"This woman comes up to me and says, 'I've been looking for years for a Pagoda that would fit on my Pandora bracelet,' " Bortz recalled.
The woman was referring to the seven-story historic monument atop Reading's Mount Penn, arguably the most recognizable landmark in the Reading area.
That's why Bortz thought the woman might be on to something. And why he and partners David Johnson and Gary Brown are now rolling out a Philadelphia line of sterling silver charms - yes, there's a cheesesteak one - as part of a coast-to-coast plan to cash in on hometown sentimentality. They even have intentions to take their venture abroad.
"We look forward to doing the research in Paris," Johnson said last week - not that he had any complaints about his tastings of water ice and beer while in Philadelphia talking to locals about what they hold dear.
Research is at the core of City Charm Co. L.L.C.'s product development, said Brown, 51, who also owns a printing company in Reading.
"It's selling to the emotional tie that people have to their hometown area," he said. "When you sell one of these or even take an order over the phone, everyone has a story."
For buyers, there's even more feel-good return. City Charm donates 10 percent of its proceeds to a charity in the city the charm celebrates. In Philadelphia, it has selected Project HOME, which aids the homeless.
"Project HOME is gratified and really excited that they chose us," said spokesman Michael Gainer, who predicted solid sales. "The symbols they chose are pretty apt."
Priced at $79.99 each - pendants at $84.99 - on www.citycharmco.com, sales haven't hit $1 million, "But we are on our way," Johnson said.
In other words, nobody is giving up their day jobs - yet. Johnson, 47, is working in the power industry after buying a wholesale baking company in 2006 and selling it in April. From 2009 to 2012, he also moonlighted as a business coach, which is how he met Bortz, 51, who opened Justin Bortz Jewelers in 1989.
Bortz had started working with Johnson to improve his jewelry business right about the time he was approached by the woman wanting the Pagoda charm. Johnson encouraged him to pursue it, which led Bortz to his goldsmith mentor, Mike Mumma, whose company, M.B. Mumma Inc. in Reading, developed a 3D computer-assisted-design image of the Pagoda and, ultimately, the charm. Bortz started selling it in June 2011 - and sales were brisk.
So Bortz did what most 21st-century entrepreneurs consider critical: He took to Facebook, asking the people of Reading to suggest other suitable symbols of their city. The results: the Reading Railroad and Reading Hard & Soft Pretzel Bakery, more commonly known as Bell Alley, the brick side street where the doughy twists (only soft are sold now) have been made since the 1940s in a coal-fired brick oven.
Bortz headed into the Christmas 2011 selling season offering Reading Railroad, Bell Alley Pretzel, and Pagoda charms, later adding the Reading Hospital clock tower. Johnson introduced him to Brown, who also had been one of Johnson's coaching clients. In November 2012, the three formed City Charm, which bought the Reading charms line from Bortz.
In February 2013, Lancaster-area charms were added to their offerings, including a horse and buggy, Lancaster Central Market, and Fulton Theatre.
Philadelphia charms went on sale in May. Besides a generic cheesesteak (rivals Geno's and Pat's didn't go for having their names included on the charm), there are Boathouse Row, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, a soft pretzel, and the LOVE statue.
City Charm's owners continue to look for a retail outlet in Philadelphia. They like to have at least one in each of their model cities - preferably "unique gift shops," Johnson said - to augment online sales.
Mumma, the charms' manufacturer, was an early skeptic: "Actually, I thought it was a long shot." That the charms seem to have promising sales potential has been a stroke of good fortune for his business, which specializes in gold jewelry, Mumma said.
Gold prices were up and demand down when Bortz approached him about making the sterling silver charms.
"It's work," Mumma said. "It helped employ people."
Nearing $100,000 in sales since their partnership was formed, the only obstacles to City Charm's growth are "time and cash flow," Johnson said.
The next three cities they want to charm are Baltimore, Boston, and Atlanta.
Diane Mastrull: >Inquirer.com
Justin Bortz, partner and creative director of the City Charm Co., talks about the line of city-themed charms and the company's new Philadelphia line. www.inquirer.com/charm
Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, email@example.com or @mastrud on Twitter.