Asheville’s jewelry industry undeterred by pandemic

LOVE ENDURES: Spicer Greene Jewelry launched its Love Is Not Cancelled campaign shortly after the COVID-19 shutdown. Husband-and-wife owners Elliott and Eva-Michelle Spicer, see the message as a reminder and call for unity during these difficult and trying times. Photo by Thomas Calder

Elliott Spicer, co-owner of Spicer Greene Jewelry, feared the worst. “When we shut down for nearly seven weeks, it was scary,” he says, recalling the early months of COVID-19 when nonessential businesses were ordered to close. The family jewelry store, which opened in Asheville in 1926, had to temporarily lay off all 12 employees. “We didn’t know if we were going to be able to survive,” Spicer says.

Sales, however, did not completely cease, thanks largely to the company’s foresight: Three years earlier, Spicer Greene updated its website making the store’s entire inventory available online. Before 2020, internet sales were insignificant, but once the pandemic hit “more people started shopping online,” Spicer says. This, along with federal relief through the Paycheck Protection Program, helped the nearly 100-year-old business stay afloat and eventually bring back its entire staff along with five additional employees.

Today, despite the pandemic’s resurgence and ongoing economic uncertainties, Spicer says sales are up 40% year-to-date.

And Spicer Greene is not alone in its good fortune. Xpress spoke with several local jewelry shops experiencing similar gains during COVID-19. With the holidays around the corner, these same stores expect the trend to continue. But while the retail side thrives, some in the industry are concerned about local jewelry makers, who are still reeling from the economic hit created by the pandemic.

Love, too, is in the air

Broadly speaking, “Everything sucks” about COVID-19, says Marthe Le Van, curator at Mora, a boutique shop in Asheville’s downtown business district specializing in modern jewelry. But hope is not completely lost. “People still have reasons to celebrate — there are birthdays, weddings and engagements,” she observes.

And with travel expenses down for many this year, Le Van adds, customers have gravitated toward higher-ticket items. “We just finished the best September and October that we’ve ever had,” she says.

Tonia Sheppard, marketing manager at Alan’s Jewelry & Pawn, sees similar trends at the company’s three locations. “The dollar of per ticket sales has actually increased,” she says.

While some national reports indicate a spike in this year’s divorce rates, Sheppard contends love (along with COVID-19) is still in the air. “I don’t know if the pandemic has sprung people into popping the question or what, but we’ve sold a lot of diamond engagement rings.”

At Spicer Greene, a similar surge is underway. “We’re selling two or three engagement rings a day,” says Spicer. “And we’re manufacturing them right here in Asheville.”

Gold is the new green

Spicer Greene’s home-court advantage has been an asset during the pandemic. The company hasn’t experienced nearly as many delays in production as others in the industry have.

At Alan’s Jewelry & Pawn, for example, outsourcing has created some wrinkles for the holiday season. National and international shutdowns in manufacturing, notes Sheppard, continue to impact the store’s overall inventory. “We don’t have as much to choose from as we did this time last year going into Christmas,” she explains.

Fortunately, Sheppard continues, “We bought early,” so inventory isn’t lacking. Plus, she adds, long-standing relationships with vendors help expedite new arrivals once they are available.

In addition, both Spicer Greene and Alan’s Jewelry & Pawn report an increase in direct purchases from customers. “We’ve bought a lot of jewelry from people over the last few months,” says Spicer, who speculates that many of the sales may have been motivated by economic hardships created by the pandemic.

But with the price of gold jumping nearly 30% this year, many locals also just see an opportunity for cashing in. “The price of gold being as high as it is definitely pushes people to bring it in,” says Sheppard.

No more booth fees

But the good times are not universally felt across the industry. Back at Mora, Le Van brings up an unrelenting concern. “I’m really worried about our artists,” she says. Her store represents 30 jewelry makers, 12 of whom are regionally based. Because of social restrictions, she points out, trade and craft shows continue to be postponed or canceled. “So, their income is really hampered.”

GOOD AND BAD TIMES: “We represent 30 different artists who all make their living making jewelry,” says Marthe Le Van, curator at Mora. While sales remain high at the boutique, Le Van worries about the economic hardships artists face due to the ongoing cancellations of craft shows across the country. Photo by Thomas Calder

Among the Asheville artists featured at Mora is Laura Wood, who recently concluded a three-year residency at Penland School of Craft. Roughly a third of her income, says Wood, is tied directly to sales at large craft shows. “So, it’s been really challenging to figure out how to make up for all the projections I had going into the year.”

Throughout the pandemic, Wood has relied heavily on her mailing list and social media platforms as ways to interact with clients. She’s also applied for several grants and received a Small Business Administration loan — money she plans to use only as a last resort.

Looking ahead, Wood wonders what the future holds for the craft show model. Even before COVID-19, she notes, the industry struggled to attract a younger demographic. Furthermore, the costs associated with participating at such events — booth fees range anywhere from $800 to $1,800, plus travel, lodging and food — make participation more challenging for artists currently facing significant economic hardships.

Once COVID-19 settles, “I plan on trying to do more things that are geared toward my local economy here rather than traveling quite so much,” says Wood.

Part of that includes showcasing more of her newer work at galleries like Mora rather than taking these items on the road.

“I am so thankful for someone like Marthe [Le Van] and my other galleries for what they’re doing for their artists right now,” says Wood. “I don’t think they even realize how important they are at this very moment because they are the ones who are going into work every day and having to wear a mask and putting themselves at risk. It means a great deal to us that they’re continuing to be advocates for our work. And taking those risks to do so. It’s huge.”

Masked and ready

All three retail stores that Xpress contacted stressed the precautions in place during COVID-19. Masks are mandatory at all three businesses. Meanwhile, Mora and Spicer Greene limit the number of guests at a time to four and 12, respectively.

“And we are still to this day keeping our doors locked,” says Le Van. “Because it just gives everybody that extra time to get their masks on and to make sure everyone is ready to abide by our safety measures.”

Clients have respected the rules so far, say store owners and managers. And in some instances, customers have changed their own shopping habits to reduce the risk of exposure as well. For example, whereas pre-COVID shoppers typically browsed, Spicer says many pandemic buyers enter the store familiar with the company’s inventory through its website.

“So, they know what they want and just want to see it in person before they buy it,” Spicer explains. “It’s kind of a quicker thing.”

Meanwhile, at Alan’s Jewelry & Pawn, Sheppard observes a greater sense of appreciation among customers. “When people are here, they just seem grateful to be able to be out and to be able to purchase items in person,” she says.

Love is local

This holiday season, all three shops say they hope residents will consider where they spend their money. Combined, the three companies directly employ 81 people, with an additional 30 artists represented at Mora.

“So anytime you buy something here, you’re supporting at least two small businesses,” says Le Van. “The maker that made it and us.”

Sheppard echoes Le Van’s point. “Shop local,” she says. “Everybody is in this together. We’re doing everything we possibly can to make sure everyone stays safe and that we just keep the community going.”

 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, comes out on March 23, 2021.

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