Events & Awards

How Melee Found the Trade Show Sweet Spot

Events & AwardsJul 30, 2020

How Melee Found the Trade Show Sweet Spot

Many jewelry trade shows have tried and failed to present high-caliber design at pricing affordable for independent designers. Melee is the event getting it done.

Designers Lauren Wolf and Rebecca Overmann founded the Melee jewelry trade show in 2017. Prior to the 2020 global pandemic, it was held twice annually in New York City.
Independent designer jewelry brands have a common refrain when it comes to trade shows: They’d like to show their creations in an intimate, upscale setting that matches the quality of their work and attracts the highest caliber of buyer, but—and here is the troublesome catch—at a price that won’t wreck their budgets.

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Their wish has become a kind of Shangri-La, a utopian marketplace that simply doesn’t exist. 

It’s understood that a brand either is accepted into, and foots the accompanying bill for, a boutique trade show experience in the vein of Couture, or resigns itself to a larger, convention hall-esque affair such as JCK or JA New York, where it is hard to feel seen among the hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors.

That’s not to say that certain trade shows haven’t tried to be both exclusive and affordable.

Some new concept shows from jewelry outsiders have acted as a revolving door of jewelry talent season-to-season, unable to retain exhibitors or garner credibility. 

Other shows from established professionals try to buck the odds during the June Vegas shows. Their attempts to edge their way onto buyers’ packed calendars usually end without much luck.

Over the last several seasons, however, one fine jewelry event has emerged as that mythical unicorn of trade shows, that impossible union of luxury and affordability.

It’s called Melee and it’s headed by designers. 

Meet Melee
Melee founders Lauren Wolf and Rebecca Overmann, who are also jewelry designers, met at a trade show.

Both have exhibited at many over the years.

“I tried all of them,” says Overmann, rattling off a list that includes JA New York, JCK Las Vegas, Couture and NY Now.

Overmann and Wolf built their San Francisco-area-based eponymous labels (both founded around 2003) before the rise of social media, when it was a given—rather than an evolving subject of debate—that a trade show was the way to gain new wholesale accounts.

“The only way to connect at that time was to go into a store or exhibit at a trade show,” says Wolf.

Most recently, Wolf and Overmann had exhibited annually at the Couture show in Las Vegas and biannually in New York City at NY 

Now, but grew frustrated with the latter.

“There were plenty of great jewelers at NY Now, but it wasn’t edited, it was lacking curation,” Wolf says.

There were years when they ended up next to any number of home goods vendors, and there was a limit to how long they could tolerate the possibility of being next to a maker of cat clocks, Overmann notes ruefully in reference to one lackluster show.

“We wanted to create an environment that was as special as the jewelry we were showing,” she explains.

‘It Sort of Took Off’
While exhibiting at NY Now, located at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in far-west Manhattan, Overmann liked to go to The High Line Hotel on 10th Avenue, still very much on the west side but far more adjacent to the action of the city, a stone’s throw from some of its most illustrious art galleries.

The gray diamond "Ravine Ring" with open-style bezel in 14-karat yellow gold with white diamond pave from Rebecca Overmann, co-founder of the Melee show
The gray diamond "Ravine Ring" with open-style bezel in 14-karat yellow gold with white diamond pave from Rebecca Overmann, co-founder of the Melee show

“I fell in love with The High Line because they have the only good coffee in New York,” Overmann says matter-of-factly of its Intelligentsia coffee bar.

“Spoken like a true San Franciscan,” Wolf chimes in.

When the two designers decided to launch their own trade show in 2017, they did it there, in one of the hotel’s large ballrooms that plays host to many an event.

“The impetus was our frustration over not having a proper platform [to present our work],” Wolf explains. “I’m a designer and a buyer so I look at it from both perspectives.”

Wolf is the proprietor of Esqueleto, the popular jewelry boutique selling her and other designers’ work in four locations around the country. Its first location opened in Oakland, California in 2013 and, as of 2019, its fourth and most recent branch is in downtown Manhattan.

Wolf added yet another hat to her work-life wardrobe when she and Overmann launched Melee with an initial group of 24 designers.

Finding exhibitors they valued and wanted to work with was the easy part. They simply chose the group “from the network we created organically over the last 12 to 15 years,” Overmann explains.

Since its first showing in 2017, Melee has taken place over three days twice annually during every New York market week, right ahead of New York Fashion Week and at the same time as NY Now.

At the most recent show in February 2020—which took place just before the pandemic forced the reshuffling of the entire trade show calendar—61 designers showed, filling two separate ballrooms at The High Line Hotel.

The next edition was scheduled for its usual August, but Melee organizers pushed it back to the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, before canceling the 2020 edition altogether. As of press time, the next edition of Melee is scheduled for February 2021.

Filling the Trade Show Gap
Designers have taken note of the sustained buzz around Melee.

Jennie Kwon Designs’ eponymous creator was content with showing at NY Now but Kwon says she started noticing a downturn in the foot traffic after about three years, while simultaneously hearing rumblings about a new show that was gaining traction—Melee.

“I heard more and more designers talking about how nice it was at Melee,” she says.

The elegant setting of The High Line Hotel has provided the right ambiance for showcasing jewelry.

“It feels a lot more intimate than other trade shows,” Kwon remarks. “It has a cozier feel. Your relationship with wholesalers is just that—a relationship—and I think Melee is conducive to more personal conversations. People feel more relaxed, I think.”

It’s exactly the energy Kwon and other designers haven’t felt at large trade shows.

“As soon as you head to a convention center, buyers are on a mission to divide and conquer,” says Kwon, “but at Melee there’s a more humane vibe. We see the same buyers regardless if we’re at NY Now or Melee, but Melee lends itself more to conversation and catching up.”

Max Lent, who works as the chief operating officer for his father’s eponymous brand, Anthony Lent, agrees, noting his spectacular aversion to convention centers, particularly marked by the one year he spent “five miserable days at JCK” before he found his brand’s trade show home at Couture.

Still, he was missing the ideal market environment in New York City.

Melee exhibitor Anthony Lent's 18-karat yellow gold
Melee exhibitor Anthony Lent's 18-karat yellow gold "Crescent Moonface Pendant" with moonstone and diamond

Joining Melee was a natural move, the organic result of a multifaceted relationship—Anthony Lent is stocked at Esqueleto and Wolf studied under the jeweler at FIT.

The brand has been committed to Melee since its second iteration.

“We didn’t consider doing any other trade shows [outside Couture] until Melee came around,” Lent says.

“Melee is designed by designers, for designers. Lauren and Rebecca have looked at what does and doesn’t work at trade shows, and sort of pulled that apart and represented it in a way that’s really comfortable for designers.”

Like Kwon, Lent notes the size of Melee is just right.

“It’s not too large. It’s not overwhelming. A buyer in a full day could make the rounds and really see everything.”

Another Melee selling point for designers is the lack of setup.

Designers use simple glass showcases to display their work. 

“It’s beautiful and it’s polished and it’s very presentable but it doesn’t require the designers to come and be construction workers for three days,” says Kwon. “Everything is uniform.”

It also creates a sense of equality among designers.

“It feels more democratic,” Lent says. “The venue itself is such a beautiful venue. Who would want to go to the Javits Center when you can go to The High Line Hotel? You step outside and you’re in New York City, you’re not in a taxicab parking lot.”

The Bottom Line
If one half of the “ideal trade show” equation is intimacy and good design, the other, even more important, half is pricing.

“We wanted to keep it very affordable, in line with NY Now,” says Wolf.

Wolf and Overmann say exhibiting prices have gone up since their first show, but not by too much.

Lent says his first Melee show experience produced a “phenomenal” return on investment.

And Melee’s only gotten better as it’s gained its footing in the marketplace.

Scenes from the February 2020 edition of Melee
Scenes from the February 2020 edition of Melee

“I feel the level of buyer has increased—not the quantity of buyers, but the quality,” Lent says.

For independently funded jewelry companies, Melee has become a viable investment they can keep coming back to, year after year – even as they drop other more expensive trade shows.

Anthony Lent, for example, was planning to take a break from Couture this year even before the show was canceled, despite the importance of the relationships the brand has fostered there.

The reason? It’s been building a much-needed New York City Diamond District showroom to host private clients.

As the company invests in that project, it has to cut back in other areas, namely Vegas, though it has tentative hopes to return to Couture in 2021.

Melee, on the other hand, is affordable enough that Anthony Lent doesn’t have to cut it from the budget in order to make room for the showroom project.

Max Lent opines: “A lot of the stores we’re targeting for wholesale are coming to Melee. And even twice a year, it’s still much less expensive than doing Couture.”

Wolf and Overmann were still exhibiting at Couture when they launched Melee but have since pulled out.

“It’s an absurd price to the vendor for the return,” says Wolf. “For so long, it was about prestige for [many independent designer jewelry brands], but I [now] find it’s just impossible to make sense of that cost.”

What’s Next
Amali, Brooke Gregson, Sia Taylor and Wwake are some of the brands buyers can find at Melee.

Kwon, of Jennie Kwon Designs, says there’s a synergy to the “well-respected” group that’s developed there. They’re all independent designer jewelry brands and sell at comparable price points.

“There’s a sense of camaraderie at Melee,” she says.

Wolf and Overmann intend to keep it that way.

“There’s a fine balance you walk [between success and] becoming a mass product,” says Wolf. “What’s special is the size and the location and the intimacy.”

The "Lighthouse Diamond Ring" with a 2.45-carat hybrid pear-shaped white diamond in 18-karat yellow gold from Lauren Wolf Jewelry. Wolf founded Melee with fellow jewelry designer Rebecca Overmann.
The "Lighthouse Diamond Ring" with a 2.45-carat hybrid pear-shaped white diamond in 18-karat yellow gold from Lauren Wolf Jewelry. Wolf founded Melee with fellow jewelry designer Rebecca Overmann.

That intimacy makes Melee even better equipped to adapt to any pandemic-related challenges it comes across, according to Wolf and Overmann.

“We foresee that the size of our show will be beneficial for both designers and buyers in the time of COVID-19,” says Wolf. “We have the flexibility within our space to follow health guidelines and limit the amount of people attending our show.”

Overmann adds, “Our designer roster will continue to be small and we plan on implementing a staggered buying appointment system for our registered buyers [at the next edition]. Our primary goal and concern is the safety of all members of our community and we look forward to celebrating in a new way this fall.”

They also say they’re open to changing dates in the future, though the February/August schedule has worked well thus far because there usually are many buyers in town at that time.

Ultimately, organizers behind Melee want to remain nimble, relevant and enjoyable, to designers and buyers alike.

“The landscape is not what it used to be,” says Wolf. “The way people buy and see new work is different. You can email someone your line sheets now.

“It’s important to be aware of how things have changed.”

Lent wants Melee to continue to find success, while retaining the ingredients that make it work now.

“We hope that it grows,” he says, “but I think it’s at a really great spot right now. More and better stores and buyers will be coming to that show. I think it’s an excellent complement to Couture, and I’d be very happy if I could do Melee and Couture every year.”
Ashley Davisis the senior editor, fashion at National Jeweler, covering all things related to design, style and trends.

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