108 N. Marion St., Oak Park, Ill.
After relocating her jewelry boutique last year from Chicago’s hip Bucktown to the Frank Lloyd Wright architectural haven Oak Park, designer Laura Kitsos feels right at home. Ensconced in the award-winning Marion Street district—a vibrant retail stretch paved with heated bluestone sidewalks—the 7-year-old Gem sells a decidedly eclectic mix: sophisticated Kitsos originals, handmade pieces by independent designers from the United States and abroad, and industrial-chic home decor that’s cleverly merchandised to fill the loft-like 1,700-square-foot space.
Oak Park is one of the Windy City’s oldest suburbs, full of home-owning professionals. Inside Gem, however, there’s nary a nod to old-fashioned tastes, unless you count the vintage finds—antique hat-check coins, Victorian gaming discs—used in Kitsos’ own designs. Musician Nick Kitsos, Laura’s husband and business partner, collaborates on the shop’s aesthetic, which pairs warm wood floors with funky steel displays. “This is all us,” he says of the store and the on-site studio. “We did all the lighting, all the color choices. It’s more of a masculine space.” Not that the vibe is unromantic: In January, a love-struck guy dropped to one knee and proposed with a Gem ring (by Turkish designer Gasia) right in the store.
Be Wise, Economize
Most of the jewelry is priced $50–$5,000, with the occasional piece that sells for more. “I do take risks and push the envelope,” says Laura. But the Chicago-area native definitely knows her customer. “They’re careful here, even in a good economy,” she explains. “The Midwest is not like L.A. and not like New York. They’re so different here. It has to do with the price point, and I think a piece has to be special…or presented as very special. It has to speak to the client in a way that justifies that amount of money going toward the purchase.”
Artists and Crafters
While Nick focuses on finding creative displays—such as “giant hundred-year-old butcher block tables,” he says, proudly describing his latest acquisition—Laura loves creating with found objects and old favorites. “I do really well with pavé diamonds,” she says. “And 18 karat gold is just the perfect metal to me.” Picking up a new designer remains a thrill for her: “I am in love with these beautiful ‘fancy’ friendship bracelets by Julie Rofman. She uses handmade Japanese glass beads and looms them into intricate patterns that are pieces of art against the skin.”
Laura, a mom of two whose path to serious jewelry design began with a metalsmithing class in the ’90s, first built a following with a chic line of colorful gemstone pendants—“I call them simple drops”—that continue to sell well (they start around $60 and go up to the several hundred dollar range). With success, her taste has evolved, yet occasionally shoppers are puzzled by the store’s deerskin-wrapped cuffs lit by steampunk-style fixtures. “Some people are like, ‘What are you doing here? This is too cool for the area.’?” Still, she targets the savvy self-purchaser, and curates her store with one ethos: “I’m not traditional, and I don’t sell things I don’t like.”
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