STORY BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND | Published in the August 2014 issue
Opened Featured location: 2005
Full-time employees: 3
Area: 1,800 square feet
Build-out Cost: $165,000
Top Brands: Alchemy, Assael, K Brunini, Paula Crevoshay, Sarah Graham, Ray Griffiths, Kataoka, Todd Reed, Temple St. Clair, Alex Sepkus, Anne Sportun, Victor Velyan, Zaffiro
Online presence: Yelp: 5 Stars; Facebook Likes: 1,478 Facebook Likes; 5 Stars on Yelp; Alexa global rank: 2.84 million
David Iler describes his shop as a tool junkie's dream. It's also a playground for the imagination.
He's got a new 3-D printer back there, a laser welder, Old World anvils on the bench and Matrix and CounterSketch running on the computers.
But if there were a fire, the first thing he'd try to save — once his staff was safe of course — would be his Marshall stack amplifiers and a collectible guitar, also stashed in the back. Clear evidence he's a man of many talents.
Iler, a custom jeweler who's achieved renown for plati num casting, spends part of his days leaning over a counter with paper and pencil, sketching clients' dreams into possibilities.
But the heart of the store is in the back, where Iler and company render those visions in precious metal.
He takes pride in the fact that he and his store are the real thing, that he is a goldsmith and stone setter with a full-service, well-equipped shop. That he's not afraid to get his hands dirty.
And although he hasn't yet transformed base metal into gold (the original meaning of the word alchemy) that doesn't mean he isn't achieving magical transformations every day in his store called Alchemy.
It all started with reinventing himself.
THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT STEEL
The showroom suggests a stage, with its black steel walls, stained concrete floor, 15-foot concrete ceilings, and elegant blue curtain separating shop and showroom.
Steel walls aren't for everyone, Iler says, but steel reflects his aesthetic and his past.
Iler is a former guitarist and backup singer in a heavy metal band called Alloy.
He also trained to be a welder at age 19, increasing his certifications till he reached the top of the trade and worked as a metal fabricator, spending years assembling skyscrapers.
"Seventeen years into the steel trade industry, I was looking for a career change."
He also likes to fish and had gotten to know a group of fishermen called the Northwest Steelheaders. Many of them were rockhounds, representing another popular hobby in the Northwest. "When they found out I was a metal worker and interested in a career change, they had a suggestion that I try jewelry," Iler says. " I remembered having fun taking jewelry classes in junior high, and so the idea of working on small intricate metal items definitely appealed to me."
He appenticed for a third-generation goldsmith for two years. He learned that different kinds of metals — even steel and gold — have similar properties.
George Von Brandt, Iler's mentor, had a retail store in Oregon City with a full-service shop and rockhound supplies, too. So Iler became familiar with the customer service aspects of retail. "It was a pretty magical place. And it was a key element in what I decided to do later," he says. "Dealing with jewelry is simple; it's a piece of cake compared to working with personalities. You have to be pretty much prepared for every type of personality style you come across, and believe me, there's lots of different styles. I wouldn't say I was driven at that time to open a retail location, I was more driven to become the best technician that I could be. Once I mastered that, then the reality of 'Now what am I going to do?' came about."
After years of practicing skills at the bench, working as a tradesman by day and jeweler by night, Iler landed a job as lead master goldsmith at Zell Brothers, one of Portland's most venerable jewelry companies.
In 2005, Iler took the next big step and opened Alchemy in Portland's Pearl District, near the heart of downtown. In the Pearl District galleries rub shoulders with fine restaurants and artisan boutiques, all with an upscale warehouse vibe.
The store is designed not just to look cool, but to put the focus right where it belongs — on the jewelry.
"Alchemy is a stage to show off what I do," Iler says.
The open floor space allows him to accommodate as many as 50 guests during events. There's still space for a couple of chairs along one wall, and for CounterSketch to be tucked away neatly in a corner.
There's even a good spot for a musician or two. An event is planned at least once a month during the neighborhood's First Thursday gallery walk.
SURVIVING A SLUMP
When the great recession hit Portland with a vengeance, Iler held on tight to his business as he watched many big-name jewelry stores vanish, Zell Brothers among them.
"We kept watching these people disappearing, wondering how much the market was going to shrink," recalls Laura Mapes, Iler's partner in life and in business.
That time brought an additional challenge for Alchemy because two blocks of Lovejoy Street were closed for the installation of a streetcar line.
They could even hear the jack hammer from inside.
But Iler persevered.
"Some small companies did make it by going lean and mean and staying under the radar and by doing that specialized, customized service," Iler says. Alchemy was one of them.
"When you would get a customer, you would really take care of that customer, whatever it took.
"I hunkered down, stripped it down to one person (me), I cut every expense I could find to make a profit and to survive."
Iler opened his store in 2005, but for years his business was focused on wholesale manufacturing, especially platinum casting, as well as custom retail work, so he initially had five people working in the shop. When things began to stabilize Iler began to hire again, cautiously, first Sander Raymond, then Mapes, and most recently, Brooke Hart, a bench jeweler, designer, and graphic artist, who is adept at social media as well as CAD.
Iler says the past few years have taught him the importance of patience.
"It's hard to do. It's definitely been a challenge. Being a jeweler, people believe we are full of patience. When I'm setting diamonds, I am very patient. I treat the stones with the utmost respect so that they stay in one piece and are set perfectly. But all those other things involved in the business require patience as well."
ARTISTS ON BOARD
While customers are prized at Alchemy, no one is going to give them a hard sell. Iler, working on the bench, might just wave at them through the window to the showroom and let them browse.
Sander Raymond was brought aboard as Alchemy's customer service specialist, to help guide customers through the custom design process or introduce them to the art in the cases.
"It's a great atmosphere here," Raymond says. " It's a positive environment, an uplifting environment. The business has been building since I've been here. The sky's the limit."
Once the retail business began outpacing the wholesale side, Iler began to consider offering customers some variety.
In 2009, the first year Iler and Mapes made a buying trip to the Couture and JCK shows in Las Vegas, they asked themselves whether they were there to pick up new casting accounts, or whether they were there as retail buyers.
The answer to that led them in a new direction as they began to look for jewelry designers whose work they wanted to see in the store.
Still, Iler wasn't immediately convinced. He asked Mapes what he was going to make, if they began to carry the work of other artists in his store.
Her answer? "You're going to make money!"
"David always takes baby steps, and that's where we get where we are going," Mapes says. In recent years, little by little, they've built an impressive collection to fill those showcases, beginning with the work of Temple St. Clair.
They make sure that the work of each artist is distinct enough to stand out from the others and they hand-pick every piece. He and Mapes are selective. They are looking for true artists who share their aesthetic.
When considering a line, Mapes says, they ask themselves, "Is it beautiful and is it well made?"
"All of our artists are true to their craft," Iler adds.
Being in Oregon presents special challenges to retail jewelers, Mapes says. People don't want to be too flashy, but on the other hand, the wealthy are in the habit of shopping for jewelry when they travel to flashier locales.
But because Portland residents are interested in art, making a connection through art-oriented community events, usually helps Iler and Mapes to connect with new customers.
Their jewelry is high-end, usually rendered in high-karat gold and platinum. There's nothing in the case with a $50 price tag. But Iler thinks customers tend to bring up the issue of price too soon.
"When they ask 'how much?' I find that question is a deal killer or it can be a deal maker, but oftentimes it's asked prematurely before a customer has an idea of what they are looking for or shopping for, or becoming involved in. So that's a question that drives me crazy.
"We offer alternative metals when it's part of the artist's look," Iler says. "I used to scoff at jewelry as an investment, but I was quite wrong. It is an investment, but it's an investment you get to wear and enjoy."
1. IT'S PARROT-FRIENDLY. If you've seen the show Portlandia, you may wonder what kind of characters pass through Alchemy's doors. One visitor came in with a huge bandage on his wrist, along with the parrot that inflicted the bite. Ordinarily, he said reassuringly, the parrot, "wouldn't hurt a fly." Yes, the store is animal-friendly and doesn't discriminate against parrots.Not everyone who stops by is so animal-friendly: Another customer asked Iler to fashion a cuff from a monkey's paw, preserved by a taxidermist. That project is still in the works.
2. THE LAYOUT IS FLEXIBLE. Because Iler often wants to move cases around, the track lighting is strung from the ceiling rather than mounted to it, allowing the lights to be more easily moved.
3. IT FLIES JUST UNDER THE RADAR. Alchemy's customers hear about the store through 1. Internet search. 2. Just walking by. 3. Referrals. Iler spends his marketing budget on Google Ad Words and print ads in local travel and bridal magazines. Mapes says the younger crowd wants to discover cool stores on their own. If stores are too pervasive with their advertising, Portland's youth would consider that to be uncool. So it's a fine line between obscurity and overexposure. They need to be discoverable but not ubiquitous. That's OK with Iler: "I don't want everyone in Portland to come through the door. That's not who we are."
4. IT'S GREEN. Alchemy, as well as the designers with whom Iler does business, are environmentally responsible and ethical and work with earth-friendly metals recycler Hoover & Strong. They also acquire their stones through distributors with a history and reputation for using high-quality, fair-trade gemstones.
5. THEY SHARE THEIR KNOWLEDGE. Iler, who learned jewelry making as an unpaid apprentice, has in turn hosted apprentices from as far away as Denmark and as near as Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland. "We place a high value on sharing knowledge and history to ensure a solid foundation for our industry's next generations," he says.