All That Glittered: The Rise and Fall of Sarah Coventry Inc.

My mother’s jewelry box contained the riches of a pirate’s treasure chest, at least to my 7-year-old eyes. The box itself was large and covered in green leather with gold trim around the lid. A gold clasp held a tiny key in a small lock. Two curly gold initials were embossed on the lid’s corner. The initials belonged to my mother, but another woman’s name appeared on the treasures in the box: Sarah. Sarah Coventry to be precise, jeweler to millions of women around the world.

Sarah’s home
The birthplace of Sarah Coventry, both the child and the jewelry that borrowed her name, is the village of Newark. Nestled between Syracuse and Rochester, this small community sits on the banks of the Erie Canal. To the north, large orchards and farms abound, to the south the vineyards of Seneca Lake flourish.

In 1853, Charles W. Stuart began a direct-to-the-customer business in Newark selling fruit trees and berry bushes. The family-owned nursery soon blossomed into several other enterprises, thanks to the entrepreneurial skill of C.W.’s son, Charles H. (C.H.) Stuart.

With a degree from Cornell University and a passion for chemistry, C.H. Stuart returned to his hometown and started his own business. The C.H. Stuart Company offered everything from spices to cosmetics to china. It thrived by developing different product lines with a common thread – door-to-door customer sales. In 1949, Bill Stuart, grandson of C.H., became company president.

That February, Bill Stuart launched Caroline Emmons Inc., the first company in the nation to merchandise jewelry directly to consumers using a party-plan model. Later, in November, Bill formed another jewelry company, Sarah Coventry Inc., which also used the party-plan idea.

Though Emmons jewelry came first, Sarah Coventry would eventually become more successful and better known.

From a social and economic standpoint, the timing of the two companies couldn’t have been better for insuring both the product and sales method would find success.

What women wanted
Costume jewelry gained widespread popularity in the early 20th century thanks to fashion designer Coco Chanel, who used it to accessorize particular “costumes” or outfits. One outfit could have several different looks with just a change of costume jewelry. Thanks to its affordability, fashion became a democratic pursuit.

In the prosperous decades following World War II, several jewelry companies emerged eager to exploit the purchasing power of a growing economic juggernaut, middleclass women. The management at Sarah Coventry quickly recognized that these women had an interest in affordable style and fashion. “Chic” accessories became both desirable and attainable as household incomes at all levels improved.

When women by the thousands were forced from their jobs to make way for returning veterans, another fabulous prospect appeared. Accustomed to earning their own money, many of the new “housewives” were eager to find ways of supplementing their household’s income. Sarah Coventry capitalized on this circumstance with outstanding results. Using nonstop communications, free product demonstration kits that required no up-front cash, a well-honed training program and generous, competition-based incentives and rewards, thousands of women and some men were recruited to sell jewelry at Sarah Coventry “parties.”

The idea was quite simple. Women traditionally enjoyed getting together at each other’s homes to share ideas, tips, tricks and food. Combining those traditions with jewelry presented by a trained product representative the women knew and trusted created all the “magic” needed to sell merchandise. The party hostess received incentives and gifts for bringing her friends together, and at just one gathering, a representative could develop a referral network. More parties were almost guaranteed.

Though the party plan is a well-established approach today, to sell everything from cookware and candles to cosmetics, it was still a relatively new model in 1949. Marjorie Beale, C.H.’s granddaughter and Sarah Coventry’s mom, talked to me about the company’s unique selling concept and why it worked so well.

“Everything was different 50 years ago, but I suppose some of the success had to do with social reasons and some for business reasons,” she said. “For one thing, after World War II, women were eager to buy things. They had gone without for four years.

“But it also had to do with being social,” she continued. “In those days, women were home most of the time taking care of their families. Going to a jewelry party was a way to see friends and meet people. And of course the jewelry was pretty stuff. It was well-made, but they kept the cost low so women who wanted to look good but didn’t have a lot of money could still afford it.”

The company’s senior management was made up of marketing people, another important factor. “They had been in sales,” Beale said. “They knew how it worked and they had pizzazz. They made it fun for everybody, and they loved the salespeople in the field.”

By 1980, 30 years after its inception, company brochures boasted that over 90 percent of the American public recognized the Sarah Coventry name.

A highly advertised invitation
Sarah Coventry found its business voice just as U.S. households were starting to unite into the greatest consumer nation on the planet. That coming together was due to a jewel box of a different kind, that flickering, glittering box called television. The top management of Sarah Coventry quickly embraced the medium, confident that consistent TV marketing – inviting women into a world of fashion they could afford – would bring more customers to the party. It turned out to be an inspired strategy.

The company ran commercials on all three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS. By 1975, television spots for Sarah Coventry ran more than 554 million times across America on a variety of daytime and evening shows including “Days of Our Lives,” “Walter Cronkite” “Evening News” and “The Carol Burnet Show.”

The jewelry was offered as merchandise and prizes on game shows such as “Hollywood Squares” and “The Price is Right.” Winners on the early reality show “Queen for a Day” could count on a more fashionable tomorrow thanks to Sarah Coventry pins with matching earrings.

Every major women’s magazine from Vogue to Good Housekeeping carried ads for the jewelry. A Sarah Coventry-designed crown topped the head of Miss Universe, and the company’s jewelry sets were awarded to Miss America pageant participants. Sarah Coventry had a relationship with virtually every national media outlet that boasted a female audience, and it paid off.

A mere 15 years after its launch, Sarah Coventry jewelry was selling at the astonishing rate of 35,000 pieces each workday. By the end of the 1970s, the company would enjoy name-brand recognition rivaling Coca-Cola and Kodak. But name recognition and solid sales were not enough to keep the party going.

The party’s over
Sarah Coventry expanded its accessory line to include men’s jewelry, ladies’ watches and belts, and developed subsidiary distribution outlets in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Even so, by the early ’80s, sales were flat. Recruiting women into the sales force became difficult due to influences shifting and disrupting social and labor market norms. Women were going back to the workplaces that had sent them packing a generation earlier.

By 1984 C.H. Stuart Company, including Sarah Coventry Inc., declared bankruptcy.

“It was a great place to work,” said Don Palmentier, former personnel director there. “It was great fun, and that’s how everyone felt who worked there. People didn’t leave. That’s why it was so hard to see it go. You don’t mind if some companies fail because they’re not good to their employees, but not Sarah. It was a great employer.”

Perhaps there’s no better summary of the relationship Sarah Coventry had with its staff, customers and community than this statement from a 1978 company brochure:

“… we were founded on the principles of small-town, small-business America; hard work, quality products, complete customer satisfaction, and concern for others. The key to Sarah Coventry’s success is that despite our size, we retain these ideals – caring and sharing.”

C.H. Stuart enterprises were rooted in Newark for more than 130 years. The family-owned business was exceptionally well regarded as a community oriented organization. Though the closing of the corporation was a tremendous economic blow to the village, the C.H. Stuart Foundation continues the company’s legacy through its grant-making activity in support of projects throughout Wayne County.

The Newark-Arcadia Historical Society in Newark keeps the C.H. Stuart historical papers and memorabilia. Among other things are wonderful examples of Sarah Coventry fashion jewelry. A collection of photos documents the halcyon days of post-war prosperity and a company that epitomized the era.

Epilogue
In 2003, the Sarah Coventry name was purchased by a group of investors wishing to bring the company back, in its original direct-selling model. According to the company’s website, new office and warehouse space was purchased based on ambitious expansion plans. But as of January 2009, Sarah Coventry HPP Inc. was out of business.
____________________________________

Visit Villages Along the Erie Canal!

Newark-Arcadia Historical Society
120 High Street
Newark, New York
Open Saturdays, 1:00-3:00 p.m, Other times by chance or appointment
315-331-6409

Historic Palmyra (Wm. Phelps General Store & Home Museum Print Shop)
140 Market Street
Palmyra, NY 14522


by Jan Bridgeford-Smith