Retail Roundup: Counter Culture

Reports From America’s Retail Trenches

For JCK’s annual Retail issue, we scoured the country for store ­owners who offer a snapshot of the American jewelry industry. From the colored-diamond evangelist to the woman who helped put David Yurman on the map to a man who was brave enough to jump into the business in the midst of one of the nation’s toughest economic crises, here’s an up-close look at what drives retailers today and how they’re making it work, in their own decidedly individual ways.

Our retail special, however, doesn’t end there. To provide an overarching view on the state of the ­jewelry trade at this unprecedented moment in economic, social, and technological history, we sat down with Ken Gassman, founder of the ­Jewelry Industry Research Institute. We hope his answers will put some of your lingering fears about the holiday season to rest.

Finally, in a nod to the multigenerational family-owned stores that dominate this industry, we spoke to academics and business experts to glean the top five mistakes made by families working together. Even if you didn’t follow your father’s footsteps into the jewelry biz, you’ll still be able to relate: The No. 1 mistake? Failure to communicate. Hey, that can happen at anyone’s store.

The Ice Man

Gold & Diamond Co.
Anchorage, Alaska

Number of Employees: 7
Store Owner Since: 1975

When George Walton began selling small fancy colored diamonds nearly 40 years ago at Gold & Diamond Co., he was considered something of a maverick. “Off-color” goods, consigned to mass merchants who sold them on the cheap, were an anathema to a business that valued the quintessential sparkle of the white diamond. Walton, however, was determined to prove the industry wrong, and by the 1980s, his campaign had hit its stride. “I went from buying small pieces of 1 ct. and under to larger pieces from 2 to 4 cts.,” Walton says. “It took about 12 years to get there.” In that time, Walton found reliable suppliers who helped him educate his customers on a brand-new kind of gem with the refractive brilliance of a diamond and the singular palette of a colored stone. By focusing on finished goods set with finer colorless diamonds and fancy colored diamonds—mainly light to intense yellows and pinks, as well as more affordable champagnes and cognacs—he was among the first to see the value of the growing category. Now that fancy colors have hit the mainstream, Walton’s expertise is reflected in the dexterity and depth of his offerings, which come from such designers and manufacturers as JB Star, Martin Flyer, Julius Klein Group, and Picchiotti. Think of them as Gold & Diamond Co.’s own personal Northern Lights show. —Paul Holewa

The Legacy

Photograph by Chris Bucher

Merkley Kendrick Jewelers
Louisville, Ky.

Number of Employees: 8
Store Owner Since: 2006

On the corner of Brian Merkley’s desk sits a photograph of his grandfather Joseph. It’s a reminder that Merkley Kendrick Jewelers—located in a two-story house on a busy street in Louisville, Ky.—is more than a business. It’s a family legacy that stretches back 178 years. Brian never intended to take over the family business; for a time, he considered it too materialistic. But by working with his father, Bill, he learned that there is “symbolism and sentiment” in what the jeweler sells. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” says Brian. Since taking the reins from his dad, ­Brian’s had to find ways to embrace Merkley Kendrick’s history while keeping the store current. Instead of kowtowing to the recent financial crisis, Brian stuck to his higher-end merchandise, counting on his customers’ continued desire to mark special moments with special jewelry. “Those moments are still happening,” he maintains. (His strategy paid off: In 2009, sales were up.) And it never hurts to have history on your side. “In uncertain times, I think people turn to trusted resources,” Brian says. “Having been around over 175 years—that’s credibility.” —Jessie Halladay

The Talent Scout

Photograph by Angel Valentin

Reinhold Jewelers
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Number of Employees: 120
Store Owner Since: 1982

Thirty years ago, designer names mattered little to a business that consistently valued substance—as determined by a jewel’s carat/karat content—over style. In that respect, Marie Helene Morrow, owner of Reinhold Jewelers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, was a nonconformist. She recalls walking the aisles of the Retail Jewelers of America show in New York City in the 1980s, where she met a then-unknown artist by the name of David Yurman. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Morrow says. “I have always loved art, but I have absolutely zero talent. By having an eye for people with talent, I discovered I had a talent for discovering talent.” Boy, did she. Morrow signed on as Yurman’s first customer. Among her other early (and prescient) finds: Penny Preville, Michael Bondanza, and Robert Lee Morris. Morrow’s sixth sense for emerging trends helped her fashion Reinhold into an unlikely bastion of luxury. Today, Morrow’s retail empire, which includes three Reinhold stores as well as a David Yurman salon and three Tous boutiques, is the Caribbean’s answer to Bergdorf Goodman, thanks to her growing roster of cutting-edge designers like Monique Péan, Katey Brunini, and Kristin Zimmerman—women who, not coincidentally, share Morrow’s iconoclastic spirit. —Victoria Gomelsky

The Newcomer

Photograph by Nick Vedros

Missionhill Jewelry
Mission, Kan.

Number of Employees: 1
(plus family and a volunteer)
Store Owner Since: 2009

Out of a job and down on his luck, Christopher Ragan did what any un­employed guitar player would do: He bought a jewelry store. Last ­October, Ragan leveraged every asset possible to secure a small-business loan to purchase Missionhill Jewelry. When presented with the keys, he emptied every last bill and coin from his pockets into his register. With no small-business management skills and zero industry background—his only jewelry store experience was lifting boxes and doing odd jobs at Missionhill—Ragan became a store owner with the best of intentions during the worst of times. The national economic outlook was bleak, luxury-goods spending had dropped, and Mission’s Johnson Drive shopping district was starting to decline. When Ragan attended his first industry event last March, he displayed his newness and crazy-brave risk-­taking like badges of honor. “I told everyone I’d only been in the business for six months,” says Ragan. “One owner liked my story so much he brought me in front of a group of retailers and told them, ‘You’d be more successful if you had this man’s energy and enthusiasm.’?” For Ragan, it represented an “affirmation moment,” indicating his career bungee jump would help him bounce back in life. —Paul Holewa

The Individualist

Photograph by Robert Houser

San Francisco

Number of Employees: 4
Store Owner Since: 2005

Five years ago, Peter Walsh had good taste—inherited from his museum-curator dad—and experience in jewelry retail, having opened a store for another San Francisco merchant that racked up $1.3 million in sales during its first year. He also had strong opinions about what he liked (­jewelry in museum stores) and didn’t like (100 percent pure classic or art ­jewelry designs). To utilize his talents, he opened a jewelry shop that wasn’t too traditional, but also not too far out. “My approach is to engage people through curiosity and enthusiasm,” he says. The designers he features—Sarah ­Graham, Ehud Barlev, Toby Pom­eroy, and more—create handcrafted pieces, edgy and cool but also practical and wearable. “I like the personal relationship I have with these guys,” says Walsh. “They know me, know my customer, and listen to my input, and I get a better product as a result.” For example, many of Vicente Agor’s gold designs were originally quite heavy, but Walsh suggested making them lighter, and thus more understated for the not-so-status-obsessed San Francisco market. The name of the store, Manika (meaning “jewel” in Hindi), reflects the city’s über-worldliness, and its location on upscale Maiden Lane reinforces its position as a hip shopping destination. Explains Walsh: “Maiden Lane is closed to traffic—it’s part of the main scene of San Francisco—but it’s also outside of it.” —Jennifer Heebner

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