Post written by Karen Quina Doyle
“Here’s to the crazy ones….The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
A VISIONARY RETAILER IN DOWNTOWN BLACKSBURG
I’m sure I’m not the only one to come across this time-honored toast in recent weeks. What I wasn’t expecting was for it to come to mind as I was trying to figure out how to start writing this blog. And while I would be hard-pressed to go so far as to call her crazy, the rest of the Apple®-inspired tribute seems an apt way to describe Marla Kemsey, the creative powerhouse/owner behind Kent Jewelers.
Kemsey has elevated the whole experience of buying fine jewelry to an art form, redefining the way business is done in the process. “Our goal is to create a social atmosphere where you can buy jewelry in a way that enhances the aesthetics and economy of Downtown Blacksburg,” the attractive, fit visionary with characteristic composure and focus, provides. “I intentionally bucked the consultant’s advice to stick to a more traditional, formulaic layout in favor of a more personalized, boutique approach that’s not as serious about the way the merchandise is displayed. By design,” she is careful to distinguish, “I didn’t want the shop to look or feel like other jewelry stores.”
She succeeded. From the unconventional arrangement of the display cases to the hand-picked original art pieces gracing the shop walls, the resulting effect feels more gallery-like than category retail, sans the stultifying air that can sometimes make its way around such high-end transactions. By contrast, there’s an energizing vibe that emanates from the store and its ebullient manager Bailey Workman, a long-time employee and 2010 grad with a Management degree from Tech. It’s why you’ll find unlikely customers, like the camouflage-suspendered Roy C. Jones, gushing her praises for replacing a band on the watch she sold him on an earlier visit just as enthusiastically as a lady who is looking to purchase a diamond pendant.
Workman is as much a part of the draw as the singularly spectacular gems, each of which is individually chosen in careful collaboration between her and Kemsey as a process of this ring or this ring or this ring. “We decide on the front end what to sell and then merchandise it,” says Kemsey. “We may carry only one sapphire ring and one tourmaline ring and one ruby pendant that we specifically chose, each as a unique piece, as opposed to merchandising in multiples.”
Fifteen years after launching her first business venture, Chantilly Lace, which originated from a business plan she wrote as a Design major at Radford, the mother of three was ready for something new. “I love Blacksburg, and I wanted to continue to contribute to this economy rather than having to expand the other three or more hours away. My goal was to stay downtown, and I liked the idea of being right on Main Street. Blacksburg has an amazing amount of potential,” she endorses.
A Passion for Jewelry as Art
Not long after opening as Kent Square’s first anchor eight years ago, she acquired the shop’s first permanent art installment, a piece entitled The Grand Master Staircase by the Brazilian surrealist painter, Ferjo. “The painting was purchased at a gallery in Reno when I was supposed to be buying jewelry,” she confides. “It set the stage for the aesthetics of the store. Jewelry is beautiful. Art is stunning. I’m a huge fan of Picasso. The number of masterpieces portrayed in the contemporary context of this one collection is fascinating. I see something new every time I look at it.”
The contemporary but elegant feel of her most recent addition, a painting by Hugo Rivera that gives human form to a traditional subject, reflects the contemporary, eclectic feel she envisions for the store.
The day we met, she happened to be wearing something special, the very first piece of jewelry she got at market, a Cabachon lariat of garnet beads and freshwater pearls, even though she hadn’t worn it in three years.
Pretty in Pink
The daughter of a breast cancer survivor, Kemsey channeled her passion for the cause into Blacksburg’s annual Pretty in Pink fund/awareness-raising gala in conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month each October. After hearing a radio report of another town’s success with a similar event, she knew Blacksburg could do the same based on its track record with, among others, Stepping Out; and she saw it as a way to give back to the community where women could come together around a social event. Now in its 4th year, the soiree has evolved into a good event that unifies downtown as more and more businesses like Gourmet Pantry, the Farmers’ Market, and Matrix Gallery, which was able to make a contribution to the Susan G. Komen Foundation with this year’s proceeds, have joined forces. Her hope is that it will continue to grow into the kind of event that is copied and used as a model for other small towns.
Kent Jewelers is set to host a number of other special events throughout the holidays. The first, Ladies’ Night, a social gathering organized around cocktail hour to give clients the chance to catch up with each other and the store’s latest offerings, is set for December 1. Kemsey and Workman have been known to give away thousand dollar diamond rings, in addition to the gift bags and wish lists everyone receives.
The guys will have their turn December 15 with Blackjack and poker chips that double as discounts on merchandise. It’s all part of their philosophy to bring people together in a fun social setting where they can feel comfortable and involved.
What’s on Your Holiday Wish List?
Have your eye on something special from Kent Jewelers? Write it down in the comment section below, and we’ll try to get word to Santa!