Three retailers who’ve thrown their minds, hearts, and souls into the custom business share their compelling stories.
Custom jewelry design has attracted plenty of industry buzz over the past few years, reflecting the strength of the niche. So varied is the category that the current retail landscape includes stores that are, essentially, virtual—because they carry little to no “live” inventory—as well as those offering a mix of vendor-supplied and custom-made designs. But the real excitement in this booming business lies in the micro-niches. Read on to discover the stories of three store owners who’ve created successful jewelry careers that combine their talent for creating bespoke designs with their unique interests.
The Wholesaler: When Neiman Marcus opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1991, Oliver Smith, the owner of 17-year-old Smith Fine Jewelers, a source for brands such as David Yurman, grew concerned. After all, the upscale department store carried not only the Yurman line but also lots of others that constituted serious competition for an independent retailer like himself. “It’s tough to compete with Neiman Marcus,” he says. “My only option was to make my own jewelry.”
Smith started by making necklaces to complement some statement pendants, after noticing a dearth of interesting pieces in the market. “My designs come from a necessity to fill a void,” he explains of the genesis of his Element Chain designs featuring heart, fleur-de-lis, and diamond barrel motifs in rose, white, and yellow gold. “When you’re making a $30,000 pendant, you want a pretty chain for it.”
|Above: (from left to right) sterling chains with bezel-set pear-shape moonstones, $495, with rough-cut black spinel and 0.21 ct. t.w. star-motif diamond beads, $595, with rough-cut labradorite with 0.40 ct. t.w. diamonds and cross elements, $995; sterling silver hoops with 18k white gold posts and silver Starburst earring charms with 0.06 ct. t.w. diamonds, $194; Stardust cuff in sterling silver with faceted hematite cabochons, star sapphires, and 0.03 ct. t.w. yellow diamonds; $1,950; Oliver Smith Jeweler, Scottsdale, Ariz.; 480-607-4444; oliversmithjeweler.com|
Next, Smith tackled earring charms in 18k gold, adding flair by giving them removable and interchangeable design elements such as crowns and clovers for delicate hoop and drop earring styles.
After 11 years of honing his custom design skills, Smith took that aspect of his business to the next level by changing the name of the store to Oliver Smith Jeweler, the moniker under which he sold his same-name designs. The year was 2002, and he unveiled three collections—Stardust, Boho, and Fleur—with price points starting at $300 in silver. All styles appeared on his website. By a stroke of luck, buyers at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas happened upon the site in 2009 and asked Smith if he would be interested in wholesaling to their shops. Smith could hardly believe his good fortune.
Encouraged by sales of earring charms and blackened silver pieces studded with diamonds, all of which are designed in-store and manufactured abroad to keep costs down, Smith attended JCK Las Vegas in 2010 for the first time as an exhibitor. Fifteen stores picked up his collection for buy-ins as low as $5,000, with some memo support. Yet another coup: After six years of entering the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA) Spectrum Awards, the store won its first honor, in the 2011 Men’s Wear category, for an Ocean Jasper ring.
And while Smith still carries David Yurman, Emily Armenta, and watches by Chopard, his plan is to grow his own brand even further. Given that a Yurman boutique opened in Scottsdale last fall, the timing couldn’t be better.
He’s also created even lower price points—starting at $65 for a pair of silver hoops with 18k gold posts—and an e-commerce website, EarringCharm.com, in response to the economy. The strategies have paid off: Sales in 2010 increased 5 percent, and year-over-year sales for December shot up 30 percent. “We’ll stay with the silver and as the economy improves, we’ll do a lot more couture pieces,” he says.
The People Pleaser: Milton Krasner started his career selling price point jewels with mass appeal—karat-gold dolphin charms he wholesaled to stores through a manufacturing business he founded with his brother in 1980. Today, however, he’s asking clients, “What can I design for you?”
The San Diego–based jeweler has managed his own store for the past 10 years. Ninety percent of his business at Krasner Jewelers is custom work, while the remaining 10 percent comes from vendors GelinAbaci and Jolie’ Designs. Krasner’s specialty: creating one-off talismans of an extremely personal nature. “My niche is getting in my customers’ heads,” he says.
Take, for example, a woman who brought three expired bullets from a three-volley salute—a ceremonial act performed at military and police funerals—to Krasner this year to make into a piece of jewelry. The result: a silver cuff with the flat part of the rounds mounted on the surface, and a poem inscribed on the underside. Another client wanted to remake an old family ring, which suffered from a chipped center diamond as well as mediocre-quality melee. “I hid the stone on the inside of the shank, so that the diamond was touching her skin,” he explains. He also set the melee—a mishmash of sizes and colors—on an angle on the topside so the stones wouldn’t feature so prominently in the piece. “I kept the spirit of the person in the ring and used the materials that made her comfortable,” he says.
The cuff Milton Krasner fashioned of silver and three expired bullets
Another couple came to Krasner for an engagement ring and brought along a story of love linked to the Coronado Bridge in San Diego. They had sailed beneath the bridge for fun, driven across it to see one another during their courtship, and the groom even worked alongside it repairing naval ships. To capture that connection, Krasner created a ring with two bridges that served as pillars beneath a center diamond and included, at the couple’s request, a note engraved on the inside shank: “Love is a bridge between two hearts.”
“Many people want to put way too many things into a piece,” Krasner says. “In Yiddish, we call this ungapatchka, or, overkill. I start off plain—with a white sheet of paper—then add what they want while taking into consideration how they’re going to wear it, as well as addressing issues of practicality, aesthetics, and personality.”
During the process, Krasner’s own personality often surfaces. When a mother and daughter both got engaged in rings he’d designed—the daughter’s ring featured the center stone given to her mother by her father, who died of cancer years earlier—the jeweler couldn’t contain his happiness. He performed the Jethro Tull flute rendition of Bach’s “Bourrée” during the presentation.
The Good-Hearted Soul: When Ron Lodholz’s career plateaued in 2006, he sought out the highest authority he knew of to fix the problem: He went to church. During a Sunday service, the owner of Stonehaven Jewelry Gallery in Cary, N.C., had what he describes as a candid conversation with his creator regarding the malaise that had recently settled upon him. As a purveyor of jewelry, much of it supplied by vendors such as Galatea, James Breski, and Ed Levin, Lodholz was struggling with how to develop the portion of his business built around the pieces he himself made.
“I had come to a dark place in my career, wondering why I do what I do,” recalls Lodholz, who opened his own store in 2001, just four days after Sept. 11, after five years of operating a trade shop for repairs of slide bracelets. In the five years following the opening, Lodholz survived the deteriorating post-9/11 economy, a rising local unemployment rate, and the bursting of the dot-com bubble while expanding his business, moving from an 1,100-square-foot store into one nearly double its size. So when sales ground to a halt and just one of his own creations had sold in a six-month period, Lodholz grew frantic. “As an artist, you want people to like what you make,” he says. The answer he received that day inspired him to shift focus from making the prettiest jewelry designs to those that addressed a greater purpose in life.
For example, a woman came to Lodholz in 2007 intent on buying her own $3,000 diamond anniversary band. She was angry with her husband for not doing so, and told Lodholz that she equated the move to his not valuing her. His response: “Don’t buy the ring.”
|These cufflinks in 18k yellow and rose gold with 10.96 cts. t.w. cone-cut garnets garnered Ron Lodholz third place in the Men’s Wear division of the AGTA 2011 Spectrum Awards.|
“She was buying the ring out of spite,” he says. “I asked her, ‘What are you going to think of whenever you look at your ring ringer? Will it point to anything positive in the relationship? It certainly is not going to make you feel any more valued.’?” After further discussion—and some tears—she left the store empty-handed, though armed with the intent to go home and tell her husband all the reasons why she fell in love with him. “Some people would say I lost a sale, but I truly feel like that’s why God sent her into my store,” he says.
Soon after, a young couple came into the store with five credit cards, seeking a diamond engagement ring. Once again, Lodholz discouraged them from making the purchase. “It would have been a terrible way to start a life together—they couldn’t have paid off the debt,” he says. Instead, he persuaded them to buy two simple yet beautiful 14k white gold bands, which they could pay for in cash. “I told them, ‘You two go love each other, and in five or 10 years when you’re better off financially, come back and see me.’”
Seemingly at odds with a business-first mentality, Lodholz’s moves cost him sales, but they earned him the trust and respect of those he counsels as well as referrals, repeat customers, and future rewards according to his Christian beliefs. “I realized that none of what I do is about the jewelry,” he says. “Jewelry offers opportunities for people to tell others how one person cherishes another.”
Since that epiphany, Lodholz has won three AGTA Spectrum Awards. Plus, he’s tripled the number of in-store cases featuring his own designs, proof that the decisions he made based on a crisis of consciousness are meaningful not only to him but to clients. Employees—four part-timers and one full-timer—meanwhile, “aren’t shy” about talking faith with clients, whose ears often perk up at the Christian music on the playlist, Lodholz says. Even the store interior, a modern gallery-like space with bright red leather couches and chairs and artwork by locals displayed on the walls, has a decidedly church-like air about it, set off by grand 30-foot-high ceilings.
Lodholz says that while he feels most content when customers drop in with prayer requests—not design compliments—the businessman in him admits to feeling some pride when money is exchanged: “I don’t mind if they buy jewelry, too, by the way.”