Exclusive Interview with Ashley McNamara – an Owner and CEO of Pure Pearls
As classic as pearls are, they are just as enigmatic. Which, off course, only adds to their charm. What’s more – they are versatile! You’ll see them on just about any outfit and living up to any occasion. Be it a casual night out, running errands type of a day, fancy dinner, or a royal court gathering – pearls are always appropriate. So, why is it that so little of the jewelry blogging space is dedicated to pearls?
But, if little is written about pearls, that is even more true when it comes to pearl businesses. We have seen a lot of coverage in the media on various tech startups and Uber like success stories gracing magazine covers. This being the case, I am particularly delighted to share with you the long-awaited interview that I conducted with Ashley McNamara, an owner and CEO of Pure Pearls – an online store that sells high quality pearl jewelry from all over the world at a competitive price. A busy woman that she is, Ashley rarely grants interviews, so this is definitely a treat!
Ashley’s story is nothing short of fascinating! Once a single mom living in a trailer in Kansas, she had modest beginnings, but aspiring dreams and an enduring drive. She always had passion for jewelry, but slowly discovered her love for pearls.
Starting as a customer service rep for Pure Pearls, Ashley worked her way up to become General Manager. Then all of a sudden, an owner announced his decision to shut down the business, but Ashley couldn’t let that happen. Throwing away years of dedication and hard work was not an option! She scraped up every saved bit of cash and purchased it from him. And this is when it all turned around!
Today, Pure Pearls is regarded by many, including Huffington Post which celebrated its success on its own pages, as one of the best pearl stores out there. So, regardless if you are a pearl or a jewelry lover, aspiring or current business owner, or simply someone who likes to hear a good story, you gotta admire this woman. So, let’s dive right in…
Ileana: When did your interest in pearls awaken? Why pearls?
Ashley: Well, I suppose I first fell in love with pearls looking at plain, little old Freshwater pearl buttons. I was sitting in the afternoon sunlight at my desk and sorting, grading and matching a lot of loose white Freshwater AA+ Quality Button-shapes for earrings. The sun streamed through my window and would strike these little gems, and the longer that I stared, sorting and matching, the more I could see how very fine they were.
The pearls, I realized, were composed of crystal!
They were semi-transparent, with this subtle iridescence shimmering over their tops, and a hint of blue colors that I could see in the very best ones … they reminded me of moonstones in the way that they played with the light and appeared to glow. I fell in love. Pearls went from “little white beads” to me to precious gemstones with a character and a story all their own.
Ileana: How did you come up with the idea to open your own pearl business?
Ashley: Actually, I didn’t open it! I started at PurePearls.com as a customer service rep, and then moved up to becoming the General Manager. The business changed owners twice during my time there as GM, and as the years went by, I took over more and more responsibility – creating email sales and specials, graphic design, selecting the Tahitian and South Sea pearl necklaces we’d sell, consulting on site designs and redesigns, creating educational content and organizing the inventory system and finances, etc.
Really the thing that got to me the most was corresponding with customers and working with clients to create fine jewelry and Custom Designs with them that would grow to become part of their family stories. I just find it so meaningful to be there creating fine jewelry that will someday be passed down to sons and daughters, grandchildren and nieces and nephews. I got to know a lot of my repeat customers personally … they became my Pure friends haha, and many still are!
At any rate, ownership of Pure had passed through two different people, and there I was the whole time, making Pure my “baby”. When the last owner decided that he wanted to sell, or shut down the company, I knew I couldn’t let her go. I scraped together every bit of cash I could and bought Pure. Five years later (and I still can’t believe it’s been 15 years here – I suppose time flies when you love what you do!), and I’m still here … in it for the long haul.
Ileana: What was the most challenging part about starting your business and what is the most challenging part about running it?
Ashley: 2008 was TOUGH. It was a tough year for everybody … I still remember staring in shock at my computer watching Washington Mutual Bank crash and go out of business (good riddance, says I!). I’d never seen anything like the Crash of 2008 – definitely an eye-opening experience.
Compounding that, 2008 was the year that Google rolled out their first major search algorithm update: PANDA. Overnight, Pure’s Google rankings went from the first 2-3 pages of search queries to page 15! I was devastated and honestly thought we were done for. I’d had nothing to do with the site’s SEO, but when I saw the real-world impact that hidden aspect of the site’s pages had on the business overall, you can bet I set myself to learn everything that I could about it!
To get through ’08, I turned to the email marketing list that I’d cultivated over the years and relied on my long-term customer relationships to keep us going. I revved up our Specials and began direct selling much more – we pulled it off, I’m happy to say.
I also completely revamped the site’s educational content – it is STILL a work in progress! A website is almost like a living thing, and the work never really ends haha! – and started spilling every bit of pearl science and jewelry FAQs that I could think of out of my brain and onto the page. We let go of the SEO company we had been working with, and never looked back. Today, I’m proud to say that Pure regularly ranks in the #1 spot on the first page of Google for the majority of our major search query terms, and it’s all 100% organic, and written by yours truly.
Ileana: What do you think is the biggest misconception about pearls that people hold on to?
Ashley: Oh! That they’re “boring little white beads” for sure. That’s what I thought, after all! My jewelry background was mostly on the wholesale end, dealing, sorting and grading exclusively high-end precious colored gemstones: Brazilian Alexandrite, Emeralds, Sapphires, Rubies and much more. It was my first love, and when you spend hours each day drowning in the limitless depths of a flawlessly colored Colombian Emerald, or a perfect Padparascha Sapphire, pearls can sound a little … underwhelming.
At least at first.
But once you open yourself up to their endless variety in color and form, and the way that they play with light, you begin to realize that pearls really are quite stunning and definitely in a class all their own. They have a subtlety and grace to them that no other gemstone can hope to match. The trick is learning to let pearls talk to you, and as well, learning how to listen. Once you learn how to hear what they’re saying, you’ll never forget them.
Ileana: What do you think is the most interesting or fascinating thing about pearls? What sets them apart from the rest of the jewelry or what stands out about pearls? Also, do you have any advice for pearl buyers in terms of what to look for when purchasing them? What is the single most important quality to take into consideration?
Ashley: For me, what makes or breaks a pearl as a fine gemstone is its LUSTER. The way that light strikes and penetrates the pearls’ layers of crystalline nacre, and then begins bouncing back at you through all this compacted crystal. The very finest pearls should reflect light on the surface, and also appear to GLOW from within. If a pearl lacks this delicate glow and just “sits there” then it is a little white bead, and you shouldn’t buy it, haha.
But seriously, every other factor regarding pearls: size, shape, color, overtone and surface quality are ALL secondary to whether or not the pearl sparkles and shines with excellent, high quality luster.
Ileana: Can you reveal at least one secret you learned in pearl trade?
Ashley: That Chinese Freshwater pearls are the biggest, most exciting pearls coming up in the Pearl Industry’s future. Cultured Edisons, Souffles, Fireballs, Metallics and more in some of the craziest, coolest colors I’ve EVER seen are just now starting to come onto the market, and they are terribly, beautifully amazing and easily represent the cutting edge of pearl culture. The Chinese Freshwater pearls are the underdogs of the pearl business, but I don’t think it will remain that way for much longer.
Ileana: What is the most valuable lesson you learned as an entrepreneur within the jewelry industry?
Ashley: There is ALWAYS a way forward – even if it ends up feeling like you’re going backwards for a little while, don’t give up! Every downturn has a Silver Lining, you just have to look for it. Sometimes you have to look for a long time, lol, but I guarantee you it’s there.
As one of my favorite bands says: Hang In There, Little Tomato!
Ileana: What is your favorite thing about pearls?
Ashley: Wearing pearls is like wearing a single golden chain with nothing on it – it forces you to admire the raw elements of Mother Nature, unencumbered by flashy settings or loud designs.
Nature speaks for herself in a rare, unique and beautiful voice, and pearls just have this understated presence and whisper of grace that is always appropriate no matter the occasion.
I know it sounds cliché but: pearls really do have a timeless elegance.