For several thousand lucky individuals, they hold access to the exclusive AMEX Black Card, a credit card unlike any other where one must spend a minimum $250,000 a year and be invited based on a proven track record. To be in possession of a Black Card means much more than just business, it’s a statement of success, a statement that often leaves people in awe wondering who you are and what you do. This month we bring you something against the usual with Jeremy Shepherd, a self-made entrepreneur responsible for creating a $20+ million dollar empire as a pearl jeweler and current AMEX Black Card holder. Read more to learn about his story and thoughts on the Black Card…
Jeremy, thank you taking time out of your day to talk to us. Before being involved in the pearl industry, what were you doing before?
I attended a two-year college in Washington State and then took a hiatus from school when I became a flight attendant. After flying for a few months I decided to finish my four-year degree with correspondence courses from Southern California University for Professional Studies. This was around the same time I stumbled onto the pearl opportunity. I finished my undergrad and started graduate studies but didn’t finish.
Studying for a degree in business while starting a business was very beneficial for me. During my stint at the two-year college, I was studying for grades, not studying for practice. When I worked for my undergrad at SCUPS, every class had some direct correlation to my business and I could see how different courses were important to what I was doing.
At an Akoya pearl farm in Xuwen, China
A flight attendant is an uncommon career path, why did you chose that profession?
I love to travel. It has always been a genuine passion of mine. I also have a love of foreign languages and speak several. My language ability enabled me to get a job with Northwest Airlines as a Spanish and Japanese language-qualified flight attendant. From other cultures, I love the food, the sites, the history (museums), the languages, the different ways people interact with each other. The list goes on. The culture that I most enjoy and feel most at home in, however, is Japan.
The story has it that during a layover in China, you purchased a few pearl accessories for $20, only to be appraised for $600 while back in the states. How did you react?
Holy Crap! There has to be a business opportunity in this somewhere. My first plan was to start contacting stores – jewelry stores and boutique shops. This, I found, was a waste of time. I was able to only get one small boutique to agree to sell pearls, and only because I was friendly with the owner. Then a friend of mine introduced me to the website eBay. I didn’t have much experience with the Web at the time and found eBay difficult to figure out, so I went to Amazon. There I decided to go for broke.
I began by creating a Dutch auction without a photo, using the information from the appraisal that I had for the one strand of pearls I had brought back from China. I don’t recall exactly how many available items I listed in the auction. I then cashed my paycheck, went to the bank and withdrew all the cash I could from my credit card and got on a flight to China. I didn’t pay any of my bills for the month. I had about $3000 all together. I went back to the same seller and purchased as many of the identical strands of pearls as I could. By the time I returned from China, the Dutch auction had closed and every single item sold. I was able to make 3-4x the money I had put in. This is the way I ran the business for the first couple of years – buying product and reselling on Amazon (then followed by eBay) and using the proceeds to buy more pearls. I didn’t build a website until around the year 2000.
Sorting freshwater pearls in Shanxiahu, China.
How were you able to manage logistics while being on an airplane most of the time?
I ran my company out of a flight bag. I carried a laptop, a credit card machine AND pearls on every trip. I would answer customer calls from layovers and worked from every hotel. I would find a local post office or FedEx office to ship the pearls. It wasn’t the perfect scenario, but I was only selling a few pieces per day, so it was manageable.
You mention eBay and Amazon as your primary platform for ecommerce initially, which did you prefer?
At the time it was Amazon. We still sell on Amazon, but under our own brand. We don’t use the auction service. eBay was never a big part of our business. We don’t use any auction formats these days. If one goes on to eBay and does a simple search for something like “akoya pearl necklace,” they will find thousands of results (my search today netted 9,155 results). The problem is that very close to 100% of the results are fake – they are all low-end freshwater pearls. The lack of oversight on eBay means it is only profitable (in the pearl niche) to sell fraudulently represented goods. Early on I implored eBay to do something about it but was ignored. We ended up abandoning eBay nearly 10 years ago and things have only gotten worse over there.
Akoya Pearl Farm
With your official website launching in 2000, what were some ways you were able to get traffic and how has that evolved today?
A varied mix of search engine marketing is a staple, but our extensive involvement in social media and public relations has been the key to our success. Today, our resellers are a form of affiliates. Being online, we aren’t limited to geographic boundaries and decided early on to market our pearls in Europe. We sell a product in the states at prices that traditional brick and mortar jewelers cannot compete with. But in Europe, the disparity is even greater. Shipping internationally, direct-to-consumer is not an easy thing to do, however. So we opened affiliate offices in Germany and in France. These offices operate much the way we do in the states, but handle all marketing and communications via their own local brands. We ship pearls to these offices once per week at wholesale. Our relationships are exclusive.
Sales of luxury goods on the internet without being able to physically touch them must be hard. How did you overcome this initially?
This was difficult to overcome in the beginning. Although 10-15 years doesn’t seem like a long time, in e-commerce it is light years. Today, with our reputation and general ease consumers have with shopping online, it isn’t an issue we run into very often these days.
When we began, I realized the only way people were going to trust and buy from us was to give them solid guarantees. We instituted a 90-day, 100% refund guarantee for any reason, without any sort of restocking fee and offered free shipping. We also hired a professional photographer to be full time and on-site, so we could shoot any piece at any time from any angle in any light. But the truth is, reputation is what finally pushed us to where we are now. When people research our company online there are hundreds of reviews on blogs, forums, and publications.
Pearl Paradise Team
What advantage do customers have by dealing with you over your competitors?
Establishing direct relationships with suppliers and being hands-on is the biggest key to our success and is absolutely critical. We often hear about jewelers that supposedly buy direct from producers, but this simply isn’t possible, or when it is (jewelers going to shows in Hong Kong, for example), they do not have the economy of scale to make it worthwhile. In order to buy from producers, one has to buy everything, or a large portion of what is offered. This often means thousands of identical pieces – a jewelry store couldn’t sell 1000 of the same necklace over a lifetime. We, on the other hand, can.
This means I do a lot of travel still. I have been to China four times this year, Hong Kong five times, Japan, Korea, Fiji, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Philippines. We also now have offices in Europe so I travel both direction.
Opening of our pearl sorting factory in Xuwen, China
From side business to full time, at what point were you able to leave your flight attendant job safe and securely?
This took approximately two years. I started by taking leaves from my job at the airline and was actually employed (but not working) until 2004 when my leave ended. The airline told me then that I had to return to flying and that is when I retired. I started taking leaves when I was making more (consistently) selling pearls than I was flying. When I finally stopped flying my business exploded. Within a few months I was making more selling pearls each month than I made per year as a flight attendant.
How were you able to learn the ins and outs of the pearl industry quickly and effectively?
I read every book written on the subject. There aren’t a lot of pearl experts in the world. Jewelers tend to know very little true information about pearls. I became an expert. I then created another website called Pearl-Guide.com and filled it with articles I had written based on my research, and included a pearl discussion forum. That forum now boasts thousands of members and nearly 80,000 posts about pearls. This lead to my involvement with The Gemological Institute of America in creating the new pearls course for jewelers, as well as a lot of industry recognition as being one of the top experts in the world.
Giant, exotic pearl strands
Are you still involved with Pearl-Guide.com today? Any thoughts about branching into book author based on your knowledge?
I am still on Pearl-Guide every day discussing pearls and answering questions. We even host a party every year called “The Pearl-Guide Ruckus.” This summer was our third ruckus, and we rented an eight-bedroom mansion in the Hollywood Hills for a weekend. Each year about 30-40 members from Pearl-Guide make it to the annual event.
I considered it, but after writing a book about starting a home based business, I decided that writing was just too time consuming at this stage in my career and life. I feel better suited to writing articles about pearls. I have been published in the Gems & Gemology Journal from GIA and have written for several other industry publications.
Pearl Ring For My Fiance
Now for the AMEX Black Card questions, were you invited or did you apply?
I applied for the black card. Years ago, one of my employees told me about the fabled “Black Amex,” and so I decided to check it out. I called American Express, told them that I had been a member for a long time and asked if I was eligible. The first person I spoke to acted like he had never heard of the so-called Black Amex before. After opening my account, however, he put me on hold and transferred me to a special department.
After speaking with the next representative I was told that I wasn’t yet eligible because I had not spent $250,000 on Amex in a calendar year, but I would probably hit that mark within the next couple of months. He gave me a special number to call at that time and I did.
Would you consider the Black Card worthy for the benefits even with high annual fees?
Yes, the upgrades at hotels and (especially) on flights make the card worth it, but there are a lot of other benefits that are just extra perks.
Las Vegas Company Trip
What are peoples reaction generally when you pull it out?
I think I am sort of “over” the reaction. When I first began carrying the card it was fun to watch – sort of like that elite club feel. But now it’s just my credit card. Every once in a while someone will get excited when I pull it out to pay, and it is impressive to pay with it when I am taking clients and suppliers out.
The Black Card is known for its top shelf concierge service, any memorable stories you can share?
Nothing that crazy or funny. There was the time, a few years back, that I received a call from my publicist that Extra TV wanted to interview me at the Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, just an hour or so before the interview. I wasn’t dressed for it and didn’t have the time to go home and put an outfit together. I drove to Beverly Hills, and on the way called the concierge. By the time I got to Beverly Hills (less than 30 minutes away), there was a personal shopper/stylist waiting for me in front of Saks. Within 20 minutes I was “suited up.”
With Judi Dench
What kind of items do you generally put on the Black Card?
I have purchased a Tesla Roadster, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of pearls and diamonds (for my business, of course), countless airline tickets. This past June I took my entire company to Las Vegas for a team-building weekend and put the entire package (just over $40k) on the card.
On a team-building trip to Las Vegas!
What interests you about the Tesla Roadster? Car guy at all?
It is electric. I hate throwing money away on gasoline and I hate wasting time at gas stations. The car saves me nearly $400 per month in fuel costs, and because it is electric, I can drive in the car pool lane. This saves me several hours per week in commuting time. Oh yeah, and it goes from zero to 60 in 3.7 seconds. I am not and never have been a car guy. I purchased a Mercedes convertible via the Internet nearly 10 years ago. I didn’t like the car. I switched to a Lexus and liked it, but made the mistake of switching to an Audi S5 when the lease expired. I guess some would call the Audi S5 exotic, but I wasn’t fond of that car either. The Tesla is the first car I’ve really loved, and really the first “toy” I’ve ever purchased since starting my company.
My Tesla Roadster
We want to thank Jeremy for sharing his fascinating story. We hope you all enjoyed something a little different from the usual success story profiles this time around. As always, make sure to visit Pearl Paradise for everything pearl related. With holidays around the corner it would definitely make a nice gift!