Irene Barbieri shares about her Washington, DC jewelry store, Mia Gemma.
Who shops at your store?
We have a couple of different groups that shop. Our primary market is the self-purchasing woman.
We have a lot of lawyers and lobbyists and professional women here. They have no problem coming in and spending and buying pretty things for themselves and things they can wear to work or when they’re going out. So that’s definitely an important group for us and always has been.
And then the other big group we have are men purchasing for women. There are lots of office buildings around here and so it’s easy for them to come in on their lunch break to pick up an anniversary gift or whatever.
We also have the people who live in the neighborhood. And then people who are traveling who come in and buy something special or discover us and then go back home and becoming a regular customer.
Do you have a favorite thing to talk about with your customers?
I love to talk about our events. We do quite a few events here. We have what we call a gemstone round table that we do twice a year. We have gem collectors who come from Tucson and bring 100 different gems and we serve dinner and wine and we have 10-12 people here for dinner two nights in a row.
We pass around and talk about all the gems and then if people buy any gems we can set the stones for them. People love that event so much that they come back over and over again. It’s a very popular event. We do it in April and in September.
And then we have started doing something brand new this year that we haven’t tried before. We wanted to get away from the idea of doing trunk shows the old way, so what we’re doing instead is a series of gallery talks. Our first one is with Ayesha Mayadas and that’s coming up in May.
We’re going to do it a little bit like the round table where we have people for a light dinner and wine, and then Ayesha is going to talk about a series of things from what inspires her to how she creates things, what techniques she uses, really focussing on her work and then passing it around as she is talking about various aspects of the jewelry.
People can touch the jewelry and feel it and ask questions in the moment and hear what she’s saying and maybe bond to that piece. And we’ll give a discount to anyone who attends and wants to buy something that night.
We think it’s going to be a really cool way of getting artists to talk about their work and get people thinking about it. This event will be in the evening and it’ll be a reserved event, you can’t just show up for an hour, you make a commitment and you’re there.
And then the artist’ll be here Friday and Saturday with all her work and hopefully people who can’t make it to the event can come and see her work and purchase it.
We’re doing it again in June with Emanuela Duca. She’s Italian, from Rome, and she does very organic, very beautiful work that’s so different and unique. And she has a lot of things that she wants to talk about in her work. A lot of her work is about empowering women.
Then in October we have a new artist that we met recently who’s from Denmark. Lene Vibe does amazing stuff, I don’t even know how to describe it. They’re like miniature sculptures in gold. They’re amazing. She’s going to come.
If it works, and people enjoy it, then we’ll extend it to many other artists. So we’ll see!
We usually do an opal event in October. We have a gem cutter who comes from Ithaca and brings his equipment to show people how to cut gems. It’s really fun.
The other events we’ve started doing which are so cool are with an organization called Groupmuse. It’s a national non-profit organization whose mission is to bring together the community with local classical musicians. Most of these concerts are held in people’s homes. I went to my first one at a home here in Washington — it was a quartet that was spectacular.
You only pay $3 a person to go and then they ask for a contribution of $10 or more if you want to contribute at the end of the night if you’ve enjoyed yourself.
We’ve held two of these concerts here and we’ve had 20 people who we didn’t know attend, listening to the most beautiful music. These musicians are not run of the mill. The last one we had here were a harpist, a viola and flute, and the viola and flute players’ day jobs are at the National Symphony.
We’re hosting 2 more concerts this year.
And then at certain times of the year we put out information to say bring us your custom design work and we’ll give you a discount and our designers will be here. 25% of our business is custom. We have our own jewelers.
I love these events because it gives us a chance to get to know our clients in a different way.
How did you get involved in the jewelry industry?
My being in business and doing my own thing has really been driven by taking care of my son. I had to do something that gave me more control over my life.
I was working in the corporate world and I had adopted my son who was 5 or 6 years old and I couldn’t do the corporate job any more and take care of this child as a single parent and so I knew I had to do something else with more flexibility.
I’d always wanted to do something in the design world, I didn’t know what it was. I always loved this store in New York that you probably know called ABC Carpet & Home.
It’s a huge store that holds these little boutiques of mystery in it, from all over the world. I used to go there and it was like performance art. I loved the idea of design and selling cool stuff.
When a space came available in my neighborhood in Alexandria I went for it. I originally had not just jewelry. I had jewelry and handbags and scarves that were all artist created.
Then my lease was up and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I still couldn’t see myself going back to the corporate world. I started looking in downtown Washington for a space. It was a huge leap. And I can honestly say I didn’t do all this research to see what other jewelry stores are here and who’s my competition. I just did it.
I just went ahead and did it, which I don’t recommend to anybody. I built out the space. It was nothing, there wasn’t even water or electricity or anything in the space. It was a big expense to build it out, and a huge commitment. That’s how I got started. And here I am, all these years later!
Is there a piece of jewelry you have in the store right now that you think is particularly unique?
All of our jewelry is unique!
Who do you like to follow on Instagram?
When I first opened in Alexandria, by chance at one of the jewelry shows, I met a woman who was distributing Italian jewelry called Ziio.
It’s semi-precious beadwork, all handmade in Italy and it’s the most amazing design. They were one of the first lines that I had at the time and I sold it like crazy. People loved it. I still sell it.
There are people who collect it, they’re really collectors’ pieces now. I probably have 8 or 10 of them. The pieces are very colorful, they’re very durable and have these incredible combinations of color and texture and the different kinds of stones and it’s just so creative.
I even went to Italy and I met with the designer. That’s a favorite of mine. It’s part of my Italian heritage to connect to that.