Episode 129: What Are You Selling, Really? Developing Your Jewelry’s Brand with Pam Levine, CEO and Brand Experience Expert of Levine Luxury Branding

Episode 129

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • How to go through the all-important process of defining your jewelry business’ brand
  • Why engaging relationships with customers are your most valuable asset
  • Where to learn more about digital marketing
  • How to create jewelry displays that are equally beautiful and effective

About Pam Levine

Pam Levine is the CEO and Brand Experience Expert of Levine Luxury Branding, a boutique agency that develops inspiring brands, marketing and retail environments for luxury products. Pam began her career as a jeweler at Cartier and brings the same focus on detail to the designers, brands, retailers and licenses she works with.

Pam’s practice focuses on delivering substantial financial results through brand building and repositioning, new product and service innovation, visual and sensory merchandising and creative execution across multi-media platforms. She orchestrates a customer/visitor experience that conveys a distinctive and memorable impression at every touch-point, from the environment to staff interactions, to marketing communications and more.

Known as a “curator of remarkable minds” Pam leads a cross-disciplinary team of marketing professionals and designers providing positioning strategies, retail assessments, store environments, packaging, display, collateral, web content and design, social media, corporate presentations and merchandising solutions.

A respected expert and speaker on consumer experience and luxury marketing, Pam is a sought out tastemaker, known for adding the special touches that deliver a high impact, distinctive brand experience. Speaking engagements include Retail and Consumer Trends: International Retail Design Summit (Germany), Luxury Marketing Council, Globalshop, JCK Las Vegas Show and The Couture Show.

Pam is an active member of RDI-Retail Design Institute, WJA Woman’s Jewelry Association and MAD-Museum of Arts and Design, Loot Jewelry Show committee. She has served as the director of WAM, Woman as Mentors, NYC, and has been an adjunct professor of jewelry design, marketing and merchandising at the FIT- Fashion Institute of Technology.

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Marketing luxury goods is a fascinating endeavor that combines design, language and psychology. Few people know this field as well as Pam Levine, founder of Levine Luxury Branding. Starting as a bench jeweler for Cartier, Pam has forged her own path in the luxury space. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she helps her clients define their brands; why old-school relationships with customers will always win over new-school marketing fads; and how to create jewelry displays that encourage customers to buy your work. Read the episode transcript below.

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Pam Levine, founder and CEO of Levine Luxury Branding. In addition to having experience as a bench jeweler, Pam has a broad range of experience in designing customized display cabinets and cases. More importantly, she is a student of the psychology of luxury merchandising. Today, Levine Luxury Branding works with high-end companies to develop a brand that occupies top-of-mind awareness in the luxury consumer’s mind.  We’ll hear more about her jewelry journey and about the psychology of branding today. Pam, welcome to the program.

Pam: Thank you so much, Sharon. It’s such a pleasure to be here. Maybe we could give a little shout-out to Bonnie Levine for introducing us. 

Sharon: Yes, Bonnie Levine, who’s on the board of Art Jewelry Forum and does a tremendous amount for them in terms of choosing emerging designers and administering several of those programs, which is a full-time job in and of itself. Pam, tell us about your jewelry journey. You have such an interesting background.

Pam: Thank you. I love the word journey because I guess we’re still all in it. I grew up in a creative family, I would say. My father was an architect and furniture designer. He designed our home, and my mother was a sculptor. Both of them did many art projects together. They were both watercolor artists. I really was, from the womb, indoctrinated into a creative environment. I’m lucky enough to have learned how to appreciate materials, textures, form. They taught me how to see. From then on, anything creative, growing up in a creative home was like a part of my body and how I thought. I took a little jewelry class when I was in high school and never really thought there was a whole industry behind it. Then I ended up going to college and taking some jewelry classes. Eventually, I decided I loved working in metal. When I left school, I worked in the Faber Gallery, which at the time was the only jewelry gallery, I think, in the country that was promoting fine art jewelers.

Sharon: That’s the Faber Gallery?

Pam: The Faber Gallery. It was on 47th Street and now it’s on 53rd Street. I moved with them. Through there I met an engraver who introduced me to Cartier. They were looking for a woman jeweler to fill a quota, and I became one of the first jewelers on the benches in their 18-karat gold department and worked there. It was a fantastic opportunity and experience to be trained by master jewelers. Then I moved into product development at Cartier. 

I eventually left to become a model maker for different jewelers around the city as I put my own line together. I had my own jewelry collection that I sold through museums, Bergdorf Goodman’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and a lot of museum shops. Then I was hired into the industry in the late 80s to become a creative director for a company that was a mass merchandiser of jewelry. At the time, I also accepted a job teaching at Fashion Institute of Technology in the design and fabrication of jewelry. They were close to each other. Since they were literally blocks away, and I decided if I was going to take a real job, I wanted to also be able to take the teaching job, so I worked them both. That job itself, the charge there was to hire a team of designers, oversee the product merchandising. What also came with that was developing programs for stores. 

That’s what got me involved in the retail side. What really started my whole journey, or stopped my jewelry journey in a way, was this intrigue with how do people make decisions about products that are stuck behind glass, that you can’t touch, that you have to ask a salesperson in order to access? What I learned from designing displays and getting involved with these programs was that jewelry could be a lot more accessible through the design of the merchandising, how it was presented, by creating distinction and highlighting and dimension. It was design as well as strategy and understanding how people access and think about products on a sensory level and somewhat unconsciously. It was also about what the experience of shopping for jewelry or products that are stuck behind glass is like, and that’s continued. 

I left that position after about five years and went out on my own. I started working with other companies, more manufacturers in the industry to help them develop a new brand, market a new product or put a presentation together. One of my specialties was designing display systems. I designed Gordon Taylor’s display; I redid their watch display system. That was for all different brands. 

I also have designed many, many customized systems for different companies, designers and retailers. I moved more into understanding the retail mindset because I started working with more retailers. That was in the mid-90s, when I was speaking at the couture shows and industry shows. I really loved the idea of working again with designers or brands behind the scenes, the marketers that were bringing a product to market as well as the retailers. What happened in retail with the independent stores in the early to mid-90s was they were starting to sell designers, David Yurman and all the big names we know today, so there was a real conflict between, “How do we balance out the retail brand with all the other brands we have?” That’s where I came in. It was a combination of creating a display system. For me, that is the most important part; it’s like the product of the store because it’s where you want your customers’ focus to be. That’s how I started the other part of what I’ll call my retail design journey. I apply a lot of psychology to that as well. When I started working with stores, I got involved in marketing, all sorts of retail programs, ways to draw people through a whole store, putting together scavenger hunts and special events and all sorts of ways to intrigue, attract, add surprise and delight to that customer’s experience.

Sharon: Do you have clients who come to you from the ground up, like, “O.K., how do we develop this brand?”

Pam: Those are my most favorite, when we get to do the whole package. The branding process that we do at Levin Luxury Branding starts with understanding the foundation, the distinction, the identity of the brand. Many designers, especially in the jewelry realm, believe that their product—and it often it is—is the distinct voice of the brand. You need to put a voice and a language to it, especially today, not that you never needed to. You need to establish the positioning statement and understand what your unique distinction is and how you can communicate that. Many people don’t believe the store is just the brick and mortar anymore. It’s not always, “Oh, this is the store.” The customer can shop in many different ways, so it’s not just about the brick and mortar; it’s tying it all together, and the way to tie it together is to start with a clear understanding and clever language that sets you apart. 

That then brings the client into almost developing an advertising campaign. Today it’s a big challenge because so much of this is DIY. We do it ourselves. We have the ability to post on Instagram and Facebook and Tik Tok and tell stories. Many people are naturally good at it, and others need to go through the branding process. If you’re building a store and starting there, whichever touchpoint you’re going to start with, the journey is much easier and the development or expansion of the brand is much easier once you have a clear understanding of who you are and how you are going to describe that. For some people, it might be all about joy, or it might be all about the colored stones. There are so many ways to focus this. Many jewelers have similar stories, which is why it’s important to create a look and a feel and a distinction. Once you have that, then you have the basis for creating the language and messaging throughout your showcase straight onto Instagram, or whichever vehicle you’re using, as well as advertising. We cover all of that.

Sharon: In my experience, call them creative types, makers, jewelers, whatever, they are very good at what they do, but they haven’t had business training and they don’t understand. If somebody says, “O.K., I have a bunch of jewelry here and I have things in all different lines,” where should they start? What questions should they be asking in terms of developing the positioning and creating a brand?

Pam: I think that the main questions are who is buying it, who’s the customer, why does it matter, why buy this jewelry. These are tough questions to ask.

Sharon: Very, very tough questions.

Pam: How can we present it? What can I do? What is the distinction? What is my story? Some of it is bullet pointing, letting all the words come out. I think this is a bit of a challenge for me as well because I didn’t come out of a digital marketing background; I’m a little old school. Today is a real mix of traditional and nontraditional. I think the biggest challenge is that one can’t ignore the beauty and the value of being able to post on social media because it’s so immediate. Especially Gen X and Gen Z, this is where they are shopping and where we’re engaging them. Selling jewelry or any product starts with engagement and relationships. It’s those questions that I think are the most important. Why, who, where are you selling from and what’s unique about us. 

Sharon: Those are critical questions and very difficult questions. Those questions are so difficult whether you’re marketing online or offline. To me, that’s the crux of it. You have to start there.

Pam: Yes. If you’d like, I can show you a tree chart I use. The bottom of it shows the roots. There I have digital strategy, your engagement, your research. The other thing is that research is a very helpful tool, and we have this world at our fingertips. Some of it is studying and understanding how other people are languaging. Are they speaking in the first voice? Are they speaking in the third tone? How are others doing it. If they’re going to zig, you want to zag, go a little differently. Is there a vision the person who’s leading the company has? Is there innovation here? Research and trends are where you want to start, so you understand where you fit into the playing field of the market. 

Today, we’ve got technology and user experience and retail experience and all these other catchwords, but the big one is audience, understanding who you’re talking to. It can be as simple as sitting down with your best customers or your friends and having conversations with them and listening to their reactions. It’s much more organic today. My struggle is that people come to me for all this. I have strategists and writers, and there are times when I still believe that is the best way to go. Anything that’s new, we jump on the bandwagon; we did it when we first had billboards and when we first went on radio, when anything becomes accessible. Now with media, so much is accessible. Bottom line, it’s all about making a plan, starting with understanding your identity and then deciding what is going to be the best route for you to follow. Also, how much can you handle if you would still like to spend the bulk of your time designing and making and staying true to yourself? I’m speaking to the jewelry designer and the bench jeweler who’s doing it all themselves. It’s a huge amount of pressure for a designer to do it themselves, so we do help them with that.

There are also some wonderful online digital courses. I think digital marketing, which is something I’m studying myself now, is a different mindset. It’s really about putting the customer first. It used to be about transaction and product, and now it’s about putting the customer first. How can we speak to them in a language that is riveting to them, in a way that connects with them? It’s about the relationship, and that has never changed. 

The thing I also love about jewelry is that it’s such an intimate product. It goes on your body. Jewelry is so beautiful, no matter how it’s made, no matter what it’s made out of. It’s become a real form of self-expression. The amount of meaning in this product is more than anything we put on our body, unless maybe it’s a beautiful couture dress. It’s a very personal experience. That’s why the relationship the independent jeweler forms with their buyer or collector is key. That can be done virtually as long as you understand and become comfortable with this new mindset of understanding who you customer is. A luxury customer, even if they’re accessing things online, they’re still going to need high-touch experience. I get intimidated by all of these touchpoints, all of these channels with our customers myself. I’m learning it as well, but I keep coming back to it. If we have a plan; if we don’t just throw it out there and do it all at once; if we really understand our design and our look—

Sharon: Is it branded? Does it fall within the brand? 

Pam: Exactly. Once you have that foundation, then you move to the fun part, the design and the expression and the logos and all of that. I was speaking to a very close friend who’s a designer, a retail architect, and design has become democratized. Photography has become democratized. Everything is at the tip of our fingers. It doesn’t mean we understand it all or are experts, but we become the designer. I think people hit a point, especially if they haven’t had the business background or the marketing background—what’s wonderful today is there are a lot of young people out there who have grown up more natively with the virtual world. 

There’s somebody named Liz Cantor who teaches a fabulous course on Instagram to independent designers. You can join a small society she has that’s very reasonable on a monthly basis. It’s a fantastic how-to. A lot of it is the mindset. It walks you through how you need good photographs and other pieces to it. There’s another woman named Kathleen Cutler who is a wonderful high-end sales expert. She teaches people how to digitally communicate and virtually sell, how to connect with your best clients, what kind of language to use, how to get comfortable emailing, all of that. These are the people I look up to, my young leaders, because that’s the future of marketing in the industry in many ways. 

On my own, I am partnering with Tobias Harris. That’s his name. He comes out of architectural and retail design agencies. Together, we are merging design with branding. We are being approached by different architects; their clients are coming to them and saying, “Well, now I want to integrate technology,” or “I want to offer a customized kiosk,” or whatever it is, not necessarily in the jewelry world. We’re finding that they never really figured out who they are or what their distinction is. We’re offering programs on how to do this for them or take them through developing it themselves.

Sharon: You said a couple of things. First of all, since the podcast is audio only, I’d love to post the tree chart, and we can have links to these other people. I think since we’re both of a certain age, I don’t want to knock—you can’t just say you’re a digital native, because I have people around me who are whizzes with this, but it’s more than a matter of just throwing things up on Instagram. You have to have what you’re saying, a strategy. You have to have the foundation, the background that you and I have. What are the questions, what’s the plan, what’s the positioning, who are you? 

Pam: When I work with my strategists, my writers—and I have two brilliant ones—it is a fun thing to do. Usually what we do is put together a visual and a verbal. We do the positioning first, and it’s based on who they are, deep interviews, and exploring the joy and the inspirations and all of the wonderful things that drive them to create these amazing pieces or whatever their product is. Some of them are more commercial; I’ve done a lot of programs for the Sterlings and the Kay Jewelers and the Jareds of world, but at the end of the day, it’s connecting with your customer. I always say the context is as important as the content. The context is the environment, whether it’s on your website or whether it’s on Instagram. How are you presenting? Because anything that you present is a representation of your brand and has impact.

Sharon: I think that’s really important. I also want to emphasize that what you’re saying is not just for commercial jewelers, but it can be for emerging artists, art jewelers. At some point, you’re going to say, “O.K., I’ve gone to every gallery in the country 14 times. I want to grow, and I’ve got to be able to make a case for that or show how I’m different and why they might want to look at me.”

Pam: Full disclosure, I’m looking at a digital program now that will show how to set up a jewelry case, how to merchandise different showcases. Different jewelry cases, traditionally around the diamond, showcase differently. There are certain products you put further away, the more expensive product in the showcase, and maybe you show fewer. There are ways of anchoring products. This is real visual merchandising as well as highlighting and understanding how people perceive and read a showcase. You don’t want it to look like a bazaar. Our tendency is to show as much as we can. The understanding, though—and this is where the psychology comes in—is how people process, especially when somebody is speaking to them. 

The other side is that there’s some amazing technology out now that allows us to shop in a store on our own, to access information through barcodes and different things when we can’t touch it. By the end of the day, it is the relationship; it is why we go into the store. We want to learn and understand and touch and feel and try on, and that’s the thing that’s very hard to do. Yes, you can have a digital hand and try the jewelry on like Warby Parker glasses, but there’s something different about that relationship. That’s why if you took everything away and you have a strong relationship with somebody who loves your jewelry, that is something to nurture. That’s old school. That’s traditional, but at the end of the day, that’s where the heart of the matter is.

Sharon: It is, yes. First of all, what you said about the teaching or the training or the thought process—how do you talk to people at a tradeshow? I’m sure there are people who are saying, “I don’t need to know that. I’m an antique jewelry dealer,” but you have to be able to connect with somebody looking at it. What would you say are the top three things to consider when you’re displaying something? What would you say?

Pam: I should bounce back to another answer to a question you asked. What is most important underneath all this is authenticity in your position and in your language, because people pick it up very quickly. If you’re copying somebody else, you know it; we just sense it. I think authenticity is the success of many independent jewelry designers and jewelers.

Sharon: Authenticity—I would say you have to be able to support your brand. You can’t just pick verbiage out of a hat. You have to be able to support it.

Pam: All this identity stuff is never easy, whether we’re trying to figure out—we go through this in different parts of our lives. When you work with a consultant like myself or my team, it gives you the ability to stand back. You have an outside opinion. It’s very hard to do. Often, it’s difficult to do it yourself. That’s why we’re looking into different how-to’s to offer more training.

Sharon: And I think that’s brilliant. 

Pam: I’m sorry, you asked me—

Sharon: I don’t want to form it in a negative way, but I want to ask—you probably walk into a store and say, “They should have put this.’’ What are the biggest mistakes you see?

Pam: Overcrowding a showcase, poor displays and warrant systems. To me, with the display case, like any other part of the sale, you have to show respect to your customer, especially in jewelry. We expect to come in and see beautiful jewelry, beautifully lit. Something that isn’t fresh and new, especially in this day and age—whether you’re doing a tradeshow or you have a high-end store, it’s got to be up to date. The other opportunity is signage. Not just the name, but quotes, a beautiful line from a poem; “something beautiful is within reach,” something that is going to capture attention in the case. Not too much; I’m not a big proponent of props and other things. Height and dimension add a lot to the experience. Really, less is more. You want to tell a story in that case so people can home in on that collection. If you have too much of everything without certain anchor pieces or bolder pieces, even pieces that might be very, very high-end and may not be your main sellers, you want to anchor it with something that’s going to be bold enough to attract attention and then tell the story around it. 

I’m often disappointed because they’re white displays. There’s so much more that can be done. I’m not saying that isn’t a fantastic color for reflecting diamond light and other things, but I would say light is important for everything. I’m also thinking windows and presentations. There’s such an opportunity to intrigue people with how you present the product. Today, so many designers have their own displays, which is useful because we are so brand-oriented, especially everybody of the younger generation. It helps us to understand, to put a name to something. We can build that brand out with our colorations and look and feel through other media. The store is just one touchpoint. I say take the walls down and think of your other ways of communicating with your customer: Facebook advertising, traditional and non-traditional, email marketing, so people make that connection to the consistency. Your consistency can be one of two things. It could be one piece that represents your brand. It could be your logo, your voice, a tagline, something that helps you be distinctive. All those words alone, I should say, however, is not branding.

Sharon: We could talk forever about this. Pam, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.

Pam: Thank you. I hope I’ve answered all of your questions.

Sharon: You absolutely did.

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Sharon Berman