By Judy Clabes
Shelia Bayes knows jewelry. She has sold plenty of it over the years – and bought plenty too. She has designed it and overseen the crafting of it. She has an eye for it – an “engineer’s eye” one of her colleagues once told her, sensitive to function as much as form. But mostly she has the heart for it, a gift for connecting the jewelry to the individual –whether the piece is elegant ruby and diamond cross her Mother wore daily or a pair of “bad ear-rings” she spotted Anthony Davis wearing at a social gathering.
“We have to do something about those ear-rings,” she told him. And they did. The understated diamond studs the oft-photographed Anthony wears today are ones she designed for him.
Shelia Bayes is arguably Lexington’s most famous jeweler, owner of Shelia Bayes Fine Jewelers, with locations in Rupp Center overlooking re-made Triangle Park and in a kiosk at Fayette Mall. Her business has been named “best jewelry store in Kentucky,” “best jewelry store in Lexington,” and “favorite place to buy jewelry” by local publications – and Harper’s Bazaar named her store among the top 100 jewelry stories in the nation.
She is the only authorized Rolex distributor in Central Kentucky. She is one of only 20 Hearts On Fire authorized service centers in the U.S. She has exclusive partnerships with top national designers. She has custom repair and design facilities in house.
And, like her store, she exudes warmth, glamor and class.
Her own favorite piece of jewelry? Her Rolex watch. It is, after all, very functional.
She wasn’t always prosperous – or famous, and part of the secret to her success very likely lies in her modest beginnings. She credits her mom with most of it.
Shelia grew up dirt-poor in Paintsville, the youngest of four children of hard-working, under-educated parents. When her father died when she was 14, she was the only child left at home. She and her mom moved to Lexington where she graduated from Henry Clay High School and started as a business major on scholarships at the University of Kentucky.
At 17, she was already working in the jewelry business as a sales associate at Gold Rush and then in sales – becoming manager – at the Carat Patch. Along the way she abandoned pursuit of a college degree in favor of the workplace and 10 years later she decided to start her own business.
“I was living in an apartment, had no savings and very little money,” she says, “but I was able to get a couple of small loans and help from cooperative vendors and opened my store in Fayette Mall, right across from Disney.”
A year later, she made her best business decision – a leap of faith to move into space in the Hyatt downtown. Rent was cheaper and she could set reasonable hours.
“If you are good at what you do, people will find you,” she says.
They found her – and downtown Lexington too.
Shelia and Dug
Shelia believes the key to her success – after the hard work and sweat and learning from the ground up – is her attitude about her customers.
“I want our customers to feel comfortable here whether they can spend $100 or $100,000. It’s about how we make you feel when you come in.”
Her role model on attitude – and the biggest influence in her life – was her mother. “We were very close,” she says. “My mom always told me I could do anything I wanted to do. She had the best attitude. She never complained and did whatever she did to the best of her ability. She took great pride in her work.”
Her mom’s work was always modest work. She never finished high school but worked hard all her life.
“I learned work ethic from my mom,” she says. “I am more like my mom at this point in my life than I ever was.” Her mother died during open heart surgery several years ago. She had suffered from emphysema and asthma.
“I try to honor her in everything I do.”
Today Shelia counts her employees as “family.” And she counts hiring the right people as the most important skill a businessperson can have.
“Employees are your best asset,” she says. “You look for the right fit. For me, that’s caring people who will care about each other.” She employs 14 people in the downtown store and another six at the Fayette Mall kiosk. Many of them are long-time employees, including one who has been with her from the beginning.
“We all have to be willing to grow,” she says. “And we put ourselves on the customer’s side.”
When people come in to make a purchase for a special occasion, “we take it seriously. The jewelry has meaning.”
Her business instincts are as sharp as her people skills. Early on, though she had no budget for marketing, she leveraged visibility by being involved in the community, getting involved with local charities and donating items for fundraisers. As her business has grown, those donations get bigger and bigger and cut a very wide path through the area’s non-profit sector. From the Woodford County Humane Society to the Children’s Charity Classic to public schools to God’s Pantry. . .and more. One of her earliest involvements was with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. She ended up going into schools and art classes to work with children to design jewelry which she then made and donated to the organization. The community connectedness is still a marketing strategy that works for her.
“I love Lexington. I love what this community has given me. I know that if you are helping someone else, it comes back to you.”
That sounds very much like a mother’s words of wisdom.
See more about Shelia Bayes Fine Jewelers at www.sheliabayes.com.