By Hilary Larson
Rhae Clore is 71, “but I pass for 50,” said the owner of Gemstone Glam Jewelry and Beads in Atlanta, Ga. “My style is big and bold. Instead of one string of pearls, I’ll wrap three strands to make a cluster. If I wear it to church, people come up and want to buy it.”
Clore is a veteran Black jeweler in a town noted for its Black entrepreneurs, many of them women. Her success comes from dressing people like herself — confident, stylish professionals — and knowing how they shop. “Powerful women in DC want something to accentuate their suits or dresses,” said Clore. “They’re not wearing trendy. They’re accessorizing with real stones” — often jade, turquoise, ruby or labradorite — “and making a statement.”
Wearing her own pieces around town is one of Clore’s most effective merchandising techniques. “Seeing it on someone tells a story,” she explained. But in her 70s, Clore doesn’t wear everything — especially the sexy waist beads, worn with a bikini or hip hugger jeans, that are now popular with younger Black women. “I’m at my high school weight, and I could put them on, but I’m not going to,” the retailer laughed.
Clore makes most of the jewelry for her 700-square-foot storefront, which she opened in 2017. To attract browsers to her boutique — the sole retail outlet on the first floor of a conference center — Clore relies on bright lighting. “I’ve got lights everywhere — big spotlights, two showroom windows,” Clore reported. She also maximizes displays in her showroom windows and on wall fixtures. “It’s like, Wow! Look at all the jewelry!”
Retailer Anika Hobbs has also found wearing merchandise to be the most effective merchandising. Hobbs encourages customers to try on baubles at the two locations of Nubian Hueman, her boutiques in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. “Then we always ask, ‘How do you feel?’ If they love it, that’s all we need to seal the sale,” explain Hobbs. “The best display is on their own hand or wrist — and in their heart.”
Hobbs curates a jewelry selection from across Africa and the Black diaspora, from Europe to the U.S. and Caribbean. Her biggest seller is African mask rings, which are handmade in brass by artisans in Ghana and Nigeria. Nubian Hueman boutiques — 1,000 and 500 square feet, respectively — also host cultural events.
Indeed, many Black retailers emphasize the importance of cultivating relationships and building community through artisanship. Such is the case at odAOMOi: Luxury Design for Global Citizens, in New Orleans, La., said CEO and Designer Sophia Omoro. “Styling our clients head to toe is a gift that resonates with the customer,” Omoro explained. All items are made on site in limited quantities, often responding to customer requests: “One-of-a-kind pieces make the wearer feel powerfully special.”
The odAOMOi brand emphasizes non-wasteful fashion, caring for both the environment and the humans involved. Omoro said her top sellers are beaded epaulets and capelets. “They’re pieces that elevate any outfit to that next level,” she explained, “whether a tank top, a T-shirt, or a fancy sheath dress for an evening out.”
Shoppers at the Mbabazi House of Style in Memphis, Tenn., find not only unique African designs, but also a socially conscious Black community. The 1,400-square-foot Memphis store works with tailors and other artisans in Uganda, as well as local Tennessee makers. Owner Grace Byeitima is committed to fair trade and named the store after her mother when she opened the business in 2005.
All of the jewelry is handmade and one of a kind; much of it is made in house, using all natural materials. Earrings typically retail for $20 and up, while necklaces can cost over $100 — all within many shoppers’ budgets. Jewelry constitutes 40 percent of Mbabazi’s sales; the most popular category is recycled brass, which is shiny, high impact and affordable. “A lot of people like gold, and it’s similar,” Byeitima explained. “It’s also about novelty.”
At Lee’s Handbags and Accessories in Memphis, Tenn., new merchandise is displayed right up front, so even regulars will spot something fresh. Manager Latisha Nutall said the 1,200-square-foot boutique aims to carry broadly appealing items, not just trendy pieces. The delicate jewelry look is popular right now; pendants and charms are best-sellers, while earrings and bracelets do better than traditional necklaces.
“Customers want things that stand out and make a statement, not things you see everywhere,” Nutall observed. “They like to know that if they come to Lee’s, they’ll find something a little bit different.”