Rapaport Magazine

Team People

Employees are number one at Von Bargen’s jewelry stores in Vermont and New Hampshire.

By Joyce Kauf

Left to right: Paul Morelli, Alex Sepkus, Sethi Couture, Sarah Graham.

Our vision is to leave the world a better place,” says Julie Von Bargen Thom, the second-generation owner of Von Bargen’s Jewelry, along with her husband Jason Thom. “Our intention behind every purchase is to do good rather than bad. That means that everything we do — from sourcing gemstones to selling our custom and designer jewelry — is a choice that enhances that goal.” And the emphasis on doing good is put into practice at their five stores, four in Vermont and one in New Hampshire.
   “Our mission statement is the heart of our business,” notes Julie. Each of its four components — employees, customers, communities and the world — builds on the previous, starting with the employees, who are at the core of Von Bargen’s business philosophy of developing and nurturing long-term relationships. “We cultivate a team that is professionally and personally driven,” she notes, pointing out that both personal and professional ambitions are equally critical. And personal interests add still another dimension to selling. The “Von Bargen’s Jewelry Team” section of the company website introduces the staff with answers to questions that range from favorite movie to the historical person they would most like to meet. “There are so many places to buy,” Julie adds. “You can have a great product mix in a beautiful location, but if a customer walks through the door and has a terrible experience, she’ll walk out.”
   The focus on attracting high-caliber employees was a concept Julie learned from her father, John Von Bargen, who opened the first Von Bargen’s in 1978 in the then-bustling mill town of Springfield, Vermont. He had initially come to the state on a trip after graduating from college. Enthralled with Vermont’s beauty and motivated by a desire to do something “with his hands,” he taught himself silversmithing. The Stratton store was opened in 1986, followed by Burlington in 1987. Fifteen years later, Von Bargen opened a store in Hanover, New Hampshire, near Dartmouth College, Julie’s alma mater. The Thoms’ newest store is in Stowe, Vermont. Stores range in size from 1,000 square feet to 2,000 square feet.

Community and Customers
   Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire attract summer vacationers and winter skiers. But Julie points out that the choice of store location is determined more by the presence of a vibrant local community invested in the area rather than the region’s popularity as a tourist spot. Once again, the relationship factor is critical. “Catering to people with a long-term commitment to the area, whether it be their primary residence or their vacation home, allows us to develop long-term meaningful relationships. Ideally, we want to make a sale that leads to many other sales,” says Julie. Tourists often tend to be weekend browsers and while Julie welcomes their purchases, she recognizes that quality pieces, especially at higher price points, are often a harder sell to nonresidents.
   The socially conscious New England customer is also a natural fit for the Von Bargen’s dedication to doing good. “Our clients are very responsible in their lives,” says Julie. “They may not ask the questions but we know what matters to them. They can feel good about making a purchase at our stores because the process of securing the diamonds and creating the jewelry not only didn’t hurt anyone but rather benefited someone across the chain of creation, including our employees, artisans and their employees as well.”

Artisanal Designs
   Julie believes that her customers share her belief that jewelry is an art form and favors unique designs over less expensive, mass-produced pieces. “Our jewelry is very distinctive. We can compete with any major metropolitan area,” she points out, adding, “However, because we are a small community, we have to represent a broad mix.”
   Julie prefers to work with artists, generally American or European, whose passion is creating art. Custom represents a significant portion of Von Bargen’s business. “We built our business on ideal cut diamonds,” she says. Her top designers include Alex Sepkus, Todd Reed, Mark Patterson, Paul Morelli, Gellner, Anne Sportun, Michael Weggenmann and Sarah Graham.
   With several store locations, Julie acknowledges that name recognition is helpful. However, she cites the company’s website as very critical to communicating with their customers. She estimates that at least 90 percent of bridal customers have visited the site before they step into the store.

Expanded Options
   Merchandising varies by artist and their particular strengths. “We sometimes intermingle the artists to give a sense of how they complement the collections,” Julie explains. “But we want to avoid limiting the customer’s options to just one collection.”
   Julie points out that all the stores have a similar look to reinforce the brand image. The decor is elegant but not intimidating. However, the Stowe store, the company’s newest, has become more of the design prototype that will be phased into the other stores. Framed by light gray walls, cherrywood cabinets handmade by a local craftsman are used as display cases. Soft lighting from Vermont-made forged fixtures and sconces casts a warm glow on the jewelry.
   While most of the customers are low key, Julie acknowledges that they must be accorded the respect and service that goes with making a very meaningful purchase. “Our job on the front lines is to celebrate those special moments with them. It is not just transactional; we need to keep that top of mind even when it is a smaller dollar sale,” she asserts.
   “The Von Bargen brand is all about people. You have to communicate brand values internally and externally to the customers,” says Julie. “Without our team, we could not possibly be where we are.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2015. To subscribe click here.

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