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A Dream Turned Into Gold

A Dream Turned Into Gold

Impromptu decision to open a business builds a community of artists.

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Alchemy 925, Belmont, MA

URL: alchemy925.com; OWNERS: Munya Avigail Upin and Kirsten Ball; FOUNDED: 2012; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2012; AREA: 400 square feet; EMPLOYEES: 3; BUILDOUT COST: $40,000; TOP DESIGNERS: James Binnion, Ryan Gardner, Thea Izzi, Karen Jacobson, Karen Karon, Jera Lodge, Tom McGurrin, Judith Neugebauer, Bree Richey, Beverly Tadeu; ONLINE PRESENCE: 5 stars on Google and Yelp; e-commerce enabled website


 

ALTHOUGH OPENING a jewelry store involved a steep learning curve for Munya Avigail Upin and Kirsten Ball, they didn’t leave themselves much time to dwell on the coming challenges.

After moving to the Boston area from London, Ball studied metalsmithing with Upin, who has teaching experience that includes the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design at Boston University. Before relocating, Ball’s career had been in historical gilding and interior restoration for Britain’s National Trust.

A few years after they met, in a conversation over coffee, Ball, who had been selling her jewelry at local craft shows, asked Upin, who had become a mentor, for advice about where else she could sell her jewelry. Upin joked that they should open a gallery together. But that joke led to the impromptu decision to do just that. They signed a lease within two weeks and opened Alchemy 925 just four months later.

“It happened pretty quickly from a spark of an idea to rolling our sleeves up and opening the store,” Ball says. Adds Upin, “We jumped into the deep end, and it’s been a great six years. We’re having a marvelous time.”

Alchemy 925 is a contemporary jewelry and fine craft gallery that represents 50 artists and showcases the owners’ own work. Upin specializes in woven metal and Judaica crafted from metal. Ball creates contemporary silver jewelry with geometric lines. The Boston-area gallery offers handmade works including gold and silver studio jewelry, ceramics, wearables, sculpture and glass. Repurposing old gemstones, remodeling heirlooms, designing and creating custom jewelry all make up a large part of the business.

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They also had the good fortune to find their ideal location — a 19th century Victorian house — that stands out from other buildings on the street and appealed to their design aesthetic. Both partners are big fans of mid-century design. Their interior space was blessed with natural oak floors, the perfect starting point for their vision. “We wanted something elegant, stylish and sophisticated,” Ball says. They designed all of the jewelry cases based on that aesthetic, with slender legs and simplicity, and to complement some display pieces they loved, including a mid-century modern credenza.

“We wanted to show off the jewelry and not have too much of an ornate interior,” Ball says.

While the operations side of retail presented a challenge, what came naturally to the pair was an inclination to help shoppers develop their own style. “We want to make people feel confident and gorgeous when finding the right jewelry for them,” Ball says.

“We don’t want to sell just to sell,” Upin says. “We want the pieces they select to really work for them and their style.”

Their guidance (and patience) extends to male shoppers who desperately need some direction.

“One male customer bought the same pair of earrings almost three times (for the same woman),” Ball says. “The first time, she loved them. The second time, she returned them and we did an exchange. When he came in the third time, and he went straight for them again, we had to diplomatically suggest that he look at a different designer’s earrings!”

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Upin and her former student have definite goals when it comes to their business, many of them focused on education and experimentation. The partners encourage shoppers to step out of their comfort zone to see how different they can look and feel if they try something a little more edgy — they have pieces made out of rubber, painted steel, beetle wings and titanium.

“One of our goals is to educate people about the wonderful world of handmade objects,” Ball says. “To open their eyes to the fact that not everything has to be manufactured by the tens of thousands in a faraway land. Many of our artists are local or regional, and customers love to support that artists’ community.”

They also encourage creativity among artists by organizing design competitions. In February, they held the opening reception of their first design challenge, called “LOVE.” Seventy-five artists started with the same kit of materials with the goal to design and create a piece that focuses on love. Of those, 29 pieces were accepted into the exhibition. Customers were invited to purchase the one-of-a-kind pieces for themselves or for a Valentine’s Day gift. Award winners were announced at the opening reception.

Ball and Upin are members of Ethical Metalsmiths and are dedicated to raising awareness of responsible mining and sustainable economic development. They represent artists who are also members, and they try to educate their customers about consciously making decisions when buying jewelry, thinking about the stones’ origins and whether they are traceable and ethically sourced.

If coolness is judged by the number of hugs received from strangers turned new customers, the store is successful beyond measure, they believe.

PHOTO GALLERY (11 IMAGES)

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5 Cool Things About Alchemy 925

1.FLEXIBLE SERVICE. The partners split the time the store is open and overlap their schedules in the middle of the day. Of course they’re never really off the clock. “We often stay late and meet with customers when we’re closed to accommodate their schedules,” Ball says. “We also make personal deliveries, even during blizzards.”

2.INSTANT IMPACT. The first year in business, the Boston Globe named the gallery “Best of the New.” Alchemy 925 has also been named one of the best jewelry stores in the Boston area and best gift store in Belmont by Boston-area publications.

3.WELCOMING TO ALL. A bowl of water is set up outside for dogs, who are welcome inside, too. The partners will happily entertain children so the parents are free to relax and shop. Because they’re in a small town and on the same block as many good restaurants, friends can meet in their gallery for an opening or trunk show and then go out to dinner.

4.ADD-ON PRODUCTS. They complement their jewelry with other handmade items, including scarves, candles, ceramics and hand-blown glass, although jewelry is always the main focus.

5.INDUSTRY CATALYSTS. In 2016, they sponsored a screening of SHARING THE ROUGH at the Harvard Natural History Museum. The film, by Orin Mazzoni, follows a rough gem from a mine in Africa to a stonecutter in Detroit and then onto a jeweler in California who creates a finished, wearable work of art. The free showing brought together members of Harvard’s Mineralogical and Geological Museum, makers of all kinds and the public. During the holiday season, they gave a copy of the film on Blu-Ray to special customers. In 2015, Alchemy 925 sponsored an international juried exhibition held in conjunction with the SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths) conference in Boston.

 

Try This: Give Your Business a Rebirth

Because they’re across the street from a craft beer store, Ball and Upin provide beer at their trunk shows and gallery openings.

 

Online Extra: Our Judges Say…

  • Alchemy 925 stands out from the competition in many ways. Here are some highlighted cool factors that I noted: amazing story of the opening collaboration, jewelry collections of individuality, the high importance of customer service, the ethical standard maintained and giving back to a good cause. It’s a cool store in my book! — Megan Whitmire, marketing manager, American Gem Trade Association
  • Alchemy 925 has a beautiful personality and refined style. It seems to fit well in its community and would draw shoppers in with its orderly yet comforting design. — Bernadette Mack, executive director, Women’s Jewelry Association
  • What I like the most about Alchemy 925 is their eclectic mix of jewelry, glass and ceramics and the way they display them together. I think they have succeeded in showing to their clients that they care about beautiful handmade objects. — Josette Patterson, creative director, Mark Patterson Jewelry
  • Knowledgeable owners with an international reputation, invested in promoting the artisan and bridging the divide between fine jewelry and contemporary metalsmithing. People who shop here can feel assured that the work is unique and thoughtfully crafted. Love the educational efforts of showing the film about the cycle of the gem and also practicing responsible sourcing of materials. — Thomas Mann, Thomas Mann I/O Gallery

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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