Most people enter the jewelry industry because of a love of all things beautiful and shiny, but to survive requires some business acumen. Karen Lorene, owner of Seattle’s Facèré Jewelry Art Gallery, spoke with Sharon Berman on the Jewelry Journey podcast about the lessons she’s learned over her years as a successful gallerist. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, we’re delighted to have as our guest Karen Lorene, owner of the Facèré Jewelry Art Gallery in Seattle. Karen founded the gallery in 1983 and has seen many changes in the marketplace over the decades. Today, she’s going to share some of the best practices she’s put in place and the lessons she’s learned, things any entrepreneur can learn from. They’re also interesting to those who are passionate about jewelry. Karen, welcome very much to the Jewelry Journey.
Karen: Thank you, a pleasure to be here.
Sharon: Thanks so much. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation. You’ve had your gallery for decades and you’ve seen others come and go over the years. Can you tell us about what got you into the business? I know you didn’t start in art jewelry; you started in antique jewelry and furniture. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Karen: It all happened on one day. My mother had an attic, not an attic full of really cool things, but just full of stuff. I had dropped out of graduate school because it wasn’t fulfilling what I wanted, and I thought, “I know what I’ll do. I will learn by doing.” That’s what I had learned at the lab school at the University of Chicago, where I taught. I thought, “I’ll take that stuff and I will create a business around stuff.” Some of it was turn of the century and some of it was cool. And one day, I was all set up. I had two lovely little stores, one called North Country Fair — thank you, Bob Dylan — and Vanity Fair, because they were both fairs.
I had just moved, by myself, a cast iron stove into the window of my gallery, and I had just placed a bouquet of flowers on that stove when this man came in and said, “How much?” I almost cried because his next question was, “And, of course, you deliver,” which of course wasn’t a question; it was a selling point. I said, “Of course,” and I decided right then and there I had to sell something small, that you could carry in your hands, that is worth as much as a cast iron stove. I decided I would sell jewelry that was antique. That was 40-some years ago, when I didn’t know anyone who wore antique jewelry and I knew nothing about it. You have to stop me at some point, because I’m good at telling stories and this might go on forever.
Sharon: No, this is very interesting. That’s what we want to hear.
Karen: I started the antique part of my business, but because I was so ill-informed, I decided to teach. I had room for six people, and each week I would work and work and work to teach the next lesson. Those people became my best customers and I became knowledgeable. I had to find it and sell it, and each time I would do that, I would learn more about the world of antique jewelry. It wasn’t until, at the advice of an advisory board — by the way, that was something I did that other entrepreneurs might consider. I was working with a consultant and he suggested creating an advisory board, and I said to him, “Why would anybody want to be an advisory board? This is for free.” And he said, “Karen, everybody wishes they had a little store. You’ll give them that opportunity and you’ll serve very good cookies and they will become friends with each other.” And that group of six suggested I move from where I was on Seattle’s waterfront to uptown. They thought I was ready, so I started courting the Sheraton Hotel. After a year, they gave me a lease.
I learned the world of modern jewelry, but it was only at the modern jewelry shows, the ones in New York and L.A., where tucked away in the corner were the “aspiring jewelry makers,” as they called them. They were young. They had new ideas and I liked their jewelry the most. So, I started learning about the budding world of jewelry art, not realizing that there are universities all over the United States that have programs for metalsmiths, and those were the people I wanted to get in touch with. I wanted to cultivate and sell that, and that changed the whole direction of what I did. I’ve never regretted it ever.
Sharon: I know you have been instrumental in creating more visibility for the world I call art jewelry. It’s the same as jewelry art. Can you tell us how, through promoting the store and marketing it to customers, you created that visibility?
Karen: I learned to meet the people who could help me the most, and one of those people was Mary Lee Hu, who at the time was the head of the metals department at the University of Washington. She opened the doors. The Society of North American Goldsmiths was an international group that I joined. I learned more about this group of people, and it was an easy learn because even today, there are so many artists who need and want representation. It’s a tough business. I told someone who was thinking of going into the biz, “Just be prepared. It’ll be like having a child.” Now, this is said by a woman who’s had no children, so I think it must feel that way. It demands your attention. It demands your love. You have to learn all the time. You have to deal with disappointments. Someone that you’ve nursed and brought into the fold disappears. They go somewhere else, and that’s always hard, but it happens and that’s life. At this stage of the game, we turn down way more artists than we can ever, ever accept.
Sharon: When you say that they go somewhere else, do you mean they allow another gallery to represent them?
Karen: Yeah, or to a bigger store. Part of what we do at Facèré is we run it just like an art gallery. Everything is consigned. Some artists find someone who can buy it outright. I understand they need to do that, but it’s always hard. We’ve lost a couple of big-name artists because they had to put kids in college, and a small business is not what they needed. They’ve gone on to have bigger, more important businesses, but then I have the pleasure and the pride in helping them make that step. I have artists who have been with me from the beginning.
Sharon: I think one of the things that a gallery like yours offers is the fact that, because it’s a gallery, it really has unique, one-of-a-kind things, and that’s what people are attracted to.
Karen: We do things like with every show opening, we have short lectures upstairs. It’s a one-hour window, and we try to get five artists or five writers when we do a written thing, and they have 10 to 12 minutes, so they don’t get nervous and the audience doesn’t get bored. My audience grows and grows all the time with those openings. They’re upstairs in a boardroom, so there’s good video, and then we come down for champagne and everybody gets to know each other, and hopefully people shop, which generally they do. We do those on a very regular basis, six or eight a year.
Sharon: Oh wow, that’s a lot!
Karen: They build our neighborhood. There’s no membership, but they’re our friends and we try to make it as informative as possible. Our price range is probably $60 at the lowest, but it goes to $20,000. It’s important to us that we appeal to a large spread of people and that we appeal to people who will grow and become more adventuresome and will acquire more money. So, no matter what the size of that sale is, every customer gets a folder with a letter from me that says, “Hi, welcome to the world of collecting,” an article about Facèré, and the bio of the artist and an artist statement, so the customer starts to be aware that there is a world of collecting. It’s like collecting all art forms. They want to keep a record. They want to be able to find it; they should have a file where they put it. We try to do as much as we can to build their awareness of the person behind the jewelry. It’s not just a ring; it’s a ring created by someone who sat at their bench and made that ring happen or that brooch or that necklace.
Sharon: That’s really great. It’s so important. That’s what differentiates this kind of jewelry.
Karen: Yes, absolutely. Yesterday, I was talking to someone about this upcoming interview and they said, “Be sure that you let them know that people will know them by their jewelry. They won’t even have to speak their name.”
Sharon: Oh, wow!
Karen: It gives me goosebumps to say that because I think it’s really true. I tell people, the first time they buy a nice presentation necklace is usually where it shows that people are going to stop them on the street, and people are even going to reach out and try to touch it. You have to be aware that your jewelry is an invitation to the world to say hello.
Sharon: I love that.
Karen: Yeah, it happens all the time.
Sharon: Do you think, with this folder and telling people, “Welcome to the world of collecting,” do people say, “Oh my god, I just bought a piece of jewelry. I didn’t mean to start a collection”?
Karen: That’s O.K. I just smile and say, “Gotcha.” We really try to build relationships. Our customers truly, truly become our friends. We’re having a big to-do in a couple of weeks, and we sent out an invitation to our mailing list, which is a couple thousand people in the city where nobody RSVPs. As of today, we have 176 RSVPs. I’m ordering another case of champagne. When people come to these parties and openings we have, they get to see each other. They get to see other people wearing the kind of jewelry they’ve just been introduced to, and they see that it looks great and it does invite conversation. It lets people know who you are.
Sharon: I think we’ve talked a little bit about what makes a collector. I guess I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a collector, but I never set out to become a collector. When does one become a collector?
Karen: Nor did I. Someone a couple of years ago said to me, “You must have a really big collection,” and I said, “Oh, I don’t think so.” And then I stopped and thought, “No, I do.” I have a very extensive collection, all the way from a few dollars to some investments. The other thing that’s happened is, as I’ve grown older with my folks and my artists, it’s important that they not feel burdened by their collection and that there comes a time perhaps to let pieces go. Recently, one of our most loved and adored artists passed away and within hours, people were emailing us to say, “Do you have his work?” We sold a piece that originally might have sold for $2,000 to $5,000 for close to $20,000 now that he has passed and there will be no more. That’s unusual. Most of the artists that I have collected don’t even make jewelry anymore. They aren’t even in the world of art, but in my head they are. Can’t get away.
Sharon: Hopefully there will be a secondary market for art jewelry.
Karen: Yeah, there is, and that’s a whole nurturing that’s different. We have a list of our most vigorous collectors and when something comes in, we will send a photo and say, “It crossed our minds that you might be interested in this piece.” We try not to be pushy but just let them know this is a moment and they should check it out. It doesn’t take long before you know who responds to that well, and even if someone doesn’t respond at all, that’s fine. We aren’t going to bother them. There are certain artists who have become very collectable, and they’re represented by museums and they’re in special collections. Sometimes that artist made very few pieces, but they were brilliant. There’s a whole range of collecting and we know the taste of our collectors, our customers and we also know the husbands.
Sharon: I’ve talked to retailers and gallerists about this because I am somebody who appreciates it when somebody says, “Hey, this came in and I really thought of you.”
Karen: If it’s true.
Sharon: Yes, I really appreciate it. I’ve had others who say, “Well, I don’t like to do that. I don’t want to seem pushy,” and I’m just like, “Bring it on.”
Karen: Yeah, the trick is to do it with grace and style. You’re either just sending an email that says, “Look at this,” or you send a photo saying, “We thought of you. We would love to see you whether you come in to see this piece or not.” We say those things because they’re so important.
Sharon: Yes, somebody thought about you, as opposed to emailing you everything that comes into the shop, and you go, “Stop it.”
Karen: Yeah, exactly.
Sharon: What do you look for when you’re deciding whether to accept an artist’s work into a gallery? I know that you’re approached very, very often.
Karen: Yeah, we’re approached often, and I don’t know if people realize we’re 250 square feet. We already have 50 artists and, thank goodness, I’m married to an architect. He’s retired now, but he designed our cases and our window display, so we get a lot in that 200 square feet.
When I speak to students, I say, “Always wear your jewelry. Don’t hesitate.” I know this is anathema to people in university programs because they say, “Call and make the appointment.” I say if you’re walking around in a city you’ve never been in and you see a gallery you think might be yours, go on in and say hello and take that chance. As a gallery owner, the possibility of my not looking at jewelry is zero. Of course, I’m going to look at jewelry. Now, whether they get accepted depends, but sometimes I can say, “You should try this place, or you should try that place,” although that’s getting harder and harder to do as small businesses are struggling. When I choose someone, it’s because I have nothing else like it at all, I mean really nothing like it. That becomes very important, because we’re looking for a spread of styles and kinds of work and a spread of price, because we want to appeal to that beginning collector who hardly has a dime, or the beginning collector who happens to have a huge amount of money but we need to appeal to them as to why this would make sense. I just jumped from talking about the artist to the collectors, but they’re pretty wed. In the last year, we took on two artists that I never dreamed we could squeeze into the gallery, but it was so fresh and so original. Then there is a turnover that happens for people who are thinking of opening a gallery. People have babies. People need to make money. There are all kinds of reason that people leave our industry, our world. That’s life. That’s how it goes.
Sharon: Are you saying in terms of people who buy jewelry or in terms of galleries?
Karen: Both, but I was mostly speaking of the artist. You had asked what I do about artists who come in. So, even though we’re full, there is a turnover that happens because life happens. Every once in a while, we’ll take on somebody because maybe the day before, someone said, “O.K., I’m done with it, sorry to say.” It doesn’t happen often. Most people fall in love with this world.
Sharon: Most people aren’t doing it to get rich, I don’t think.
Karen: You’re right. It’s not the way to get rich.
Sharon: You’ve learned a lot over the years about the kind of space a gallery should have to thrive. I think it’s really important for others thinking about toying with the idea of an art gallery or jewelry gallery, to consider what they should look for in terms of space. Can you tell us about that?
Karen: If I were starting out, I would tell a person, “Go sit in front of the store, whether it’s a tower that has retail in it or a shopping mall that has small retail spaces, go sit there. Watch the people. Try to see at least one person rank some interesting jewelry.” When we opened at City Center, which is a very uptown space, I had people say, “Karen, that’s not where the art is,” and my answer was, “Yes, but that’s where the people are,” with the hope and knowledge that I could win them over. That happened over all these years. I’ve been in this space for 27 years.
Sharon: I know you mentioned some of the specifics, such as having a board room or a conference room.
Karen: For us, it’s really important that we have a place to have these lectures. We use that boardroom. It’s so helpful because it has good audio and video stuff, so artists can bring and show their work, which is what people really want to see, and not just talk about it. I’m going to interrupt this train of thought for just one second. In the last couple of years, we went into public television, which is the best advertising, short of the cards that we send regularly. People come in and say thank you for our ads. If you’re a retailer listening, when was the last time someone said thank you for your ad? We truly believe in public TV and people pay attention. The other reason — and this sounds ageist — I think our oldest customers who have been with us a while watch public TV. I don’t know if young kids do or not, but getting the young audience is one of the biggest challenges we have.
Sharon: It is for a lot of us, getting that millennial audience for antique jewelry. It’s a challenge.
Karen: Well, the whole world is a challenge, so there you go. I just made that up, so forgive me.
Sharon: We had talked a little about the trends you’re seeing in the jewelry art market. For instance, you talked about the fact that small items under $500 are being purchased more online.
Karen: We think that’s happening more and more. We’ve just finished one of the best weeks we’ve ever had, and most of those sales were earrings because they’re a piece of jewelry that women have many of, whereas they might have just — that reminds me, I want to talk about one thing before I finish this sentence. Very large sculptural pieces are purchased less often. For every five pairs of earrings, you might get one necklace.
Sharon: You’re not talking about an objet d’art, like a necklace that is a statement?
Karen: Yes, that has real presence. One of our biggest sellers — and she’s passed on — was Ramona Solberg, who was head of the metals department at the University of Washington. Her pieces are very strong. I have two of them in my collection that I adore. They have a plaque that’s front and center. You also have to learn to purchase clothing that allows you to show off your jewelry, which sometimes means plain and simple, and then the jewelry carries the day.
Sharon: Yes, definitely. You want that canvas to put it on.
Karen: Yes, perfect illustration.
Sharon: I wanted to mention a couple things before we close. You mentioned two names, and I don’t know if everybody listening would know them, but Mary Lee Hu is certainly a very, very well-known goldsmith and artist. There’s also the Society of North American Goldsmiths, which is known as SNAG. Do you want to talk about how SNAG has entered into your world?
Karen: It was especially important when I first started, and I needed to meet and see all kinds of jewelry. SNAG is a maker’s organization primarily, although gallery owners show up, but most people are makers. It gives you a chance to see their work because many, many lectures relate to what they’re doing. It also allows you to actually handle it, which is really important. In all jewelry, weight is important. The artist needs to become aware that there are certain things they might think are wonderful, but they should walk around in it for a couple of days if it’s big, because people want large pieces, but they don’t want them to hurt.
Sharon: I know I’ve been on the verge of buying a piece and I’ve walked around the floor and said, “Oh no, it’s not going to work.”
Karen: Every once in a while, you forgive it because it’s just too cool. Another thing that I have done — we live on a house boat and most of my jewelry is on the wall. I don’t put it in a box and say, “Here, thief, come and take. Here’s the jewelry box.” One, I hope they don’t realize that it has the kind of value that they need to melt, but anyway, I have a bracelet wall. I need to get dressed and out the door in the morning, so I need to be able to find a bracelet. Earrings are in little cubbies, because that’s harder to hang on the wall. All my necklaces are hung on the wall, and almost every brooch I own I wear on a wire as a necklace. I don’t have time to figure out exactly where it goes, and I don’t want to put holes in my clothing usually, but everyone who is listening, if you have pins or brooches that you don’t wear very often, get yourself a gold wire or a silver wire. They’re usually round and they can make a design of your brooch. I wore a Mary Hu two days ago. I have a long, gold multi-strand necklace and I have a brooch that I hang on the bottom of that. It’s about 20 inches. I can’t afford all of Mary’s work, but I can afford a brooch and I can afford a gold wire. I didn’t grow up around jewelry. I respect people’s budgets, but every once in a while, you need to take that trick and get the piece that you love. When I see a piece like that, I salivate. Usually I go, “Oh my god, maybe this has to be put on layaway for a while.”
Sharon: You salivate and my heart beats faster, so I know what you’re talking about.
Karen: I love it.
Sharon: Karen, it has been fabulous to talk with you. Thank you so much. To everybody listening, that wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard, and you would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us a professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening and Karen, thank you so much.
Karen: Thank you, it was a lot of fun.
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