Ian Brown crosses town (and continents!) to bring his clients the best pieces
During the course of his 20-year career in jewelry retail, Ian Brown has worn a multitude of hats—from diamond buyer to watch director to vice president of Brown & Co., the Atlanta-based jewelry chain founded by his father, Frank Brown. But his favorite chapeau to don is that of private jeweler—one who lays out his wares on a dining room table, not a glass display case. Brown and his wife, Catherine, opened their intimate boutique, I&C, in Woodstock, Ga., in 2011 to provide six-day-a-week retail and repair service. But the GIA-certified gemologist is often out on house calls, appraising collections, or cocreating custom jewels with the local magpies. And a personal mission to find well-priced, untreated gems recently took him much farther afield, to the mines of Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. He spent a month establishing trade in the “City of Gems” earlier this year, returning home with a covetable collection of brilliant blue and pink sapphires, among other stones, that he’s able to sell well below market value. “It was challenging doing business there,” says Brown. “But the entire time I was there, I was the only Westerner, so I knew I was in the right place.”
How did making house calls become an important part of your business?
A lot of my clients are very busy. You get the gentleman in his office who has a special occasion coming up, or clients who have been collecting jewelry for many years. They may have $100,000 in jewelry that needs appraisal and maintenance. You get to know their collections and taste. It’s a very personalized business. You ultimately end up knowing more about them than their heart surgeon or shrink. There’s a trust factor. The relationships are meaningful.
Why do you like going on house calls?
An intimate appointment seems to work really well for me. I don’t have $20 million in inventory to work from and a $10 million facility. I have my experience and my personal equity. One thing that used to drive me crazy about a busy retail location is you’d be working with a client and have five other important clients walk in and be like, “Hi, I’m here.” It was stressful—you almost become a victim of your own success. Now I can really enjoy serving the client. Sixty to 70 percent of what we sell is custom, so I’m always working on designs. Just about every high-end jewelry store offers some sort of concierge service. In my business, I am the concierge.
How do you handle security issues on the road?
If it’s someone new I’m meeting, it’s generally a referral from an established client. I get a little hinkey if it’s someone I don’t have any connection to. In that case, they would need to come to my office. And I’m accessible on the phone way more than I should be.
What precipitated your trip to Sri Lanka?
I had a couple of calls for sapphires and the pricing for the gems was just more expensive than I could understand. I said, “I’m just going to go and buy a ticket for five days.” It was two days to get down there, and then two to three days in [major city] Colombo before I found out my connection there was not being forthright with me. The pricing was just not working. I went to Ratnapura and didn’t have a contact there, but I knew of a place to stay. It turns out the innkeeper had been in the gem trade there for years. Thirty-two days later I had successfully purchased natural, unheated blue and pink sapphires, some raw cat’s eye chrysoberyl, and some other gems. Most will end up in jewelry. I have close to 20 jewelry pieces in the process of being designed. I’ve set a personal goal of returning to Sri Lanka regularly because I was able to bring extreme value back to my clients.
What are your other long-term goals as a jeweler?
I’m currently designing a collection…and would love for that to do well. And I would like to live a balanced lifestyle. I know that’s anathema to what jewelers usually say. But that’s the real goal.