Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Art of Business in the Business of Art

"French Thompson" (C) 2012 Miachelle DePiano.

Running a business in the Phoenix region is only for the strongest and hardiest of people. Small business owners take advantage of a very distinct tourist and transient resident season to survive. Those small business owners who provide necessary services and products stand a chance of surviving. Small business owners who provide a luxury and endure the financial droughts are indeed the hardiest of them all.

French Thompson is an example of survival in such a fiercely competitive environment. The 15-year owner of French Designer Jeweler on Main Street in Scottsdale, he survives while a multitude of art galleries and boutiques around him have come and gone. Thompson's gallery provides an array of fine art jewelry, catering to those desiring to find something more deeply personal and expressive.

Growing up, Thompson’s father was good with his hands, and as a result Thompson was involved in projects with his father. Thompson didn't necessarily pick up the steps and techniques needed for the childhood projects.

"We would hand make some things [for the house], but a lot of that he would end up doing because if I didn't do it right, he would step in and he would finish it. He was a perfectionist."

Admittedly a poor student in school, it wasn't until taking shop in junior high school and subsequently a craft class in high school that Thompson's handiness came to light and provided him an opportunity to succeed. During the craft class he discovered that he could make better presents for his mother and three sisters than he could buy. These efforts garnered him something he needed.

"Finally I started to get some positive reinforcement of things I did rather than bad grades and getting in trouble. That positive reinforcement then kind of led me further down that kind of a direction."

After high school, Thompson began classes at a community college. His first inclination in his pursuit of higher education was to be an English major. That didn't last long.

"I couldn't spell," he noted with his usual dry sense of humor.

Taking a metal smith class, he was surprised when his metalsmithing teacher sent other students to him for answers to questions.

"That made me realize this probably wasn't the best school for me to go to."

The community college was located by the Denver Art Museum, and a metalsmithing exhibit from Colorado State University in Fort Collins inspired Thompson to apply to CSU and begin his art tutelage a year later.

Upon his graduation, he determined jewelry making was the one art a person could make money doing. He worked in two art bronze-casting foundries, of which the second one was in Phoenix and gradually realized he didn't want to remain in that field.

Still seeing jewelry as the singular moneymaking art business, he applied for a job with Don Bryant at the Borgata, who advised him to quit his job. Thompson gave his two-week notice to take the opportunity.

"I came in one day and sat next to him and he realized I didn't know anything. Literally art school doesn't teach you anything about commercial jewelry or fine jewelry."

Bryant tried to persuade Thompson to return to the foundry. Being that it was too late to return to his old job, Thompson doggedly remained By Bryant's side for two years, learning everything he could about making jewelry. To make ends meet since he wasn't being paid, he worked first as a polisher, then a repairer, at Larson's Jewelers. Eventually Bryant needed an assistant and hired Thompson. That cemented a 13-year business relationship, as everything in the store was made in the store, with no other artist representation. Upon Bryant's retirement, Thompson opened his store.

Thompson makes no qualms about how his business has changed over the years.

"When I first opened, and for several years, I was making jewelry, and now it's more transformed to the point where either I'm talking too much, or I'm doing too many other things required to run a business that take me away from the jewelry bench. Where I was a gold smith before I am now more a business owner. My original concept was to make jewelry and have other artists' work, now it's [just] other artists' work."

His success can be attributed to his meticulous selection of the artists he represents in his gallery and his flexibility in recognizing when a particular artist isn't working out. He takes the time to cultivate a personal relationship with each artist, ensuring the business relationship is a win-win for both parties, spending as long as a year to cultivate a relationship with an artist before ever proposing to represent that artist.

"In the regard of wanting to do the kind of thing I wanted to do, it's really in that direction...only some of the people that I thought were going to do really good here don't, so I have to just kind of adapt who and what type of jewelry I'm representing, rather than just what it is I really want to have in the store."

Thompson seems to have a fine-tuned instinct for those jewelry artisans who will be recognized for their work.

"I literally looked at a book of some of the finest art know, the fine jewelry art jewelers in the world, and at one point or another I've represented two-thirds of all the people in that book.”

In addition to running his business, Thompson is currently the vice president of the Contemporary Art Forum at the Phoenix Art Museum, a position he didn't actively seek but was offered to him after he organized the annual art auction, serving as an advocate for artists who donated to the museum to raise money.

Thompson is humble about his own work, and takes a broader view of his place in the jewelry design world.

“The best design I’ve ever really made is my store. That is the best work of the jewelry industry I’ve ever put together.”

1 comment:

  1. Great story! It's interesting that what helped him most, in addition to ambition and perfectionism, was his apprenticeship.