Good as Gold: Tina Little’s luxury jewelry business is sparkling (Biz941)

By Bob Andelman

(Originally written in December 2007; the story is no longer on Biz941’s website archive so I am re-posting it here.)

Tina Taylor Little, owner, Queen's Wreath Jewels, Sarasota, Florida
Tina Taylor Little, owner, Queen’s Wreath Jewels, Sarasota, Florida

Gemologist Tina Taylor Little discovered up-and-coming jeweler Michael Beaudry at the 1996 New York Jewelry Show, and it changed her professional life. At the time, Little was the manager of the jewelry department at Sarasota’s Saks Fifth Avenue, but she sensed that Beaudry was a rising star, and her eye for spotting talent gave her the confidence to quit her job and open her own store. Within 30 days, she obtained financing from a private angel and welcomed her first customers to Queens’ Wreath Jewels.

That was in 1999. A year later, brandishing strong initial sales numbers, Little went back to Beaudry-who, at 41, is now one of the most respected jewelry designers in the luxury niche-and asked if he would do a trunk show for her in Sarasota.

He did; customer response was enthusiastic; and the two have been a powerhouse duo ever since. Little continues to show and sell Beaudry’s designs, along with a variety of other luxury jewelry.. Her store, now on St. Armands Circle, is one of the region’s most upscale jewelry businesses, with customers-many of them from Sarasota-who have the ability and desire to pay six figures for an heirloom-quality piece.

Being an upscale retail jeweler is not a bad position to be in these days, according to both Little and Lauren Thompson, public affairs coordinator for the New York-based industry trade association Jewelers of America.

“Retail jewelers are experiencing greater sales growth than other retailers,” Thompson says. “And mass-market retail won’t experience as much growth this year as a high-end retailer such as Tiffany. Consumers will pay more for quality. And high-end consumers are still shopping. Ken Gassman, president of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute, predicted that the higher-end retail jewelers might see growth as high as eight to 12 percent. It’s very important to differentiate your business; it’s easier for an independent jeweler to do that versus a mid-range jeweler who is competing with a big-box retailer or jewelry chain.”

Little agrees.

“We tend to sell at the extremes,” she says. “We’re kind of living in a bubble here in Sarasota, as far as a luxury market goes.”

For the past five years, Little has organized and hosted a private, invitation-only dinner and jewelry event (our sister publication, Sarasota Magazine is a sponsor) for 75 called “Beaudry & Bentley.” For the past two years it has been held at the Crosley Estate.

“Tina plans this event a year in advance,” Beaudry says, “and always comes up with new ideas to make it a luxury experience. She sets the stage, and I show up with my dancing shoes. It has grown every year to be the must-attend event in Sarasota [raising $70,000 for All Children’s Hospital in Sarasota]. The idea of a ‘Best of Breed’ partnership for events and promoting had not really been done when Tina started this. We have shared this winning formula with our dealer network. You cannot pick up a magazine now without seeing co-branding advertisements featuring two separate companies in a complementary brand statement.”

This summer, Beaudry named Little as a consultant and ambassador for his jewelry line, sending his good friend and supporter to Dubai last December to represent his interests at an international jewelry show.

“Tina is one of the most successful brand ambassadors of Beaudry in the country,” the diamond designer says. “She has a wealth of experience in high-end retail jewelry sales, presentation, sales training and event planning, and is willing to share her knowledge with other Beaudry dealers to help enhance their business. This is a testament to Tina’s mindset and broad vision.”

Little was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her mother, Wilda Taylor, danced in films (Roustabout; Harem Scarem; Frankie and Johnny) and choreographed Elvis Presley movies in the 1960s. Taylor worked with everyone from Pearl Bailey and George Raft to Don Knotts and Andy Griffith (separately), eventually growing her influence from dance to design, placing her clothes with Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin at one point. More recently, Taylor-who has her own Web site (www.wildataylor.com )-appeared in small roles in Star Trek Enterprise and Six Feet Under. She also performs every Monday at The Comedy Store in L.A. “I was expected to take that road,” her daughter says, “but I had my own passion, which was jewelry.”

As for her father, producer Robert Fallon, Little thought he was dead until she was 15 and he came out of the Hollywood shadows after his wife, actress Marie Wilson, had died, prompting him to acknowledge Little-born out of wedlock-as his daughter.

“That’s the facts,” Little says. “I’m not protecting him; he’s dead. He was a guy’s guy who went hunting with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. He was one of those guys who hung out on motorcycles on Sunset Boulevard. It was not pretty in a lot of ways. He never helped my mother. She raised two kids all by herself. He liked looking at me because I looked like him.”

Little followed her heart to Nashville in 1984-her father’s famous last words to her were, “I can’t believe you’re leaving L.A.”-and became a graduate gemologist, learning the business from top to bottom. A vacation in Sarasota turned her on to the city a few years later and she relocated here, managing stores for jeweler McCarver & Moser, among others, and opening a jewelry department for Saks.

“Several of my clients have been putting together collections with me here in Sarasota for more than 20 years,” she says. “That’s my niche; helping people put together their heirloom collections. It is all about collecting. If a man says, ‘You already have three rings, why would you need another?’ the answer is, ‘She doesn’t need another ring, but it would enhance her collection.’ I deal in diamonds that are so rare that there might be only five or six available in their category in the world. When I handpick a diamond, I have had people hand-carry it from Europe to New York to Sarasota to delivery it to a client.”

Diamonds aren’t cheap, certainly not at Queens’ Wreath.

“At this store there really is not a limit to what we could handle,” says Little. “Several hundred thousand dollars is not unusual. That would not be our average sale; we fill the gamut from $500 to whatever the customer’s desires are. Whatever the price tag, we feel confident.”

Queens’ Wreath Jewels has one stockholder, a family that is a silent partner to Little’s success. She won’t reveal annual sales revenues, although it is tempting: “I don’t even tell the Jewelers Board of Trade, who would love to put me in their Red Book. It’s like a DMV for jewelry stores.”

For the same reason, Little declines to discuss how she finances her high-flying jewelry deals.

“Some of it is trade secret,” she says. “What I do is magic. At the end of the day it may be a three-carat fancy, intense pink diamond. If everyone knew how I acquired things, then what have I done spending my whole life separating myself from a crowd? This business is trust-oriented. Deals are made on handshakes that are irrevocable. This is probably the last business in the world where a handshake and a word are a commitment.”

Little is married to architect and interior designer Thorning Little in Sarasota. Thorning, who is known for his expertise in lavish Mediterranean-style architecture, has designed all three of his wife’s stores.

Little also has discovered and cultivated relationships with many fine jewelry designers, but there is no question it is her chemistry with Beaudry that has loomed large over the success of Queens’ Wreath Jewels. The store is now in its third location in eight years, each one progressively larger and in a more highly trafficked spot than the last. Employment hovers around 10 people.

“In every jewelry store I’ve managed in Sarasota, I personally captured a share of the market’s loyalty and trust. And they followed me,” Little says. “When I opened my own store, they supported me. I have acquired friendships and relationships through trustworthy transactions. I established a reputation and I work hard to maintain that.”

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