In this occasional new column, we’ll speak with custom jewelers operating without a storefront, exploring the different ways they run their business, the challenges they’ve faced, and how they deal with finding and marketing to new clients.
Tell us about your studio.
I have two studios. I have my current studio in Atlanta that’s a commercial space I sublet from a wholesale diamond dealer. I have a small workshop area that I share with the wholesaler’s staff and a small design cubicle I use to meet with my clients. It’s a symbiotic relationship I have established over 20 years. I buy the majority of my diamonds from them and I do trade services for them as well.
I also have a small, yet efficient, new studio that is attached to my home in upstate New York. It has its own separate entrance for clients and is secured from the rest of the house. We have a gated driveway with defined parking at the gate near the studio entrance so there is a clear delineation of business and private residence. This new space is mostly studio with a small display and custom consultation area.
Why did you choose this way of doing business?
I’ve never operated a traditional jewelry store. I spent the first 15 years of my career working for independent traditional jewelry/gift stores with typical retail hours and the constraints of working for a small independent business. This prepared me for opening my own studio. I knew going in what I liked and disliked about that environment. And I also fell in love with the custom process during this time and knew I wanted a business whose focus was just that.
What are the advantages of this way of doing business?
It reduces overhead and keeps my business fluid and easier to change with the times. It allows me the freedom to try new marketing ideas and inventive ways to market without the burden of commercial overhead and inventory. Being small and nimble allow for more innovation as a small business owner and, more importantly, creativity as an artist.
What are the disadvantages of this business model?
You can’t rely on foot traffic for visibility at all so you must invest more time in marketing and personally connecting with people to collect new clients. It spurs you to think outside the box and try new things to connect with your clientele. Another challenge is learning to put the work aside at the end of the day. Even just defining the workday can be difficult when you can just walk through a doorway and get back to the bench.
How do you find new customers?
We find our best new client is a close friend or family member of a current client, so we try and think of unusual ways to make those connections whenever we can. I attend social functions such as birthday parties, weddings, graduations, and basically anything that a client invites me to.
We also spend time involving ourselves in the community socially and volunteering. This allows people to know me personally before they even know what I do. When the conversation comes around to what I do for a living, they already feel comfortable and trust me. That conversation plants a seed for the future when they want to have a special piece made.
How do you convince customers used to shopping at traditional jewelry stores that you are a legitimate business?
Once you’re established, it’s a nonissue. When I got started, I had a small studio in my townhome. Luckily, I had several trade clients who helped support me as I built up my custom client base. After a year and a half, I realized that I needed to legitimatize the business with a commercial space and I moved into my first small studio in a mixed-use space.
Other things I did to make myself legitimate were entering competitions and being interviewed by publications. Being an award-winning designer is a great way to help market our artistry and get our name out there.
How do you handle meeting with clients?
Since we are a small operation, I strongly recommend booking an appointment, but I would never turn away a walk-in. If they’re local to either of the studio locations, we meet at the studio. If a client is remote, we’ll meet via video or phone conference. If necessary, I will meet clients in their home or office. If I don’t know them, I prefer to meet at one of the studios for security purposes. I usually won’t meet a new client at an offsite location unless they have been referred to me from a current client.
What safety concerns do you have and what precautions have you taken?
My biggest concern is that I am handling many sentimental pieces that belong to my clients that are irreplaceable by insurance, so leaving on vacation or not being around can be nerve racking. Obviously, we’re fully insured with the appropriate safe and security required by our insurance company. Beyond that, we have security cameras inside and out that we have access to 24/7. We also have installed 3M security film on all windows and doors that make it difficult to break glass. In addition, we have three large dogs.
The biggest deterrent lies in not being a traditional store with easily recognizable and moveable inventory. Criminals usually like to know that the reward is worth the risk. Since the majority of our sales are custom commission based, we don’t carry a lot of inventory that can be scoped out ahead of time.
Have you had any difficulties with obtaining insurance for your studios?
I’ve used Jewelers Mutual Insurance Group from the beginning. They insured me when I was initially working from my home with a craftsman policy. As my business grew, I was able to modify my policy to fit my needs. When you work out of your home, the options are more limited than if you are renting a commercial space, but I have not had any trouble obtaining business insurance for my home-based business.
Has your lack of a storefront ever affected your ability to work with vendors?
I haven’t had an issue as long as I had a Jewelers Board of Trade (JBT) number. Initially, when my studio was home based, vendors would call to verify the number. I may not have received terms but that was more a reflection of my new business status. As soon as I moved to a commercial space, my JBT number was printed in their sourcebook, viewable online, and easily available to anyone who asked. For that reason, a commercial space was helpful in building up credit within the industry.
Dawn Muscio operates D. Muscio Fine Jewelry in Atlanta, GA.