By Jane Applegate

Last Christmas, my husband and I presented our daughter with a small, turquoise box from Tiffany. She burst into tears. “I’ve told you—never, ever, ever buy me jewelry!” Without opening it, she handed it back to me and walked away.

If you have similar challenges buying jewelry, read on. Two fashion-forward sisters launched a website to help shoppers select the perfect gift for the pickiest person. (not .com) based in Chicago, created a ‘gifting engine’ that allows shoppers to describe the person they want to buy a gift for. Based on that information, the site presents you with a variety of styles and options.

There’s also a cool social element that lets you share your options with friends and family to get their input before making a purchase. Best of all, Heirlume offers a unique, curated collection of jewelry made by independent designers. They hope their unique online platform will take a bite out of the $40 billion domestic market for fine jewelry. Currently, 88 percent of sales are made offline, according to industry experts.

“Men have no idea how to buy jewelry, but most women love receiving jewelry,” says Elaine Russell, who co-founded the company with her sister, Vanessa Stofenmacher, who serves as creative director. “Both of us were watching our husbands and guy friends struggle with buying gifts.”

Russell began her career in the retail investment banking group at J.P. Morgan in New York City. In 2009, she completed an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. From there, she moved to the Silicon Valley and headed up business development at Tiny Prints, eventually managing the wedding brand, Wedding Paper Divas. In 2011, Tiny Prints was acquired by Shutterfly and Russell moved back to Chicago to work for an e-commerce platform.

Russell and Stofenmacher started the company with their own money. They are busy tweaking the site to handle holiday sales. “We are really focused on learning from each customer on our site,” says Russell, who works in the 1871 tech incubator in downtown Chicago. Stofenmacher, who manages the site and shoots the photos, is based in Los Angeles. The sisters are active on Facebook and Twitter, sharing information about how to buy jewelry and tips on the latest trends.

They streamline the process by sending their designers boxes and branded packaging. When an order is placed, the designer ships it directly to the customer. The company currently represents about a dozen designers and is seeking more to add to the mix.

“We don’t hold any inventory ourselves, so we could get off the ground fairly quickly,” Russell says, adding that they buy the jewelry from designers at the wholesale price and sell it at retail, offering the pieces at the same price the designers do. The designers can still sell their work directly to customers if they choose to. “Our main priority is to offer the best price and experience to customers.”

Across the country, Brooklyn-based Urban Boulder sells contemporary designer jewelry featuring boulder opal, a colorful stone found only in the Australian Outback. Founded by Lisa Simpson and Remo Carbone, the company leverages Simpson’s marketing and branding skills with Carbone’s family relationship with the miners who find the stones in the Outback. (Be sure to watch the video on the “About” page of their site).

“What we really want to do is own the stone—the same way people associate diamonds with DeBeers,” says Simpson, who was creative director of an ad agency prior to launching her business with Carbone in 2011. “Having come from a world of brands and designing for other people, I wanted to create my own brand and do something different.”

Over brunch, Simpson and Carbone, a family friend, started discussing how his family had been working with the opals for 30 years, but were frustrated the stone was not being featured in fine jewelry. Although boulder opal is the national stone of Australia, most of it ends up in tacky trinkets for tourists. Not having any jewelry experience didn’t deter them from starting a jewelry business. They rely on Boris Goynatsky, a veteran jewelry designer in New York City to bring their visions to reality. Urban Boulder’s sleek, angular pieces are produced in gold, silver and platinum. They also do custom designs for clients.

“We cut the stones in Australia,” says Simpson, adding that it takes years to learn how to properly open the boulders and remove the opals.

I met Lisa while she was behind the counter at a ‘pop up’ shop in New York City’s Chelsea Market. Urban Boulder, based in her Brooklyn home, sells mostly online, but is looking for a variety of outlets.

Her advice for other entrepreneurs: “Before you leave your job, do as much planning for the new phase as you possibly can. Things always take longer that you think. Talk to as many people as you can. Share ideas and seek out mentors.”

Jane Applegate is the national correspondent for, author of four books on small business success and co-founder of the The Applegate Group is a multimedia production company.