Rapaport Magazine
Retail

Thinking out of the box

A personal touch and curated artisan pieces entice clients at Von Bargen’s Jewelry in Vermont and New Hampshire.

By Joyce Kauf
Image: Von Bargen's Jewelry

Julie Von Bargen Thom takes a very personal approach to business strategy — even using her own voice and images of her family in advertising campaigns for Von Bargen’s Jewelry.

“It keeps everything very real,” she says, adding that the message resonates with clients as well; 80% to 85% are repeat purchasers.

“Our business is not transactional; it’s all about the relationship,” explains Von Bargen Thom, who co-owns the company with her husband Jason Thom. Her father, John Von Bargen, started the business in 1975 with $300 in tools and $100 in silver. It now has four locations.

Nestled in the hills of the upper northeast, Von Bargen’s has three stores in Vermont — in Burlington, Stratton and Stowe — and one in Hanover, New Hampshire. While the areas are not “super fancy,” she says, they are home to “very sophisticated and educated people who lead a refined and active lifestyle.”

Reacting to change

Covid-19 broadened the company’s client landscape. Stratton was always the “outlier,” populated primarily by owners of second homes, while the other towns had a strong client base with a “layering of second-home owners,” Von Bargen Thom observes. But the pandemic turned the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire into “Covid enclaves,” attracting people who sought to escape the more densely populated cities along the east coast. Many took up full-time residence and became new clients.

In response to the strict Covid-19 restrictions, Von Bargen Thom ramped up her email campaigns and increased virtual marketing on Instagram and the website. In keeping with her relationship-building strategy, the site was not used to drive e-commerce. Rather, the retailer saw it as a “tool that we then layer onto the very personal relationships we develop to create opportunities to sell clients the items that are right for them.”

About five years ago, she pulled back from radio and print and shifted dollars to television ads. The images of her family are rooted in the community where they live, so “the people we are targeting see themselves in these ads,” she says.

The messaging reinforced the connection. “We received very positive feedback,” reports the jeweler.

Promoting artistry

“We see jewelry as art. We think of bringing art into our clients’ lives, whether for a special occasion or simply because they want to treat themselves to something beautiful,” says Von Bargen Thom. “‘The finest diamonds’ [on our website] really sums up who we are from a product perspective.” Since the company’s founding, she adds, it has only sold ideal-cut diamonds.

Von Bargen’s offers the gamut of bridal, anniversary and birthday gifts, but diamond and artisan jewelry is significant to its business, especially classic diamond studs and solitaire diamond pendants. It has carried Kwiat for a long time, and the brand’s studs and bracelets — as well as more sophisticated pieces containing Kwiat’s trademarked Ashoka-cut diamonds — cater to a selective upscale market. Diamond fashion jewelry, however, is not a strong-selling category.

“We try to push our clients to think out of the box and try on jewelry that doesn’t appeal to them initially,” Von Bargen Thom explains. As further encouragement, the marketing and advertising show how clients can personalize their own looks by mixing and matching pieces from different artists and/or wearing them with jewelry they already own.

The retailer also credits the “warm and not ostentatious” atmosphere in its stores with getting people to broaden their jewelry horizons. “My experience is that when jewelry shoppers walk into our stores, they are always impressed with how we curate the jewelry and put them together in unique combinations.”

Selection criteria

While the look and feel of the stores may vary slightly and feature different assortments of an artist’s jewelry, consistency in merchandising is “critical in communicating” to the clients the type of store they are in, Von Bargen Thom believes. Each designer is merchandised in-depth.

“As with establishing our long-term client relationships, we represent artists for long periods of time,” she says. “Our strategy is not to carry 100 brands and rotate them quickly within each store. We want to develop partnerships that are mutually beneficial.”

While the practical element of limited store space is a consideration in selecting jewelry to carry, the personal “likability” factor plays a role in her decision as well. Above all, she looks for “iconic, distinctive pieces that inspire” and are not mere “copycat designs.”

She also insists on “meticulous” quality, and maintains that “any new collection needs to play into the mix of who we already represent. I’m not interested in bringing in a designer who just takes dollars from a current designer. I want to add dollars.”

Power to the people

The jeweler considers her “incredibly talented” staff one of the company’s biggest assets; they are “passionate about jewelry and work to cultivate relationships,” she says. A firm believer in empowering her employees, she holds that “growing exceptional people” is a win-win for everyone involved.

When the manager of the Burlington store wanted to design her own collection, Von Bargen Thom supported her efforts by developing Ali by VBJ in-house. “The line continues to sell well, is exclusive to our stores, is very customizable, and our clients know the designer personally. Offering that opportunity speaks to how we run our business.”

She also believes in being proactive. “Waiting for people to walk in our door is not the way our business is going to succeed. We have to create the desire for clients to come in to shop or have the jewelry shipped to them. It’s very personal and very foundational to all that we’ve always been.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - May 2022. To subscribe click here.

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