Tropical Flower In Full Bloom

The saga of Reinhold Jewelers of San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a story of both transformation and permanence. The store blossomed from a staunchly traditional retailer into a contemporary jewelry gallery, and its operation shifted from a typical family business to a model of business-school savvy. Throughout the changes, it has remained true to the vision of its owner. Luxury editor Hedda Schupak explains.

Marie Helene Morrow doesn?t describe herself as a strong woman. Instead, she calls herself a ?survivor.?

?What?s the difference?? I ask. ?Don?t you have to be strong to be a survivor?? We?re having lunch at the Basel Fair, and it seems to me the word ?strong??along with ?cultured? and ?gracious??perfectly describes her.

She furrows her brow. ?I guess so,? she says after a pause. ?I never thought of it that way. I just try to celebrate the small joys of each day, like when a flower opens overnight, or I discover a new artist. I don?t accept failure and am very driven. But I also know that sometimes one does fail, and the success lies in learning from one?s failures.?

To be sure, Morrow didn?t become Puerto Rico?s leading jeweler because she was willing to quit. In fact, it took someone else?s quitting?the manager of her former husband?s jewelry store?to turn her into a jeweler. Now, more than 35 years later, she has transformed Reinhold Jewelers from a traditional store to a contemporary gallery, brought four daughters into the world (and three into the business), retired, and come back. She?s endured her share of trying times, made more than a few tough decisions, and earned the right to call herself a survivor.

Morrow was born in Haiti, into a family that just barely escaped Europe before the Holocaust exploded into its full horror. She spent her early childhood in the relaxed tropical atmosphere of the island. She moved to the United States at age 14 to attend high school and college and then worked for two years at the United Nations. She moved to Puerto Rico in 1965 to learn Spanish, fell in love with the island, and never left. Her four daughters?Regan, Sara, Robin, and Yael?were born there, as were her four grandchildren.

In 1941, two brothers, diamond cutters named Steven and Henry Reinhold, opened three diamond-cutting factories in Puerto Rico as part of Operation Bootstrap, a plan whereby the Puerto Rican government offered tax incentives to companies to build factories and provide jobs for islanders. For the next decade and beyond, Puerto Rico had a thriving diamond-cutting industry. Firms such as Lazare Kaplan, Harry Winston, and Zale had facilities there, and Puerto Ricans were among the world?s best diamond cutters. Today, the tax incentives are gone and most of the cutting factories have closed, but their legacy remains?many of New York?s top cutters are Puerto Rican.

Two of the Reinhold brothers? factories were in historical buildings they?d purchased and restored in Old San Juan. In one, the factory was on the second floor, and the newly married Marie Helene and Henry Reinhold lived on the third floor. In 1965, a friend suggested they open a retail shop on the ground floor, and Reinhold Jewelers was born. When the store?s manager quit a few weeks before Christmas that year, Marie Helene offered to ?go downstairs and help out.? She?s been ?downstairs? ever since.

In the 1960s, a female in the jewelry industry had a tough enough time establishing a career in the United States, let alone proving her mettle in a Latin culture. Marie Helene challenged not only traditional female boundaries but also traditional jewelry store boundaries. She gradually changed Reinhold Jewelers from a high-end traditional jeweler to Puerto Rico?s leading designer jewelry gallery.

To wean the store from its staid image, she added contemporary design to the merchandise mix. ?We carried David Yurman 20 years ago, we carried José Hess when he was still Flaircraft, we carried Penny Preville before Leslie [Greenberg, Preville?s partner].? Kurt Wayne, Kurt Gaum, IRAL, and other well-known names of the early 1980s also were added.

The new image began with the store?s three windows. Out went the traditional velvet displays, in came props such as hardware and found objects from local construction sites. ?You must remember that this was 1970,? she says?long before stores like Barneys New York earned worldwide recognition for unusual window displays. Morrow still changes her windows once a week, and when she decorates for a promotion, she appeals to all five senses. During a recent promotion for baby gifts, she not only decorated in pink and blue but also piped children?s songs over the music system and scented the store with baby powder.

In making the transition from traditional to contemporary, the main issue Morrow confronted wasn?t customer taste?it was fear. ?Fine jewelry [in Puerto Rico] was always considered for its value as a lasting investment. When times got bad, you could take your jewelry and move on. Many people came to Puerto Rico from Cuba, Europe, etc. with only their jewelry. Their families still remember. I do!?

Encouraging customers to view jewelry as a work of art instead of an investment took patience, but eventually taste won out. ?We Puerto Ricans have a love of art and a real feeling for it,? Morrow says.

When she and Henry Reinhold divorced, she took over the store. The name changed (to M.H. Reinhold), but her customers? appetite for designer jewelry remained. ?One interesting phenomenon is their rapport with the designers,? Morrow says. ?They don?t refer to David Yurman or Angela Cummings or Lisa Jenks by their full names, but always by their first names, as if they were close friends. They will come into the store and say, ?Last Valentine?s Day, I bought one of Paloma [Picasso]?s pieces, but this year I think I?ll get one of Robert [Lee Morris]?s.? It makes us all feel like one big happy family!?

Reinhold Jewelers celebrated the grand reopening of its expanded and remodeled flagship store last fall. Morrow changed the name back to Reinhold Jewelers and adopted a new logo?a stylized block ?R? replaced the flowing script of the M.H. Reinhold logo. The store is very much a modern, contemporary art gallery, but touches like fresh flowers, sisal rugs, cane chairs, and ceiling fans maintain its island flavor. The name change and new logo were an essential part of what Morrow considers a new beginning for the new millennium.

Today, Reinhold Jewelers is an intriguing combination of art gallery and jewelry store. There are three Reinhold stores?the flagship in Plaza Las Americas, Puerto Rico?s largest and most upscale shopping mall; one in the El Conquistador Resort; and another in the Wyndham El San Juan hotel. The original store in Old San Juan is no longer part of the firm, but the historical building remains.

?The store is very much a meeting place?not just a shopping destination,? says Morrow. ?My clients know each other and spend time discussing politics, art news, economic trends etc., as they wait for their sales to be rung up. There is a social connection?not just a business one.?

The Reinhold history has a few rocky chapters. A recent expansion plan proved overly ambitious, and three of the six M.H. Reinhold stores that existed a few years ago have closed. The remaining three are stronger as a result, however.

Family matters also have caused complications. In the early 1990s, three of Marie Helene?s four daughters worked alongside her, and M.H. Reinhold was known as a model of a successful female-run business. In the mid-1990s, Marie Helene left the business and Puerto Rico, and moved to Mobile, Ala., where her new husband, David Morrow, had become the CEO of a local supermarket chain. But by the end of the decade, she was back. Daughters Regan and Robin had married and begun families and wished to focus on raising their children. Youngest daughter Yael worked in the business but had never planned to make it a career. She moved to Chicago to pursue a master?s degree and a subsequent career in social work. Robin?s identical twin, Sara, had never joined the business, pursuing a career in cyberspace rather than retail space. Morrow is understandably disappointed that they aren?t interested in carrying on the business, but she raised her daughters to be independent thinkers and is proud that they are.

Morrow says despite the Latin stereotype of male chauvinism, females have always been a force in Puerto Rico. ?Although our culture may be male-driven, women have tremendous influence on their men. It is the mothers who hold the households together and, throughout the last century, were often the breadwinners. We were way ahead of the mainland in the number of women lawyers and politicians we had in the second half of the 20th century. One of the greatest mayors of San Juan was a woman, and some of our greatest poets and artists are women. The power and influence of women is as strong as men, but it?s demonstrated in different ways. If the women like your product, the men will come. This is not true the other way around.?

Marie Helene credits her husband, though, with providing not only unflagging moral support but also sound business advice. ?I couldn?t have done it without David,? she says. David Morrow evaluated M.H. Reinhold?s situation and saw what it needed to grow. He?s a kind and personable man, but his no-nonsense approach to business was just what his wife and her stores needed. Marie Helene made some tough decisions, like closing the three stores and letting underperforming employees go, but her fundamental vision remained, and her desire to inspire young, talented women found an outlet in her new staff. ?David made me realize how important management and business acumen are,? she says. ?If it weren?t for David, I don?t think we would be where we are today.?

Morrow acknowledges that the store is like a third partner in her marriage. ?David naturally would like me to spend more time with him at our ranch in Idaho, or cook more gourmet meals, or spend more quality time together, but he also realizes that the love I have for the store is very much part of what makes me ?me.? I don?t want to leave it until I get it all together.? She hopes that will be soon and believes, largely because of her current staff, that it will be.

Reinhold Jewelers remains a predominantly female-run business. Except for Antonio Seliciano, 28, who manages the El Conquistador store, the firm?s top managers are women, ranging in age from 22 to 32. Caroline Garyn manages the newly remodeled flagship store in Plaza Las Americas, Mara Serra manages the El San Juan Hotel store, and Ilianny Mera is Morrow?s ?right hand.?

Morrow is proud of her protégées. ?Ilianny spotted Pianegonda [an Italian line of fashion-forward sterling silver jewelry], and she wanted to try it. I told her it was her call, her responsibility. She made the picks and did all the work to get the line in the store, and it?s done very, very well.?

Morrow believes in hiring personality, not expertise. ?You can always teach product knowledge, business, and emphasis on the bottom line, but you can?t teach ?people sense,? and you can?t teach the ?eye,? ? she says. ?You can have all the gemology certifications, but if you don?t know how to smile, you will be a failure in working with people. When [good people] come to us, I don?t care if they know a ruby from an emerald, but the smile has to be there. I look for the light in their eyes. I search for the flickers of enthusiasm. I want to pass on to them the love for people and the reverence for talent.?

She adds, ?One of the things I focus the most on with my staff is the responsibility to the client. Our relationships with our clients are forever. I love it when they bring their children, and I?ve left enough room in the store for them to play. They are my future clients, and I want them to connect my store with a good time.?

Honesty is a favorite soapbox topic for Morrow. This is a business built on trust, she says, and there is no room for even the slightest deviation. She has no tolerance for

substandard goods or substandard service, and she isn?t shy about saying so. Another favorite topic is balance and perspective. ?We work surrounded by very expensive things, but you have to realize that there are many, many people here who don?t make in a year what one piece of jewelry sells for,? she says. ?Keeping it all in perspective and not losing one?s focus on what?s lasting is very important. This is why we are very active in raising funds for charities and giving time to them, and why I have always done volunteer work.?

The future of the store is much on Morrow?s mind. It?s one of the main reasons she reverted to the original name. ?It?s not just about me,? she says. ?Ideally, I would like to pass on the business in some way to the associates. We are planning to install a profit-sharing system. I had always thought of leaving it to my daughters, but that is not a reality. I have to figure it out. It?s a jewel, and it has to be left in caring hands. I would hate to see it die with me.?

PICKING THE WINNERS

Unlike what happens in the movie Field of Dreams, if you build a jewelry gallery, you can?t just sit back and watch the people flow in. You?d better stock it with the right products if you expect any customers. Marie Helene Morrow has done exactly that during her career as a jeweler, but she?s made a few missteps along the way. She shares her insight into selecting designers and teaching her staff to make the right picks as well.

?When I go to shows, I look for an artist whose work I will fall in love with,? she says. ?I have a pretty good feel about what?s right for the store. Of course, like everything else, you make mistakes and learn from your mistakes. There are a couple of artists whose works I sell slowly, but whose lines I will not stop carrying, as they are true jewelers?they have a real feel for design and quality, and that, to me, is what it?s all about.

?I ask, ?What are they saying? Where are they going? Do they want to be a meticulous small arty jeweler, or are they trying to hit it big time in Saks Fifth Avenue? Are they in for the long haul?the long relationship?or the fast buck? Is this a genuine new look or concept, or is it a knockoff??

?I try to teach the buyers to see the difference between a trend and a lasting style. The Microcord fad is a typical case. We had to carry it two years ago when it first came out, but realizing it was a fad we bought it very, very lightly last June in Las Vegas?only toe rings and a couple of ankle bracelets, and only for the hotel stores, where it was a fun thing to wear on the beach. We did not feature it in our Christmas catalog.?

She cites the color trend as another example. ?We bought turquoise heavily for spring, but we are very aware that it?s a seasonal thing.? On the other hand, she notes, ?We featured pink diamonds very heavily last Christmas and have reordered for spring. This is not a trend but a real interest in color, and it is also true of pink gold?especially Cathy Carmendy?s. And by the way, just because a piece works well in platinum, it does not mean that it will work well in pink.?

Has she ever been wrong? Right now she?s questioning her decision not to carry watches. The store has only a few, from designers it already carries, such as David Yurman and Robert Lee Morris. ?I guess not carrying watches was probably a wrong financial decision,? she says.

?I have to love what I represent. If not, I might as well quit and become a schoolteacher?which is the most important thing I could possibly be to make a difference. I wish I had [artistic] talent, but I don?t. But thank goodness I have been given another gift, which is the appreciation of talent. Artists make it a better and more beautiful world, and I am privileged to be working with them.?