February 23, 2020
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Beauty and the Beads

One afternoon while she was working at her gift shop, Megan Olson took a phone call, which her Caller ID indicated was coming from a local middle school. The caller wanted to know if Monica’s Scandinavian Imports in Caribou, the store Olson manages and part-owns, had in stock a specific Trollbead called the circus bead.

“I was like, ‘Rough day?’ [The caller] laughed and she said, ‘Yeah, do you have like four of them?’ I said, ‘I do,’ and [the teachers] came in,” Olson said. “I guess it had been a circus in the school that day.”

And that’s how it starts, Olson said on a recent afternoon at the store on Sweden Street — the passion, sometimes bordering on obsession, that some women seem to have for Trollbeads.

A Danish import, the phenomenon of Trollbeads has swept through a certain group of Aroostook County women and made its way south. The Grasshopper Shop in Bangor, spurred on in part by the success at Monica’s, started carrying the line in October.

“Right from the get-go they took off, but there’s been a steady growth,” said Olson. “Every day I sell a new bracelet, start somebody new, and it’s like, doesn’t everybody have one of these in Aroostook County yet?”

The line of Trollbeads includes hundreds of ¼- to ½-inch beads, made of materials such as glass, sterling silver, 18-karat gold, pearl, precious stones and Swarovski crystal, starting at about $25 per bead and running into hundreds of dollars.

Each bead tells a story, and every story has a bead, according to the retail line of Trollbead lore, with themes such as animals, mythology, flowers, fairy tales and even popular culture. Each bead comes with a description of its meaning, as well as the name of the artist who designed it.

Anyone can wear Trollbeads, but it seems to be a mostly female phenomenon. To get started, most wearers buy a bracelet of woven sterling silver and a clasp, and then begin to buy beads to fill up their bracelets. There are also necklaces, rings, earrings and ankle bracelets made of gold and leather.

The beads are interchangeable and can be put on and taken off the bracelets quite easily, which means users can wear different beads based on, say, mood, meaning or the color palette of that day’s ensemble.

And many women do just that.

“I do coordinate more now with my clothes, but that’s because I have a good selection,” said Kim Irving, a Caribou resident with around 150 beads in her collection. “When you have a lot of the colored glass beads, you can do that.”

The craze in The County has spread, it seems, through word of mouth. Schoolteachers have worn Trollbeads bracelets, spreading them to students. Friends share and compare beads. Daughters buy bracelets and beads for mothers. Sisters buy for each other.

And most wearers in The County have one place they can point to where they started their collections: Monica’s.

“When [Monica’s] gets new ones in, you’re texting your friends, ‘Monica’s got new Trollbeads, they got their spring collection,’” Irving said. “It’s like a topic of conversation when the girls are together. You can just go on and on.”

Trollbeads have been around for more than 30 years, but were introduced in the U.S. about four years ago. Monica’s was among the first shops to carry the beads, said Gregory Stewart, the Trollbead representative for Maine, Vermont and northern New Hampshire for U.S. distributor Lund Trading, which is based in Columbia, Md.

Olson started carrying Trollbeads in fall 2005 when a former Trollbeads representative introduced them to the shop.

“At first I wasn’t interested,” she said. “[The representative] called me three times. She was persistent. Then finally she said, I’m coming up. So she brought them and we played with them all day, asked a lot of questions. It was a slow warming-up to them and then it was like, wow, this could be good.”

What hooked the staff at Monica’s was the Dala Horse silver bead, based on a Swedish symbol. Monica’s carries a well-edited selection of goods from countries such as Sweden and Denmark, catering to an area of Maine with town names such as New Sweden and Stockholm.

One of just seven platinum-level dealers in the nation, Monica’s was one of the first stores in the country to sign on to carry Trollbeads. Monica’s stocks or has access to all 500 beads currently being sold in the U.S.

“If we don’t have it,” Olson said, “we can get it.”

Retail sellers achieve platinum status based on dealer volume and dedication to the line, as well as inventory levels. Platinum dealers often get special beads that don’t go to other dealers. That’s one of the reasons Monica’s has hundreds of customers who are willing to travel to Caribou, bypassing other stores on the way.

It’s apparently a common story.

“Regardless of distance, they will find where they like to buy their beads,” said Stewart, who sells Trollbeads out of his Damariscotta store Serendipity House. “[Monica’s] has done a fabulous job of introducing it into the community and telling the story.”

The Grasshopper Shop picked up Trollbeads in October — there are now seven authorized dealers in Maine — and co-owner Laurie Schweikert said the store now has around 30 Trollbeads customers. Several people had asked about the beads, and one day a woman wearing a Trollbeads bracelet visited the shop. She told employees at The Grasshopper Shop that her mother was working at Monica’s.

“She told me about how it was this huge thing in Aroostook County, so we looked into it,” Schweikert said. “We had good response from County people who were down for the weekend. Word spread pretty quickly.”

Bangor resident John Simpson, the CEO of the Cole Family Foundation, has bought bracelets and beads for his wife, Betsy, at both Monica’s and The Grasshopper Shop. The Simpsons first drove to Caribou to buy Betsy’s first bracelet for her birthday after she saw a co-worker at Merrill Bank with a Trollbeads bracelet. He helped her pick out some dark, autumnlike colors.

She liked the bracelet so much that John Simpson went to the Trollbeads Web site and designed a second bracelet for her. He printed out the picture of his design and took it to The Grasshopper Shop, where he was able to buy all the Trollbeads he wanted.

The second bracelet has an ocean theme because the two have a condominium in Fort Myers, Fla., and they like to walk on the beach.

“It was kind of fun, and it gave me a chance to do something that was maybe more meaningful if you are actually involved,” John Simpson said. “I probably wouldn’t wear something like that, but I truly appreciate why a woman would like it. You can use a little artistic ability and using their online system, come up with a unique design.”

It seems, however, that many men appreciate Trollbeads for the so-called wish lists that many women make for themselves and leave with their favorite Trollbeads dealer.

It’s a concept similar to a wedding registry. Trollbeads collectors make a wish list of the beads they want, and anyone in the market for a present can ask the store to bring up a wish list. Around holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, lines curve around Monica’s with men waiting to look at wish lists.

“There are so many men in turmoil over buying gifts for women,” said Schweikert, who also started a wish list for The Grasshopper Shop. “I think they sort of like the fact that it’s already picked up, but they have some flexibility because of the wish list.”

Irving said when she needs a present for a birthday party for one of her daughter’s friends, she asks the girl’s mother if she has a Trollbeads wish list. At the end of the school year, some students buy Trollbeads for female teachers.

Trollbeads fans will find any occasion to buy a bead.

“My favorite story is, a woman came in last year and said, ‘Do you have a dirt bead? My mother’s turning 50 and she’s older than dirt,’” Olson said. “So we came up with the four elements bead which has earth, wind, water and fire. We said, ‘There’s dirt in there.’”

The ability to commemorate those small moments of daily life, such as the teachers who had had a day resembling a circus, and the connection Trollbeads share with the charm bracelet concept, is one of the reasons the phenomenon has grown so quickly in the U.S.

“Just like here in the States, we’ve grown up, generation after generation, with charm bracelets with each charm commemorating individual events,” Stewart said. “This is the way the Danish — or Trollbeads — have done it for 30 years. They do it with beads, we do it with charms. So the core understanding is there.”

Irving, who grew up in Washburn, isn’t of Scandinavian descent. Still, the Trollbeads have had a strong pull for the married mother of one. One bead she doesn’t have is the circus bead, which is made of yellow, red and blue glass in a design meant to resemble the characteristic big top of a circus.

She has her favorites, such as the black-and-white diamonds beads Her ultimate gold bead? That would be the endless bead. Irving also has her eye on a bead she wants to buy for her daughter.

Sure, there’s a chance the fad could slow down — Olson joked that if Trollbeads collecting cools off she can always melt down the leftover silver — but with Trollbeads introducing new designs several times a year, Irving and other fans like her will still wait for the next shipment to arrive at Monica’s.

“I got my bracelet two years ago and lately it’s been much more of a craze as the months roll on,” Irving said, her bead collection spread out on a marble countertop in her kitchen. “Personally, I can’t imagine not having them. I love them so much. I do. I just went down [to Monica’s] the other day and I just knew there was one that I wanted. There were so many new ones for spring that I just could have kept on going. But I didn’t.”

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