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Creative Collaboration

Developing a complete brand strategy has put Thomas Michaels Designers in the spotlight in Camden, Maine.

By Joyce Kauf

Diamond and Gold Lunar Crescent earrings. ©2013 Thomas Michaels.

An outpost of urban chic is not something that you might expect to find as you walk along Elm Street in the picturesque New England coastal town of Camden, Maine. “Every space must have a presence that puts you on stage. When you come into our space, it’s like bang — you’re on Madison Avenue,” explains Thomas Michaels, describing Thomas Michaels Designers, the store where he and his wife, Nora Hattman-Michaels, make their handcrafted fine jewelry. Creating a distinctive retail environment has also proven to be an effective branding strategy for these award-winning designers. 
   Thomas, a third-generation designer, and Nora met in jewelry design class when they were both students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. In the early 1970s, the couple began to design collaboratively and their style evolved into more contemporary jewelry incorporating diamonds, precious gems, gold and platinum that allowed them to sell at higher price points. They began to introduce their gemstone jewelry at crafts shows, which, Thomas points out, was “unique and unusual at the time.” Participating at major craft shows around the country provided valuable insight when they decided to open their own store 15 years ago. “Being on the road and visiting stores in every state, we saw what retailers do and how we wanted to do it differently,” explains Thomas.
   The couple chose Camden, a significant art center that is also home to many artists, including three generations of Wyeths, the famed American painting family. A year-round location, Camden is also a popular vacation spot for some titans of industry; Malcolm Forbes moored his yacht, The Highlander, in its harbor and Stephen Forbes, his son, can be seen walking around town.
   When their current location, a building that dates from the 1800s, became available in 2008, Thomas and Nora seized the opportunity to create a store that would express their aesthetic sensibility and also reflect their design authority. “We try to set ourselves apart, whether the piece is $300 or $300,000,” says Thomas. “All of the fine jewelry that we create become heirlooms, whether they are contemporary or traditional for the wearer,” adds Nora. That striving for perfection extends to the store decor as well.

Creating Contrasts
   The Michaels focused on the relationship of shapes throughout the space in order to create an intimate environment conducive to having conversations about their jewelry. Exposing the building’s original brick walls revealed a backdrop for the gallery that also provided a striking contrast for their contemporary designs. Even the ceiling became an important design element. Since the original 12-foot ceiling was too high to create the comfortably intimate setting they wanted, the Michaels installed a white drop ceiling. Bathed in soft white light and not touching the walls, it appears to float nine feet above the cases. The unique, copyrighted shelving units “deviate from the commercial norm” according to Thomas, because the glass shelves are installed without brackets, achieving a “clean” look that allows for flexibility of display.
   The store’s color palette mirrors the interior’s simplicity. Midnight blue complements the black of the cases and the warm tan shades, pattern and texture of the carpet reflect the brick and the storefront. To avoid breaking up the storefront with an exterior sign, the couple created an interior marquee, hand-painted in faux gold leaf, in the front of the gallery.

Shine a Light
   Lighting was still another critical design element. A large opening in the center of the gallery was used to hang theatrical lighting in a black backdrop. Two of the original brick walls were replaced with a “curtain of glass” that allowed light to enter the gallery and also created a panoramic view of the downtown area. To maximize the impact of the glass, the Michaels commissioned thicker, extra-white glass. The asymmetrical arrangement of these glass panels extends the design theme throughout the gallery.
   Lighting also has become a strategic feature in promoting the Michaels’ jewelry as well as another branding tool. Noticing that all of the surrounding stores were dark at night, Thomas decided to light up the store after closing. “What better time to attract people than when they are strolling arm in arm after a nice dinner,” notes Thomas, adding, “It makes them want to come in the next day.” Video monitors showing their designs are strategically placed inside the store so that they can be seen from the street. The marquee, designed as a light box, offers still another opportunity to showcase their jewelry. The Michaels started a trend; all the neighboring stores now are lit 24/7.
   “The secret is to capitalize on a sense of place,” reveals Thomas. “Jewelers in all kinds of environments need to find that special way to distinguish themselves in every way — not just the jewelry designs or the store decor. You need to have a complete package,” he concludes. 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2013. To subscribe click here.

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