The success of Madison Street in recent years has, in large part, been attributable to a willingness to work together and pool resources that is rare among small businesses. One of the businesses that has been central to this collaborative spirit has been Team Blonde Jewelry.
Soon after moving into its new headquarters at 7324 Madison St. last fall, the jewelry retailer and custom jewelry designer entered into its newest partnership, a “Crafts and Cuisine” program with La Piazza.
Held every other Friday and Saturday evening, the program is intended to give parents another option besides hiring a babysitter while they enjoy their dinner at La Piazza, located next door at 410 Circle Ave.
Kids are able to make their own pizza using ingredients from La Piazza, and are also given the opportunity to design their own jewelry and art projects under the watchful eye of co-owners Heidi Vance and Jayne Ertel, along with the rest of Team Blonde’s staff.
“We’re always looking to network with other businesses on the street, so I thought ‘well, how could we constructively network together.’ So we felt well, we do kids’ classes and we do kids’ jewelry and we have kids here all the time so why not make it official,” said Vance.
The idea, she said, was suggested by La Piazza chef Gaetano Di Benedetto, who noticed that the restaurant was receiving several reservation cancellations from parents unable to find babysitters.
“This way, by the time the parents are done eating the kids are done here and they can head back together, and everyone has had a great time,” said Vance.
In addition to collaborating with its neighbors in Forest Park, the owners of Team Blonde have also sought out ways to collaborate with businesses worldwide to do its part in solving major social problems including third world poverty and environmental deterioration.
Since doubling its space in its recent move from its former second story location above Healy’s Westside, Team Blonde has nearly tripled its product line. Among the new items offered are “Zulugrass” necklaces, crafted by Maasai tribeswoman from the Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania. The necklaces, made available by the Kenya-based firm The Leakey Collection, are made from dried, dyed blades of glass interspersed with intricate beadwork.
The store also carries a line of handcrafted jewelry created by Mayan artisans in a fair trade workshop in Guatemala, imported through the Vermont-based Altiplano company.
“They make really intricate jewelry that quite frankly if I made it, it would take me so long that I’d have to charge a million dollars…Plus it supports something positive in their culture,” said Vance.
Other new “products with a conscience” include soaps and bath salts from The Enterprising Kitchen, a nonprofit corporation that employs formerly homeless women, herbal neck and eye pillows from Kits ‘N Kaboodles, a company that hires the mentally challenged, and handbags by Vy and Elle, made from recycled vinyl highway billboards.
Vance and Ertel plan to continue adding similar products in the future, as Vance’s mother, who operates a printing and embroidering shop, has compiled a list of “socially conscious” distributors.
“We’ve earmarked even more,” said Ertel. “Some are made from recycled leather and rubber, some are purses and bags made from hemp. We’re also looking to add recycled-metal picture frames. In general, we’re always looking to carry cool stuff that has social impact.”
Vance said that future plans include collaborations with animal welfare organizations including PAWS and a New Hampshire based humane society. Though details are sketchy at this point, one possible fundraiser might be the sale of T-shirts featuring sketches of Jazz, Team Blonde’s official “shop dog.”
“I’m an animal person so I’ve always been looking for a way to donate money to an animal charity ” it’s important to me,” said Vance.
Vance said she would also like to hold a drive to collect business attire for women recovering from poverty or abusive relationships and seeking employment. Vance said that Team Blonde would donate jewelry to complement the donated clothing, and would work with United Way or a similar organization to provide training for job interviews.
“That’s something close to my heart. It’s not for making money but it would be nice to reach out to people. You can’t just complain and not be part of the solution,” said Vance.
Vance and Ertel first met in 1985 while attending the University of Illinois at Champaign. They began making jewelry as a hobby just eight years ago. Vance’s mother took note of their talent and began selling some of their creations at her store in Wisconsin. The jewelry quickly began flying off the shelves. Today, custom jewelry accounts for about 30 percent of Team Blonde’s business.
The duo eventually decided to turn their hobby into a business, and chose their college nickname, given to them by a friend who said he never saw one of the blonde-haired entrepreneurs without the other, hence the company’s name. Vance, an attorney, and Ertel, an MBA, both take pleasure in disproving the “blonde” stereotype. “We enjoy surprising people with our talent and watching them do a double take gives us a good laugh,” said Ertel.
Team Blonde was originally stationed in Oak Park, where it was mostly focused on Internet and catalogue sales. It moved into a second-floor storefront on Madison Street in 2003, and in October 2005 relocated to its new headquarters, which includes a pair of studios to accommodate a variety of workshops and special events including Crafts and Cuisine and “Girls’ Night Out,” which combines jewelry-making classes with spa treatments provided by specialists from Macdaddy’s Salon’s West Loop location. The salon also has a location in Forest Park at 7506 Madison St.
“In the old place, shopping and classes were kind of all mixed, so if we got a loud party it influenced the shoppers and vice versa. (With the new studios) we have it separate so we can kind of divide and conquer,” said Vance.
In the future, Vance and Ertel plan to continue growing their business and collaborating with everyone from artists in distant lands to their Madison Street neighbors.
“It’s interesting how I haven’t met a merchant on Madison Street yet that has said ‘no, I don’t see how we could possibly work together.’ I don’t understand why it happens but I’m thankful for it and I think it’s an amazing thing going on here,” said Vance.
For more information on Team Blonde, visit www.teamblonde.com.