For Shelia Bayes, big things happen in twos and threes.
“All the major changes in my life seem to come at once,” the Kentucky jeweler says.
Her latest round of big moves: First she sold majority interest in Gem + Jewel, the award-winning e-commerce aggregator she founded in 2018, to Jewelers Mutual Insurance. Then on June 1, she became vice president for industry solutions with Jewelers Mutual. And on June 11, she married.
If it feels like déjà vu, well, no wonder: When Bayes was 27, with 10 years’ experience operating an absentee owner’s jewelry shop – and while weathering a divorce – she opened her own store in downtown Lexington, Ky., buoyed by a cache of goodwill that made up for modest cash reserves.
In the 28-year interim, Shelia Bayes Jewelers has grown significantly in size and reputation. Bayes operates a 12,000-square-foot retail space next to a Total Wine that has proved “phenomenal” for business; she has been named to the Harper’s Bazaar list of Top 100 Jewelers; and she has earned the Readers’ Choice Award for Best Jeweler in Lexington for a dozen years running.
“I came to the jewelry business as first-generation, so I always have an outsider’s perspective,” Bayes says. She values innovative ideas and takes pride in the ability of small businesses to “pivot” in tough times – such as the economic downturn of 2008 that saw her selling unwanted gold she had purchased to women, urging them to try something new and stylish in jewelry as with their clothes.
“You’re not wearing the same clothes you wore 10 years ago, so why wear the same jewelry?”
Being single most of her adult life, she thought it made sense to market to women. Ten years ago, she developed the Career Carats program encouraging women professionals to buy themselves jewelry to celebrate a career advance.
“I can always tell when a man designed an item or promotion. They’ll show a woman in an evening gown,” Bayes says. “What we really want to see is what goes great with Lululemon. We’re not wearing evening gowns to the gym!”
And then there’s Gem + Jewel, her e-commerce platform, which won the Think Tank competition at the 2018 JCK Las Vegas show and showed its true potential during the 2020 pandemic.
“The original idea was to level the playing field for independent retailers,” Bayes explains. “Most don’t have the bandwidth to handle business online. … In the past, it was kind of half-hearted, where you’d be busy managing your brick-and-mortar business and forget to check the website. … The jewelry industry has been slow to embrace technology.”
In essence, Gem + Jewel works as a kind of electronic catalog that connects independent jewelers with wholesalers all over, enabling retailers to obtain hard-to-find pieces online and to supply and service those items locally – while allowing customers in turn to shop locally with ease. A customer can access a preferred jeweler’s website, communicate what he or she wants, and the jeweler can reach out online to a limitless resource. Neither the customer nor the retailer faces an arduous searching or shopping task. The jeweler can efficiently find the piece, and have it shipped to the store, where it can be giftwrapped and picked up or delivered.
Bayes recalls an experience she had before Gem + Jewel, where she spent many days working her contacts the old-fashioned way to track down an unusual pair of pearl earrings a customer had requested. She finally succeeded, but the effort would have been quicker and smoother had the aggregator been in place.
“My first Gem + Jewel customer two-and-a-half years ago lived five miles from my store yet had never purchased anything from us. He spent $1,700, and he told me he used it because he only shops online yet having an e-commerce site allowed him to buy local,” she says.
Indeed, most of her e-commerce customers are currently local, or former locals who moved away. Bayes thinks it’s a plus that the aggregator allows jewelers to serve people who are already customers.
The online resource became a godsend during the COVID pandemic, when wholesalers and retailers couldn’t attend shows to connect face-to-face and didn’t have the photography and other resources to operate their own web presence. With the aggregator, retailers can virtually meet wholesalers they might never meet in real life, even in non-pandemic times.
Gem + Jewel took off during the later pandemic months, bringing in more than $100,000 of online sales for Bayes in November and December and into January.
“There was a big blip in the beginning of the pandemic, and then business started rebounding again. I had more engagement ring sales this past 12 months than in any single year before,” Bayes says. “People realize how fragile life can be and are not taking it for granted.”
With more than 10,000 independent jewelry retailers in the United States, Bayes believes a managed platform like Gem + Jewel can give local dealers a combined power “much greater than any chain store” and enable them to compete with giant shopping sites such as Amazon.
Before merging with Jewelers Mutual, Bayes worked with internet service provider Kinetic by Windstream to develop a robust platform that can stand up to the new challenges ahead, with quick-loading content, texting on the website, and a cellphone app; and there’s plenty of headroom for experimenting with services to meet the future.
Despite its size, Bayes says Kinetic offered the personable service of a smaller enterprise: “They treated it as their own business.”
As she embarks on her latest advance with Gem + Jewel, Bayes sees a big opportunity.
“This will allow me to focus on my passion – I want to help this industry; I want to help independent jewelers.”