WASHINGTON'S FIRST LADY OF JEWELRY
By Karin Tanabe, for Bisnow on Business
Entering Ann Hand’s flagship jewelry store on MacArthur Boulevard feels more like ambling into an elegant house. There are no menacing guardsmen leaning over you to make sure you don’t breathe incorrectly on a canary diamond, or over-eager women trying to cure your ails with sparklers you didn’t know you needed. But things were not always so.
“I started in the laundry room of my house, just stringing beads,” Ann explains with a rich Texas accent, in her classically decorated pink-walled office. “And then I moved to the dining room, and finally in 1987 to a cottage in the backyard. It was actually a prefab house for storing garden equipment.” After expanding it three times, Ann opened her namesake store in 2001.
One of her earliest designs and still her hottest seller, Ann Hand's Liberty Eagle pin has graced the luxurious lapels of many distinguished dames. She describes her designs as “wearable history,” so it’s not surprising that she recently began working with the National Guard and the Air Force. “We do a lot with the service academies,” she explains. “But our first clients were the White House, the Defense Department, and the State Department.”
Wife of Ambassador Lloyd Hand, who served as LBJ’s Chief of Protocol, Ann spent much of her life raising 5 kids. Always creatively inclined, she’s been making jewelry for years but strictly as a hobby. “I started when I was 53. I’m really proud of that. So many women approach me who want to do something new with their lives but think they’re too old. There is a real freedom that comes with age: You have more time of your own.”
Ann’s clientele now reads like a who’s who of Washington, something she attributes to word-of-mouth advertising, the kindness of friends, and old-fashioned serendipity. “We had no business plan. And no one should ever start anything without a business plan. We just evolved,” Ann says, oozing southern charm. Now she has a Palisades store, a Georgetown location (the latter being run by her granddaughter Ashley) and an Internet business that generates 30 percent of its sales. “I imagine that the growth of the company is really going to come from the Web,” she says. “It gives small stores an equal chance.”
One can easily imagine a spot on Madison Avenue, and Babe Paley types adorning themselves in her accessories. But Ann has no plans to expand to that other metropolis. “I’ve been approached to open a store in New York but I’ve said no. I like being a destination store. When you come to Washington and you want to take something away that symbolizes the city, you’ll come to Ann Hand.”
“We represent the good things about America,” she says pointing out pins she has designed for such high profile clients as the House of Representatives. And when you’re in her patriotic store it’s hard to imagine that there are bad things about America. Photographs of Republican and Democratic politicians share her wall space sporting pieces from her collection. In one, Senator John McCain gives his wife Cindy a kiss on the forehead while she wears an Ann Hand broach. In another, Senator Hillary Clinton is all smiles with an elegant Ann Hand eagle pin on her lapel. Geena Davis even wore Ann Hand for her TV role as the President on “Commander in Chief.”
If you think Ann has all of Washington dripping in diamonds, think again. While some of her clients hold fast to the mantra, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” many are on the prowl for the elegant yet affordable. When then first lady Hillary Clinton wore a pair of Ann’s rhinestone earrings on CNN and mentioned the designer, Ann had potential clients showing up in her backyard. Soon after the television nod, a man appeared at her cottage door demanding “the diamonds,” assuming first ladies wore nothing but. When Ann declared, “We don’t have any diamonds!” thinking she was about to be robbed, “the man left as fast as he came.” And when one of Reagan’s cabinet officials bought his wife a pair of $25 dollar rhinestone earrings, she was criticized by the press for her extravagance.
When she shows me the rhinestone “candidate” pins they have just released, it cements the fact that Ann’s business is all about Washington. We doubt Tiffany’s is engraving presidential frontrunner names onto jewelry. “We are doing a rhinestone poll instead of a straw poll. We have all the names that are being mentioned. We did it in 2004 and we were tracking the polls with the number of pins we were selling.” It certainly is a more elegant option than donning a bumper sticker to the next black-tie fundraiser.
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