Story by Josh Wimmer
T Lee won't tell INSTORE her real name.
It's nothing personal. She simply dropped it back in college, in favor of her first initial and middle name, and dropped it will stay. I could press the issue, but I sense it would be pointless. It is clear upon meeting T Lee that she is a person of great resolve.
Moreover, it isn't important what her real name is. What is important is that she picked a new one, because that tells you a lot about her: She is an artist. She makes conscious choices about who she is. She puts her own stamp on life. (And on her custom jewelry, too, of course.)
"I seem to reinvent myself every 10 years," she says. We are standing in the latest incarnation of that impulse, the new retail space she relocated to in November 2012. (Her previous store opened in the same month in 2002.)
It is among the more distinctive jewelry stores I've set foot in (and I've set foot in a few). Which makes sense, because its design is a conscious reflection of Lee herself – and she is one of the more distinctive jewelers I've ever met.
MAKING HER WAY
"Sometimes people seem amazed when I tell them I'm 52," Lee says. "Because I still skateboard, and I snowboard, and water-ski. But the philosophy I adopted is, if you love something, don't quit."
That sentiment would also apply to her professional life. A high school teacher, Antra Pakalns, showed Lee how to cast silver, and a lifelong love affair ensued. She studied design at the University of Minnesota, and for a time lived in Breckenridge, CO, working as a ski and snowboard instructor and selling scrimshaw for a local retailer ("That is an amazing art form," she says), but also creating jewelry in a tiny studio set up in her A-frame, which had no electricity.
In 1983, she founded her business, which revolved around the craft fair circuit for 21 years. For a good chunk of that time, Lee was also raising her son, Wilder, now 22. She kept his playpen next to her work space during the day when he was little, and frequently burned the midnight oil, working on new pieces, after he went to sleep.
Her consistent presence – especially at Minneapolis's storied annual Uptown Art Fair – and diligent efforts paid off. Besides garnering a devoted following of jewelry shoppers, Lee won the Mort Abelson New Designer of the Year award at the JANY show in 2002 and a Rising Star award at JCK. She opened her original retail store that year. For three years, she also kept doing the craft fairs, but the overlap was unworkable.
"I got so many complaints, because people couldn't be sure when I was open," she says. "If you're going to be part of the community, you need to be predictable." It was also too difficult to maintain sufficient inventory for both the fairs and the shop.
That first store was a success, to be sure. But as time passed, it couldn't meet some of Lee's key needs. For one thing, the old space was split like many stores, with the sales floor up front and the workshop hidden behind a door.
"I had to choose between the front and the back," she says. "Relationships are the most important part of the business for me, and talking with customers really took me off my bench."
FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
The new store solves that problem. Surprisingly, it is actually smaller than the old space – 868 square feet, compared with the previous approximately 1,500. But the upshot is that the reduction in size makes for a lot more contact between Lee and her other bench jewelers and the clients who stroll in.
The shop, as it were, is set on an elevated platform next to the showroom area, which consists entirely of 12 small windows in the cases built into the wall and a desk for reception and POS purposes. (The wall cases swing open to reveal storage.) Nearly everything is constructed of repurposed or sustainable, environmentally friendly materials.
LED fixtures hang from the white-painted corrugated ceiling. A row of framed photographs lines the wall that forms the front of the shop – black-and-white images from Lee and her staff's lives, intermingled with vivid shots of Lee's colored stone creations. Straight ahead, toward the rear, is Lee's office. The main wall is covered with a print of birch trees, and she can shutter herself and her clients behind glass doors during design appointments, which she holds on Thursdays, Fridays, and alternate Saturdays. "I try to be booked solid," she says.
Tuesdays are "bench days" for the owner, and the new layout means she can easily hop down to meet a visitor. "I always interrupt the flow to greet a new client," Lee tells me as she puts our interview on pause to do just that.
Otherwise, the flow is generally not interrupted – even during the move to the new space. "Our work never stopped," says Laura Heiden, who left the corporate world a couple years ago to learn to make jewelry and helps Lee manage and market the shop. A soft gray palette sets the tone in the store, from the wood of the cases and the desk to the chairs, rug, and floor. The muted neutral colors create a sense of calm, accentuated by the quiet but busy work going on among the three bench jewelers – all women – present during my visit.
"It just feels less complicated," Lee says of the abundance of gray. Most important: "It makes the gemstones the superstar, the main event."
Colored gems are another of her true passions. T Lee Custom Designer Jewelry's signature events are the periodic gemstone roundtables that now take up the whole of the sales floor after-hours. (The POS station desk is on rollers and cantilevered to handily slide out of the way for the large table.)
The roundtables give clients a chance to handle and bid on gems brought in by dealers and those Lee herself brings back from her trips to the mines. Veteran roundtable attendees are seated closer to the head of the table, giving them the first chance to "flirt with" the stones – that is, to set one aside and consider buying it.
One of those veterans, Stephanie, has come in to sit down with Lee to discuss making a new custom piece from one of the cache of stones she's acquired at the events. Stephanie has known Lee since buying a ring from her at the Uptown Art Fair in the late '90s. "She was just really into talking about her process," Stephanie recalls. "She lived in Northeast Minneapolis, where I grew up, and used to meet me at her home. It's been fun to see her grow."
It's also fun to watch Lee in her element. She ably takes charge of the appointment, helping Stephanie decide on a rich, concave faceted plum-colored rhodolite garnet as the piece to work on. "You've been talking about that one for a while," she says.
Over the next hour, Lee sketches, brings out rings of various white and yellow metals for comparison, and breaks out several more coffers of gems to get an idea of the accent color. Gradually, a ring takes shape.
Her design philosophy is simple. "It always comes back to form follows function," Lee says. She advises Stephanie against a particular look for a shank, because the design would make resizing a real pain if it were necessary. "Serviceability is important."
Within a few weeks, Stephanie will have yet another T Lee piece to add to her collection. It will be made completely in-house, except for the casting. Lee used to cast, at her previous space, but it wasn't doable in the new one. ("I've found it's actually streamlined my process so much more.")
"My clients really let me go where I want to go," Lee tells me later. There is a literal truth to that: In 2011, she asked 25 of her best customers to fund a gem-buying trip to Africa with microloans. In return, the investors got a chance to buy the finished stones at a special event and could have their loans returned if they didn't find anything they liked. (Nearly all the gems sold that evening.)
Always one to let others in on the fun, Lee has a sequel event planned for this summer (it may be going on even as you read this): a "Wine, Dine & Mine" trip to Southern California. Her tour group will check out the local food and vineyards, as well as the Pala mines, and will have a chance to try digging in the mines too.
"It really gives them a sense of the work that goes into it that most people don't get to see," she says.
Beyond that? Lee always has ideas in the pipeline, and it will be interesting to see what her business looks like in another decade. Is another reinvention in the works? Of course, it's too early to say, but we can probably count on one thing: She won't tell us her real name then, either.
1. HIGH VISIBILITY: A long bench with room for four jewelers sits up overlooking the store's shop area, making it easy for T Lee and her staff to engage with customers without totally disrupting their work. It goes the other direction, too: Clients can watch as jewelry is fabricated, stones are set, and pieces polished, involving them even more in the design process. The tighter space has required some adjustment, but, Lee's jewelers say, it's fostered better communication among each other. "It reminds me of one of those contests homes win for being super small and efficient," says goldsmith Alice Winker.
2. BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE: Sustainability is a value T Lee lives: She once took a vow not to buy anything new – clothes, furniture, etc. – for a year, and found it so achievable that she actually kept it up longer. Accordingly, when she built her new space, she went with eco-friendly options whenever possible. Her showcases are built of Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and she used a corn-based tile and water-based floor stain, as well as low-VOC paint.
3. THE MOST HAPPENING HAPPENINGS: In keeping with her philosophy of building relationships, Lee's events tend to focus on ways that show laypeople more about what jewelers do and what goes into a piece of jewelry. Most famously, her gemstone roundtables expose clients to a wealth of colored stones and gem cutters – and create a huge incentive for them to commission custom designs using the gems they purchase. Lee's latest event, "Wine, Dine & Mine," will give a couple dozen customers the chance to mine their own stones in California and Oregon. "It's one more way to give a person an intimate experience of the whole process," Lee says.
4. WORKERS UNITE: Lee has honed her design skills for more than 30 years, resulting in her winning major industry awards. As a way of giving back to the many designers who've helped her learn her trade, she makes a point of hiring and collaborating with young jewelers. "We are a 100 percent jeweler-run store," she says proudly.
5. TRADITION OF PROGRESS: Long before same-sex marriage became a mainstream issue, T Lee was serving GLBT clients. "They're just people looking to be treated like everyone else," she says. "I'm very grateful, because their referrals are genuine – it can exponentially grow to a phenomenal amount of work." For years, she was the only jeweler in the Twin Cities regularly advertising in the regional gay magazine Lavender. People have commented to her that she'd be selling more rings with Minnesota's legalization of same-sex marriage in May, but she already got so many of those jobs, she says, "I'm still doing the same business I've always done!"
QUICK HIT Q&A WITH T LEE
Q: You're an all-woman shop right now. Was that intentional?
Small Cool No. 1 T Lee
WHAT THE JUDGES SAY
R. Grey Gallery // The innovative marketing caught our attention. The website was very well done, with great images and useful information. The gallery interior and exterior are both interesting and in line with the overall vision. This gallery looks like it's worth a trip!
Bruce Freshley // T Lee's print ads are bold and provocative with clean imagery that catches the eye and imagination. Her discreet use of nude models, especially male, adds to both her artistic credibility and her edginess.
Danielle Pelletiere // By using ancient techniques to design one-of-a-kind jewelry this jeweler has put her name on the map. I love the fact that there aren't "customers" but instead "collectors." By promoting socially responsible jewelry and educating the clientele, this store has hit a home run.
Julie Romanenko // I love the display cases set into the walls and how the jewelry is seen at eye level and you don't have to bend over a showcase. The exterior is inviting and has a beachy sort of feel to it with the boardwalk planks. I love the idea of a dinner party set up in the store – how great for charity functions and jewelry parties.
Gerry Gonda // An intriguing exterior drew me in, as a first impression should. Its color palette correlates to what awaited inside, giving the store a very cohesive feel. The design of the vertical wall cases presents the product beautifully, enhancing the value and uniqueness of each piece. The sepia toned photos, selected by the staff, show the store has a heart and soul which could have been lost with the neutral color palette and non-dimensional finish on the walls and cases.