Rainforest Design® Cameos: Exotic, Rare, Timeless Heirlooms

Blogging about Rainforest Design® shell cameos: Exotic, rare, timeless heirlooms, the likes of which you have never seen before. The story behind this unique jewelry that has attracted worldwide attention and has Panama in the news.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Update 2020 Coronavirus

My it’s been a long time since I have paused long enough to keep you all informed of the latest news.  The Coronavirus has changed all of that. Have been in voluntary quarantine in the USA, separated from my immediate family, friends, carvers, etc., because of the Panama airport closure to all  international flights. First flight out is still a month away.

What is new? We keep innovating with new designs for our handcrafted shell cameos. Our Wounaan artists just keep getting better and better.  Take a look a this new design:

Peacocks are not native to Panama, but we like them anyway!

What else is new? We have been invited to participate in Dubai2020 as part of the Panamanian Pavilion,  which was supposed to open in October 2020 with a six month duration. The dates will probably change because of the Coronavirus, but we are excited at the prospect of our debut there, with a market we think will appreciate unique, exotic, rare designs such as ours.

Have a great day. Stay safe, stay healthy.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

JCK Las Vegas -Seminar on E-Commerce

One of the great benefits of attending trade shows is the opportunity to attend seminars given by top professionals in their areas of expertise. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the one given by Matthew Perosi entitled " E-Commerce: What you need to know before starting".

Perosi emphasized that it is important to be unique, and not just copy others. He says that if you are in a hurry to get online fast, then there are "cookie cutter" websites that all look alike, but can work for you if you have a limited budget and time constraints. To do a professional job, however, requires a full time employee and he says is not for the small independent jeweler. A realistic launch takes nine months and your return on investment will be three years later. Expect no sales for the first few months and that you will need to redesign the site within twelve months of the launch and every eighteen months thereafter. You will require advertising dollars set aside and will need analytics to track how users navigate around the site. Expect to spend $20,000 before the launch. To make matters worse, he says there will always be delays, due to photography needs, people to write copy or content, and search engine research.

Basically, Perosi highlighted five areas or challenges:
1. Security
2. Credit cards
3. Content
4. Products
5. Photography

For me, the biggest surprise came concerning security and credit cards when Pelosi mentioned PCI-DSS compliance (Payment Card Industries Data Security Standards), a law that was implemented in June 2003 and represents a complicated set of security standards that apply to merchant accounts and that has reporting requirements. The law forces you to protect your site against common attack methods and automated attacks through forms by random strings of code. What?? Yes, if your site processes credit card information from your customers, you have to worry about what happens if a hacker gets into the system. RAM memory is exposed, database dumps might be triggered, they might install a Trojan horse virus...there are all kinds of new hacking methods out there to worry about.
The PCI requirements include 1) no visible email addresses on your site, 2) the server software must be up to date,3) WIFI router in your store must be hidden from the public, etc. 4) For credit card processing you need a gateway company that you can find out about through your bank. Check out www.pcisecuritystandards.org for a listing of all the requirements.

Perosi warned that the jewelry industry is a high risk industry for situations when the physical credit card is not present, i.e. online transactions, and the underwriting process is tricky. He suggests having a separate merchant account from your store account so that website chargebacks won't adversely affect the in-store discount rate.

Regarding content, he says that search engines need content and the words used need to match common search terms in order to be easily found. he recommends a minimum of 100 words, says 250 is a reasonable amount and 400 will get you good results. Developing good content takes time and requires many talents by many people...writers, photographers...they may be employees or outsourced. Perosi says a huge product catalogue without content will fail, and the content must be updated often. Ranking results start to fade when content creation stops. The best content is blogging, product descriptions, jewelry educational information that you have written yourself (not a link to someone else's). Descriptions need to be long and unique, as Google filters identical duplicate content.

On the subject of photography, Perosi said e-commerce is difficult if you only have one photo of your product. You need top, side, profile views plus a "sizing shot" for size reference and maybe a style shot on a model. It is imperative to have professional quality photos with good lighting and a white background. Having photos done by professionals, however, is extremely costly. He had a very strong opinion on the right light box to use, and says the newer Photocubics Flashbox A10 that uses a strobe technology gives better quality photos with a true white background as compared to the more popular MK Digital Direct's Photo eBox Plus. The latter, he says, produces a grayish background to the photo that requires additional editing. Time is money and editing increases costs.

At this point in the seminar, we were out of time and I think Perosi could have continued with many more meaningful tips for us. I certainly look forward to hearing from him again.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

From Panama to Tucson

After about six months of starting Rainforest Design®, I decided that I really didn't know much about cameos, and so when going to Atlanta in late August, I bought a book in Barnes & Noble entitled "Cameos, Old & New, 3rd edition" by Anna Miller.

It accompanied me on the plane as I headed north to Washington, DC, to help my son move into his college dorm. I'm reading the book and get to the chapter about "Keeping the Art Alive in the United States", and it is about Helen Serras-Herman, master carver, who by coincidence, lived in the DC area. When I got to my destination, I googled her name, found the web page and emailed her to ask if she would be interested in seeing cameos carved by the Wounaan Indians of Panama. To my surprise Helen answered back right away. She didn't really have time to see me, but said that I could send photos. Jumped into the rental car, went out to Best Buy and bought a Sony digital camera suitable for closeup shots, and when I got back to Panama, prepared my first portfolio of pictures and sent them out.

Helen's return email made my heart soar like an eagle. She LOVED the cameos. Here I had this world famous master carver telling me: "These cameos are absolutely beautiful. Fine detail, well finished, carved in stunningly high relief...the subject themes are beautiful, too. They are very unique in the market."

Turns out at the time she opened my message, she was with a friend, a GIA expert in phenomenal gemstones, who also thought our cameos were fascinating. They had zoomed into the photos on the computer, trying to find flaws with the workmanship and just couldn't find any. In subsequent conversations, Helen insisted that I had to show the cameos in Tucson, AZ at the next possible opportunity the following January/February.

Now, I have been to trade shows around the world for other merchandise as a buyer for a chain of department stores in Panama, but never on the selling side of the table. The more I looked into the Tucson Show Guides, the more confused I got. So many shows! Started checking hotel rates on the Internet and they were astronomical at two star hotels. Didn't look good for me going to Tucson, but Helen was persistent and wanted to meet and see our cameos in person. She talked with her GIA expert friend, who was going to be showing in Tucson, and she offered to put a few cameos in her showcase at the Arizona Mineral and Fossil Show. I HAD to go now. And would you believe it, when I checked again with my travel agent about a hotel, she found space at a Sheraton 20 minutes from downtown at $39.95 a night, including buffet breakfast? So I booked a room for four days and went to Tucson to meet Helen and her good friend, Elaine Rohrbach of Gem Fare.

That was January 2005, and I have been meeting with Elaine, our NE distributor, and Helen there annually ever since. Come visit Gem Fare at the Hotel Tucson City Center Inn Suites, if you are in town in 2011!

When people ask, "How did you get to Tucson?" I respond simply, " I bought a book in Atlanta." And it happened, just like that.

Beverly Hills Missed Out

After Tucson 2005, I traveled to Los Angeles and started looking for jewelry stores that would be able to sell one of a kind designer cameos to the rich and famous. The criteria: 1) reputable, high class establishment, 2) attentive sales staff, 3) custom design work available on site and 4) currently selling one of a kind jewelry pieces. I really wanted to find a designer willing to use our unset cameos in their designs to make spectacular jewelry that would make it to the Red Carpet. In a few hours I found two possibles I really liked in Beverly Hills. I thought, this is perfect.

Walked into the first store, looked at a few showcases of beautiful things, and the sales manager came over with a smile (criteria 1, 2, & 4 - check). I asked if the buyer was on the premises, he said yes, but that she was in a meeting and could he help me. I told him about our shell cameos from Panama, inspired by the flora and fauna of the tropical rainforest, that they were very unusual and that I was sure their store had important customers who would want them. I was even in the position of being able to give them exclusivity for the Los Angeles area and they would be the first store in the entire USA to offer them. I pulled out three or four unset cameos and passed them gently to him one at a time. He thought the carving was incredible, and commented that there was talk about the company creating their own line of jewelry with in-house designers (criteria 3 - check). I smiled and said, you can design the new line around these! I thought, "this is going to be easy, all criteria met and the sales manager likes them = guaranteed sales". But the buyer was still busy and never came out of her office and I had a plane to catch. So he gave me her name so that I could write to her and send pictures, and gave me permission to use his name as a reference. Went home to Panama to prepare portfolio #2, this time with traditional photos and letter on our new logo stationery, confident of a positive response.

I wrote the letter, sent followup emails. Weeks passed and wrote another letter (registered mail), more emails. Nothing. Asked the sales manager to please forward my email so that I would be sure the buyer would read it. He did. Still nothing, not one response. More time passed, and I called to make an appointment for the next time I was going to be in LA. No response. Called again. No response. Got to LA and called again. There was never a response. Not once, not even to say I'm busy, not interested, etc. I stopped calling and writing, decided to give it a rest, at least for the time being, rethink the approach.

All my life I have looked at obstacles as something one had to strive to overcome and learn from the experience in the process. The name "cameo" itself is enough of a continuing obstacle to deal with, as people already have a preconceived notion or mental image of a cameo...typically thinking of that "pretty woman" in profile or other classical design that has been carved for centuries in Italy and Germany. Only saying the word "cameo" illicited mostly negative reactions ("Cameos don't sell") without even being given the chance to say, "but these are different!" Some have even suggested that we call our cameos something else. I tell them, it is the same shell that Italian carvers use, the Queen's Helmet shell, we use the same hand tools...it IS a cameo!

Once you have seen Rainforest Design® cameos, the imprint of this new imagery is so strong, yet so fresh, the meaning of the word cameo is changed forever. It is easy to be passionate about what we do. We feel we have literally redefined cameo jewelry, are helping impoverished rainforest people, and in the process have done something of historical significance. See for yourself: http://www.rainforestdesign.com and tell us what you think.

While I was getting the cold shoulder in Beverly Hills, Elaine Rohrbach of Gem Fare was getting positive response on the East Coast and had made several appointments for us in New York City. For the first time, I saw this obstacle (BH) as a sign to take a different path, an easier path. Beverly Hills missed out. It was on to the Big Apple.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

From Toilet Paper Wrapping

A man* walks into my office peddling some merchandise, and pulls out of his jean pocket a small shell cameo wrapped in toilet paper. The design was a little frog on a leaf and the workmanship was amazing. I knew I had never seen anything like it before anywhere, and I have done my fair share of traveling and visits to art galleries and museums. "Who made it?", I asked. The answer, a Wounaan Indian friend. It was not for sale. Since I wasn't interested in what he was selling, that meeting was over. The door was left open for the gentleman to return in case there was something else to offer. ( I always try to leave the door open if I can.)

Six months later. The man returns with some silver jewelry that he had cast from a mold based on the cameo I had seen previously. It was awful, too clumsy, too heavy, impossible to wear. We started talking about the frog cameo I had seen (now destroyed) and he told me the story of how he used to live on the Islands and exported shells to Italy for the cameo trade there. Knowing that the Wounaan Indians from the Darien Rainforest Region of Panama had tradition of carving in cocobolo wood and tagua nuts, he thought they should also be able to make cameos. So he set out to find a carver. It took several months of trial and error, lots of broken shells, before he could claim success. He showed me a couple of pictures of cameos carved by his Wounaan friend that had been set in gold and they were impressive. Gorgeous is a better word to use for them. That evening I showed the pictures at dinner to two guests who are professional art restorers, and they both placed an order on the spot. Voilá, a cameo business was born, just like that.

*name reserved by request

Monday, December 6, 2010

Following the Yellow Brick Road

The stories told my previous blogs "From Toilet Paper Wrapping", "From Panama to Tucson", and "Beverly Hills Missed Out" are just the beginning of the adventures of Rainforest Design®. There has been many a day when I have felt like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, following the Yellow Brick Road. Every encounter has proven to be invaluable in providing some clue as to the route to follow. I always try to pay close attention to the signs I perceive along the way.

After Beverly Hills, it was on to the Big Apple for an appointment with the buyer at Tiffany's. Elaine Rohrbach had made the contact..she had sold to Tiffany's before, so it was reasonable to assume we would have our audience. Not so. Got to the appointment and the buyer said they didn't need any cameos. So we were summarily dismissed without Tiffany's seeing the marvels we had brought with us.

We had another appointment with the Metropolitan Museum which happened to be showing a wonderful exhibit called "Cameo Appearances". The Gift Shop buyer thought our cameos were excellent, but, unfortunately, the Met Gift Shop only sells reproductions. Our Rainforest Design® cameos are all signed, hand carved originals.

With the time remaining in New York, I decided to walk Fifth Avenue on my own in search of a potential client for a New York launch of Rainforest Design®. The best option seemed to be Bergdorf Goodman with their selection of designer jewelry, so I got the name of the buyer and called. She wasn't available for an appointment, but said I could leave photos, which I did, and could speak to her later to get her opinion of them. I think we must have talked on the phone for at least twenty minutes, and the bottom line was that she liked them...but needed to see them on the fashion runways of Paris or Milan first before she was willing to give us space in her showcase, even if on consignment.

So, I came to the conclusion that fashion is not born in New York City, but originates somewhere else. The Yellow Brick Road was leading me to Europe, and the task now was to find a way to get to Paris or Milan. (To be continued)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

What is a Cameo?

Many people ask the question, "What is a cameo?"

A cameo is a miniature sculpture that may be made from a variety of materials. Most have striations of color, which allows for the natural contrast between foreground and background. Rainforest Design cameos are carved from the Queen's Helmet shell (cassis madagascariensis spinella), as seen below:

The outside of the shell is the softer carving surface, and the carver starts from the outside until he reaches the inside brown layer which is
hard like glass. Think of it like an Oreo cookie, taking away one side, leaving the soft white part the equivalent to the outside of the shell. As the artist carves through the white portion, eventually he reaches the dark brown part at the base.

Depending on the shell, the brown may be very very brown and graduate to a light beige. Other species of shells have a pink or peach color on the inside, however, the Queen's Helmet shell is considered to be the best because of its translucent properties and striking color contrast. Rainforest Design only uses the best!