The typical anecdote in the evolution of the jewelry company Bourbon & Boweties goes a little something like this. A couple years after the Plant City-based company started out in the garage of founder and CEO Carley Ochs’ grandmother, Ochs convinced Nordstrom to let her team set up a table for the Tampa store’s Christmas trunk show. The condition was they sell $1,800 worth of jewelry to make it worth the store’s while. Bourbon & Boweties wasn’t stocked in many Tampa stores yet, so it was one of the first opportunities Ochs had to expose local shoppers to the brand.
“At that trunk show, my grandmother, who, sadly, has since passed away, grabbed me and said, ‘I’m so proud of you, sugar,’” Ochs recalls. She’s carried the memory with her in the years that have passed.
That, and the fact they sold about $86,000 worth of product that day.
“Nordstrom’s vice president called me that night, and he was like, OK, is there something addictive in these things? What is this?” Ochs says with a laugh. “I said, we told you!” That led to a partnership between the companies that exists to this day, bringing Bourbon & Boweties’ unique bracelets, earrings and necklaces to shoppers across the country.
“You share the same shelf space with brands like Alex and Ani and Kendra Scott, and all these people that have done such amazing things,” Ochs adds. “And you’re just this little girl from Plant City, Florida. It’s crazy.” The traditional Bourbon & Boweties bangle has a distinct look. The bracelet is wrapped in a thick wire, connecting three chunky (“To me, the bigger, the better,” Ochs says), usually colorful, stones. Some variations swap out charms for the stones, but all of the brand’s pieces are meant to be layered and stacked.
Ochs created the prototype for the signature bangle while playing around with precious stones she brought back from a trip to Shanghai. She wrapped craft wire around a red Solo cup, tied on the stones and loved the result so much she made more. In July 2012, a friend who owned a boutique in Charleston, South Carolina, bought her whole stock of bracelets. Ochs drove around the rest of the day selling more boutiques on the promise of future inventory. That evening, the friend called with news: The first batch sold out. Can we order more?
“By Thanksgiving, I think I had about 48 stores [stocking the bracelets],” Ochs says. “And it was all from word of mouth — just people seeing the product on other people, hearing about it, and other stores picking it up.” That quickly led to opportunities like the Nordstrom placement, features on Today and Good Morning America, and a spot on the 2017 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies. Today, Bourbon & Boweties is a multimillion-dollar company carried in stores across 39 states. A physical in-store presence had been a heavy focus for the brand pre-pandemic.
While their wholesale business dropped to zero overnight, Ochs says online sales skyrocketed 600% over the previous year (they’re back to about 60% in-store purchases and 40% online purchases, she says). Ochs tried to stay a one-woman operation, including making the bracelets herself, during the company’s early growth, but it quickly became unsustainable. Ochs’ mother had an idea.
“She said, ‘I have a friend, Kathy, who is really artsy,’” Ochs says. “So I said, OK, great, we’re going to teach Kathy how to make [our jewelry]. Well, then Kathy had two friends. Then Kathy’s two friends had a sister or a cousin.”
Instead of using a traditional workshop or manufacturing facility, Bourbon & Boweties’ pieces are all made at the homes of hundreds of individuals in the Tampa Bay area who take a training course with the company and pick up and drop off their materials at the office every week. They get paid per piece, which gives them the flexibility to work as much or as little as their schedule allows. It gives Ochs the ability to easily scale up or scale down production as needed.
This arrangement helped give Bourbon & Boweties its tagline, “Made by Proud Southern Hands.” By sheer coincidence, it was also the perfect arrangement for working in a pandemic. Last year, the company produced over 60,000 pieces of jewelry.
“It’s this really interesting network of men and women that all kind of knew each other, and they’re all from the Tampa Bay area,” she says. “A majority of these women are stay-at-home moms, so we’re creating jobs for women that are staying home with their kids but are still ready and willing to work.” Ochs has always spent much of her time on the road at trunk shows, so about 18 months ago she moved out to Colorado part time. She describes her role now as taking more of a 50-foot view of the company, focusing primarily on business and creative development. Ochs’ style leans toward the big and bold, with an embrace of natural stone like turquoise.
New designs are sometimes a negotiation between her and her team, who tend to go for daintier, more demure styles. “The girls will laugh because I’ll bring an idea to them and they’ll say absolutely not, we’re not doing this,” Ochs says. “Then a year later, it starts to trend. It’s this balance of keeping us moving forward without being so in the future that people don’t get the trend. It’s always a good collaboration.”
Collaboration with other local entrepreneurs in a supportive business community is part of the reason Ochs loves being a Tampa-based business owner. Tampa Bay is also, quite simply, home. “It would feel wrong [for the company to be] anywhere else,” she says. “Loyalty is something that you can’t buy. The girls that work for me, they love the company like their own and treat it like their own. That’s just invaluable. I’ve watched so many other companies just kind of churn and burn through people, and I never wanted that. [We have] a sense of community.” And yes, to Ochs, the Tampa Bay community is definitely a Southern one.
“Even as a Floridian,” she says, “I consider myself a very proud Southern lady.”