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Tips for creating a custom design area that inspires customers

Just as writer Virginia Wolff once wrote about a woman’s need for "a room of her own," so custom designers and their clients deserve a space to call their own, too. Think of your custom design space as your theater set, where you set the mood for inspiration. Below are several suggestions for how you can do just that, based on the experience of designers who have found that a combination of ambiance, ergonomics, and plain old hospitality can lead to sales and satisfied customers.

1. Consider Your Store’s Layout

First, think about the traffic patterns of your store. Do you have traditional standing showcases holding retail merchandise, where customers may congregate to review specific pieces? If so, set up a custom consultation area that’s out of the way.

"The area should be off to the side, so people can feel comfortable talking about personal items; they don’t want to feel someone is looking over their shoulder or trying to listen in," says Greg Stopka of Jewelsmith in Pleasant Hill and San Ramon, California. The area could be nestled next to a wall, in the back of the store, or even in the center, if it can be partitioned off from traffic. The important aspect is to protect your clients from distractions or nosy onlookers.

If you’re one of the growing number of studios that focus almost entirely on custom design, the consultation area may actually be the focus—but you still need to think about traffic flow. Seattle-based Green Lake Jewelry Works, which does 90 percent of its business in custom design, has 12 design stations taking up the majority of its floor space. Each station has a specific theme, says owner Jim Tuttle, most of which are related to wedding, engagement, and other ring styles. To avoid pile-ups, he has designated the more popular themes to multiple stations.

"We have three set up for antique engagement rings, and three for carved bands," he says. "We have a lesser number for minimalist engagement rings, men’s bands, and others that rotate constantly. All of them have showcases with samples that are appropriate to the style, showing different colors of metals, types of engraving, shank shapes, etc."

Green Lake Interior

The Green Lake interior.
Of course, a client who sits down at a station devoted to minimalist engagement rings may, during the consultation, realize that what she really wants is an antique ring. If that happens, the Green Lake designer will work with her on that style; he may even go to the showcase at an antique station and retrieve a few samples. But having multiple stations for popular styles, in addition to minimizing pile-ups, helps to reduce the time designers spend locating appropriate samples. (They also give the designer a leg up in establishing a starting point for the consultation.)

2. Get Comfortable

The ergonomics of the consultation space should also be carefully considered. At Krikawa Jewelry Designs in Tucson, the design space features a long, narrow showcase, which can accommodate two comfortable leather chairs on either side. Having enough space for the decision makers in the transaction is important, says owner Lisa Krikawa, and there should be enough chairs for them to be able to sit down.

In fact, that focus on comfort should permeate the store. Nearby her design station, Krikawa keeps a coffee machine to make individual cups of coffee (with a wide range of selections), as well as a wine fridge. "The Keurig coffee machine has solved the problem of offering people a drink," she says, "because it’s so easy and quick."

Green Lake has also dedicated itself to creating an inviting ambiance. "The most important thing is the overall comfort level," Tuttle says. "We have a fireplace, an espresso bar, and nice leather couches for clients to think and browse and daydream." (See below.)

Green Lake Sitting Area

Yes, daydream. That sitting area serves a dual purpose: It provides an attractive setting for clients who are waiting to pick up a finished piece, and it also provides a haven for customers who aren’t quite sure what they want yet.

"We greet customers and, if they’re not ready to sit down with someone, we offer them a coffee or soda and invite them to sit at the bar or on a sofa and relax," Tuttle says. "They can look at brochures, catalogs, old Cartier books, some picture folders. We also have a couple of computers at the espresso bar, so they can browse through digital catalogs."

Which brings us to the third tip...

3. Provide Plenty of Pictures

"The whole process is really about showing images," says Stopka. You could display custom design renderings or finished pieces in framed prints or on big plasma LCD screens. Or you could use digital photo frames, which are already programmed to present slide shows.

"In my store, I put in a touch-pad monitor that displays a Flash-based program called FlipAlbum; it’s like a digital magazine, where you see the pages turn," says Stopka. Custom designers should also be able to access print as well as web catalogs, he adds—"you have to feed the customer’s brain with images and styles."

To help with this, most designers set up a computer monitor at their stations, so they can find inspiration through the Internet—whether through their own design portfolios, the catalogs and gemstone databases on other sites, or images generated through search engines. Krikawa has also loaded the design software program CounterSketch Studio into her system. "In this way, we can call up designs from our online portfolio and compare them," she says, "or we can go into CounterSketch to view the preloaded design inventory there."

4. Have Tools at the Ready

Inside Krikawa’s showcase, she’s arranged a variety of ring samples, gems, tools, tweezers, ring sizers, calipers, loupes, a viewing visor, and other magnifiers. On top of the case is also a pad and colored sketching pencils. "After narrowing down the custom ring parameters, we usually proceed with a hand drawn design," she says.

Nearby, she keeps a microscope in case it’s needed. Among the gems she keeps on hand are round and princess-cut cz’s in a variety of graduated sizes (other fancy shapes are coming), sapphires, and a set of color-enhanced diamonds in a range of colors.

Krikawa consultation area

Tools of the Trade: A few of the items that Krikawa Jewelry Designs always has at the ready in the consultation area include (1) coffee, (2) computer monitor, (3) diamond grading light, (4) microscope, (5) CZs, sapphire and diamond color samples, (6) note pad and calculator, (7) calipers, (8) loupe, (9) ring sizers, (10) tweezers, (11) polishing cloth, (12) mini flashlight, (13) diamond tray, (14) wooden ring mandrel, (15) visor, (16) ring presentation stick, (17) metal samples, (18) sketch pad and pencils, (19) ring samples, (20) and a gift bag with jewelry cleaning supplies.

5. Think Beyond Just the Design Process

While creating the right setting for a consultation is crucial, don’t forget that a client may have needs beyond just a personalized piece of jewelry. For instance, Green Lake has set up a children’s play area, where the kids can draw on a chalkboard wall or watch TV while their parents attend to business. It also has positioned working bench jewelers at the entrance to the shop, which emphasizes the fact that jewelry is actually made there—and can also be repaired.

Like a custom design, design centers tend to evolve, as the sales team learns what works. "We’re still thinking about the best configuration of work space, computers, and other elements, so we haven’t bought customized furniture yet," says Krikawa. "I’d also like to get a monitor floor stand for the computers. But for the moment, our setup is working."

To quote Woolf again, "Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common." Keep thinking about your own studio space, learn from others’ experiences, and you might be amazed at the room you’ll come up with.