A girls’ day out can do a lot for a woman, from recharging the batteries to a day of cheek-hurting laughter. But a life-changing career switch typically doesn’t make such a benefits list. That’s what happened to Karen Hollis, when on a whim she joined a friend at a public gem, jewelry and fashion accessories show in the mid-1990s.
As Karen celebrates 13 years as a retail jeweler, she owns a hugely successful fine jewelry and bridal destination store with a custom jewelry department that’s growing her fun and fabulous business model.
“I tell the story almost daily,” says Karen. “There were a lot of fashion items at the show, but I found myself at this bead booth. I was attracted to the colors and started picking up beads and arranging them in my hand. Then I kind of blanked out and focused solely on the beads and saw a finished bracelet. I was hooked instantly.”
Those beads and the design concept that got into Karen’s head at the gem show was the first piece of bead jewelry she made and eventually sold. It was one of 150 pieces of jewelry she made with the $2,000 worth of beads and bead-making accessories she charged on the family’s emergency credit card that day.
In looking back at a fine jewelry retail store story two decades in the making, Karen still can’t believe she’s the owner of K. Hollis Fine Jewelry, located in Batavia, IL, with 15 employees. It’s especially mind boggling for Karen given she started this journey with zero industry experience while working as a special education teacher specializing in children with behavior disorders.
Despite the risks with this job, there were professional and even personal rewards for Karen. At the time the bead bug bit, she was seriously considering going back to school to get her master’s degree in special education. The 150 pieces of jewelry she made, however, sold in about a month. Karen’s gut instincts, along with support from her business-minded husband Rob, told her she was on to something - intuitions which were soon proven right.
“I remember one day I walked out the door wearing three of my bead bracelets and returned home that day with no jewelry on,” says Karen. “I knew I was on to something. To this day, I’d say every week I sell at least one or two pieces of jewelry off my body.”
In that first year, what began as a passing fancy evolved into a career choice. After selling her first 150 pieces of jewelry in a month, Karen found bead stores near her home and bead-making companies online for raw materials. Within six months after attending her first gem show, Karen took a year off from teaching fully intending to return and pursue a familiar career path.
With each piece of jewelry she made for her many in-home bead jewelry “trunk shows,” Karen found herself drifting further from her teaching job. “Back then and today, I find beading and designing jewelry very therapeutic,” says Karen. “I find myself kind of zoning out, letting the creative process take over in an almost out-of-body experience, then a piece of jewelry comes together.”
During her one-year sabbatical, Karen hosted a number of in-home bead jewelry parties, promoting with her Garden of Beadin’ business cards. During that time she garnered more than a thousand customers, many of whom still buy jewelry from her 20 years later.
During the decade after making her first bracelet, people were coming to Karen’s home for gifts of jewelry. With her husband working from home and in need of quality quiet time to concentrate on his work, he floated the idea of Karen getting her own retail space and she hired three employees.
With little knowledge of the industry or owning a business, in 2005, Karen and her husband Rob (who quit his job to accommodate the new family business) pooled their talents, time and resources to open a 1,800-square-foot store. Karen opened her store during the rise and eventual fall of the housing market in 2008, uniquely positioning her and her staff with price-point-friendly jewelry (mainly bead and silver jewelry) in the post-recession years.
As the economic recovery started its slow uptick, by 2010 Karen had 5,000 customer names in her database, many of whom had more money to spend on fine jewelry and bridal jewelry purchases. That’s when Karen brought in higher end lines, started dabbling in custom design work and doing more repair work onsite.
From this effort her business started to take off. Seven years after opening her store, the retail space next to her - a corner unit - opened up. The additional space and prime location presented incredible growth and expansion opportunities for Karen and her staff.
The expansion took her store from 1,800 square feet to 4,100 square feet. Karen created designated spaces and areas for her inventory. And, with a significantly larger retail space, she wanted her store to be a fun, inviting place for hosting events, for store trunk shows as well as business and social groups in her community.
The 2012 build out included a wine bar. (Eventually Karen took on the arduous process of getting a liquor license.) It’s a central, entertaining space in the jewelry store where fine wines aren’t just served, but also sold. The wine bar lends itself nicely to regularly scheduled First Wednesday SIP (Socially Interesting People) parties. The events are all about fun, but also present a lot of networking opportunities, as does renting out her store for community events.
The additional space also made room for two full-time jewelers. Custom work is literally quadrupling every year for Karen and her staff. And, one of her long-term goals is to produce her own waxes and molds for in-house designs, relying less on outside vendors for finished product.
Last year Karen brought in CAD design programs for her jewelers and would like to continue building on this portion of her business to increase custom design work and have a healthy inventory of in-house designs. Karen is looking to invest in 3-D wax printing technology, creating a shop-in-shop for her custom designs, and one day owning her own retail space.