These California guys know the value of hard work and extremely rare estate jewelry
John Bonifas’ first retail job, at age 15, was sweeping floors and emptying ashtrays at a jewelry store in Toledo, Ohio. “At that time, every employee and customer smoked,” he recalls. “You wouldn’t believe how fast the ashtrays got filled.” Twenty years later, Bonifas and his wife, Sandy, sold a series of jewelry kiosks they operated in Ohio and bought Fourtané Jewelers, an existing jewelry outpost in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., to indulge their passion for buying and selling estate jewelry. John has been the store’s chief buyer since its debut, and Sandy has always kept the books. But the endeavor became a second-generation business in 1998, when their son Joshua joined the firm as its resident vintage watch expert. And in 2009, their younger son, Kristofer, came on as the technology and online expert. Today, Fourtané is a leader in high-end antique and estate jewelry and timepieces, and offers custom-designed jewels and new Rolex watches. “I tend to go toward more classic and conservative styles,” says John. “A lot of people try to become trendy in their buying, but when it comes to important jewelry, classic styles always come to the forefront.”
Secrets of Success
John: Our parameters for buying any piece are that it has to be pretty, be well made, and offer good value. Integrity in any business is important. Clearly you’re not going to satisfy everyone or do everything right all the time, but you try to do everything right all the time.
Joshua: Because of where we’re located, we get customers from all over the world in a more casual environment. We have people come up from the beach wearing sandals [who] end up spending $100,000 on the walk to their car.
The Right Fit
John: The key in operating a family business is that everyone has to find his own niche. Sandy has done the books forever and that’s not at all my interest. But you also can’t operate in a vacuum. You have to be aware of everything else that’s going on around you.
Joshua: Our work ethic comes from our parents. Our store provides us with a great life, but really we devote so much time to it. My dad’s worked seven days a week my whole life. I used to wonder why he wasn’t at certain things when I was growing up, but working here you see that the store requires an incredible time commitment.
Kristofer: The same heart my dad has with his family is also what’s driving his work ethic. He taught us to take care of the people around you. We’re in a great position: We get to sell things to people that make them instantly happy.
John: I’m not computer-sophisticated. I was brought up thinking that to sell something, you have to be in front of the customer. I felt the Internet was great for information, but far more difficult to sell jewelry with. For me, the Internet held the challenge of how to convey a piece of jewelry that you can’t pick up and hold. Kris introduced better photography and better descriptions. I still think the brick-and-mortar store is vital, but I appreciate that the Internet is necessary for exposure.
Kristofer: My dad had done a website years back, and it had not been very successful. My background is in high tech; I’d been working in Silicon Valley. So I recognized the opportunity to expand the brand and the breadth of customers we were reaching. The first thing I did was update the website. Then we started selling pieces on 1st Dibs. Being in small-town Carmel, I knew we had the right components, but we didn’t have the exposure. Now the website, social media, pay-per-click advertising, and other online initiatives have become a full-time job. I grew up in the business, so I had a great idea of what makes us special.
Joshua: I always liked watches because there’s an aspect of them that’s like vintage cars. The guys who like cars like watches, and that’s me. And also there’s the history aspect that I’m fascinated by—and the technical aspect. I’m very mechanically oriented. The watch business is very exciting. And entertaining. You travel the world and go to these auctions. Buying rare watches is highly competitive and you need to be very aggressive. That fits my personality. So I’m the watch guy. I also vacuum.
John: We always sold watches—they were always a part of the estate business—but nothing on the level of what Josh has contributed. When you sell someone a piece of jewelry, there’s very little maintenance. When you sell a vintage watch, it has to run 24 hours a day. Good watchmakers, in general, are a thing of the past. And major watch companies in general are not interested in older watches. So that’s the challenge that Josh faces, trying to find a product that will run. Josh’s level of expertise and affiliation with watch companies have made things easier.
Joshua: How to look at jewelry and watches and apply value—that’s the hardest thing about this business. Dad’s amazing at that. I think what keeps customers coming back is that our merchandise is fantastic. It’s very curated and extremely rare.
John: Josh and Kris lent a new perspective to the business. They have ideas on employees, merchandise, and everything else. Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees after running a business for so long. Without those two involved, I would still be in the same rut that’s worked for 20 years. I feel very fortunate. In your own little way, you always want your children to be a part of what you love. But you don’t want to force them. You do have to change, and I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned.