Jewelry Designer Marla Aaron On Bucking Tradition By Selling Her Collection In A Vending Machine

Jewelry Designer Marla Aaron On Bucking Tradition 

By Selling Her Collection In A Vending Machine

Photo Courtesy of Alder & Co

In 2013, Marla Aaron walked away from a powerful job in global communications to launch her eponymous jewelry collection. Aaron knew in her gut that her jewelry designs—designs she was fiercely passionate about—were destined for success. “You’re a blind idiot when you create something that you’re proud of. You believe, ‘This is so amazing—everybody will want it,’’ Aaron says. “I thought I’d just pitch the top twenty-five independent jewelry stores in the country and they’d buy my line.” But, Aaron quickly found out that it would take more than a great pitch letter. “Naivety is a good thing sometimes. I had no idea that stores wouldn’t blindly respond to my emails. I was nobody and one of zillions pitching new products.” When Instagram first launched, Aaron used it to showcase and tell the stories of her brand. She didn’t realize the impact it would have, expanding her reach and building her devoted following. Today Aaron’s collection is sold online and in select stores across the United States, the Middle East, Asia and Europe—and one very special vending machine.

Aaron was on a business trip in Japan when she made a startling discovery that would pivot the brand strategy behind her collection. Vending machines were everywhere! They took over every street corner with people lining up to buy everything from the highbrow to the low brow, from the pocket-sized to the humongous. A lightbulb went off and Aaron knew she had to shake up her brand strategy and find a way to sell her eclectic pieces in vending machines too.

“Our jewelry is about playing,” Aaron explains. “People buy our locks and chains and then add their own pieces. It becomes a very playful experience even though it’s fine jewelry. That was in my head as soon as I saw the vending machines.”

Marla Aaron. Photo Courtesy of Marla Aaron Jewelry

But, how does one even begin to find a vending machine that sells luxury goods? Aaron started where most brilliant ideas are born: Google. She typed in “vending machine makers” and easily got the information she needed. That, however, was the easiest part of the process. Not only was it an uphill battle to build a vending machine with the right aesthetic but also it was tough to find it the perfect home.

Aaron had many deal breakers. The machine had to live in her home base, New York City and placing the machine in an obvious location—like a jewelry store—wasn’t an option. “Many stores were very interested—but putting a vending machine in a non-jewelry environment? That was actually harder to achieve,” Aaron explains. It took almost two years to get the machine built and find it the perfect home. “I wanted to offer consumers a non-traditional, fine jewelry experience. If I put the machine in a jewelry store, I’d just be creating a silly promotional experience.” Aaron really wanted the vending machine to reside on a street corner like it would in Japan—but with the need for electricity and WiFi, that was simply not possible.

“What I always assume will be the easiest part of something, actually becomes the hardest part. I thought building the vending machine would be the hard part, and finding a place for it would be easy,” Aaron explains. “Nothing could have been further from the truth. I sat in many meetings where people looked at me like I was out of my mind.” But, Aaron thinks if she goes for vending machine number two that it will be an easier sell. “People never want to try something different,” she says. “No one wants to be the first.”

Medium Stoned Lock. Photo Courtesy of Marla Aaron Jewelry

Except for Aaron.

Becoming the first luxury jewelry designer with a vending machine became her mission. So, she knew it was meant to be when one of her best customers floated the idea of the Brooklyn Museum and made the introduction. “For me, the Brooklyn Museum was just a total slam dunk,” Aaron says. “When you partner with the right people, when someone really grasps your idea—it’s very easy.”

Then there was figuring out the branding via the vending machine. Even though Aaron’s jewelry collection falls under the “luxury brand” umbrella—she actually takes issue with that distinction. “I loathe the word luxury. It sounds so separatist,” she explains. And, watching the vending machine become a reality meant redefining the luxury experience. “At first, I thought the machine should be lined in suede to look like a jewelry box and I knew that having the customer receive a beautifully packaged product was very important. But, the luxury experience is really about having a sense of choice and telling a story.” The choice her vending machine customers have is seven products from her collection ranging in price from $100-$1500 dollars. Aaron’s story is told through a video that plays on the machine’s screen.

That unwavering persistence, a mandatory part of making visions a reality, is nothing new for Aaron. She admits that her approach to business might be relentless and annoying—with no middle ground.

“I’m like a dog with a bone. I think, to a certain degree, you have to be that way to get things done. It’s very easy to not get things done,” she says. “It’s much harder to bring things to fruition. We’re constantly developing new locks for the collection yet I’m always putting things in the pipeline. Not all those ideas in the pipeline will see the light of day, but you just have to be relentless and keep going. You can’t make things happen by half-assing it.”

And, the vending machine isn’t the only way Aaron has fought to break the mold. Her personal #LockYourMom project is a cornerstone of her business, giving away a unique lock (worth $150 and not available for purchase) to single moms on Mother’s Day. “I was a single mom for the first six years of my son’s life. I worked fulltime and it was very difficult. Mother’s Day was such a bittersweet experience. My son was too young to get me anything and I felt like everyone around me was getting presents,” she explains.

Knowing that unique experience firsthand made Aaron want to support that community. Giving away locks was the perfect fit. “It’s a small, silver heart with an exclamation point on it to represent the ‘uh’ of motherhood,” she explains. To receive a lock, people write in with their own story or nominate someone they’d like to bestow with the honor. Last Mother’s Day, Aaron gave away 200 locks. She hopes to top that number in 2018.

For now, the vending machine has turned Aaron into somewhat of a rock star among the design community—and she wants to inspire them to take risks and think outside the box too. “The response has been extraordinary and I’m anxious to share our learnings with the design community,” Aaron says. “I think it’s important. There are very interesting applications to explore with vending machines. Can you imagine a craft fair with just vending machines?”

Yes, yes we can—, especially if Aaron is the brains behind it. Her master plan is to continuously challenge the ways you’re “supposed” to build a brand and business. “I don’t want to do anything traditional. I want us to be different, I want us to stand out,” she says. “How we’re building my business and selling fine jewelry? I hope we’re doing a modern interpretation of it.”

Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal

Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal is a NYC-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Redbookmag.com, EW.com and so many others in her career spanning almost 20 years. She's the author of five books, has interviewed A-list celebrities, written about women and career topics, health, money and more.

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