Ring Leader

Burlington is headquarters to Perry Sporn’s jewelry empire

by Anne Averyt

perriwinkles Perry SpornPerry Sporn doesn’t do anything halfway, and that includes his business, Perrywinkle’s Fine Jewelry, which boasts 20 stores and 550 employees throughout the Northeast and in Quebec.

Perry Sporn runs his Burlington jewelry business the old-fashioned way, creating a quality product while establishing quality customer connections. Sporn, president and CEO of Perrywinkle’s Fine Jewelry, proudly says that, as his customers’ jeweler, he becomes part of their family, and they in turn become part of the Perrywinkle’s family.

The company takes its name from both the periwinkle flower and gemstone color, but also from the fact that Antwerp, a city in the Netherlands, is historically the center of the diamond trade and, in Dutch, winkel means store. So “Perrywinkle’s” is Perry’s Store.

“The quality goes without saying,” he says. “The jewelry we produce has to be perfect. It has to be unique, it has to be to our standard, and it has to be of great value. But that’s the easy part. The really hard thing is understanding the emotion attached to a piece and what it’s going to mean to the person wearing it.”

Sporn is proud of the fine jewelry he produces, “because it has special meaning and lasting value.” But what is more important than the piece, he says, is the person for whom it is intended and the event that it celebrates.

Although Perrywinkle’s has 20 stores and 550 employees throughout the Northeast and in Quebec, Sporn says the heart of his company is in Vermont. Within his organization the customer care philosophy he values so highly is referred to as the “Vermont Way.”

The first Perrywinkle’s store was located in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but when Sporn visited Vermont it was love at first sight. He knew this was where he wanted to be. “I loved Vermont,” he recalls. “It was a place I loved to come to. I thought it was an amazing community where people are so involved and active, so I said, let’s be a Vermont company, let’s move the company here.”

The first Vermont Perrywinkle’s opened in 1982 at University Mall in South Burlington. The company has grown and thrived since then, and moved to its current location on Main Street in Burlington in 2004. “The Vermont store is the most special to us,” Sporn says. “It’s our love and our focus. It’s where we test new products and where we bring our special pieces, so it means the most to us.”

Although the Burlington headquarters site is the only Perrywinkle’s store in the state, Sporn estimates half of all Vermonters are Perrywinkle’s customers and nearly 100,000 Vermonters have signed up to be in the store’s computer database. The store is also a regional destination site that brings significant numbers of customers into the Burlington area.

Sporn has been starting enterprises since he was a teenager and had a car-detailing business. In college at SUNY Albany he made bagel runs to New York City and sold them on campus. He also went to auctions and picked up refrigerators that he sold to students cheaper than they could rent them. But the job that caught his imagination was working in a jewelry store. He had expected to go on to law school, but “the jewelry business kind of dragged me in,” he remembers. Two years later he opened his own store.

Although many jewelry enterprises are family affairs, Sporn doesn’t come from a long line of jewelers. He learned the business, he says, “because I’m curious and I met amazing people who took time to teach me.” He, in turn, has done the same for countless young employees who have worked in his business over the years.

“What drives me today is being papa to all the young employees,” says Sporn, who has never married. He calls his staff the “Perrywinkle’s family.”

“I started out at Perrywinkle’s as a greeter when I was in college, and I’ve been here for 19 years,” says Winklette Taylor, executive vice president. She explains that, like the Raelettes who backed up singer Ray Charles in the 1950s and ’60s, she leads Perry’s backup team. “For Perry, it’s not just about his business. It’s about his customers and his Perrywinkle’s family. I love being here.”

Unlike many jewelry stores, Perrywinkle’s is a complete jewelry business. Each piece is hand crafted and all the design and manufacturing from start to finish are done in-house. Five or six times a year Sporn travels overseas to purchase gemstones, or as he says, “colored stones,” and diamonds, which are then cut at one of his two diamond-cutting facilities in Israel and India. He only buys diamonds when he can identify the source, assuring they are from countries that are “conflict free,” and not from mines selling “blood diamonds.”

Perrywinkle’s Burlington store is not only the business headquarters, but also its design and manufacturing hub with a full gem lab and a staff of 75. Depending on the complexity, each piece of jewelry goes through as many as 18 stages before it is completed.

A piece of jewelry from Perrywinkle’s can range in cost from $100 for an “entry level” item to a recent piece worth half a million. “But it is important to us that we are not elitist,” says Sporn, “so that someone working hard can afford something in our store. We’re Vermont small and we are proud of that.”

As longtime customer Mary Meredith says, “It doesn’t matter whether you are buying a $25 Pandora charm or pair of $5,000 diamond earrings; you are treated in a special way. The store has a price point for everyone, and what Perry does is genuinely make each customer feel important.”

Sporn works 10 to 11 hours a day, seven days a week. For recreation he finds time to fly stunt-plane aerobatics. He also has a corporate jet, which he uses to commute to his store locations. Cycling is another sport he enjoys, riding 1,500 miles a year around Lake Champlain.

While he might not find much time to relax, Sporn loves to joke (giving nicknames to staff and family is his specialty). Also a dreamer who aspires to greater hopes for the future, he has signed up with Virgin Galactic Voyage, British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s commercial space line, to make a suborbital space flight.

“It’s exciting,” he says with enthusiasm, “I’ll be one of the first civilians in outer space. My expectation is for us to also be able to do orbital flight, extended space flight, and maybe even in our lifetime a trip to the moon or Mars.”

When Sporn takes off in early 2014 on Spaceship II from Truth or Consequences, N.M., he will be part of a crew of six astronauts each paying $200,000 for the adventure. “There are great causes,” Sporn says, like fighting poverty and cancer, “but to me the most important common goal is to understand the universe better. If our race is going to survive we have to be able to settle in another part of the universe. I feel it’s important to be part of it and support it. It’s progress.”

At the same time Sporn looks to outer space as the hope for a better world, he also contributes locally to various charities. He is an active board member for the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington and donates Perrywinkle’s jewelry to numerous charity auctions.

Nancy Jenkins, a local Realtor who has known Sporn since 2004, serves on the board with him. “Perry is more than just a businessman,” says Jenkins. “He gives a lot back to his community. He is a smart business person who also takes time to look beyond and to give to others.”

Perrywinkle’s customer Mary Meredith, a former executive with the nonprofit Child Care Resource, says Sporn is a frequent contributor to charity auctions sponsored by her organization and by the Fletcher Allen Auxiliary. Even more important, she says, is that he is there to help in quiet ways that people often don’t know about.

“When my husband had to go to Baltimore for heart surgery, Perry offered to fly him home in his private jet. That’s just how Perry is. He makes us feel like we are friends and we really feel he is our friend.”

Like so many of Sporn’s customers and staff, Taylor feels a special connection. “I’m so proud to be able to work with him every day and have fun while doing it,” she says, adding, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

Standing outside the front door of the store is a clock tower. The clock’s hands are a cat and fiddle and there’s an image of a cow jumping over the moon. Inside the store is a figure of the dish running away with the spoon, and an upright player piano.

“Children think the store is a magical place,” Taylor says. “They want to come in and see the piano that plays by itself. Magic happens here because what everyone is feeling is Perry’s presence. Coming into the store is like walking into a friend’s house. When people leave they are thinking about the next time they will come back.”

The secret to Perrywinkle’s is Sporn, says Taylor, and adds that the secret to Sporn is “his huge heart. You can see it in everything he does. I’m here in the store all the time because I love being here. I get to work every day with my best friend.”