Star of Chicago: Other jewelers have made gift for the pope. But how many can boast of having a leopard?

Lester Lampert, Inc.

Lester Lampert, Inc.

Location: Chicago, IL
URL: www.lesterlampert.com
Owners: David Lampert, president; Lester Lampert, CEO
Year founded: 1920
Opened featured location: 1993 (remodeled in 2005)
Designers: Robert Lilak, Alessa Design; Baumann Studios
Area: 11,000 square feet
Employees: 36


There is a saying that family businesses rise and fall over three generations. Not at Lester Lampert?Inc. The father-and-son team of Lester and David Lampert have taken the business founded by David’s great-grandfather in 1920 to new heights.

The store moved to Chicago’s fashionable Oak Street in 1993 and underwent a make-over two years ago. A creative spirit pervades every aspect of the business, which has a history of high-profile commissions. The four-level store is divided by function. The top level handles shipping, the second level takes care of corporate jobs such as service awards, and the retail showroom is on the main level. On the lower level is the heart of Lester Lampert’s uniqueness — the shop.

IN-HOUSE DESIGNS

Customer-Inspired

“The coolest thing about our store is that we design and make most of our own jewelry on premise,” David Lampert says. “We have a full shop on our lower level and we do everything there, casting, wax carving, engraving, stone setting, laser welding. We do CAD CAM.

So from a manufacturing perspective and from making our own jewelry, it’s extremely cool.” Designers and crafts people have the expertise and equipment to pull off any design concept. Clients may choose to be as involved in the process as they like, or simply leave it up to the judgment of the Lampert designers. “It’s fun,” he says.

“It’s not that all of our designs are necessarily something that my father or I are crazy about. It’s about making something the customers want and they are crazy about. I had someone come in recently with a cluster pin of pear-shape and marquis diamonds and they wanted a bracelet. I spent about an hour and drew up a bangle bracelet with them to incorporate all of their stones. Is it a piece I would ever have made for the showroom? Not necessarily. But it was a piece that the customer loved.”

HALL OF FAME RECOGNITION

The Pope, a Count, and a Phantom

Both Lester, who is the store’s CEO, and David hold design patents. In 1981, the family secured a patent for the sliding-diamond concept and in 1986, for the threaded-diamond concept. In 1995 the Field Museum of Chicago marked the company’s 75th anniversary with a nine-day show featuring 100 of the Lamperts’ creations.

The company was commissioned by the city of Chicago to design the city’s official gift to Pope John Paul II in 1979, an 18K gold paperweight. The store also designed a line of jewelry for Broadway show Phantom of the Opera in 1988. In 2000, when Lester was inducted into the National Jeweler Retail Hall of Fame, he said designing a pinkie ring for jazz pianist Count Basie was one of his most memorable experiences.

“The Lamperts represent a long line of creative jewelers,” David Lampert says. “My grandfather and my Uncle Dennis each had their own jewelry lines and so does my father. We each have our own flair and look and feel. It’s always evolving, but the one thing that’s unique about the more recent generations, my fath-er, my uncle, who passed away, and me, is the ability to create any style. If someone wants art deco, we’re able to do it. We’re not stuck in a style. A lot of branded jewelry has a look. David Yurman has a look.”

CAT-CHY BRANDING

The Leopard

“Lampert” means leopard in Hebrew, a fact the Lamperts have imaginatively incorporated into their branding. When children come to the store, they are often presented with stuffed leopards. But for a while in the ’90s, customers might’ve caught a glimpse of the real thing.

Luther the real live leopard, now deceased, was occasionally hired as a model for the store, pacing catwalks and accompanying jewel-draped models in fashion shows, even out in the street. Luther even had his own room, for a while. “When we first gave tours of the shop, we had a room without equipment so we let the leopard roam that room,” David Lampert says. “People kind of flipped out when they saw him.

Luther passed away and we don’t know where to get another leopard, so we haven’t done that in a while.” Was he friendly? “He was old, so by default, he was friendly.” The downside? The big cat did not have a litter box.

Empowered Staff

Inner Artists

It’s not only the Lamperts who do custom design work. Anyone working in the store is encouraged to sit down with customers and interpret what they want, to transform a dream into a beautiful reality, as the Lam-perts put it. The store encourages all of its employees to get in touch with their creative spirits.

“My salespeople are all empowered to design.” Such personalized service makes each visit to the store a special occasion. “I’ve got great people working in the store. They’re friendly. They’re approachable. Our customers know our craftsmen by first name. We keep a very lighthearted, friendly store.” Salespeople don’t work on commission.

Instead, “we give them a lot of freedom, the ability to work directly with vendors and do their own designs. I think they enjoy that sense of ownership of a sale.”

THE LOCATION

Fashion Central

“We’re on Oak Street, which is the fashion street in Chicago. It’s a very small block, and we’re right off Michigan Avenue between Michigan Avenue and Rush Street.” Harry Winston and David Yurman are both opening stores on the street this fall.

In fact, Lampert can hear the racket of jackhammers from the construction of the David Yurman store as he works. Other fashionable neighbors worthy of name-dropping include Prada, Hermes, Barneys and Vera Wang. The remodel incorporated a touch of branding in the Lampert-preferred shade of green glass used as an exterior accent.

Curvier, more inviting display cases replaced more traditional rectilinear cases. Bird’s-eye maple in a warm shade of gray added another layer of understated elegance. And if the Lamperts decree it, every day can be Christ-mas with the flip of a switch. They may be sophisticated but they aren’t above a light show, or too venerable to observe Halloween. “We have a programmable string of lights that we can change for different seasons and events,” Lam-pert says. “We can make it orange for Halloween, switch between red and green for Christmas, and when nothing’s going on we leave it the green color that we like.”

FIVE QUESTIONS

David Lampert, president

David_Lampert

1What are some of your early memories of the store? I was born into it. Going back to age 13, during the summers I’d help out, steam-cleaning jewelry, learning how to style, to do paperwork, basic craftsmanship. I worked my way up to being a bench jeweler. Then I went to the GIA in Santa Monica and became a graduate gemologist. I’ve been working with my father for about 21 years.

2What defines Lester Lampert as a high-end jeweler? Being high end is not about high-end price points. It’s about quality — and quality can be done at many price points. We do have jewelry under $1,000 and we can design things and fix things for under $1,000.

3How do you market the business? It’s very hands-on. My dad and I both being creative, we don’t just turn it over to someone. We very much direct the look and feel of everything. We’re designers and we like to make sure the ads have the right look and feel.

4Will there be a fifth generation of Lampert family jewelers? There’s some potential there. I have three kids and my two oldest I bring down to work with me. My daughter has made some jewelry. She’s the artist. My son is probably more into the business side.

5How important was the choice of your current location in the business’s continued growth? I think it’s probably the best location in the city of Chicago. And the street itself speaks about who we are. It defines us as much as we define it. The street is all about quality and being creative. And we are bringing something unique to the street as well as benefiting from being there.

HEARSAY

Said in the store

‘Lesterizing’ is a word we’ve coined. It has two meanings. It’s something we do for our (jewelry) remodeling, giving it our look and feel. But a lot of our customers will say they’ve been Lesterized. They’ll tell friends, ‘You gotta go get Lesterized.’ Lesterized customers are definitely loyal customers.”

This story is from the September 2007 edition of INSTORE