy accident. After moving to New Orleans and launching her accessory brand focused on alligator belts, she found an alligator backbone she wanted to make into a necklace. In the process, she taught herself casting. She began to experiment with other raw materials plentiful in New Orleans, like agate, Louisiana’s state mineral. “I try to preserve what is local to the culture,” Porter says.
The jewelry collections she designs seek to preserve the mysticism, uniqueness and lifestyle of the people and places around her. From “Backbone” to “Voodoo,” each piece’s design reflects New Orleans’ people, environment, animals, history and spirituality. She incorporates locally sourced materials, including alligator bones, in her jewelry. Initially, she sold her jewelry at art markets, on her website and through a local warehouse. “I had a huge demand for customers to come and see the warehouse,” she says.
She opened her store in 2016 and continues to complete 15 to 20 percent of sales online.
“I feel there comes a time in your brand, after you’ve built a customer base, that the next step is brick and mortar,” she says. “So it was a natural progression with the brand and it’s a dream come true. It’s amazing to see my designs under one roof and to do the buildout exactly like my vision.” Her background in marketing and finance make her a well-rounded entrepreneur. “HR is the biggest hurdle, but when you find the right people who are enthusiastic about the business, it’s heaven on earth.”
Store manager Colleen Harrigan says she enjoys the creative freedom fostered by her boss and the brand. “I’ve never seen anything else like this jewelry. Big statement pieces that can be worn with jeans and a T-shirt,” Harrigan says. “Someone who is 15 or 69 can wear it and be age appropriate, which is super cool.”
Moving beyond sterling silver and gold-plated jewelry, Porter debuted her first fine jewelry collection, Crescent City, in October 2016, in gold. Each piece has the astrological placement of New Orleans hidden within the design, which is inspired by the stars and the serpentine curves of the Mississippi River. A signature blue diamond in each piece ties the collection together.
One thing you won’t find here is a fleur de lis collection. Why? Nearly every other jewelry store in New Orleans sells a version of that. She does have a live oak ring, a storm surge ring and an oil spill pendant.
Her latest collection comes full circle; it’s based on pharmaceuticals, inspired by her family history. “Whatever theme I’m doing, I research a subject down to its bones. I’m very analytical.”
Porter says shoppers appreciate the experience she’s created. “They tell me, ‘I’ve been looking for your store and I didn’t even know it existed.’ Our mission is to spread happiness and kindness, so when someone buys a piece of jewelry, I hope they feel that same kind of joy from the jewelry they feel in the store.”
“I do get asked sometimes, “Are the ostriches for sale?” Harrigan says.
“But one of the greatest compliments we get is you feel good when you’re here and you leave feeling good, whether you bought a piece of jewelry or not. You got to stare at our rocks for a while or had a good time with Gaston.”
PHOTO GALLERY (20 IMAGES)
Five Cool Things About Porter Lyons
1. E-COMMERCE SUCCESS: There’s a live chat feature on the website that facilitates online shopping that accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the business.
2. OSTRICH SCULPTURES: “I went to an ostrich farm a few years ago. They are such prehistoric creatures! I’m inspired by animals and I’m a vegetarian. So I collaborated with a local artist, and he brought my idea to fruition. It’s amazing what nature has provided for us.”
3. CELEBRITY ALLURE: Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence and Cameron Diaz have all worn Ashley Porter’s pieces.
4. CREATING BONDS: Monthly team-building experiences have included parties and breakfasts around New Orleans. They also host yoga classes that are open to the community as well as the team.
5. COASTAL CONCERN: Porter Lyons is committed to restoring and protecting a sustainable and vibrant coast by donating 5 percent of all profits to the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana.
Sofia Kaman: So unique and definitely cool! Love the creative displays from the molded ears to the ostrich case. I especially like the strong connection to the local community from the design styles and motifs to the related charities. Bravo!
Lyn Falk: An online chat box popped up when visiting the website, a nice nod to customer service. Interior is very creative, plenty to see the customer engaged. Thought was put into a lot of decorative elements and furnishings without being cluttered or distracting. Overall, well done concept.
Tiffany Stevens: A mystical gem meshing perfectly with the vibes of the bayou.
Mia Katrin: Edgy, fun and unique interior design. Creative individual themes ranging from the New Orleans themed decor and jewelry to a kombucha and juice bar. You can see why Porter Lyons is a celebrity magnet!