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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Liv, Love, Local: Elli Parr

In addition to its own jewelry, Elli Parr also sells candles, accessories and other products, sourcing from other independent makers with a similar mission-driven ethos.
In addition to its own jewelry, Elli Parr also sells candles, accessories and other products, sourcing from other independent makers with a similar mission-driven ethos.

While students may know Elli Parr from its location on Main Street that opened in 2023, Sara Nelson originally founded her business back in 2015, intending to create a handcrafted jewelry brand based in Vermont. Since she first pursued a physical studio space in 2020, Elli Parr has expanded to two locations: its flagship store in Shelburne, Vt. and the newer spot in Middlebury, which opened in May 2023. 

Founding Elli Parr was a complete shift for Nelson following a corporate career in technical recruiting and marketing, as she transformed a longtime hobby and creative outlet into a brand. A common question customers have when entering the store is who, exactly, Elli is.

“That’s a funny story. We’re all Elli,” Nelson said. 

As Nelson searched for a brand name that was meaningful but not solely tied to her personal identity, the Elli Parr name came from a combination of the first letters of Nelson’s childhood street name and her children’s home street. 

“It was a little bit of past and present life,” she added.

As a product-based brand, Nelson believes it is necessary to pursue a full range of sales methods, but she still aims to prioritize the in-person, experiential nature of visiting a brick-and-mortar store.

“Jewelry or retail in general, I think, in order to be successful, you need to be able to kind of hit all the levers,” Nelson said. 

Her approach includes cultivating an e-commerce presence, maintaining active relationships and wholesale accounts at stores across New England, and curating displays and hosting events at the two stores.

Nelson acknowledged that opening brick-and-mortar stores in small Vermont towns such as Shelburne and Middlebury may not optimize foot traffic and sales, but it has allowed her brand to build a genuine following in the local community.

“I love our customers who wear our jewelry, who love our brand, who are like family to us and have been with us along this entire ride. And I want to reach our community in these small towns because they're really, really special and they're important,” she said. 

To that end, Nelson and her team have focused on the experiential aspects of the in-store experience.

“We host jewelry making workshops, events. We have our retail room. We do different things… we're starting ear piercing, we've done permanent bracelets, engraving. So all within this little footprint has become this really experiential shopping all rooted in Vermont artistry,” Nelson said, referring to the Shelburne store. “It's been fabulous.”

The Middlebury location has been slowly introducing services and pop-up events similar to the Shelburne storefront. Recent offerings include a “beads and brunch” event and a jewelry making workshop for college students through Middlebury’s Innovation Hub.

Nelson says these experiences became possible after Elli Parr moved into a larger storefront on Main Street in 2023, a space which was formerly occupied by furniture and home goods store Addison West

“This space has given us the option to be able to cater towards that [experience],” Nelson said. “It's not just coming and buying jewelry, it's coming and experiencing Elli Parr as a brand and what we have to offer.”

While she originally began making jewelry she would like to wear herself, Nelson has identified a broader customer base as Elli Parr has grown — a clientele that shops according to their values.

“I think our target customer is somebody who likes to not just support small or local, but likes to know what they're wearing, what they're buying, where is it coming from,” Nelson said.

In addition to its own jewelry, Elli Parr also sells candles, accessories and other products sourced from other independent makers with a similar mission-driven ethos. According to Nelson, the vast majority of which come from brands that are also women-owned and women-led. Elli Parr jewelry is sold at about 80 independent and boutique retailers in the U.S. 

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Elli Parr staff currently consists of 12 team members, four of whom are full-time and live in the Shelburne and Middlebury areas. Jessica Pearson manages the Shelburne store and runs  inventory management, while Jaime Parmelee, a Middlebury resident, manages the Middlebury store and Kirsten O’Connell facilitates events programming such as birthday parties, cocktail nights and more. All are flexible in their roles to contribute to the business across locations; Nelson aims to be in both stores every week.

“Everybody in the team in both locations are all equally involved as I am, which is literally the best thing ever because we all have a hand in the jewelry that we make, the orders that go out. All the merchandising, the products, it's really collaborative,” Nelson said of her staff.

Starting a business as a sole owner-operator was hard work for Nelson, but she has made it work after nine years in the business.

“The company is 100% bootstrapped. I have brought in financing, just not partners, which has been nice, but that was hard to grow and scale, and to bring a product to market and stores and payroll and insurance, trying to figure all that out,” Nelson said. 

The day-to-day variability of customer traffic as Nelson first opened and experimented with different jewelry was daunting. 

“There's definitely a lot of questioning that goes along the way because you don't have somebody to turn to with all those questions. So it's been really nice to have a supportive team and a super supportive husband,” Nelson said. 

Nelson appreciates her early uncertainties and setbacks as learning opportunities. 

“I think it does make that foundation to where you are now and does make you really resilient to all the ups and downs and especially as a small business in Vermont, where the economic future is kind of unknown,” she shared.

Next steps for Elli Parr this year include expanding jewelry-making experiences for all ages, continuing to build more wholesale relationships and maintaining strong community relationships within Shelburne and Middlebury. 

Olivia Mueller

Olivia Mueller '24 (she/her) is a News Editor.

Previously an Arts and Culture editor, Olivia is an International Politics and Economics major with a Spanish minor. Outside of the Campus, she is a spin instructor for YouPower, an avid runner and hiker, and a member of the Middlebury Mischords a cappella group.