Penn Class of ’82 alum, Susan Levinson is now the Executive VP of Trabert & Hoeffer, her family’s fine jewelry store based in Chicago. Although she was familiar with the jewelry industry, the mother of three had trouble switching gears to the fashion business. We got the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her life at Penn and her experience working in fashion.
The WALK: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Susan Levinson: I was raised in the Chicago suburb and graduated Penn in 1982 where I devised an Independent major in Women Studies and a minor in Cultural Anthropology. My Dad, who was a finance major (Wharton ’55) definitely could not relate! After Penn, I went back to Chicago and went to Northwestern Law School and graduated in 1985. Then I joined the Estate Planning/Probate department of a midsize law firm in Chicago. After several years, I had three sons within 4 ½ years and decided to stay home and do the mommy thing. It was a tough decision for me because my background in Women Studies, my law school education and budding legal career were pulling me in one direction, and my precious little boys were pulling me in another. Ultimately, I decided that the law firm could always get another attorney, but this would be my only shot at raising children and I wanted to be there for them. So, at age 35, when my youngest (now a senior in high school) was 2 years old, I approached my father about coming to work for him on a part time basis in his fine jewelry store, Trabert & Hoeffer, in Chicago. Although, I was familiar with the business, having worked there during summers and part time during high school, switching gears to a fashion business was a huge learning curve.
TW: What difficulties did you face getting into the fashion business, specifically jewelry?
SL: First, the dynamics of a family business is a whole psychological study in itself. Second, even though I felt I had a strong fashion sense, that was not enough…I had to learn about gemstones, including diamonds, rubies, emerald, sapphires, learn about 16 brands of watches including Cartier, Franck Muller, Brequet , learn about the difference in pearls from South Sea to Cultured to Tahitian. Third, and equally important I had to learn the art of dealing with the customer…in a high end service business the customer expects a high level of service and our motto is that the customer is always right.
TW: What do you like best about your career?
SL: I love the flexibility it has offered me. When my boys were younger I scheduled my appointments around my children’s schedules. It really allowed me the best of both worlds…to be the kind of mother I wanted to be and to have a creative, fun, responsible career. I have loved meeting all sorts of interesting people through my work. Buying jewelry can be a very intimate, emotional experience and I have enjoyed connecting with people during happy times such as marriages, anniversaries and birthdays.
TW: What is your favorite type of jewelry?
SL: I happen to love vintage jewelry…especially Art Deco pieces from the 20’s and 30’s….so my favorite piece of jewelry that I own is Art Deco diamond lapel clips that I can wear on a blazer, sweater or in my hair as barrettes.
TW: What would you say your personal style is?
SL: I like classic design. I have timeless pieces such as solid color cashmere sweaters, alligator belts, vintage purses, straight dresses with “V” necks, although I occasionally throw in a trendy accessory such a suede scarf with fringe. I also like classic jewelry such a beautiful strand of South Sea pearls, gold watches, diamond hoop earrings.
TW: What were your favorite fashion memories from Penn?
SL: I remember that shoulder pads were the thing…we put shoulder pads under our bra straps…actually all the girls looked like football players. I remember wearing the palest pink lipstick and thinking that it looked so great.
TW: What advice do you have for current Penn students looking to get involved in the jewelry industry?
SL: I think that the retail jewelry business is a really tough business today. Diamonds have become a commodity and the business is extremely competitive. Fashion trends are very fickle, so buyers have to be smart or they will overbuy and be stuck with outdated inventory. The jewelry business is very glamorous, service orientated and like any business requires tremendous attention to detail.