When an artist starts a jewelry business during an economic slump with the gold price at a daunting $800 per ounce, is this inexperienced naiveté or people who are serious about their art? Jeri and Jeff Taylor, owners of the jewelry and fine art gallery J. Jeffrey Taylor, in downtown Fish Creek, fall into the latter category. Jeff is dedicated to his art and Jeri is serious about their business, which explains why their gallery has become so successful.
“Those were scary days,” Jeri remembers. “We took out a small loan intended for something else but changed our minds and decided to put the money into a diamond setting and general jewelry repair business instead. To get the business off the ground, we traveled to art fairs to sell Jeff’s creations. We probably did between thirty to forty fairs each year.”
To increase his skill, Jeffrey attended the Stewarts International School for Jewelers in Florida. While there, he became a certified diamonds and colored stones grader through the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). However, as a one-man shop, he had to continue producing while attending school. This meant setting up a workbench each night on the picnic table at the campground where he, his wife, and daughter Jorna were staying. Weekends were spent at art fairs selling this jewelry to pay for classes and the campsite.
Slowly the hard work began to pay off and they were able to finally open the doors of their own store in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Jeff was busy enough for two people with jewelry repairs and an ever-increasing number of special commissions. The busiest time invariably became the two weeks leading up to Christmas, when thirty percent of a store’s business comes through the door.
“That first year,” recalls Jeri, “we were three days before Christmas and Jeff still had fifty commissions to finish. As he would finish a piece, I would rush it over to the customer’s house to deliver it. Then it was back to the shop, wait for the next piece and do it again. This carried on until the last one was finally delivered at 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. We were exhausted.”
The business became successful in just a few years, expanding from one location to four, one of which was in Fish Creek, Door County. Jeff remained in Oconomowoc most of the time creating jewelry, while Jeri traveled between the stores managing their business. In December of 1996, they decided enough was enough and put all their energy into just one store. Fish Creek, Door County won hands down.
“There is such a different attitude up here,” Jeff said. “After all, one million tourists per year can’t be wrong. Even though business here has been like a runaway train it has very few of the aspects of a retail store in a city. I accept only about thirty commissions a year now and instead work on my own designs, usually about ten at a time. I start a design and inevitably halfway through, it inspires something else, which I will have to start as well. It may sound strange, but I work better under pressure. Each piece brings on something new and spawns many other creations.”
For Jeff, art was not always about making beautiful jewelry. He began his artistic career as a bass player and vocalist in a rock and roll band. In fact, they were the first alternative rock band to record in Motown, where sharing studio space with the likes of Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder was not unusual. After that came a degree in painting and sculpture from the Art Institute in Chicago, followed by a bit of traveling around the better part of the United States. Looking for a place to call home, Jeff returned to Wisconsin and moved into a farmhouse on the outskirts of Oconomowoc. Shortly thereafter Jeri arrived with an eclectic collection of farm animals and their journey began.
“She was impressed that I could milk the goats,” Jeff reminisced about those days.
Jeri smiled, “It was love at first sight and we have been together and worked together for over 29 years now.”
However, money was tight. His attempt to sell his personal collection of Native American jewelry in order to raise money to cover the rent inadvertently turned out to be the first step on the road to creating jewelry for Jeff.
“People would bring in their pieces for repair,” he remembers, “and even though I did not know how to fix some of their stuff, they were convinced otherwise. I bought a set of used jewelry tools from a family friend and just figured it out. Then, one day, with about $30 in my pocket, I went over to Burnie’s Rock Shop in Madison. In those days $30 went a long way, so I spent the entire day in his store combing through tray after tray of gemstones. That was when I became addicted to fine gemstones and have since become the consummate collector.”
And so Jeff Taylor’s fate as a fine jeweler was sealed. As an artist he enjoys success in marrying the texture, shape and color of gemstones with complimenting designs in precious metals. Designs are inspired by what he sees while gardening, cycling or scuba diving, or they just “happen.” He has studied with Masters of the trade such as Jeff Wise, Scott Pillkington and Steve Kretchmer, yet he is modest regarding his accomplishments. The most important aspect of his trade is the art of creating and this is what he appreciates and loves about gemstones and precious metals.
But a successful artist is nothing without a successful business partner. Jeff has found that compliment to his talents in his wife, Jeri. A woman of meticulous detail, Jeri runs the gallery
with a keen sense of style and sharp business intuition. They work well together, but admit that with age and maturity this, too, has become easier. Jeri does the majority of the buying for the gallery and is specific about the means to display these creations. She is also very conscious of their business’s image, which is evident in the high quality two and three-dimensional artwork on display, even spilling out into the gardens that surround the gallery. Yet, the gallery would not exist without its customers and the Taylor’s go all out to invest in this important factor, making new friends along the way.
“We want to brighten up people’s lives,” stated Jeri, “so we began introducing more exclusive pieces into our store with the hope it would make them feel good to have a special one-of-a-kind work of art and their response has been wonderful. We do our best to introduce new and unique things each year.”
Door County is one of those special vacation resorts where visitors come and fall in love not only with the beauty of the scenery, but also with their partners. Surrounded by the romance of the peninsula, they want to return to their homes with something distinctive to stretch these moments. This is just the connection the Taylors have established with their customers and it is not uncommon for them to join in special events, such as engagements or anniversaries, by means of flowers or champagne. It is this personal attention to detail that has brought many people back to the gallery year after year.
“It is part of our culture up here,” explains Jeff. “Visitors like to have unique things that remind them of Door County. Usually when they are here, they are on vacation and have a happy and positive attitude. But vacationing here is entirely different to working here. This is not a lifestyle for everyone. We rarely see our friends during the summer as everyone is too focused on having a successful season. It is busy like Christmas, only this is Christmas all summer long. It takes a certain type of personality to connect with Door County and it is the acceptance and camaraderie that brings us all together.”
There are days Jeri feels overwhelmed with the demands of running a successful resort gallery, but admits that this lifestyle has had a profound effect on her.
“It is beautiful,” she said. “You work intensely for six months out of the year and spend the winter months regenerating and visiting friends so you can do it all over again. It is a good balance. It has worked for us.”
“I truly feel that for those of us who are wholly committed to our art, that it is not a competition. It is a commitment to give back beauty to a special place that is unique and inspiring and we are privileged to call it our home,” adds Jeff. “The journey continues to evolve.”