Eve J. Alfille’s Evanston, Ill., space is a shrine to all things bejeweled. With separate rooms dedicated to different categories—gems, pearls, diamonds, and bridal—a museum-like quality gives added weight to Alfille’s collections, all created on-site in her 1,000-square-foot workshop. Careful to never call this jewelry destination a “store,” Alfille sees herself as a curator and educator first and a retailer second. This unusual choice allows her customers to be swept away by the magic of the materials, rather than the weight of the purchase.
Photo courtesy of Eve J. Alfille
JCK: How did the gallery atmosphere take shape?
Eve Alfille: We spent time deliberately educating people to never refer to us as a store. My main focus is on being a designer with my own brand; but at the outset, I tried to represent other designers as well. However, the public already knew my work and was partial to it, so did not show interest in the other work. So I decided that I would continue presenting myself as an artist, and an artist shows in a gallery. From time to time I also enter art shows with my jewelry, and publicize the fact, especially when I win prizes, to keep up my artist membership card, so to speak.
My friend Celeste Sotola, a wildly creative multimedia artist who at the time lived in Chicago, created the very special design which was profiled in Inland Architect magazine at the time.
JCK: You have separate rooms for different things: pearls, diamonds, bridal. Why has this been important?
EA: Don't forget the largest room: the Gem Room, decorated to suggest the inside of a Giotto painting. That is where we meet up to four clients at once over a glass-topped low cabinet filled with enticing gems, surrounded by other cabinets full of gem collections that can be perused. The walls are largely open except for some bookshelves crammed with jewelry and gem books of every kind, so no one needs to feel claustrophobic. Since I keep a large inventory of gems, the glass-topped table and intimate space create a comfortable feeling for a client to give him or herself permission to commission a design with a gem that appeals. We will hang their coats, offer wine, and allow them to relax and be beguiled.
As to the Pearl Room, with a majestic gate of sculptural seahorses, it is a smaller space, also open to view, but once seated inside, confessions pour out as if we were in a cloister! I have worked to become known for my interest in pearls—I founded the Pearl Society in 1990, which continues to meet in this space—so a special space to show and display pearls was a must from the outset.
Our Diamond Room is a tight and enclosed triangular space just large enough for a sales person facing a couple, designed to provide privacy for this important moment in a couple's arc.
It was inspired by an experience I once had at the Tiffany flagship in New York when I interviewed by John Loring for a position there. The store was like a cathedral, I thought, impressed with the lofty height and two-foot-wide counters. But excitement turned to horror a moment later when I spied a handsome, 40-ish couple negotiating a large diamond ring with a salesman over the same two-foot-wide counter, surrounded by an avid and curious crowd of shorts- and sneaker-wearing tourists, hanging on to every word. Unbelievable, I thought—how did no one think of this?
On the other hand, the wedding band room is totally open on two sides, more a passageway than a room. Why? I reasoned that as the couple moves closer to the wedding date, the man especially will feel trapped, so the space is intentionally designed to give him, and her, air. Although I did include a separate chair for the mother-in-law who sometimes shows up.
JCK: Is there an educational component to your selling style?
EA: Absolutely. Taking people into the Gem Room allows us to show off a particular collection of a certain gem, discussing its attributes, and gently telling stories about the inspiration for a certain design as well. Because we are seated and it is more relaxed, we can educate as well as get to know the clients.
JCK: Is going the one-of-a-kind route something you would recommend to other jewelers?
EA: It certainly prevents anyone comparing prices, or other such practices that we never have to deal with. We have had a policy from the start of never discounting, and it is very seldom that someone even asks. Also, your style becomes recognized and we keep hearing stories of strangers on an airplane somewhere suddenly recognizing their neighbor's ring as an Eve Alfille, and an excited jewelry-comparing friendship then develops!
But, realistically, you cannot only survive on creating or representing one-of a-kind pieces: their higher price points do not find buyers every day. You also need a related group of multiples, well designed and well-priced desirable items you can repeat.
You also need to be proactive in inviting commissions. For instance, offering to redesign unattractive heirlooms and diamonds from long-ago beaus, keeping to your own style, of course. That is where even those one-of-a-kind pieces that don't sell every day will be useful, serving as samples to be re-created with the customer's choice of your gems from that glass-topped table in the Gem Room, in addition to the old diamond they just brought in.
Author of A Girl’s Guide to Buying Diamonds, Randi Molofsky has covered the fine jewelry and gemstone industries for 12 years. A noted contributor to fashion and business publications ranging from W to New York, and the former fashion editor at National Jeweler, she also serves as a strategic consultant for industry organizations and high-profile designers. Randi muses on personal style and design at pimpsqueak.com.