The Boston Globe has launched a weekly Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s conversation is with Suzanne Ellis Wernevi, founder and CEO of Luna & Stella fine jewelry in Providence.
Question: The jewelry industry was a big part of Rhode Island’s economy in years past, but to what extent is it part of the state’s future economy?
Answer: I believe in building on strengths, and Rhode Island’s 150-plus years of experience as a leader in the jewelry industry worldwide is a clear strength. It would be a mistake to leave Rhode Island’s jewelry history behind. Just visit the Gorham show now at the RISD Museum to appreciate the state’s unparalleled history of jewelry craftsmanship. The local jewelry industry lost its mojo when it shifted its focus to costume jewelry in the 1950s and then lost its cost advantage to Asia in the 1980s. Paradoxically, much of the growth of the fine jewelry business now comes from Asian consumers who I think would be captivated by a fine jewelry brand telling the Rhode Island story — like the watch brand Shinola does for Detroit. The global jewelry industry is a $300-billion industry and growing. There is great opportunity to use the benefits of advancements in technology to find new ways to connect with jewelry consumers worldwide.
Q: How would you describe Rhode Island’s environment for new companies?
A: Rhode Island is — to use a jewelry analogy — a diamond in the rough. We need skilled cutters and polishers to reach our full value, but first we need to see ourselves as a diamond and not a dusty rock. We need a diverse ecosystem of startups across multiple industries, supported by access to networks and financial resources in the form of grants, loans, and venture capital. Programs such as the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, MassChallenge Rhode Island, The Rhode Island Business Plan competition, and the Providence Design Catalyst program, are all demonstrating that small investments can have really significant impact on early-stage businesses — but we need more.
Q: What more could Rhode Island do to spur entrepreneurship in the state?
A: This may sound counterintuitive, but I think the single biggest thing that Rhode Island can do to spur entrepreneurship is to invest in the public schools — both to attract businesses and talent right now and to develop the future workforce. I am happy to see so much attention being paid to this issue finally, because I’m convinced it’s the number one thing that is holding Rhode Island back on every level. The tie between quality public education and a thriving economy is a direct line, but it’s a long-term investment. Finally, most households these days are dual career, and it’s hard to find two rewarding and financially viable jobs in Rhode Island. Having better access to the job market in Boston would make it easier for a family to be based in Rhode Island, with one partner working in Massachusetts and one in Rhode Island. Frequent, affordable high-speed rail with direct service from Providence to Boston would be a game changer in this effort.
Q: What is the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program and tell us about your experience with it?
A: The Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program is a Babson-designed educational program for small business owners. Governor Raimondo was instrumental in securing a $5 million, 5-year grant from the Goldman Sachs Foundation to bring the program to Rhode Island and offer it to small business owners who qualify at no cost. For me, the opportunity to be part of a community of small business owners, facing similar challenges no matter their size or industry, was invaluable. Each participant created a growth plan for their business over the course of the 12-week program and got support from a business advisor and a group of local business owners from different fields. I wanted to explore the potential of the antique and vintage business for Luna & Stella, and completing the program gave me the confidence to take the leap of faith to shift our focus from contemporary jewelry to vintage jewelry -- one that has paid off both in terms of revenue growth and employee growth.
Q: What are millennials looking for in jewelry?
A: Millennials are looking for jewelry with a story. That could be the story of the designer, the symbolism of the item, or the history of the piece. They are deeply concerned about the social and environmental impact of everything they buy and are conscious of the environmental implications of gemstone mining and metal refining. This has led to a decline in the traditional diamond business, and an increased interest in lab-created gemstones and recycled metals. It has also led to a huge resurgence in interest in vintage and antique jewelry: No new gemstone mining plus no new metal refining equals zero environmental impact. In addition, in a world where social media strongly influences buying decisions, millennials are looking for one-of-a-kind products. Vintage jewelry is well-positioned for this surge in interest in individuality and personal style.
Q: What prompted you to move from New York to Providence?
A: In 2011, I was pregnant with our first child and my husband and I were looking for a more liveable city where we could start our family and build our businesses. We saw the potential for a great quality of life in Providence — a university town with excellent restaurants, a vibrant arts and culture scene, diversity, access to the outdoors and coastline, affordable homes with architectural interest, and proximity to Block Island, where I grew up spending summers. From a business perspective, I was drawn to Rhode Island’s jewelry manufacturing history and planned to do more manufacturing here. I had hoped to manufacture lockets here based on antiques I collected, but I found that modern tooling and techniques could not match the hand-engraving, variety of motifs, and invisible handmade hinges that made the antique pieces so special. I found, instead, that my customers were eager for the original pieces -- lockets made in Rhode Island over a century ago. They were drawn to the history, the craftsmanship, and the one-of-a-kind nature of these treasures of the past.