Grader Jewelers has been a fixture in southeastern Connecticut since 1964, when husband-and-wife team Peter and Lorraine Grader opened the company’s first location in Norwich.
Connecticut senator Andrea Stillman, Peter Grader, Lorraine Grader, Mark Grader, and Waterford Eastern chamber president Tony Sheridan at the ribbon-cutting of the new store (photo courtesy of Grade Jewelers)
But though the three-store chain has inhabited various storefronts in nearby Waterford more than over two decades, “people are just now realizing we’re there,” says Mark Grader, Peter and Lorraine’s son and majority stockholder in the business.
What a difference a freestanding store makes. The family opened its third standalone Grader Jewelers location on March 30 in Waterford, and has been inundated with good tidings from locals. “You get so much more visibility from a freestanding store,” notes Mark, a 50-year-old retail vet whose first job in the business, as a small child, was “Head Cuckoo Clock Winder,” he says. “In a strip location or a mall, you don’t get that same [brand] recognition.” The company’s other outposts—both of which experienced similar mall-to-freestanding evolutions—are in Groton and Norwich.
The 2,200-square-foot Waterford shop is tucked into a circa-1920s residence that most recently housed a dental practice. Peter and Lorraine, who met in college in Long Island shortly after Peter emigrated from Germany at 18 years old, oversaw the new shop’s design. “We didn’t hire a professional designer because my parents have so much experience,” explains Mark. “They’ve been doing build-outs in different locations for 50 years.”
Foregoing the dark wood and halogen lighting present in their older stores, the Graders opted for blonde wood floors and trim, LED lighting, a cranberry-hued accent wall, and a ruby-red area rug. The space also enjoys “a lot of natural light, which makes a huge difference in terms of the mindset of the people who work here,” says Mark.
The merchandise mix is a more focused version of what’s stocked in the Groton and Norwich locations, including engagement rings, diamond necklaces, and pendants inspired by the Ledge Lighthouse on the nearby Thames River. “We’re always trying to find things that aren’t cookie-cutter,” says Mark. “We believe in quality, and we’re not a name-brand jeweler. We’d rather find is something from a smaller manufacturer—preferably a family-owned business like ours. That’s where our niche is.” Core prices for jewelry range from $295 to $5,000.
Mark, who’s been attending jewelry shows since he was 10 years old, says the family has been eyeing spaces in Waterford for years, because the southeast corner of Connecticut “is carved up based on water—the Thames River divides Groton and Waterford, then we’re pushed up against the Atlantic. So if you really want to have coverage in this market, you need a location in Waterford.”
The company took advantage of a down market to find a prominently placed space available for a rock-bottom price. “In this type of economy, properties tend to avail themselves,” Mark adds.
And in an era where store closures feel more common than debuts, Mark gives his father credit for “having long range vision when it comes to business. He’s able to look forward and know things go in cycles. With the Waterford store, we’re leveraging ourselves for when things do turn. We’ve always been pretty conservative folks. And when you’re conservative, you have the ability to try something new every once in a while.”