Sherry Smith, Peter Smith and Edahn Golan join Editor-in-Chief Michelle Graff and try to answer the question, how long will the party last?
How Melee Found the Trade Show Sweet Spot
Many jewelry trade shows have tried and failed to present high-caliber design at pricing affordable for independent designers. Melee is the event getting it done.
It’s understood that a brand either is accepted into, and foots the accompanying bill for, a boutique trade show experience in the vein of Couture, or resigns itself to a larger, convention hall-esque affair such as JCK or JA New York, where it is hard to feel seen among the hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors.
Other shows from established professionals try to buck the odds during the June Vegas shows. Their attempts to edge their way onto buyers’ packed calendars usually end without much luck.
Melee founders Lauren Wolf and Rebecca Overmann, who are also jewelry designers, met at a trade show.
Most recently, Wolf and Overmann had exhibited annually at the Couture show in Las Vegas and biannually in New York City at NY
Now, but grew frustrated with the latter.
“There were plenty of great jewelers at NY Now, but it wasn’t edited, it was lacking curation,” Wolf says.
There were years when they ended up next to any number of home goods vendors, and there was a limit to how long they could tolerate the possibility of being next to a maker of cat clocks, Overmann notes ruefully in reference to one lackluster show.
“We wanted to create an environment that was as special as the jewelry we were showing,” she explains.
‘It Sort of Took Off’
While exhibiting at NY Now, located at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in far-west Manhattan, Overmann liked to go to The High Line Hotel on 10th Avenue, still very much on the west side but far more adjacent to the action of the city, a stone’s throw from some of its most illustrious art galleries.
“I fell in love with The High Line because they have the only good coffee in New York,” Overmann says matter-of-factly of its Intelligentsia coffee bar.
Filling the Trade Show Gap
Designers have taken note of the sustained buzz around Melee.
Jennie Kwon Designs’ eponymous creator was content with showing at NY Now but Kwon says she started noticing a downturn in the foot traffic after about three years, while simultaneously hearing rumblings about a new show that was gaining traction—Melee.
“I heard more and more designers talking about how nice it was at Melee,” she says.
The elegant setting of The High Line Hotel has provided the right ambiance for showcasing jewelry.
“It feels a lot more intimate than other trade shows,” Kwon remarks. “It has a cozier feel. Your relationship with wholesalers is just that—a relationship—and I think Melee is conducive to more personal conversations. People feel more relaxed, I think.”
It’s exactly the energy Kwon and other designers haven’t felt at large trade shows.
“As soon as you head to a convention center, buyers are on a mission to divide and conquer,” says Kwon, “but at Melee there’s a more humane vibe. We see the same buyers regardless if we’re at NY Now or Melee, but Melee lends itself more to conversation and catching up.”
Max Lent, who works as the chief operating officer for his father’s eponymous brand, Anthony Lent, agrees, noting his spectacular aversion to convention centers, particularly marked by the one year he spent “five miserable days at JCK” before he found his brand’s trade show home at Couture.
Still, he was missing the ideal market environment in New York City.
Joining Melee was a natural move, the organic result of a multifaceted relationship—Anthony Lent is stocked at Esqueleto and Wolf studied under the jeweler at FIT.
Like Kwon, Lent notes the size of Melee is just right.
“It’s not too large. It’s not overwhelming. A buyer in a full day could make the rounds and really see everything.”
Another Melee selling point for designers is the lack of setup.
Designers use simple glass showcases to display their work.
“It’s beautiful and it’s polished and it’s very presentable but it doesn’t require the designers to come and be construction workers for three days,” says Kwon. “Everything is uniform.”
It also creates a sense of equality among designers.
“It feels more democratic,” Lent says. “The venue itself is such a beautiful venue. Who would want to go to the Javits Center when you can go to The High Line Hotel? You step outside and you’re in New York City, you’re not in a taxicab parking lot.”
The Bottom Line
If one half of the “ideal trade show” equation is intimacy and good design, the other, even more important, half is pricing.
“We wanted to keep it very affordable, in line with NY Now,” says Wolf.
Wolf and Overmann say exhibiting prices have gone up since their first show, but not by too much.
Lent says his first Melee show experience produced a “phenomenal” return on investment.
And Melee’s only gotten better as it’s gained its footing in the marketplace.
“I feel the level of buyer has increased—not the quantity of buyers, but the quality,” Lent says.
For independently funded jewelry companies, Melee has become a viable investment they can keep coming back to, year after year – even as they drop other more expensive trade shows.
Anthony Lent, for example, was planning to take a break from Couture this year even before the show was canceled, despite the importance of the relationships the brand has fostered there.
The reason? It’s been building a much-needed New York City Diamond District showroom to host private clients.
As the company invests in that project, it has to cut back in other areas, namely Vegas, though it has tentative hopes to return to Couture in 2021.
Melee, on the other hand, is affordable enough that Anthony Lent doesn’t have to cut it from the budget in order to make room for the showroom project.
Max Lent opines: “A lot of the stores we’re targeting for wholesale are coming to Melee. And even twice a year, it’s still much less expensive than doing Couture.”
Wolf and Overmann were still exhibiting at Couture when they launched Melee but have since pulled out.
“It’s an absurd price to the vendor for the return,” says Wolf. “For so long, it was about prestige for [many independent designer jewelry brands], but I [now] find it’s just impossible to make sense of that cost.”
Amali, Brooke Gregson, Sia Taylor and Wwake are some of the brands buyers can find at Melee.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie at Melee,” she says.
Wolf and Overmann intend to keep it that way.
That intimacy makes Melee even better equipped to adapt to any pandemic-related challenges it comes across, according to Wolf and Overmann.
Overmann adds, “Our designer roster will continue to be small and we plan on implementing a staggered buying appointment system for our registered buyers [at the next edition]. Our primary goal and concern is the safety of all members of our community and we look forward to celebrating in a new way this fall.”
They also say they’re open to changing dates in the future, though the February/August schedule has worked well thus far because there usually are many buyers in town at that time.
Ultimately, organizers behind Melee want to remain nimble, relevant and enjoyable, to designers and buyers alike.
“The landscape is not what it used to be,” says Wolf. “The way people buy and see new work is different. You can email someone your line sheets now.
“It’s important to be aware of how things have changed.”
Lent wants Melee to continue to find success, while retaining the ingredients that make it work now.
“We hope that it grows,” he says, “but I think it’s at a really great spot right now. More and better stores and buyers will be coming to that show. I think it’s an excellent complement to Couture, and I’d be very happy if I could do Melee and Couture every year.”
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