In this second part of the interview with Rona Fisher, the Jewelers’ Row designer talks about what it’s like to be on the row and how her she promotes her business.
PART 2: WORKING ON THE ROW
Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): What do you like in particular about being here, being right in the middle of the Diamond District?
Rona Fisher (RF): I like being around jewelry. That’s always fun. I can leave the building and walk and look in the showcases, even if most of it isn’t my personal style, I’m always getting inspired with little ideas… I like to see what people are up to and to know what the other part of the industry is doing. I’m in the designer segment, so I’m really not related to what’s going on on the street level here. I still like to know, I still like to be around it. It’s convenient for customers and employees. There’s public transportation, people come from New Jersey on the high speed line. The Convention Center is close by, people call from out of town for appointments…we’re only 8 blocks away. So, [this location] is super convenient, and secure, more secure than being out in a studio building. Plus, you can move anywhere in the jewelry district here and you’ll find a space that some other jeweler has been in, so you’ve got all your gas lines, all your stuff. You’ve got the right electricity, it’s zoned correctly, you just have to move in and start to work.
KW: Do you find that people move relatively often around the district?
RF: Some do. Maybe they want to downsize or upsize, or they don’t like the stairs, or they’re sick of their landlord or whatever, so they’ll look for something else. There’s a little bit of movement, but I think most people like to stay put because their customers know where to go. Like, half the time I don’t know the address of my suppliers, I just know the door. Sometimes I think, “I should really have their number or address, because I think I’ve walked past it.” So [Jewelers’ Row] is kind of like a little beehive that goes on, and that’s kind of fun.
Also, when people do move around, there’s always a safe and these safes are an atrocious thing to move. They’re ridiculously expensive to move and ridiculously expensive to buy as well. So, Metal Market Place left like ten safes here. They had whole walls banked with safes. God only knows how much it would have cost to move those things. As soon as I moved in the landlord was like, “who wants a safe? Do you want a safe?” I was like, “Yeah!” Unfortunately, I only have room for one…
KW: You have the safe in your space?
RF: Yeah, it’s in the space, it’s huge. It makes putting these [jewelry trays] out and putting these away [really easy]. Each gets its own shelf, I just take it out, set it up. So, if somebody calls and says they’re around the corner, I can just say, “come on over,” and put everything out [quickly]. So, it makes it easy .
KW: Have you noticed any vacancies around here recently?
RF: Well, the trend is that there’s less jewelers, because of the recession. I think the industry has lost like 30%. It’s a big, big loss for jewelry all over the country and all jewelry districts are suffering.
KW: When did the recession start?
RF: 2008. It really started eating away [at business] really quickly and continues to eat away. There are a lot of reasons for this: demographics, people your age don’t really want to take over the jewelry business, it’s a store and most people just want to do their own thing on-line through social media or find some alternative way of selling if they happen to be addicted to jewelry. So, the whole parent to child, leaving the business [to the next generation], that chain has broken a lot. One of the reasons I think a lot of these building owners are anxious to sell, is that they don’t have anyone to leave their business to and they want out…
You know, if they had active business and were really making good money and everyone was happy and their kids were taking it over than they wouldn’t want to do it, because that would be their retirement money.
That’s what usually happens is that the next generation would pay the parent to take the store as their retirement salary. So, with that chain broken, they’re anxious to go.
Also, the trend has been to take a lot of these places that aren’t being used and make them into apartments. Already, I’ve seen a lot of apartments on second and third stories. [For example] In New York, [the jewelry district] is in the middle of Manhattan. Most jewelry districts are in the middle of some city. So, the real estate is too expensive to let it sit and quite frankly, people can get a lot more from a residence than what we would be willing to pay for a workshop. That’s just the trend.
KW: How about on Sansom in particular? Have you noticed many vacancies?
RF: Well, apartments, changing workshops into apartments. On the second and third stories I’ve noticed lights on at night…residential types of lighting fixtures, etc.
KW: Earlier you were telling me you like being on the row because you can go out and get the materials right here. Can you tell me more about that, tell me how that works?
RF: Several of my casters are in the neighborhood, so that’s very convenient. Especially if we do shows back to back, so I’ll come back from a show and I need to replace certain pieces. I can get my castings back in like two days… and then I can go off again and have my line intact, with certain important pieces I really like to have with me.
Little things you might need, tools and stuff like that that needs replacing. You just run out and get it.
KW: Do you go to appraisers here?
RF: Yes, there’s a few appraisers here. Especially when people send me their diamonds, I like to make sure that they understand what they’re worth. Sometimes they just send them to me and I’m like “do you know, do you have any idea? You sent this through the mail…maybe you should get this appraised and insured.” Sometimes they don’t know. They’ve had it forever and aren’t thinking about it. Some of them are worth quite a bit and they should have them insured.
KW: …What do you do when you go to [fine craft] shows?
RF: The retail shows, they are fine craft shows. There are a mix of artists that go, jewelers, ceramics people, fiber, painters, photographers, furniture makers, glass artists, and they all have their studios and they go out to these fine craft shows and they sell their things to the public. That’s how I find my retail customers.
KW: And where are these shows? Do you go all over the country?
RF: I’ve tried all kinds of things, but pretty much restrained it now to a three hour drive. The furthest I’ll go is Chicago and Ashville, North Carolina; those are the two furthest points.
KW: Are those big shows?
RF: Chicago’s a big show. Chicago’s a great town, they’re very art oriented and I like going to Chicago. So, I go there and Saint Paul, Minnesota has a show and Ashville has a great show.
KW: Do you ever go to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show?
RF: Oh, I go there to buy, yes.
KW: That’s a place you have to go, yeah?
RF: What’s fascinating about Tucson, is you get to meet people from all over the world. And even though mostly it’s the same vendors, new ones pop up and you find material you don’t know about yet or just different cuts [of stones] coming out that they’re doing. So, it’s inspiring. As well as always being over budget, spending wise…
KW: You said you get a lot of your business from going out to these shows, do you also find that people are referred to you by other jewelers on the row?
RF: No, mostly they’re my retail customers who bring their girlfriends. So, we don’t do work for the trade. The guy next door does work for the trade and probably most of the people on Jewelers’ Row do work for the trade. I’m an anomaly here, in that I’m a designer and I don’t want to do work for the trade. Not that it’s below me, but it distracts me from focusing on my line…
KW: Thinking about the other way, if someone comes in looking for something very specific that you don’t normally do, would you refer them to somebody else?
RF: It depends. If it entails making the master model, but it’s something that isn’t really our line, but that I can do rather quickly and not be too distracted by, then I’ll just do it for them…
KW: Do you have repeat customers?
RF: We have some customers that are jewelry addicts. It’s like when chefs have food addicts and they come to their restaurant, it’s like, “Yes!” So, we have a whole stash of people who just love jewelry and are very passionate about it. Luckily for me, they like my work.
One of the big things we do is we encourage people to take their old jewelry that they don’t like anymore, especially if they have diamonds in them, because diamonds don’t get worn down… they always look good. We get the diamonds out for them and we can make something they’ll like and they’ll wear. People will inherit [jewelry]… mom dies, grandma dies, and they have it. They can’t stand to wear it, but there it is. What are they going to do with it?
So, we’ll make them something they’ll actually wear and love and they’ll have that connection with their loved one… It’s very meaningful for people to have that connection, and it’s an honor for me to have a part in it.
KW: Obviously you have people who come to your studio. Do you also have people who contact you for commissions on-line?
RF: That’s one of the main reasons for our website is to reach out anywhere.
KW: Do you find that most of your clients come [in person to your store]?
RF: Most is word of mouth. It’s mostly word of mouth and then we’re working aggressively on spreading the website further, because people will, if they like the website, contact us and after a few emails back and forth we establish a good connection. They see we have good reviews and they feel comfortable about sending me their diamonds.
KW: Do you do any repairs of jewelry for people?
RF: Just our own. Or if it’s a good customer, then we’ll accommodate them. But, again, we’re not a repair shop. I don’t want to get distracted. If you’re a repair shop, then you’ve set yourself up to do quick repairs. So, for us to stop and do a repair, it’s distracting…
KW: You don’t sell to the major chain stores?
RF: No, we wouldn’t want to. This isn’t the look they’re after. It’s the biggest look for the least amount of money. That’s the mantra. That’s what makes those stores work. And when you say you can buy a karat worth of diamond studs for $499. Half a karat diamond each for $200…just for the diamond? I mean, that is a garbage diamond. There is something very wrong with that diamond. Because a half a karat…even just a decent diamond…is well over that. So when I see these ads…what is it they’re really selling? That must be pretty bad. And you know, cheap labor in China and blah, blah, blah. So I that’s not my market. I sell to boutiques. There’s one online e-tailer I sell to and we’re getting set up to do another one. That seems to work.
KW: Do you sell to a lot of local shops?
RF: No. Not really. The gallery scene kind of went down the tubes with the recession. A lot of them didn’t really know what they were doing as retailers. But they were riding on a good economy, a boom economy, like we all were. We all thought we were great. We didn’t realize until it stopped that it was the economy that was helping us out. We could sell anything and they could sell anything. People had extra income and they were happy to buy things that they liked and not worry about it too much and gold was cheap compared to now. And when that all stopped I’d say at least 50% of galleries went out of business. All these artists that were building their financial future…business was doing great and you thought you knew what you were doing…and it just stopped. Like really one day from the next.
KW: And how did you find Lorelei?
RF: Lorelei’s been with me since the studio in Northern Liberties. She’s been with me for a long time. We had 3 jewelers full time and things started to slow down. I didn’t really have to let anybody go. One guy was getting burned out. There’s this serendipity that happens a lot in this business. Things happen for a reason.
I think a lot of jewelers know there’s kind of this mystery that goes along with jewelry making. You’re working with elements and they all have their own energy. And the stones like to play games on the jeweler.
KW: How so?
RF: Well, you’re sitting there setting one and you put it down and make some more adjustments on the setting and you pick it up and put it back in and it’s not quite right and you go to make a few more adjustments and…it’s gone. I just put it right there! You’re keeping your bench really clean and have a little container for the stone so that nothing gets misplaced . I’ve learned to give it 20 minutes tops. You do the floor sweep and you have all these ways of finding the stone. 20 minutes…it’ll show up, it’s here. It didn’t go down the drain. You weren’t near the sink, you go through all the things that could have happened. And sometimes I’ll walk in the next day and it will just be sitting right there. And it’s happened to everybody. I’ve never lost one that didn’t show up again.. . It’s bizarre.
KW: How is business now? It’s coming out of the recession and picking up?
RF: I have totally revamped and redone the business. Totally reorganized it. I made my initial money with the Buyer’s Market ( which doesn’t exist anymore) and selling to crafts galleries. My retail price point for them was about $500. It was 14 karat [gold] and silver. So I wanted to be working with 18 karat [gold].
But once you’re selling wholesale you’re known for that and it’s very hard to move away from that. It’s a big deal. Because it’s your brand and you’re known for that.
And that’s what people look for and that’s what the stores want and that’s what they think when they think of you and you’re kind of confined when you do wholesale. I decided to make the move anyway and start working with 18 karat gold. I knew it was a big risk. I knew I was going to lose a lot of my retail customers. I had already stopped selling wholesale because when 2008 happened I was like…I’ve known these galleries for 15 years and they’re all going to want consignment and it’s very dangerous and I don’t want to do it… So I wrote everybody a nice note saying “I’m going to step out of wholesale for a while and when things settle whoever’s left standing, we’ll see each other again. I wish you all the best of luck.”
My spouse and I travelled everywhere. I went to Florida, we pretty much commuted to Florida in the winters back and forth doing shows down there just to keep things together. I started honing the line into one particular look. It’s been a couple years and it’s starting to click pretty well now. It takes a while because it’s sort of a new business when you have a new line. So my old customers come and say hello but they’re used to having something fun for under $500. And we don’t have many pieces like that anymore.
KW: Right, with 18 karat [gold] you have to bring up that price point.
RF: Yeah, so now whenever I design something and figure it out, it’s like, “Well there’s another one for $2000.” What can I do for under $1000? And that’s difficult when you’re using 18 karat gold and diamonds.
KW: So what do you think your general range is?
RF: Pretty much from $350 for silver and 18k gold pieces up to $7000.
Come back for Part 3 of the interview with Rona Fisher where discusses her position on the proposed development on Jewelers’ Row and how she believes it will effect the row and the jewelry industry in Philadelphia.