If you take a look at Emily Duffelmeyer, owner of Jean Jean Vintage’s (@Jeanjeanvintage) Instagram, you’ll only get a glimpse of the trust she has built among followers, buyers and antique lovers featured on her account. Like most small antique/vintage collectors who became dealers/shop owners with a passion for jewelry from the past, she started with a shoestring budget, promoted her wares on IG, opened an Etsy store and finally a small brick and mortar store in Lansing, MI where she lives. She has built a strong following and customer base thanks to her variety of merchandise, her often fun and whimsical messages, and her down-to-earth demeanor. However, don’t be fooled. She researches everything she sells until she gets to the heart of each piece and when unsure her honesty is refreshing. Here she tells how she turned her passion into a thriving business in small steps and then broader broad strokes.
How old were you when you realized your passion for jewelry?
“I think I’m determined to love rocks, artifacts, and shiny things. As a young girl I spent time looking for fossils in my dirt driveway in Iowa (spoiler: I didn’t find many) and I studied archeology on university. I spend a lot of time thinking about history, memory and how objects manage to trickle through time and survive. Jean Jean Vintage jewelry represents this larger, age-old story of adornment, preservation and joy!”
What was the first piece of jewelry you ever bought for yourself?
“If we go back to the very first piece, it was probably one of those ‘BFF’ necklaces in Claire’s Boutique around 1988. But the first piece that for me was a harbinger of things to come was a Victorian mourning band for hair work that I found it during my lunch break in a thrift store around 2005.”
Are there any other stories from when you were young that would indicate that you would end up in the world of jewelry?
My mother was stylish and wore a beautiful brooch, necklace and earrings to work every day. I loved looking through her jewelry box, carefully opening/closing all the little Avon boxes, and thinking that everything was so special, whether it was “posh” (ie “fine”) or not. I still think like this: 1930s Art Deco glass jewelry is just as intriguing to me as the precious and rare Georgian pieces.
Is Jewelry your first career or did you start in another profession?
“I did some archeology and French before landing a job as a specialty food buyer (chocolate!) for Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. I worked there for five years before opening Jean Jean Vintage.”
Can you tell us a little more about why you chose to buy and sell antique/vintage jewelry?
“Jewels can be powerful little vessels to hold everything we need: sadness, hope, love, remorse, longing and more. While any personal objects of the past can be imbued with feeling (furniture, books, art), I think jewelry carries the strongest dose of sentimentality. I see antique jewelry as beautiful markers of time and human experience. They gain life and feel as they go through owners and through the years.”
What does the name of the company mean?
“When I was a little girl, one of my father’s nicknames for me was Jean Jean. He died in 2005 and that sweet name more or less died with him. It came to my mind when I was brainstorming names for the company in 2010. It feels familiar and welcoming and that is how I want my business to feel.”
How did you get started buying and selling merchandise and what were the first pieces you bought?
I started my business from scratch in 2010: no family or industry ties, no formal training. I had a small pocket camera to take pictures. I saved about $1000 and used it to buy several modest jewelry. It was a slow and steady process, all based on Etsy for the early years. I started my family around the same time as the business, so a slower growth rate suited the demands of raising young children. In the beginning, I mainly bought costume jewelry from the 1900s through the 1950s, scouring antique malls, estate sales, and eBay. My inventory was a little quirky at first, but consistently high quality and I always tried to get the best pictures possible. I still take all my own photos today.
How did you elevate the collection to beautiful antique and vintage jewelry?
“I was lucky, because Jean Jean was an afterthought in the beginning. I had no overhead or payroll; therefore I was able to reinvest heavily in the company. I always bought the most unique and wearable jewelry the company could afford, eventually arriving where I am today. I try to stock beautiful jewelry at different price ranges and spanning different design eras from Georgian to mid 20’se century. I am currently focused on building up my antique bridal inventory, which is rewarding and exciting!
Tell us about your physical store?
After several years of e-commerce and raising my sons, I opened a small jewelry box from a store in Michigan in 2018. My little Art Moderne building from 1939 is complete with the original terrazzo floors, a giant geometric windshield and an ombré wall by Caroline Lizaragga! It is the perfect home for Jean Jean and his treasures.
Do you have a favorite period?
“My favorite period and origin at the moment is the German/Austrian jewelery in ‘werkstatte’ style from the 1910s.”
You seem to have great resources, therefore accessible pricing. How did you find them in the beginning and now?
“Over the years I have built up a small but powerful network of reliable sources. Most of my sources are in Michigan: I rarely travel or buy outside of the state, with the exception of a few very knowledgeable and reliable sources.”
Can you also tell us about the designs you make and the Cachet collection and how it has evolved?
“I started the Cachet collection because I was desperate to find a way to carry one of the loose wax seals with those meaningful mottos, messages and rebus pieces in my personal wax seal collection. I wanted one as a talisman for myself and ended up casting it in various metals, sterling silver, 10K and 14K gold. I loved mine so much that I made more for friends and eventually released them on the Etsy store. The collection has grown over the years with countless sayings and sentiments, as well as personalization options. It’s a way to celebrate the lost art of letter writing and the timeless emotions that rule us all. It’s pretty exciting to take a functional object that was once used to seal letters and turn it into a wearable piece of art.”
“What are the most popular styles or periods you sell?
“My customers, like many collectors, are most excited about the Georgian, Victorian and Art Deco eras. There is also a lot of interest in antique wedding dresses right now, especially among my local guests.”
How do you learn about the history and creators of whom you sell? You have a great talent for that.
“I read and read and study and study! Writing factual, compelling and exciting descriptions of the jewelry is very important to me and requires some footwork. I spend as much time writing about the jewelry as I do taking pictures. It’s all part of the process of marketing the jewelry. I want buyers to know as much as possible to inform their choices!”
Do you find yourself selling a lot on IG or driving customers to your store and your Etsy site?
“I don’t do a lot of direct sales on IG and I’m not currently set up to ‘shopping’ on the site. Instagram is the starting point for many of my ideas and new work, as well as an important point of contact for clients, but I usually send serious buyers to the spaces that feel more personal and less hectic.”
“How does the physical store differ from how you sell online?
“I opened my shop about four years ago so that I could serve my local community and also have a home/headquarters for the brand. To be honest, what I sell isn’t that much different online than in the store. I see more couples, mothers/daughters and friends shopping jewelry together in the store, which is wonderful. I am committed to intuitive, meaning-based service, regardless of location: I hope everyone experiences a spirit of generosity and caring with me, both online and in person.”