Set in stone: Aurora museum in the jewelry businessPublished 8:45pm Monday, February 4, 2013
AURORA— Andrea Stilley, executive director of the Aurora Fossil Museum, browsed through page after page of the museum’s guest book. In past weeks, visitors from all over the globe signed the book. Stilley was looking for more familiar zip codes. A single Beaufort County address graced the first three pages she perused.
“That’s what really kinda hurts,” Stilley said.
The museum counts on repeat visits, which account for about 65 percent of the foot traffic. Stilley would like to see local residents and schools coming through.
“Business has changed with the economy,” she said. “With the price of fuel, our visitation has dropped. But we keep growing.”
If your last visit was five years ago, the museum has doubled in exhibit space and there are plenty of new things to see. Stilley said she and her staff work hard to keep things fresh and ever changing.
The museum employs five people part-time. All of them pitch in to make the museum a better place.
Museum educator Dr. George Oliver Jr. has donated several items from his personal collection of fossils and has a large sample of his collection on display in the museum gift shop.
Stilley and three of her staff members have stocked the shelves of the shop with one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry.
When Stilley started at the museum about eight years ago, she said the gift shop had a few little $5 and $10 necklaces for sale.
“But they didn’t have something that would appeal to most women. So, I said, ‘I’ll fix this,’” she said.
When Stilley travels, she said she always comes back with a piece of jewelry and knew there would be a market for it. She taught staff members how to make jewelry with some of the fossils sold in the gift shop. She even sent one staffer to a jewelry-making class.
With business as slow as it is, Stilley said it only made sense to have employees work on jewelry during their shifts.
The jewelry acts as one more draw for repeat visitors. Stilley encouraged people to do their Christmas shopping at the museum. Why drive an hour to the mall when they could find handmade jewelry right downtown?
“Andrea doesn’t give herself enough credit,” said Oliver. “She makes most of this jewelry. She works on it at home and doesn’t charge for her time.”
On a good day, Stilley said she makes about five or six pairs of earrings and two necklaces.
The museum makes at least 2,500 pieces of jewelry a year. The pieces range from shark’s tooth pendant necklaces to earrings made of amber and semi-precious stones. Prices start at around $20. Sets go for about $80.
“That kind of helps us keep the lights on,” Stilley said.
Stilley will be the first to say the jewelry sales cannot take the place of shrinking grants or single-handedly keep the museum in the black. Unexpected expenses like Hurricane Irene’s flooding and replaced air conditioners have kept the museum director from finding any real relief from the added cash flow.
But, the jewelry is a definite draw and it has gained the attention of other museum directors.
“In fact, at a meeting I went to, they were asking me how I handle the gift shop,” Stilley said. “’Look,’ I told them, ‘How much of your merchandise is from Japan?’ We don’t have that.”
The majority of the items sold in the gift shop are local. Stilley credited a hard-working staff for keeping the shop stocked with beautiful jewelry and Aurora fossils.
“It’s a struggle, “ she said. “But, it’s one that we all seem to enjoy every day.”