How to Succeed in the Jewelry Business?

For Folia’s principal designer Edith Armstrong a path of personal service in Portland has proved the key to longevity.

When Folia’s owner and master jeweler Edith Armstrong was in high school, she was in a jewelry club with friends. They made basic items, like little silver bangles. “Back then you wanted to have about 45 of them on your wrist.”

Edith Armstrong on the front step of Folia, her jewelry design studio in Portland. Photo by Amanda Whitegiver

She went on to Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. “I burned through the art department,” she says, and the allure of jewelry deepened well past the club level. “I’ve always loved to draw and thought I’d be a painter, but making and selling jewelry seemed to be a more realistic way to make ends meet.” After two years at Hartwick, she transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design, studying metalsmithing and other fundamentals. “Which have served me well.”

After RISD, Armstrong, a native of Milton, Massachusetts, moved to Maine, where her family had always spent summers in Friendship. She started making and selling jewelry wholesale and at craft shows. She found some steady outlets to feature her work, including Abacus in Portland’s Old Port, and in January 1993 opened Folia nearby on Exchange Street.

During the more than a quarter century she’s been there, Armstrong has ridden out a recession and observed many changes. ”It’s been fun to welcome many new businesses to the Old Port, but sad to see many great favorite shops go,” Armstrong says. Long standing friendships with her neighbors at D. Cole, Abacus and Folly 101 help offset those losses. And her store itself feels like a sanctuary, simple and uncluttered, with high ceilings and other period details. The elegant wooden cases are well-lit and inviting. Armstrong and her staff float between the jewelers’ bench and new customers, accessible but not pushy.

One of Edith Armstrong’s designs from her Dogwood series. Photo by Amanda Whitegiver

While it’s hard to think of a consumer good more romantic than jewelry, romance is not what has kept Armstrong’s Folia thriving. Folia is more than just a showcase for beauty; it’s a full service design studio. “I think you have to perform services like repairs and all those appraisals and restringing,” Armstrong says. “All the kind of stuff that keeps the door open. It’s really hard to just make jewelry.” She counts off the number of jewelers in America she knows of who can do just that, and it is only a handful. There are the David Yurmans and then there are the local jewelers who want to stay in business. “Those people just hit it big and that is a different path.”

Custom work is the heart and soul of Folia and Armstrong credits her clients, many of whom have been with her for over 20 years, for their part in her success. “It’s been a huge privilege to be a part of many life events,” she says. “And a joy to see their children coming to Folia for special projects and gifts as they become adults.” She’ll work with any client who has a specific need—the range is wide, from belt buckles to a piece of jewelry to hold the ashes of a loved one to a treasured family stone they want reset. In the last case, clients might ask her to take that stone and adapt it to one of her already established designs. But the commissions where a client asks for something new often end up inspiring Armstrong, pushing her in new directions. Sometimes a new line might even evolve out of it. “That has happened a lot,” Armstrong says. “Unless the client is adamant that they be one of a kind, I might mold it and run with it, or modify it and run with it.”

Master jeweler Jim Bradley works on a design. Bradley is part of a close knit team of bench artists at Folia. Photo by Amanda Whitegiver

Her team of six includes bench artists, like her master jeweler Jim Bradley; Nell Ballard, who has been at Folia nearly nine years; and Anastasia Salvucci, who also helps with social media. There’s an appraiser on staff, Meg Campbell, who trained at Sotheby’s as a gemologist. Armstrong points out that Ballard and Salvucci both have their own lines of jewelry (which they show on social media) as does Mary Forst, who does computer assisted design and photography and is Folia’s webmaster.

One of Armstrong’s recent designs from her successful Air Frame series. Photo by Amanda Whitegiver

Whenever Armstrong is in need of fresh ideas, she turns to the Art Nouveau period for inspiration. Her goal for each piece is to create perfect balance and a satisfying relationship of the elements used. Her favorite material to work with is 18 karat green gold, which she says produces rich and earthy tones when texture is applied to its surface. To add flash and color, Armstrong often relies on gems.

One of her more recent designs is the Air Frame line, which features strings of tiny diamonds and other gems captured within metal frames. “I always liked channel-set diamonds, but when I discovered the diamond beads, I realized I could get that look but in a way that was more rustic and crafty and arty.” The success of that line recently prompted Armstrong to venture onto a national stage via very high-end craft shows. She applied to the top three national shows, including the Smithsonian’s. “By golly, I got into all three,” she says. It was an interesting experiment, involving a lot of schlepping and sitting in shows with top designers from around the country. Ultimately though, the shows made Armstrong miss what she had back home in Maine. “I feel like my clientele in Portland is so loyal,” she says. She’s in a sweet spot, able to depend on them, and on herself. “As artists, we really do improve with experience,” Armstrong says. “We finally have the confidence to know what works and what doesn’t.”

Amanda Whitegiver is a lifestyle family photographer who adores dark chocolate and singing with her two daughters.

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