“It’s been hard work. Jewelry is a hard industry. But what makes it fun is creating the customers’ ideas. Taking something that’s been on paper and bringing it to life,” says James Epperson, owner of Hilton Village Goldsmith.
Custom jewelry is Epperson’s passion, a passion he’s been sharing for 23 years at the Hilton Village shop.
A quick stroll through historic Hilton Village will take you to a quaint family-owned jewelry store. Inside, you’re surrounded by cases of sparkling diamonds, loose gemstones and vintage-inspired jewelry. Classic engagement rings rub shoulders with a rose-gold ring shaped like a dachshund. This store is not a cold, polished nook in a shopping mall. It is a thoughtful collection of old and new that sparkles.
Epperson has been in the jewelry-making business for approximately 34 years. An apprenticeship program paired him with a local jeweler shortly after he graduated from high school. “I really had no idea what I was getting into,” Epperson recalls. The son of a mechanic, Epperson remembers that tinkering came naturally to him. “I loved working with my hands,” he says. He worked for Don’s Jeweler’s on Orchid Avenue in Hampton for eight years, and then moved on to Hilton Village Goldsmith, where he acquired ownership 17 years ago.
Epperson says that his store is unique in its ability to cater to customers’ specific requests: “We try to strive to see what our customers’ needs are and fulfill them.” Customers come to him with ideas for custom jewelry, and he walks them through the process from the beginning. “We try to run with their thoughts,” he says. A small computer on the wall gives customers an overview of the process, displaying images of real projects, from the initial blueprints to the final products.
While creating jewelry is an option, Epperson encourages customers to embrace upcycling jewelry, especially when it can add sentimental value to an item. “One of our slogans,” says Epperson, “is to ‘turn something old into something new.’ A lot of times we’ll take your old jewelry and re-create it, melting it down and designing a new product for you. Something that can be left in the family as an heirloom. Something to be passed down.”
Before he can even begin the creating process, sometimes Epperson needs to dispel any negative feelings about jewelers that customers may harbor. “A lot of times people have had bad experiences and they are really skeptical,” he says. “We have to step up to the plate to reassure them. We try to build their confidence.”
One of the ways Epperson builds relationships with customers is through simple repairs, which are “the bread and butter” of his shop. Epperson says that once people know they’re in good hands, they have the confidence to return again and again. His favorite aspect of the job is seeing customers’ small children grow up to become customers themselves. “Watching the family generations come through is really great,” he says.
The casting area, where jewelry is made, is tucked in the back of the shop. Epperson starts with plastic or wax and encases it in plaster via an extremely hot oven, creating a hollow core where metal is poured. The plaster is then broken off, and what’s left is a unique piece of jewelry, ready to be customized.
Epperson, a Bethel High School graduate, was born and raised in Hampton and now lives in the Deep Creek area of Newport News with his wife and fellow owner, Tracey, and their kitten. In his spare time, he likes to fish, garden and cook. He enjoys cooking for family and friends, often sharing large cuts of meats he’s smoked, using his own smoker.
Hilton Village Goldsmith has attracted notable clientele, hand making several custom charms for the College of William & Mary. Epperson’s jewelry has been submitted into competitions, winning him first, second and third place awards. In 2016, the shop won the silver award in Coastal Virginia magazine’s “Best of” awards and was also a 2016 recipient of the Reader’s Choice award through the Daily Press.
Epperson maintains that all of his success comes through his customers. He says that, in a world of slick advertising techniques, satisfied customers are the best promotion. “If you make one person happy they’ll tell two or three or six more,” he says. “Word-of-mouth and gaining customers’ confidence has put us where we are.”