When Jay Blankenbaker was the vice president of merchandising at Fred Meyer Jewelers, he witnessed firsthand just how symbiotic the relationship between supermarket and fine jewelry boutique can be. Fred Meyer, of course, made its name by tucking fine jewelry stores inside sizable supermarkets.
“It works because of the foot traffic,” says Blankenbaker, who struck out on his own in 2004 when he founded Ashford & Grace Fine Jewelers in Aberdeen, N.J., which now boasts six locations across the state. “No matter who you are, you have to eat. And in those stores, they get approximately 30,000 to 40,000 people coming through every week. That’s 365 days a year.”
But after nearly 10 years in business, Blankenbaker feels his brand is ready to stand on its own. Feb. 8 marked the opening of the company’s first-ever freestanding store in affluent Colt’s Neck, N.J.
Inside the Colt’s Neck, N.J., Ashford & Grace store—the first standalone shop for the company. (photo courtesy of Ashford & Grace)
And plans for more standalones are in the pipeline, says the owner, who got his start in jewelry as an engraver at Zales when he was 16 years old. (“Now I’m just a lowly business owner,” he jokes.) “Our intent is to develop a regional brand name, so that’s the direction we’re headed in.”
Colt’s Neck is horse country, and the new Ashford & Grace unit reflects the community’s rustic wavelength. “We felt that we needed to represent Colt’s Neck properly,” says Blankenbaker. “We really didn’t want the dark cherry wood and formica. We were looking for a country-chic feeling.”
Display company Paramount Fixtures created custom showcases and trimming made from 100-year-old pine, gleaned from a barn in Maine. There’s a polished barnyard-esque floor and 1930s-style metal barnyard lamps hanging from the ceiling, which are illuminated by quaint, old-school filament lightbulbs.
Blankenbaker, who’s opened more than 200 stores in his career, calls it “the most beautiful store I’ve ever seen.” And likes that the 1,900-square-foot shop feels welcoming for men, who he contends are easily intimidated by hyper-glossy jewelry outposts. “Men will just hang out and look at the wood and talk for a while,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like a traditional jewelry store.”
The retailer will follow suit, decor-wise, when opening up future stores. “We’ll be sensitive to communities, and build something in each location that represents the essence of that town.”