A Good Education With Nettles Fine Jewelry’s Clay Nettles

Clay Nettles, owner of Nettles Fine Jewelry in St. Augustine, Fla., thinks jewelry retail is ripe for reinvention. There are typically two types of experiences consumers have when buying fine jewelry, he insists: “It’s either the pawnshop, haggling experience, or it’s so high-end that unless you’re planning to drop $2,000, you don’t even want to go in.” The second-generation retailer, who took over the shop from his father five years ago, offers a third kind of experience—one that “makes the transaction itself the smallest part.” Creating fun, memorable moments—from kids engaging in a scavenger hunt to adults sipping on a perfect gin martini—is the focus at Nettles. “When I took over,” he says, “I knew that the whole model of the traditional jewelry store had to change.”

You describe the buying experience at Nettles as “experiential.” What do you mean by that?

The model of our store is different from the traditional model. It’s always, “I have a product you want; you have money I want. We haggle, and you walk out.” And for the customer, it’s “If I need something else in the future and want to haggle again, I’ll come in.” That model doesn’t work with anyone under 35. To recapture a younger audience and to do good business in this Facebook-Google-Yelp review world, you can’t be that way. So I coined the term experiential jewelry. The experience of being in our store is so good, you look forward to getting your diamonds checked.

What specific experiences do you offer?

We have a full bourbon bar, and we do Champagne O’Clock, where after 4 p.m., we offer everyone champagne. The store itself is very open, and our aisles are wide. There are couches and incredible lighting. We have a 30-foot handmade wooden counter we showcase jewelry in that has purse hooks for women to hang their bags on. The repairs department is almost like a Harley-Davidson garage—it’s so open and transparent. You can watch your diamond being set, or we can set you up with an iPad connected to a camera to watch your repair. I can also record the whole thing for you. You know that feeling you get in Anthropologie that lets you be okay with spending $30 on a coffee mug? You really get caught up in the culture of the store. That’s what we’re trying to do.

You’ve said your store is very kid-friendly—tough for a fine jewelry store.

I have five kids. I know people aren’t going to have a good experience if they feel their child is going to break something. Kids can touch whatever they want. We have a scavenger hunt where we hide a ceramic gemstone in one of the cases. If they find it, they get a real gem—a topaz or amethyst or something. We also have a TV where we play movies like Big Hero 6 and Frozen. It allows parents to shop in a relaxed way.

Your website features dozens of original educational jewelry videos. Where did you get that idea?

We live in a culture of “Why in the world would I read something if I can watch it online?” So I wanted to create a very extensive library of frequently asked questions on diamonds and jewelry and repairs. I took a professional videographer all over [Europe]. We videotaped from the diamond-buying rooms in Antwerp. We videotaped from the Eiffel Tower, in front of the Mona Lisa. At a famous beer joint in Belgium, we talked about great groomsman gifts. We take on things like “Why is a setting so expensive?” and “Why do diamonds keep falling out of my micro-pavé ring?” I have my master’s degree in teaching and I’m a graduate gemologist. I want to be the person who teaches people about diamonds and jewelry. You always have a special place in your heart for your teachers.

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