Goldsmith Whitney Abrams has had a wide-ranging career in jewelry, centered around her work creating high karat gold pieces. Currently selling her jewels out of a private studio in Chicago—which she calls a “luxury salon”—she’s figured out what retail models and marketing techniques work for her. Whitney shared the lessons she’s learned as a business owner on the latest episode of the Jewelry Journey podcast. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Whitney Abrams, owner of Whitney Abrams Jewelry. Whitney is an entrepreneur, teacher and goldsmith working in high karat gold with gemstones. Today, she’ll tell us about her jewelry journey. Whitney, so glad to be talking with you.
Whitney: Great to talk to you, too.
Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey. When did you start liking jewelry, and when did you know that you wanted to make your living from it? What was your path?
Whitney: I’ve always had people in my family that were big jewelry collectors. My grandmothers on both sides; my father used to have pieces designed for my mother. When I was born, my mom received a diamond brooch. It was back before the days of push presents, but it was a baby gift, so I got my first piece of jewelry, which was given back to me when I turned 16, when I was born. I would always clean out my grandmother’s jewelry boxes and for trade, I would get a piece of jewelry. My love for jewelry started very young, maybe six or seven years old.
Sharon: You used the term “push present.” Is that what you said? I’m not sure what you mean by that.
Whitney: Now, when women have children, they say, “My husband has to buy me a push present.”
Sharon: Oh, pushing, I see.
Whitney: So, pushing a baby out, which back in the day was a much lovelier term called a baby gift. I think now people say, “No, I want this; I want that,” but typically, a lot of my friends’ parents received gifts without making a request for them when they had a baby, so times have changed.
Sharon: Yes, definitely. You have what you call a luxury salon. What prompted you to open your own establishment? You said that you had a school and you taught.
Whitney: I did. I had a school in New York City called Metal Kitchen in the late 90s, early 2000s. Previous to that, I had been making high karat jewelry and doing a lot of the East Coast high-end museum shows, but when I landed back in Chicago in 2002, I needed an outlet to sell my work. After 9/11, the show attendance at the larger convention halls had gone down significantly because people didn’t want to be congregated in an area, it seemed like, so I looked around the city and found a nice little neighborhood with a brownstone and opened my jewelry store. At that time, it was a retail establishment—
Sharon: In Chicago?
Whitney: In Chicago, in an area called the Gold Coast. It was changing a lot, but at the time, I was the only jeweler in the area. It was a beautiful salon with a fireplace and a patio in the back. It was a really lovely building, and I was there for nine years. I sold my work and represented about 11 to 15 other high karat gold jewelry designers. Then I went into my private salon on the third floor. It’s only a block away. Most of my customers came from traveling. I used to have a large vitrine at the Peninsula Hotel, but it was only a couple of blocks from my shop.
Sharon: So it was a nice little market.
Whitney: Yeah, it was a great way to market. Another tool I used was, I would take full-page ads in Condé Nast publications, so The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Architectural Digest, all these magazines, and that got a lot of attention. I had a very good customer base after I had the store for nine, nine-and-a-half years. Then, I moved to a private third-floor salon that has floor-to-ceiling windows and a glass wall, so clients have a view of my bench. I think that makes more of a connection with them, and they can see my jewelry book collection. I’m not interrupted the way I was having a retail store. It’s by appointment only, so it’s one-on-one with me. We can peruse all the stones and pearls, and it’s a much more intimate appointment.
Sharon: And that’s where you are now.
Sharon: You call it a luxury salon, which gives it such an aura. You get a sense of the feeling you’re giving people now, as opposed to your retail store, your storefront.
Whitney: The decorating is very similar, but at the storefront you had people coming and going all the time, so you were being interrupted even though there was a private area to sit in. It’s a bit more secluded now and it’s by appointment only, so you never have unexpected people knocking on the door. I think people get a more special experience out of it. I have a small kitchen there. We have wine. We do little trunk shows. I think it’s a special experience in terms of buying, because the customer feels like it’s very exclusive to them.
Sharon: Definitely, it sounds very nice. What are your favorite aspects of jewelry you’ve done? You’ve taught. You’re an entrepreneur, and I give you credit—it sounds like you did not scrimp when it came to marketing and advertising.
Whitney: Yeah, that was a big undertaking, but I had to do it to launch going back to Chicago. I had been in New York for years. Even at the opening party, I was very lucky that my brother-in-law worked for Mercedes-Benz at the time, and they were launching the Maybach car. He got a car and driver so the men could take the car out with the driver while the women were shopping for jewelry. That was quite an event. It was a great connection that he provided for me, and the husbands that didn’t necessarily want to look at jewelry really appreciated it.
Sharon: Yeah, I’m sure they were begging their wives to go.
Whitney: That’s a really fun aspect, but I love creating things that are meaningful to people. I love going to the Tucson Gem Show every year. This will be, I believe, my 23rd consecutive year going. That’s one of my favorites of the year. It’s amazing that you can go to that show and see hundreds of thousands of stones and make a connection with them. I always start my designs with stones and I don’t sketch things out first, so I really am inspired by the stones. To be able to create something that, when it’s finished, somebody looks at it and says, “Oh, that’s for me. I want to have that forever,” I get a lot of joy out of that.
Sharon: Since people have to call you and make an appointment to come over, are they saying, “My birthday’s coming up and I’d like you to make me something special,” or “We have an anniversary”? What are they asking about?
Whitney: Yes, there’s a lot of that. Over the years, I’ve kept a client book. I know when everybody’s birthdays and anniversaries are. I can contact the husbands. I’ve created very good personal relationships with my customers and many of them have become friends over the years. I know the people that are last-minute. I do make things and have some inventory. Just for the last three years, I’ve been making more custom work than I made previously. If somebody needs something at the last minute, I have 15 pairs of earrings to show him. If it’s a woman who says, “We just had a grandchild,” I can work with German gem carvers in Idar-Oberstein and send them a photo, and they can carve an intaglio with a picture of the baby. It gets so custom that no one else is going to have that piece of jewelry.
Sharon: What a nice idea.
Whitney: There are fun things. Certain people, they collect bees or they like dragonflies, so you can have carvings of those things done. I don’t do a lot of diamond jewelry. I’ve done engagement rings over the years, but they’ve always been in my style. They’re not commercial-looking engagement rings, but I do like doing those. So far, so good, knock on wood, I’ve never had any of my customers get a divorce yet.
Sharon: That’s a good testimony.
Whitney: I have a zero percent divorce rate at the moment.
Sharon: Wow! Do people ever bring you their own stones?
Whitney: They do. I also invite people to bring their pieces they don’t wear anymore. Perhaps they’ve lost one earring, or it’s something they think is out of style, or it was their grandmother’s. We weigh the gold, I give them a credit for the melt price of the gold and then we apply that to the piece we create with the stones we remove, or they can apply that to any of the jewelry or stones I stock. It’s a nice way to take something that’s just sitting in your jewelry box or drawer and turn it into something new that you can enjoy.
Sharon: Yeah, that’s really nice. Are your customers mostly in Chicagoland or are they all over the country, all over the world?
Whitney: I have a lot of customers in Chicago and a lot of regular customers. I do have a lot of people who have moved to California, Arizona, Florida from here. When they come back, we make an appointment. They make a point of coming in, or they go on the website and say, “Do you have anything similar to this?” and we touch base that way. I’ve gotten a lot of new customers in the last two-and-a-half years since I’ve been on Instagram. I was late to the party, but I’ve sold many things I’ve made right off of Instagram, which has been a game changer in terms of a very inexpensive way to market.
Sharon: It’s also dangerous for people like me who are looking. It’s dangerous.
Whitney: I’m buying stones off of it, and I don’t need another stone, so I know what you mean. It’s like, walk away, stop scrolling.
Sharon: It is. They put something in it that’s addictive.
Sharon: What advice would you give to somebody, a younger person who’s starting out and thinking about opening their own place or going into the business? Every business is tough, but it seems like—
Whitney: Yeah, retail is tough. My recommendation would be to hire a manager that’s very similar to you and your personality, who can make a connection with your customers, so that your desire is to be working at the bench. That does not happen when you have a retail store without somebody who can handle the front of house for you, because people always want to speak to you. That’s a balance that you have to strike. Then, you have to have assistants who can help you at the bench, where the jewelry they help you make still looks like your jewelry. Sometimes in the past, I thought, “Oh, I’m going to have a bench jeweler in the jewelry district make this for me,” and it would come back and it would not look like my jewelry because I didn’t make it. But when you have a retail store, you don’t have time to sit interrupted all day and create at your bench. You’re on call twenty-four hours a day. If your alarm goes off at nine p.m. and you’re at home, you think “Did someone just break into my store?” I didn’t think about all of it before I opened my store, but there are a lot of unexpected things that come up, and they take a little bit of your creative mind space away. If someone gets their pleasure out of sitting and creating at the bench, a retail location might not be the best thing for them. Maybe somewhere smaller, like being up on the third floor away from the general public, where there’s less chance that someone’s going to burglarize you. That takes a lot of the pressure off, and then you have more time to actually sit and create your jewelry.
Sharon: You already had your clientele when you did this—
Sharon: But if you were just starting out, to be on the third floor, you would have to be out hustling to get people in there.
Whitney: Right. I think that would be a challenge to start from zero, but a lot of these younger people can do social media so well, I’m wondering if that wouldn’t be an advantage to them at this point. We never had anything like that when I started. You never knew where other jewelry galleries were in the country unless you went to that city and walked around. I was doing this before there was the Internet, so it’s opened up a lot of avenues for people to see how many places are out there selling artisan-made jewelry.
Sharon: And to connect with others doing the same thing. What trends are you seeing? Are you entering your busy season because of the holiday? Are you seeing fewer younger people? They say younger people aren’t as interested in bigger stones, but I don’t know. What are you seeing?
Whitney: I know a couple of people that have approached me, younger people that are getting engaged, they’re much more sensible about their spending on diamonds. There’s a trend in diamonds where millennials like salt and pepper diamonds, the diamonds that are included with the carbon. They are searching those out, and that’s a little unusual. Another thing that I’ve noticed is these rustic stone settings that—
Sharon: The guy who does them upside down, Todd Reeves.
Whitney: No, that’s Todd Pownell.
Sharon: Pownell, yeah.
Whitney: Todd’s work is much more refined. These are kind of like prongs and they’re intentional. They almost look like tree branches, and they’re unfinished, sort of a rustic chic look, as they’re calling it. That’s something I’ve been noticing. People are using much less expensive stones in pieces with more expensive stones, and the prices are based on the more precious stones in the piece, which is a little unusual. I’ve got a lot of customers that like stacking rings because they can keep adding them, and also convertible earrings that have a stud with a removable drop so they can wear them for different things. You don’t have to keep buying a new pair of earrings over and over. That’s something I’ve been getting a lot of orders for, and I’m coming into the busy season because it’s the holidays. I’m also doing SOFA again, which I think is the last time I saw you in person.
Sharon: Right, SOFA in Chicago, in the beginning of November.
Whitney: Yeah, I’m working up to that. I’m just finishing up my pieces for that, and that’s in less than three weeks.
Sharon: Is that the only fair where you show your ready-made pieces, or are there others?
Whitney: Currently that’s the only one I’m doing. I do that with Rebecca Myers’ collection. It’s three days, so a lot of my customers come to that show. It’s nice to see everybody and run into people you haven’t seen for a while. That’s always a nice way to connect with people since it is in Chicago, but I don’t apply to do shows anymore. I got rid of all my booth stuff, so I’m sticking to my plan the way it is now.
Sharon: Sounds great.
Sharon: Whitney, thank you so much for being here and for sharing your words of wisdom gleaned from doing different things in the jewelry world.
Whitney: It was my pleasure.
Sharon: To everybody listening, we’ll have Whitney’s contact information in the show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode of the Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please review us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thank you so much for listening.
END OF AUDIO