The Jewelry Curator

After 10 years in Thailand, where he operated businesses involved in mining and cutting colored gemstones, Joseph Schall decided to return to his hometown of St. Louis and open a jewelry store … but he didn’t want a typical jewelry store. “I always wanted to open a jewelry gallery as opposed to a mom-and-pop jewelry shop,” he says. “I thought it would be cool.”

A year after opening, Joseph’s Fine Jewelers has cultivated a loyal clientele that appreciates its constant rotation of jewelry from a stable of well-known designers.

Jewelry as art. Schall compares his job to that of a curator of a fine art gallery. But instead of canvas, clay, or stone, jewelry is the medium. Like most gallery operations, the store takes items on consignment. Most are one-of-a-kind pieces, and many were created with Schall’s personal collection of colored gems from Thailand and other countries.

According to Schall, who specializes in large-carat gems (mostly rubies and sapphires), “A lot of the designers work with my stones because I can sell my stones to my customers and incorporate the designers’ work. I tell my customers that I’m basically a stone man. I don’t know a lot about jewels. I’m a Graduate Gemologist, and I know my stones, and I know color. I use my designers to sell my stones.” Among the designers who place their work at the store are Alex and Lee of Oakland, Calif., and Taft Atkins of Missouri, a 2002 Spectrum Award winner.

Schall owns very little of the jewelry in the store, and that’s fine with him. “I tell my suppliers it’s a gallery,” Schall says. “I’m not buying for inventory, because I’m always changing my displays to give people something new to look at. I learned a long time ago I have a gift for selling, not for buying. I don’t care about buying things. I keep things that will sell. And as long as I’m making sales, designers are willing to work with me.”

Schall says that the concept of having a gallery is a novel idea in the Midwest, and he estimates there are only a handful of pure jewelry galleries in the country. But a gallery, if properly managed, is an effective way to sell jewelry, Schall says.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he explains. “Designers can try to sell things in my shop. If they can’t sell it in six to eight weeks, they get it back and give me something new. It’s good for designers.”

Jewelry accounts for about half of the store’s merchandise. The other half comprises colored gemstones—from his collection, from a Thai cutting factory in which he has an interest, and from an international network of gem dealers who sell mostly on consignment. The only items he has to buy are diamonds.

Hitting the trifecta. To make his vision a reality, Schall needed to find the right space in the right neighborhood and work with the right interior designer. Luckily, he hit the trifecta.

As soon as Schall learned that a space was available in St. Louis’s Central West End Business District, he pounced on it. “I knew that this was the neighborhood I wanted to be in,” he says.

Located just north of the city’s Forest Park, the neighborhood was originally built for the 1904 World’s Fair. It experienced a long, slow decline, followed in recent years by gentrification, and is now a fashionable upscale neighborhood and a destination for dining and shopping. Old mansions that were once abandoned now sell for millions of dollars. McPherson Street, where the store is located, is known locally as “Gallery Row.” As the name implies, it’s lined with art and antique galleries, making Schall’s jewelry shop a perfect fit for the pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined street. Before Schall’s arrival, there were no fine jewelers in the neighborhood.

After securing the site, which previously housed an upscale wine store, Schall looked for an interior designer. He interviewed several prospects and decided on Greg M. Gorman of GMG Designs.

“All roads led to Greg,” Schall says. “Greg was local. He knows the area. He understood what I was trying to do and had many good ideas. Over several beers one night we put together the layout.”

Designing the gallery. The approximately 800-sq.-ft. retail space would have been somewhat small for most jewelry operations, but Gorman and Schall worked out a solution that also suited the gallery concept. Instead of standard jewelry cases, Gorman designed seven wall-mounted “framed” cases, each dedicated to a different jewelry designer. Fronting each wood case is a large, rectangular, brushed aluminum sheet, and attached to the center of each sheet is a small Plexiglas box that contains the jewelry.

Gorman says the wall cases serve as a focal point for the store, defining it as a gallery. “The wall panels allow customers to interact with the fixtures and merchandise as if they are going through an art gallery—piece to piece, frame case to frame case.”

“It has kind of a post-industrial techno look that really blends in with the neighborhood,” Schall adds. “All of the other galleries show very contemporary art. So we had to keep the lines very, very clean to blend in with the other galleries. That’s why we got the idea of eye-level cases instead of the traditional mom-and-pop cases.”

The wall cases can be moved and reattached to any wall surface in the store, and the facades can be resurfaced with other materials and colors. “We developed a fixture program that was very flexible,” Gorman says. “It’s designed so everything is interchangeable and free-mounted. Removing a frame is the same as moving a piece of art.”

Lighting the cases posed some challenges. The cases needed light fixtures that could be properly angled to offset glare and shadows coming off the Plexiglas and the aluminum facade. Gorman decided to use “snake lights,” a track lighting system in which M16 halogen bulb housings are attached to a flexible cord that can be adjusted to nearly any angle. Three to four lights at different angles were used for each case.

“It was just a matter of positioning those types of lights and using them at angles—from the front and sides—as opposed to straight on,” says Gorman.

The store does have some freestanding display cases. Customers entering the store are greeted with three freestanding cases of graduated heights in the center of the store leading to the back. Behind the large front picture window is a small Plexiglas display case with a wrought-iron base. Both the wall-mounted and freestanding cases were built by a local manufacturer, Lancia Brothers Woodworking & Fixture Mfg. Co. Inc.

Originally designed as a one-person shop (Schall now has three part-time employees), the workspace—including a desk, credenza, and safe—is situated in the rear of the store and has a full view of the retail space. Behind the desk is a freestanding wall with the store’s logo that masks the back door and the safe.

Another feature designed for double duty is a large, wooden oval pad that appears to float in mid-air. The orange piece—it was hand-painted by Gorman and has streaks of blue, green, and beige—is tethered to the ceiling by four cables. The oval is functional as well as artistic: It contains four recessed lights.

In keeping with the store’s clean, contemporary look, dark, neutral colors—mostly shades of blue and green—are used for walls, floors, and ceiling. A revolving collection of artwork, for sale and on consignment from local artists, also lines the walls.

The cost of the job came in at just under $100,000. “We used every penny very judiciously,” Schall says. Schall and Gorman supervised the work, which took six weeks to complete. The store opened in August 2001.

A self-guided tour. Gorman says the open workspace, the oval, and the lack of traditional display cases provide better interaction between shoppers and sales associates. “You don’t have cases between customers and salespersons,” he notes. “It’s a more hands-on, more personalized approach to sales.”

Schall agrees, adding that the store is designed to draw people in and gradually lead them through the entire jewelry collection. “With these wall-mounted cases, and the way Greg designed this place, people who walk in the front door are automatically hit with a case that leads you to the next case. It’s very low-maintenance. There are no arrows painted on the floor, and customers pretty much take a tour by themselves. If they stop at a particular designer’s goods, I’ll come up and talk to them.”

Rounding out the look of the store and also providing a personal touch—along with plenty of fodder for storytelling—is Schall’s collection of artifacts from around the world. They include a mask from Asia, a Mayan head made of emeralds, African statues, wax water lilies, and a variety of triangles. “We’re really into triangles,” he says.

Schall’s artifacts, along with his collection of gemstones, not only look good but also solidify his credibility with customers while piquing their curiosity.

“I’m just a curator, that’s what I am,” he says. “When people come in here they get the idea that they’re buying a stone from Indiana Jones. I know every stone, and every stone has a story. With me they feel like they’re getting their jewelry right out of an adventure book.”