Anatomy of a Collectors Club

March 1999


Anatomy of a Collectors Club

Spend a day with Eve Alfillé's Pearl Society

Most shops are dark Sunday morning in the upscale shopping district of Evanston, IL, the commanding Chicago suburb where Northwestern University students coexist with the city's old-money monarchs. Behind the pearl-strewn tree branches that spread across the inside of the windows of Eve Alfillé's jewelry gallery, though, are signs of life: Alfillé and her husband, Maurice, creep around the store preparing for a meeting of the Pearl Society, her beloved collectors club.

In a few hours the store will fill with new and long-standing members of the club, a semimonthly gathering of customers who share her pearl passion. The event, held on Sunday when the gallery is formally closed, demands the help of several part-time sales associates, who arrive early to fret over display cases and choose the cultured pearl jewelry they'll wear for the meeting. One employee appears with a CD bought for the occasion, a wild blend of rock and classical she cues up as background music.

Collectors, Not Customers
Alfillé has conducted the Pearl Society for nine years, scheduling meetings every couple of months as time allows. She flies in pearl experts, many of whom she knows intimately through her involvement in the short-lived International Pearl Association, to speak to the group, housing them overnight in her own guest room.

To arouse interest, she sends The Pearl Society Newsletter,simply laser-printed on folded letter-sized paper, to several hundred people. The newsletter includes news about cultured pearl supply, sourcing and prices, historical overviews, bits of lore and terminology, summaries of previous sessions and announcements of upcoming speakers.

She approaches the event as unconventionally as she approaches jewelry retailing. An auditor, high school French teacher, stockbroker and archaeologist before she became a retailer and designer, Alfillé sees gemstones and jewelry as discoveries hard to pass up; apothecary drawers and cabinets stuffed with rare finds from Tucson gem fairs and antiques markets are proof of her obsession. It's no wonder one of her main sales strategies is convincing customers they're collectors too.

Therefore, Pearl Society meetings aren't selling events. "I'm embarrassed when visitors start shopping," she says. Nevertheless, the first thing members and their friends do when they walk in is head for the cases. Alfillé circulates to spin tales and answer questions while salespeople work with each group. By the time the meeting starts, about 45 minutes after the first member arrives, several nice sales are complete.

Too Much Information?
Alfillé introduces the speaker with a brief primer for newcomers – the difference between natural and cultured pearls and the origins of the different types. About 12 people attend, mostly women – with a few husbands and male professor-types – ranging from middle-aged to elderly. They come to hear just as much about colorful personalities, hilarious run-ins and industry scandals as about pearls.

Alfillé satiates their thirst for storytelling by inviting speakers who are not just pearl experts but adventurers and evangelists. Among the vets who have bewitched Pearl Society audiences are Antoinette Matlins, an author and outspoken opponent of undisclosed gem treatments; Robert "Bo" Torrey, editor of the controversial newsletter Pearl World;dealer Cory Smith, a former Tahitian black pearl diver; John Latendresse, who pioneered the U.S. pearl oyster industry; Fred Ward, a gem dealer, acclaimed author and National Geographiccorrespondent; and Nadine Nelson, a collector of Mississippi pearls who packs a pistol when visiting unruly pearling areas.

Inevitably, speakers reveal information some in the trade consider sensitive, and this has made Alfillé as controversial in some circles as the speakers she introduces. "The first few years jewelers would come to the meetings, and several got very angry at me for sharing such information about the pearl industry with consumers," she says. Some of these jewelers still don't speak to her, she says, but she believes the more she tells customers about pearls, the more they'll covet them and want to learn about them.

Forming a Club

 Here are tips from Eve Alfillé on forming a collectors club:

  • Identify a subject that could be your trademark passion. Never stop reading and learning about it, and translate your new knowledge into consumer-friendly information for club members.
  • Don't be afraid to share industry information on the subject with club members, even if it's sometimes negative. Collectors seek as much information as possible about their favorite subjects

and will be open-minded enough to handle the truth.

  • Get to know the major players in the industry and ask people with fiery viewpoints and adventurous stories to share them with your group. Introduce the upcoming speaker in a mailing by listing some of his or her gallant feats.
  • Make jewelry sales your secondary focus when starting a collectors club. Your merchandise will sell itself as people become familiar with you and your store.
  • – by Stacey King

    Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.


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