Behind a white-washed brick storefront, under crystal chandeliers, Jennifer Park sells the handmade jewelry of two dozen artists, including herself. After making, selling and teaching jewelry for many years, winning awards along the way, Park opened Wear Ever Jewelry gallery two years ago in Old Town Alexandria, the culmination of a dream.
She decided to go all in, taking out a loan in 2017 to buy a weathered Victorian-era building on King Street and renovate it top to bottom, including a workshop and studio in back. She hired two employees, rented out office space upstairs, and started teaching and building a reputation for unique, handmade jewelry.
She was almost breaking even when COVID-19 hit. Closing her shop was hard, but even worse news came in mid-March, when Airbnb Experiences—an arm of Airbnb that helps small business owners coordinate unique classes and events—announced it was going online-only. “The workshops I held behind the shop were my bread and butter,” she says. “With the help of Airbnb, we were getting 30 people every weekend.”
Park’s own jewelry incorporates ancient techniques like granulation and cloisonné enameling, requiring multiple trips to a kiln to fire translucent layers of glass.
One solution is to teach them how to make it. “People who take craft workshops buy craft jewelry,” she says, “because they appreciate what goes into it.”
She’s tried to transfer workshops to Zoom, but it’s difficult to translate to a screen because jewelry-making is a hands-on experience.
Her workshop has seven work benches with kilns, soldering stations, grinding machines, a hydraulic press and all manner of hand tools. Her Zoom classes pivoted to using non-specialized tools that students can get at a hardware store, but, “It’s hard to have the experience when you’re not here,” she says.
Park is anxious but hopeful she can pull through and get back to business. SBA (Small Business Administration) and PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans have allowed her to keep her employees working for the time being. She moved fast to offer tools and kits from her website so students can take her classes online. She also continues to design custom engagement rings using virtual consultations with clients.
But she looks forward to returning to hands-on teaching. “We’re wiping everything down and everyone is wearing masks,” she says. “But you can’t really social distance when everyone is using the same tools.”
Like Old Town itself, her building, gallery and jewelry are designed to be experienced live. “It’s very cool to take a workshop in this building,” she says. ”Before we start, I present some history of the place and how what we’re doing connects us to that. We’re part of something that’s been happening for hundreds of years. I hope we can get back to that soon.”