About Holly Daniels Christensen
The founder of Dune Jewelry left home at 15 years old, and never looked back taking a variety of jobs with stints as a zookeeper, pharmacy technician, promotional model, bartender, cellphone, car and cruise salesperson. She also successfully spent 14 years as a top agent in Boston’s highly competitive real estate market.
This unique “bootstrap” entrepreneur who proved she was unafraid of hard work, was voted the 2016 Woman-Owned Business of the Year for Massachusetts and New England, by the Small Business Association (SBA). In 2018, Inc. magazine honored Dune Jewelry as No. 2590 on its 37th annual Inc. 5000 List, the most prestigious ranking of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies. The list represents a unique look at the most successful companies within the American economy’s most dynamic segment—its independent small businesses. Currently, Dune Jewelry is the one-and-only experiential jewelry brand in the world.
Interview with Holly Daniels Christensen
What started out as a passion has turned into one of the leading jewelry companies now celebrating its 10th anniversary. I’m pleased to welcome to our show today Holly Daniels Christensen, founder and CEO of Dune Jewelry.
How Did You Start to Develop Jewelry as a Hobby?
It feels like I’ve been on fast-forward, but if I think back, I had always wanted to have a creative outlet. I love the beaches of Cape Cod where I grew up, and I was helping my childhood best friend with her business, where she made these ornaments out of sand from local beaches on the Cape. And I would go out to different arts and craft shows and see the reaction that people had to the sentimental value of that sand from specific places. And we started working together more seriously and thought, “What’s the next level? What’s something that we can do where people can carry this sentimental item with them always?” And the answer was jewelry. And ultimately she decided to continue with her business and raise her three sons. I decided to pursue the jewelry aspect of what we were doing. And fast forward 10 years then, and it’s crazy.
I started right at my kitchen table just honing my craft, playing with different sands from different locations all over the world, figuring out how to use jeweler’s resin, and different epoxies, and different techniques.
Are you trained at making jewelry? How does one start to make their own jewelry?
Holly Daniels: I took a few classes at a place called Metalwerx in Waltham, Massachusetts. And from there it was all trial and error.
How do you mass produce jewelry now? Or is it still handmade by people?
Holly Daniels: You know, I wish … No I don’t. I don’t wish it was mass produced. But I do wish … I remember in the early days people would say to me, “Well this isn’t scalable. This custom, personalized, artisan crafted jewelry is not scalable. So if you want this big business or you want to grow larger, it’s not going to happen.” And I’m like, you know what, that’s crap. There’s has to be a way. And so we started figuring out processes and procedures and ways to design the jewelry so that it was a little bit easier or more efficient to craft. But no, we hand-make and personalize every single piece. So if you go on a honeymoon and you come back and you want to hold a tangible reminder of that moment, you know, on a beach honeymoon or a hike or something, you can bring back sand, or even a rock, or leaves, or flowers, and we can incorporate it into our jewelry.
Sherri Langburt: Amazing. So I am the person. I have rocks from Santorini.
Holly Daniels: Yes.
Sherri Langburt: I have stuff from Seville, from Spain. So tell me about your sand banks.
Holly Daniels: It’s incredible. It’s incredible. So again, back at my kitchen table 10 years ago, actually it was like 12, but we started the business 10 years ago, I would call the town hall and say, “Hi, can I speak to someone about obtaining one cup of sand from your,” this beach or that beach? And they would kind of bounce me around the town hall, and they’d be like, “Do you need to fill a sandbox?” I’m like, “No, no, no. Just one cup for my business.” And I would go on these road trips and collect one cup of sand. Because come to find out one cup of sand can actually last years and years. It makes over 1200 pieces of jewelry.
The coolest thing is that once we started as a business, our customers would call and say, “Hey, I just got back from Iceland. I have a little pinch of sand that I brought home. Can I send it to you so that you can make something for me?” And of course my answer was, “Absolutely.” Nine times out of 10 it would be more than a pinch. It would be a few tablespoons, or sometimes crazy, you know, pill bottles, Altoids containers, all filled with sand, or flowers, or rocks. And we would call the customer and say, “Hey, do you mind if we use the rest of this just to add to our sandbank?” And they would say, “Sure.” And so now we have over 4,500 sands and natural elements in the sand bank.
Which is the most popular piece of jewelry, with which sand? Not the most popular jewelry, but which sand is the most asked for?
Holly Daniels: That is a tough question. We’re actually re-platforming our website next year so that we can track that, but right now we only attract the designs. But I’m really close to the business, so I do watch orders go out the door, and I would say there’s a lot of very typical, what you would think, like Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard is very popular, Long Beach Island, New Jersey is very popular.
If we go up north, Prince Edward Island is very popular, because it’s this really cool, like red ruddy color that’s really incredible. But then a lot of the Caribbean Islands. And I do notice, too, and this is going to sound crazy, but it does tie into influencers on a large level. Do you remember when the Kardashians went to Iceland for the first time?
I saw a correlation between them going to Iceland, then Iceland becoming a very trendy place to travel, or trendier than it was previously, and then I would see a lot of requests coming in for that. So while that might not be our most popular, I definitely saw a correlation.
Sherri Langburt: That is so interesting. We just did, you know, some kind of appreciation gift, and we’d sent for clients to pick their favorite gummies. And it’s so interesting to see everyone picked like a peach, I don’t know what it’s called, gummy bear. And I’m like, I can’t believe out of all these flavors, people picked peach gummy bears. It’s so interesting to see what people choose in terms of their favorites.
Holly Daniels: It really, it is, it is. And it’s so tough to stay on top of what people are going to be doing and liking, and what’s trending, but I’m always looking.
Are there any customers stories that stand out?
Holly Daniels: When we had a smaller studio I would be sitting kind of in the middle of the floor, like of the production floor, and people would know, my team would know when I had, this sounds insensitive, but it wasn’t, when I had a crier on the phone, because I would start crying. So someone would call, “Can I speak with the founder?” And they’d start telling me their story, and they’d be crying, and I’d be crying. And the whole team can hear what I’m doing, because we’re, you know, we’re a small business. Now I have my own office, but back a few years ago. And that’s how sentimental this is for people.
So I would say one of the most sentimental stories I received was a woman who had gone to the same beach on the South Shore of Massachusetts every single year on similar days with her grandmother, and they sat in the same exact place. Same exact place, every single time they went to this particular beach. And longer story short, her grandmother passed, she sprinkled her grandmother’s ashes in that place, and then a few months later learned about Dune and went back to that place and scooped up, you know, a half a cup of sand and sent it into us. And her story was just so touching. She and her grandmother were so close, and they were such deep lovers of the beach, and that particular beach. It was, it was really emotional. Yeah.
Sherri Langburt: That’s amazing. I can’t even. It’s such a wonderful business. I’m kind of thinking about your business and how you got started, because I remember when I got started, and it was like Instagram, and Facebook and Twitter, like it kind of was still so new.
How did Facebook back in the day help you grow your business?
Holly Daniels: Well, I think that, and because there was no Instagram back then, I’m still trying to figure that out, Facebook was my main source of connection with the outside world. I would post everything on Facebook. And this is when it was so organic, and you really had, you had direct conversations with your customers, and people who are interested in your business. So without even knowing it, I was creating these small focus groups. And I would put up designs, “Do you like this? Vote on it. What do you like about it? Would you buy this? How much would you buy it for?” I mean, I was, speaking of data, I mean, I was collecting all this data without knowing it. I wasn’t trained. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew that there was all this goodness on Facebook where I could connect with people and get true feedback. And it was amazing. Amazing. I still have people who follow me to this day on Facebook from 10 years ago.
Was it all your friends, or did it grow organically, people telling people?
Holly Daniels: It did. I mean, I don’t even think we spent a penny with social media marketing up until maybe five years ago. Yeah. It was all organic. We’d do guess this element contest, and it would be like sand collected on the Hollywood Trail, versus sand from Positano, Italy, and yeah. And we’d just get people really talking. And you had a much further reach back then than you do now.
Sherri Langburt: So I know I have a friend who’s in the jewelry business, or she was, and she’s always talking about why she closed down her jewelry. Because she would say to me, “No one cares about jewelry anymore. Or they care about it, but you know, they want gadgets and gizmos and so many other things.” So this is so personal and so bespoke.
Are there any creative ways in which you stay on top, and fight for that attention, amidst other interests in terms of consumer wishlist trends?
Holly Daniels: Yeah. I think that the great thing about Dune is that trends come and go. We’ll be here forever because we don’t necessarily sell jewelry and accessories, we sell memories and aspirations, right? We are going to … I can take that rock from Greece from you and crush it up a little bit and put it into a piece of jewelry that you can on to for forever. We have a lifetime warranty on everything we do. So now you’ve got this tangible reminder of these special moments. And I think we are kind … we’re just getting started. Which sounds funny after 10 years, but you have to remember I’m self-taught. I didn’t go to college, and I actually didn’t finish high school. I left home when I was 15.
So these past 10 years have been just a learning experience for me. And now here I am getting started. And I believe that we’re kind of the bridge between the kind of the millennial generation and the jewelry industry. Because I always say to my team, I’m like, “If you give someone the opportunity to, you give them a choice between a $10,000 diamond tennis bracelet or a $10,000 trip to Thailand for two weeks, what are people going to choose for the most part?”
Sherri Langburt: I mean, I think back in the day the diamond bracelet, but I would be off to Thailand in 10 seconds.
Holly Daniels: Yeah, me too, me too. So I think that’s the really cool part of the evolution of humanity is that we really, truly are starting to make changes and value experiences over material possessions. And I mean, I love material possessions too, don’t get me wrong, but I think that’s why doing so is so popular, and just continues to gain momentum, is because we truly capture those moments. You know, we capture the moments. And if you haven’t been somewhere, so maybe it’s not a memory, like I want to go to Greece someday so badly. I wear a bracelet every day with sand from Santorini, and I’m manifesting it. It will happen someday. I know it. I’m sure of it. This is just going to help get me there faster.
Sherri Langburt: That’s amazing. So you brought up two points that, and I might forget both my questions, but one of them was the millennials. And given what you do, I’m seeing so many opportunities, A, for strategic partnerships, and again, we’re in COVID, which we could get to.
Are you doing any strategic partnerships with travel companies or nonprofits?
Holly Daniels: It’s so true. And I think I need to work smarter at making that happen. But in the past, I mean, we donate a portion of all proceeds to the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. We also make donations to Surfrider Foundation, smilemass.org, which is a wonderful company that brings beach wheelchairs to public beaches so that people with a handicap, impaired physical capabilities can be put in the wheelchair, not only get onto the beach, but all the way into the ocean. And these wheelchairs float.
Yeah. I love it. I think everyone deserves a beach day, and SMILE Mass helps make that happen. So, no, I would love to partner. My dream is Sun Bum or Sand Cloud. I mean, those two brands are just fabulous.
Sherri Langburt: Just so much opportunity, and then talking about the memories, but what’s been going on on several levels with COVID. Like people can’t travel, so are people sending you like, “Oh my God, I miss traveling, and I want a reminder of that,” particularly this holiday season.
Holly Daniels: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been reading some of the gift messages, which I love, because they’re always so sweet, and some of them are like really cheeky and funny, and some are really sentimental. It ranges. But I think when COVID hit, it was like a light switch turned off. We lost 75% of our revenue.
Holly Daniels: So our business has broken down 70% retail partners. So we would ship wholesale orders to retail partners all over the world. 5% was live events, and 25% was our website. So that sucked. Pardon my language. I mean, that was terrible. I didn’t know what to do in the moment. Thank God I’m just a fighter by nature, and put one foot in front of the other and started connecting with our customers in a different way, getting on Facebook and Instagram a lot more, and doing just a lot more personal engagement. And that really has helped our website come along. So I think with the messages I’m seeing, it’s pretty intense how sad some people are. Sad, but hopeful. You know, they’re sad that they didn’t get to go this summer to their family beach house where they connect with their entire extended family for a week. And there’s a lot of these. So not only is there that aspirational travel that is halted, where you just want to get to Fiji or the Maldives, but also you just want to get to the Jersey Shore to LBI where your family goes every year, and that’s where you-
Sherri Langburt: Nostalgia.
Holly Daniels: Yes. Yes. And luckily our sales are up about 20% on the website, which is saving us this year for sure due to COVID.
Sherri Langburt: the other good news, like for a lot of people like you, is that it’s kind of propelled you. It’s going to be amazing because now you’ve got it, like e-commerce, do you know what I mean? So it’s kind of like advance and rapid growth of like how to learn what to do online.
Holly Daniels: It’s so true. It is, it’s incredible the things that I’ve learned as a business owner over the past six to eight months.
Do have a team? How’s everyone internally been with COVID?
Holly Daniels: So pre-COVID I had a team of 28 full-time employees, team members. I have a really incredible people. And we had to lay people off, and some people came back and some people didn’t. And that was okay. I mean, I understand. I mean, I still have friends that really don’t leave the house. It’s just too anxiety inducing for them. So the people who didn’t come back, we parted ways as friends, as much as you can. And we did some incredible hiring. And I think what I learned during this time is that previously I kind of have a mama bear vibe about me, where I would hire people based on potential. And that COVID knocked that out of me. I hire on skillset, mindset, and cultural fit. That’s it.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah. Maybe you could train me on that.
Holly Daniels: Sherri, I swear, go to bed tonight and say, “Skillset, mindset, cultural fit,” and repeat it like a mantra. And I have made a couple really incredible hires over the past two months. But then I’m like, “Oh my God, please, God, let them stay with me,” you know?
Sherri Langburt: Right. Right.
Holly Daniels: They’re so extraordinary that I feel blessed to have found these people.
Sherri Langburt: As difficult as it’s been, and speaking to so many, just entrepreneurs and emerging businesses, it’s just, you know, we’re all kind of like navigating so these crazy waters by ourselves. And then like you said it, you know, it’s like I don’t have a board of directors, or advisors, or, you know, it’s really challenging times, so kudos to you for doing it well.
Holly Daniels: Thank you. I appreciate it. Some days I’m like, yeah, I’m kicking butt, and other days I’m like how did I even get here? I don’t know what I’m doing.
Sherri Langburt: Me too. And then there’s like, did I shower today? I’m working from home.
Holly Daniels: Yeah. And you have to do all the like face to face Zoom calls, and every, like you’ve got a few days a week you put on makeup and get dressed, so let’s make sure it all gets done that day.
Do you get a lot of influencers writing you, and are they good influencers, and how do you field through them?
Holly Daniels: We do. We have a lot of influencers who will reach out and say, “Hey, I want to collaborate,” which is great. I mean, I love that they even think of us. I think oftentimes they see kind of another influencer that they follow does something with Dune, and they decide to reach out, and they may or may not have any idea what we do.
It’s hard because we’ve got a bigger story, a more complicated story to tell, right? We’re not just a sleek, sexy, good-looking jewelry brand. We’re personalized, we’re customized, we’re travel oriented, experience oriented. But we just, we look through them. My publicist, Carole, actually helps me sometimes. If I’m overwhelmed with day to day operational stuff, Carole will jump in and look at different influencers. And I think one of the biggest things we look for not only is beautiful content, but someone who can tell a story.
Who really can, I don’t know, that you can kind of feel their heart coming through, or their excitement about the brand or whatever they’re talking about. When you can feel that coming through the copy. It doesn’t have to be a lot of copy, but you know, when you can feel that it’s important to me.
Is it the travel influencer, or the fashion and beauty, like the fashion beauty influencer that works better, or both?
Holly Daniels: I’m so glad you asked that question, because we did kind of an AB testing type of campaign a few months ago. Normally we do beauty and fashion, but it was always in the back of my head that of course travel influencers would be the way to go. And historically … Or not historically. Historically we’ve done the fashion and beauty, but this test that we did, I got totally knocked off my high horse, because the beauty and fashion actually outperformed the travel influencers.
Sherri Langburt: What?
Holly Daniels: Yeah. I know. And it, you know, maybe-
Sherri Langburt: Like to like, same followers, same engagements on both sides?
Holly Daniels: Yes. For the most part. And then also we had given out codes so that if anyone converted, we could track that. So more so conversions than anything else.
Sherri Langburt: I mean the other one that I would look at, we’re doing a lot of work now, just what’s going on. Everyone’s outdoors and hiking and biking, so a lot of brands are like those out … and the photography of some of these people that are like these camping, outdoor, nature, explorers, wanderers, that’s another angle. Not necessarily people who are traveling, traveling, but outdoorsy I think would just … Because there’s people who are like wandering trails, and they just have the most, I mean, I just want to jump into my Instagram account and be in there in their photos.
Sherri Langburt: So definitely something I’m happy to share with you if you want any lists, and then want to look at them. I’m happy to share any recommendations.
Holly Daniels: Oh my gosh, I would love that. I would really love that actually.
What do you measure a success in terms of sales?
Holly Daniels: I am working on coming up with a more set way to track everything right now, but we do track by code usage. Honestly, for a first time partnership, I’m happy with, I don’t know, six or seven sales that come through. Because at that point you know that the audience is listening. I also think that, and I don’t know if you find this to be true, in my experience consistency really helps propel those sales, right? Like not just one one-off post, but maybe one post a month for a couple of months, or three months, I think has been helpful for Dune in particular because of the storytelling that’s needed. Whereas I think like, Mejuri, I’m not sure if I’m saying that right, but a brand like Mejuri, which is so just sexy and beautiful and sleek, and it’s just beautiful, well-sourced jewelry, I think you can do a one and done post and create a ton of buzz. But I think for Dune you need a little more storytelling.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah. And it’s with anything in advertising, it doesn’t always hit the first time. It’s like making that impression multiple times. And if you spread that message and it’s always different people, you’re still hitting them one time, because it’s different.
Do you have an influencer campaign that just jumps out at you, that really was your favorite campaign?
Holly Daniels: I have a few, but, and I don’t know if you can call this an influencer campaign, but we ended up hiring Camille Kostek, who is now in the entertainment business, so she’s not technically, influencing is not her sole job, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. So she’s, you know, she was Patriots, New England Patriots cheerleader, and Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model. And she and I became friends during the first and second campaign that we shot with, because she lived in Massachusetts here, and she is incredible when she promotes Dune. We also have a collaboration together now, so it’s a little bit of a different beast. We have the Camille Collection. When she promote it’s incredible. Incredible. But I love like take a bite out of [Bocca Shaena] was off. She’s just always fun, and gorgeous content. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her, but she’s just fantastic.
Sherri Langburt: Yeah. Thank you. That’s awesome to know. I’m going to take a look at both of them, so thank you.
Holly Daniels: Oh, and then Sherri, do you know [Adelita] Of [Deak]? I’m saying it wrong. She is unbelievable and I love her. She’s got a very large following, but she comes from this place of intelligence when she talks about products, and you can tell she really understands what she’s promoting, or selling, or even just talking about. She’s unbelievable. Love her too.
Sherri Langburt: Thank you. I’m going to look for all of them. I’ll tell our team too.
What do you have in store for Dune for 2021?
Holly Daniels: Oh, 2021 is going to be getting our operations really, really sleek, and tighten up all of our operations. Because if we’re spending all this crazy money on operational things, we don’t have the money to spend on marketing. And that’s where we need to be spending, that’s where we need to be focusing. I want to shout Dune Jewelry from the rooftops. I want to be a household name over the next couple of years. And I believe the business deserves to be because of the team and the good work that we’re doing. So we have an experiential candle line coming. It’s a teeny tiny curated collection of scents that take you away, so you can close your eyes and go to Hawaii, or the Outer Banks, or Bermuda, and they’re going to be amazing. So the candles are really fun.
And I’m in the process of writing … I shouldn’t say writing. Yes, I’m writing. I’m writing a book. It’s with a really cool publishing company. I don’t know if I can say the name yet, but it’s going to have pictures of our sand banks. So these like really granular photos of sand from all over the world. It’s incredible when you start looking at these pictures.
Is it a coffee table beautiful book, or it’s like a biography of you?
Holly Daniels: Nope. It’s a coffee table beautiful book. We’re calling it a nightstand book because it’s smaller, and it’s going to be called, tentatively it’s going to be called Happiness Comes in Waves.
Sherri Langburt: That is so nice, and a great, great name.
Holly Daniels: I can’t wait.
Sherri Langburt: Oh wow. Keep me posted.
Holly Daniels: I will.
Name an influencer you love to follow, but hate to admit that you do.
Holly Daniels: Okay. Oh, and I need to go back and say Chelsea Roy is a great influencer too. Sorry. Okay. But this is a funny one because I’m okay with admitting. I think Jackie Schimmel is really funny, and I know she can be really, I don’t know, she can be crazy sometimes, but I think she’s great. Benny Drama. Oh my God, amazing. Any of The Real Housewives, totally. Those I probably wouldn’t admit.
Sherri Langburt: Right. I do too. They make me feel normal.
Holly Daniels: They do. They do.
Sherri Langburt: Well thank you so much. I mean, your story is just amazing, and I wish you so much success, and I hope you become that household name, and if there’s any way we can help you get there please stay in touch. Amazing, amazing story. Thank you.