By Andy Kirkaldy
Between them, husband-and-wife team Michael Tope and Shannon Mahoney’s road to opening downtown Vergennes’s newest shop, Raintree Handcrafted Fine Jewelry, includes Texas, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and, critically, St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Tope, 48, and Mahoney, 43, who between them bring close to two lifetimes of experience in jewelry and watchmaking to their new retail venture, met through a mutual friend in St. Thomas, where they had both landed pursuing their careers.They hit it off quickly.
"We were married five months later. It was very cool. It was awesome," Mahoney said amidst their handmade jewelry in a renovated space at 165 Main St. next to the Park Squeeze.
Tope had been working in the jewelry business since apprenticing while attending high school in his native Texas.“Basically I’ve been a jeweler ever since. That’s all I’ve ever done,” he said.
Tope was recruited to move to St. Thomas in the late 1990s by Bernard Passman, whose unique black coral jewelry and statues have been given to British royalty. When Tope met Mahoney, Passman had died four years earlier, and a corporation had taken over Passman Galleries. Tope oversaw its manufacturing and 30 employees.
Mahoney grew up near Philadelphia and discovered jewelry and watchmaking in her early 20s. Like Tope, she realized she had come across her calling. “Luckily we found paths that worked for us,” said Mahoney, whose path had taken her to St. Thomas to work for Rolex. “I found watchmaking in my early 20s and realized that’s where I should have been all along.
ON TO VERMONT
Both were designing jewelry on the side when the news came in 2013 — soon after their daughter, Riley, was born — that Passman’s parent company was shuttering the business. That news accelerated their plans and brought their focus to Vermont: Mahoney already had family in Addison County and 25 acres in Ferrisburgh.
"We had this five-year plan for transitioning to the States, and when the company closed it was perfect timing for us to get out of there," Mahoney said.
They brought most of Passman's black coral and some specialty equipment needed to work with the organic material, and when they arrived in Vermont built a timber frame home. Then they rented space in Kennedy Brothers and opened shop there in late 2013, staying until moving to Main Street.
They found when they opened in Vermont a ready-made national clientele among Passman’s former patrons, who needed repairs, restoration, cleaning and their expertise. “Black coral is such a specialty medium in jewelry that nobody works with it,” Mahoney said. Many of those clients also wanted to stop in and see them, and their space proved not to be ideal. “A lot of the collectors wanted to visit us, which we hadn’t planned on,” Mahoney said. “Kennedy Brothers really wasn't the right fit.
At the same time, Tope said, they realized a downtown presence could help them better reach out to residents and visitors with their own designs. "We wanted a little more one-on-one with local clients, too," Tope said. "It's nice to meet with people and become part of that story."
Feedback they received while renovating their new space seemed to confirm their plans. "Even when we were building and putting the cases in, stuff like that, people would walk by and give us a bunch of thumbs up," Tope said.
Downtown Vergennes was not a hard choice for another reason: Two fo Mahoney's sisters have opened businesses nearby. Heidi Mahoney Markowski was a co-owner of the former Fat Hen grocery store on Green Street, and Fleury Mahoney co-founded Daily Chocolate, also on Green Street, a business which she has since sold.
"Vergennes is such a great town," Mahoney said. "I've always loved it."
As of last week, they had most of their own lines of jewelry ready for display. As well as their black coral work, they have different lines of jewelry, one developed on St. Thomas and one in Vermont, that are completely handmade. (Samples may be seen at raintreevt.com.)
"Everything is by hand. Everything is hand-drawn, hand-hardened, hand-poured. We do our own casting," Mahoney said. "We do everything from the sketch to the final product by hand."
They said they have tried to offer a variety of price points. "A lot of stuff our starting prices are around $80, and then it goes up from there. So we have something for every pocket and every occasion in the jewelry," Mahoney said.
Those who want to splurge can do so, however.
"We wanted to start out with a chorus of about 200 pieces that were very reasonably priced and handmade," Tope said. "And then we could move on to a couple more avenues of doing a couple bigger, more pop pieces."
They are complementing their work with other inventory. Since opening in the second week of June, they have added hats from Brandon’s Swan & Stone Millinery, wool felt gifts from Addison’s Carrie Root, leather items from Winooski’s Queen City Dry Goods, and, soon, but not yet, pottery from Waterbury’s Jeremy Ayers.
At this point, they have goods from each, but plan to have a full complement for a late-summer grand opening. They will also fix watches, and have a space carved out for jewelry repair and crafting.
Items are displayed on factory carts they refinished themselves. They are lit by ceiling light fixtures they made by combining old plumbing and electrical fixtures.
Yes, Mahoney said, they've done a lot of work and come a long way to get to 165 Main St. "It's been a labor of love," she said. "It's been a long road, but it's all been good so far."