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America's Coolest Stores

2014 Big Cool 3: Mervis Diamond Importers

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STORY BY CHRIS BURSLEM | Published in the August 2014 issue

Location: Washington, DC
URL: mervisdiamond.com
OWNER: Zed & Ronnie Mervis
Founded: 1935
Opened Featured Location: 2005
Employees: 21
Area: 2,000 square feet
Build-out Cost: $900,000
Locations: 3
Top Brands:Tacori, Verragio, JB Star, Martin Flyer, Jeff Cooper, Memoire, Coast, Precision Set, Christopher
Online presence: 3.5 Stars on Yelp; 8,013 Facebook Likes; Alexa global rank: 696,809

The story of Washington, DC, is the story of proximity to influence, and in 2005 Mervis Diamond Importers edged a little closer to the center of power with a move to the corner of 17th and K Streets, just blocks from the White House.

While just a hop, skip and a jump from their previous address on L Street, the jeweler made a big leap in terms of market positioning. Indeed, it now counts the President’s motorcade among its regular drive-by traffic.

"Over 16,000 of the city’s most powerful attorneys and lobbyists work up and down K Street. Not only are they walking distance to visit on their lunch hour, but we felt there was an added prestige in having a K Street address," says Jonathan Mervis, VP of market development.

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To match their new power location and to cater to their specific local audience, the Mervis family laid on the luxury at their new store. The tone is set by a shimmering entrance that took inspiration from the company’s distinctive black ring boxes, and features a black granite floor studded with mica-composite sparklers and black padded walls. Just inside the front door, the main showroom is dominated by four floor-to-ceiling museum towers. Peering into the towers, customers can ponder a $50,000 diamond necklace or one of the store’s other large drool-inducing pieces.


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Go Live. When the Mervis family opened its new space on K Street, it hired live models to stand in its windows and show off its jewels, drawing crowds around its windows for weeks. "We had moved from L Street to K Street for increased exposure and that’s exactly what we received," says Jonathan Mervis.

SHOPTALK

"Don’t sleep with your client," meaning don’t spend so much time getting to know that customer that you forget to sell the product. One of Mervis’ main aims in the sales process is to keep it simple. "Don’t show too much and confuse him" is a mantra.

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STRONG PROMO


A diamond-embedded cupcake, touted as the world’s most expensive, was created to support a trunk show in 2009.

TRUE TALE

an engagement ring customer became so captivated by a sales associate that he decided he wasn’t going to propose to his girlfriend after all. He said he’d still come in and pay off the remaining balance of his special-order piece, as he wanted the associate to get her commission, but he’d lost interest in getting married. As he explained all this, he asked the sales associate if he could take her out to lunch. Her reply: "I’ll get back to you."

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Pandora — Anything from show tunes to ’80s and ’90s hits depending on the the mood of the staff.

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HEARSAY

"Are they real diamonds?" customers ask of the sparkly chips embedded in the black granite floor at the entrance. They’re actually mica composite, but it makes for a great conversational element.

"When you walk into the space, you immediately see the spotlights on the diamond jewelry. We wanted to evoke a sense of awe and inspiration for something magical," says Ronnie Mervis, who owns the business with his brother, Zed.

"Clients perceive a clear message," adds Jonathan, who is Ronnie’s son. "This place is different. It’s luxurious. Ten minutes ago you may have been in a Congressional meeting deciding the future of our country. Now you’ve stepped into another world. You are a powerful person and you deserve elite luxury."

In another seeming nod to the way things are done in Washington, most of the sales are conducted behind closed doors in small offices away from the main sales floor. Indeed, the display area at the front is kept to a minimum with the private viewing rooms taking up the majority of the space at the store. The result is a "concierge-type scenario," says Jonathan, with the salesperson sitting down with a client in a comfortably appointed room and running them through an enhanced four-Cs education, and then when the time is right, bringing out product from a vault in the back room.

"The intention is to focus on building relationships and trust. With the right quality and pricing, the diamonds sell themselves," says Jonathan.

The education-heavy model works particularly well in DC, he says, where many of the store’s clients take pride in their smarts.

The salespeople, all of whom have GIA credentials, are given a lot of freedom to manage sales as they see fit, with the power to place special orders, handle financing arrangements, and oversee repairs for clients. "In this way, our salespeople are entrepreneurial and really own a client and sale from beginning to end," says Jonathan.

The sales process has its origins in the early days of the business: Ronnie and Zed, recently arrived from South Africa in the late 1970s and looking to pursue careers in law and accounting, respectively, found they could make some money on the side doing diamond deals, sourcing goods from their family contacts back in Johannesburg. Those deals grew into a second-floor retail space in Washington, as well as two other modestly appointed stores that reflect their particular markets in Tysons Corner, VA, and Rockville, MD, and finally the uptown moves to L Street and then K Street.

Through it all, the focus has been on one-on-one transactions with lots of education, and the store now has a database of thousands of clients that it keeps in regular touch with. Among them are a number of high profile Washington entities (although being DC, the store’s celebrity clients tend to run toward the cerebral rather than the good looking, meaning Supreme Court justices, congressmen and media personalities.)

"They are looking for quality. They don’t want to be sold, they are shrewd, and they know how to negotiate," Jonathan says of the store’s typical customers. In a place that has such a transient population, they also appreciate a family business with history in the city, he says.

The often temporary nature of the city’s population works for Mervis in other ways as well, with lots of young, college-educated professionals moving into the area to pursue careers, and a constant flow of workers on short-term, usually government-related contracts.

Overall, it adds up to the perfect market for a diamond retailer with the right connections, and the right address. "We couldn’t be in a better place, at a better time," says Jonathan.

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1. IT’S SAME-SEX FRIENDLY. Mervis has done well with the gay market, something it attributes to a "Coming Out" party the store held months before same-sex marriage became legal in the district. "(Same-sex couples) know we’re gay-friendly and that we stuck our neck out to support the community, and they have rewarded us for that," Jonathan Mervis says, adding that gay customers are very loyal and often willing to spend large sums on engagement rings.

2. IT HAS CONNECTIONS. Ronnie and Zed Mervis originally came to America to build new careers distinct from their family’s jewelry business, which was founded in Johannesburg in 1935. But their knowledge of the diamond industry and connections created a business opportunity that was too good to pass up. Zed was the main buyer, often sourcing diamonds from visits to mines, which translated into great deals for their buyers in America. Ronnie, meanwhile, was the voice of Mervis in ads that became a fixture on the town’s airwaves. He became so well known that a competitor tried to copy his South African accent, says Jonathan. The store now reaches beyond Africa to source its diamonds, but touches such as wooden elephant figures and safari-themed wall prints remind customers of the family’s origins.

3. IT RANKS HIGH. Type "diamonds" and "DC" into Google, and Mervis Diamond Importers will invariably show up as a top search result. Mervis’ Internet marketing isn’t designed, however, to sell goods online. Rather, it is to bring customers into the store. "What I love about the Internet is that everything is measurable, and the feedback is almost instantaneous," says Jonathan Mervis. The company knows how long visitors watch its educational videos — 12 minutes on average, how many people looked at its opening hours page and what percentage created a wish list. It has also had success with "remarketing" campaigns, which post ads on visitors’ computer screens following a visit to mervisdiamond.com.

4. IT’S MEDIA-SAVVY.Jonathan Mervis says he takes it personally when someone unsubscribes from his email bulletins. As the executive responsible for social media, he goes the extra yard to ensure the store’s offerings are tailored to meet its clients’ interests. "A 29-year-old is a very different person from a 65-year-old. You can’t send them the same message," he notes. The store’s success with social media can be seen in its numbers: Several of its 70-plus YouTube videos have attracted over 34,000 views, its chatty, fun Facebook page has more than 8,000 followers, while its Pinterest board draws thousands more.

5. IT’S CREATIVE. Back in 2009, when cupcakes were all the rage, the store put on a "Cupcakes and Wedding Rings" trunk show, headlined by the "world’s most expensive cupcake," a creation Mervis came up with in collaboration with a local bakery.


WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Heather Hanst: Mervis Diamond Importers has a impressive online presence. Their website has educational materials to help customers choose a diamond that suits both their taste and their budget. We also appreciated the story of Mervis’ Coming Out Party in support of their same-sex customers. And we’d love to see those sparkly, mica-composite floors in the D.C. store!

Danny Clark: Mervis’ marketing ideas jumped off the page — from cupcakes (whou would have thought?), to live models; and from building a store that caters to the market, to the ability to catch a local news story and turn it into a win. Bravi!

David Brown: The private viewing rooms are bold and modern and certainly add a point of difference. The store could be intimidating to less powerful or elite consumers … but I don’t think they care, which is cool because they know who they are, and who they are not.

Bob Phibbs: I love the museum towers to engage shoppers to browse and be taken to another place. Loved the narrative as well. So very smart to create the Coming Out event.

Natalie Bos: Mervis definitely stands out from other jewelry stores solely in the way it does business. I think their unique philosophy of working one-on-one with clients in private rooms is a smart and highly personal way to sell jewelry. What’s more, the private rooms are brightly colored and uber chic with the glass panels. The minimalist design of the cases keeps the customer from being overwhelmed by too much to choose from and keeps the customer’s focus on the jewelry rather than busy decor.

Andrea Hill:I love the private viewing/private jeweler approach to the store. I can see where some people — not knowing what to expect — might be intimidated or put off by it. But to the correct target customer, this would be a lovely experience. I think the promotion with live models wearing diamonds in the windows of their new store was very cool, and I can see where it would get attention. Grabbing and keeping the loyalty of the gay community is not only cool, it’s smart.

 

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Most retailers only have one GOB sale in their lifetimes. This was the case for Gary Zoet, owner of Shannon Fine Jewelry in Houston, Texas. “Wilkerson has done thousands of these sales,” says Zoet. “I’ve never done one, so it’s logical to have somebody with experience do it.” The result exceeded Zoet’s expectations. Wilkerson took care of everything from marketing to paperwork. When it’s time for you to consider the same, shouldn’t you trust the experts in liquidation?

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America's Coolest Stores

How These Georgia Jewelers Reinvented Marketing

Focus on charity touches community.

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Wear Your GRACE, Santa Fe, NM

OWNER: Hillary Fitzpatrick Randolph; FOUNDED: 2015; URL: wearyourgrace.com; BUILDOUT COST: $39,650; EMPLOYEES: 5, full and part-time; AREA: 650 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Owner’s GRACE pieces and Etkie (contemporary hand-loomed bracelets crafted by Native American artisans)


ONE DEFINITION OF “GRACE” is simple elegance. Another is refined movement. The word is also associated with the bestowal of blessings.

Artist and designer Hillary Randolph takes a creative approach to exploring the nuanced meanings of “grace” as the theme for her brand and her Santa Fe store, wear your GRACE. She also established “Share Your Grace,” a multifaceted program that benefits Santa Fe’s community, including its nonprofit organizations.

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Choosing grace as her theme triggers interesting conversations and builds meaningful rapport with clients, she says, who share what grace means in their own lives.

Randolph designed her Santa Fe store based on her aesthetic sense of what grace looks and feels like — warm and inviting with a dash of elegant simplicity. She opened her gallery in 2015 in a 250-year-old adobe building on

Palace Avenue in the heart of Santa Fe, just off the historic plaza. Her jewelry emphasizes graceful flowing movement. Much of the work is developed upstairs in the design studio.

Her approach to interior design is hands on.

A unique orb light fixture is an eye-catching element near the entrance. Randolph created it from a grapevine she found in Round Top, TX, that had been steamed, coiled, shaped into an openwork globe and re-dried. She took it home, painted the bottom of it with gold leaf and hung from it 100-year-old faceted crystal drops from France. The table below is also painted with gold leaf so it appears as if the crystals are dripping gold. It complements the interior design, with its gold-on-white palette and a trompe l’oeil tangerine curtain painted by a local artist across the back wall. The curtain painting creates a sense of flowing movement and acts as a backdrop for casually luxurious décor.

“The best decisions I have ever made came from feelings, instincts and hunches, rather than spreadsheets, schematics and trend forecasts. I’ve learned to make business decisions according to how I want my life to feel. The unique look of the gallery came from the feeling I get from certain colors, combinations and materials. I want my guests to feel as inspired by the store’s ambience as I do.”

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“I hear people talk about the experience they have when they walk in,” she says. “The product is an offshoot of the experience.”

Randolph’s approach to sales is to honor each customer’s personal sense of style, wardrobe and lifestyle in general. “It’s our passion to truly connect with women from all walks of life, listening to their stories and encouraging self-expression through their jewelry,” she says. “So we connect, we listen and we always have fun.”

Although shopping in Santa Fe is a favorite pastime of tourists, more and more of Randolph’s regular clients live in town. So marketing is increasingly local as well, with in-store events and email campaigns. This year she plans to feature the “faces of Grace” in her marketing and discover what “grace” means to her clients to make her social-media marketing more interactive.

Another goal is to spend less time on paperwork upstairs in her office and more time downstairs in the gallery, being the ambassador of her brand.

Randolph’s career started in Palm Beach in luxury goods followed by a move to New York, where she worked with Ralph Lauren in his flagship Madison Avenue store. Other luxury brand retailers recruited her to develop their wholesale brands and open brick-and-mortar stores across the United States.

In 1999, she visited her mother in Santa Fe and never left.

“I never thought I would stay, and then I saw the moon rise over the ski basin and it was the biggest moon I’d ever seen in my life,” she recalls. “There was a certain connection with people from all over the country that I found here. I had conversations with them here that I would never have if I were sitting next to them at a dinner table in New York. There is a certain veil that is removed here, an authentic connection that feeds me.”

She launched her jewelry-design career in 1999 with Somers, a line based on the sculptures of her creative partner that was sold in galleries and jewelry stores around the country. Later, the idea for Grace took shape.

“Even today,” she says, “there are things I’m still discovering. A new hike, people, artists. It’s not boring here. There’s always something to feed you.”

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She has found the business climate friendly, as well. Santa Fe, she discovered is the No. 1 spot in the U.S. per capita for women-owned businesses.

She finds inspiration for design in Santa Fe, as well. “I design in my head so when I’m on that hike the best design pops into my head,” she says, “If I’m just sitting there with the stones it doesn’t work as well.”

Randolph believes in being an active part of her community by creating a business model that gives back. She is a founding member of Santa Fe’s 100 Women Who Care, a group that meets quarterly to learn about and donate to a charity that the group selects.

Share your GRACE also holds invitation-only sales events throughout the year, during which a portion of net proceeds benefit non-profit organizations while boosting Randolph’s philanthropic profile in the community.

Randolph is certain she’s where she’s supposed to be — both literally and figuratively.

“I am living proof that if you choose to make decisions from your heart and persevere, you will never look back,” she says. “Creating GRACE has given me more connection, has inspired other women to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit and has led to deeper relationships with my clients all due to my own personal decision to choose GRACE as this next chapter of my life.”

PHOTO GALLERY (21 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Wear Your GRACE

1. Practical magic. Randolph is focusing on gemstones and custom-creating talismans using labradorite and rose quartz. They’re marketed as being an essential element of everyday protection. “Being in Santa Fe with all of our ‘woo woo,’ people love it,” Randolph says. The jewelry line that I am creating is the core things we need as women to feel safe, protected, guided, grounded, but it’s also an individual connection.”

2. The canine experience. Just outside the store’s entrance is the most popular “Dog Bar” in town, complete with treats tucked inside a mailbox over a trompe l’oeil of splashing water from a faux-spigot. Four-legged friends may quench their thirst in cool H2O. Pet owners peek in with an amused smile as they view candy colored leather dog leashes and collars engraved with “Walk with GRACE. Sales help support animal rescue groups.

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3. Versatility behind the scenes. The second floor is the atelier, where the jewelry is designed and made from cast components. “I have used the space for open houses, gallery night on Fridays, and featured a painter here with her larger work upstairs,” Randolph says. “So it is a working studio, but also a social space. Or I’ll have a client come up and we’ll collaborate to remake something. Just minutes after a design is completed upstairs, it can be displayed on the floor.”

4. Guest stars. Randolph loves collaborating with artists she’s met on her travels, so she regularly features jewelry by guest designers and hosts events promoting other artwork she loves.

5. Coco’s Bangles. The wear your GRACE collection includes best-selling Coco’s Bangles, designed by Hillary’s teenage daughter, Coco. Coco donates a portion of the proceeds of sales to the Heart & Soul Animal Sanctuary outside Santa Fe.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Sofia Kaman: I love seeing a business that embraces fun, whimsy and a sense of happiness in all that they do. The dog bar is a brilliant touch!
  • Jimmy DeGroot: I love the concept and the business model.
  • Lyn Falk: Great website. Clever and sophisticated. Unique name and use of the name in marketing. Interior and exterior are well done — distinct, savvy, artsy with touches of whimsy. Unique displays pushed the envelope in terms of a typical retail experience. More like a gallery. Hillary appears to exude charm!
  • Tiffany Stevens: This is a beautiful store! The exterior encapsulates the rich history of Santa Fe while the interior is modern and unique.
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America's Coolest Stores

Cool Store Design for Albany Store Based on Consumer Research

Vice-president Gregg Kelly considered aspects from the scent of flowers used outside to handicapped signage.

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Northeastern Fine Jewelry, Albany, NY

OWNER: Raymond Bleser; FOUNDED: 1980; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 1998; ARCHITECT: C2 Design Group; LAST RENOVATED: 2017;BUILDOUT COST: $1.3 million; NO. of LOCATIONS: 3; EMPLOYEES: 14;AREA: 5,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Cartier, Tacori, Simon G, IWC, Forevermark


WHEN GREGG KELLY told customers he was planning to redo the Albany, NY, location of Northeastern Fine Jewelry, they inevitably asked him, “Why are you spending money on a store that still looks beautiful?”

But Kelly, vice president and son-in-law of owner Raymond Bleser, understands the importance of updating a store’s look and making it as functionally modern and approachable as possible. He invested untold hours studying store design, traffic flow and consumer behavior before embarking on the major remodel he undertook in 2017, which went far beyond a touch up or a new coat of paint.

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In fact, the store was gutted, all while it remained open, with the support of its two sister stores in Schenectady and Glens Falls, NY.

What’s new? A 1,000-square foot addition, the floor plan, the cases, a glass façade, a patio and landscaping. Even the parking lot is new.

“We try to redo the stores every 10 years, and some stuff was falling apart,” Kelly says. “When a customer visits a few times a year, we want to re-engage them and give them a new environment, a new experience.”

The company realized a 15 percent increase in business the first full year following the renovation.

In preparation, Kelly painstakingly considered every detail and collected sources of inspiration from around the world, making it a priority to visit stores when he travels.

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He also reads the Robb Report and other national luxury magazines to stay on top of retail trends. He took a class with neuroscientist Robert Cooper, a New York Times bestselling author and business strategist specializing in consumer behavior. Kelly was particularly interested in what gives people the ability to make good, conscious decisions based on the retail environment itself. “Once you have their attention, it comes down to the associate who guides the decision to purchase.”

To get their attention, Kelly wanted the store to have an open floor plan and optimal traffic flow while balancing the individual requirements of a variety of international shop-in-shop brands with less of a choppy look.

Michael Roman of the C2 Design Group says the overall challenge was to take Kelly’s concept and bring it to life within an existing building.

The sense of openness was achieved by repositioning the entry and shifting it over, which also affected the exterior of the building. The goal inside was to improve traffic flow, so shoppers could feel comfortable, meandering freely without encountering any obstacles. “It’s the experience that’s going to bring you back,” Roman says. The shop-in-shops are tied together with materials and lighting, while accommodating each vendor’s own design criteria.

The glass facade offers a transparency that puts shoppers at ease as they approach. Especially at night, the window reveals the character of the store within, Roman says. And the casual patio setting in front offers a decompression zone between parking lot and shopping experience, easing threshold resistance.

Finishes are sleekly upscale and timeless, rather than trendy.

Kelly also told Roman he wanted a store that looked like it had leaped off the pages of a luxury magazine. Accordingly, finishes are sleekly upscale, but timeless rather than trendy. Decor includes shades of gray and imported European leathers. LED lighting is new, green and efficient. Roman describes the materials used in the interior as the bow on the design package — timeless, clean and relatively simple, designed to complement the design without overshadowing it or being too understated.

Kelly put himself in the shoppers’ shoes when it came to details.

“We changed a lot of different things as we went and I always kept the consumer in mind. Even things like how they experience walking through the parking lot, the pitch of the sidewalk, and the feel they get when they step out of their car,” says Kelly.

“We researched for hours how to get the right thing — from handicapped signs that weren’t run of the mill, to the garbage can, to the outside rugs, to the extension of the awning over the front door to give them enough space for their umbrella, so they’re not getting wet when they get into the store. I studied the music, the rocks we used outside and the flowers we put into the planters to make sure the scent is appealing.”

While all of this was going on, by far the ultimate challenge was that the full-service jewelry store remained open, to the extent that it could, one section at a time, while chaos was kept at bay.

“The biggest challenge was to make our employees comfortable, as well as our customers,” Kelly says. “We sectioned off parts of the building so we didn’t lose too much consistency. Every part was gutted. We did all right, too, and our customers were great to us. They still shopped and stayed loyal. We were able to move things from store to store and still fulfill their needs.”

Ray Bleser, who founded the company, was happy to leave the renovation project to Kelly.

Originally, Bleser had studied to be a pharmacist, planning to follow in his father’s footsteps, but after just one day in that professional role, he knew it wasn’t for him. Instead, he decided to pursue his hobby of collecting and selling rare coins and gold.

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Northeastern Coin Gallery opened in 1980 and quickly expanded in scope, becoming Northeastern Fine Jewelry by 1985. In a twist of fate, the company’s flagship location in Schenectady, NY, occupies the building that once housed the drugstore where Bleser’s father worked.

Bleser has given his son-in-law his seal of approval. “He’s stationed in Schenectady, and every time he comes in, he says this is the nicest store from here to New York City,” Kelly says. “It’s a real modern look that’s attractive to all age groups. You get a New York City feel combined with a hometown experience, and I think that’s hard to accomplish.”

PHOTO GALLERY (12 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Northeastern Fine Jewelry

1. The Diamond District edge. Northeastern Fine Jewelry has an office in the Diamond District of New York. “We’ve never been one to just order stuff and ship it in. We like to look at things ourselves and have the first pick of diamonds. We’re picky when it comes to buying. And it gives us a nice edge to pick out what we want and pass those savings on to the consumer based on our buying ability,” says Kelly.

2. Training is top of mind. The company sends staff for training provided by its top brands and invests thousands of dollars a year into additional education. The expectation of expertise extends beyond sales to custom design and the repair shop. There’s also a watchmaker on staff.

3. A respect for jewelry history. They plan for an estate sale every year. “We try to keep our roots and the things that made us who we are today. They’re fun, too, because you get to look at things that are older and helped develop the jewelry industry for what it is today,” says Kelly. “And it’s fun to sell one-of-a-kind, rare things and tell the story of how it became what it is.”

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4. Making marketing a priority. “Traditionally, the jewelry industry markets for six weeks leading up to the holidays; we work hard to have a consistent approach to educating the consumer,” Kelly says. “We’re marketing 12 months out of the year.” Marketing is about 30 to 35 percent digital, and the website recently became set up for e-commerce.

5. Promotional savvy. In 2017, Northeastern sponsored a contest to win the opportunity to propose in a live commercial aired during halftime of the Super Bowl on FOX. The winner was featured in People Magazine, the Daily Mail in the UK and the New York Times. They also sponsored a half court shot during a Siena College basketball game; the contestant made the shot and walked away with $25,000, leading to intensive coverage from ESPN.

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When updating your store’s appearance, consider function as well as form and put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Imagine you are the consumer approaching the building. What is the experience like? Is there shelter from rain? Are curbs accessible? Is there space for seating? Can they tell what kind of a store they will be entering? Have you provided a decompression zone between street and store?

 

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • Geoffrey Brown: “Very strong positive word-of-mouth going on here. The more personable and authentic you are, the more you stay top-of-mind.”
    Laura Davis: “The exterior is beautiful and the interior is very nice.”
  • David Lampert: “Nice looking store. Clever promotion with the Super Bowl.”
  • Katherine Bodoh: “I like the modern exterior with the large windows and natural light. The interior layout looks beautiful and very upscale.”
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America's Coolest Stores

Chicago Retailer Harks Back to History While Pushing Boundaries in Design, Art and Events

Designer pushes boundaries of fine jewelry, art and events to create an exceptional shopping experience.

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Adornment + Theory, Chicago, IL

OWNER: Viviana Langhoff; FOUNDED: 2017; URL: www.adornmentandtheory.com; EMPLOYEES: 4; AREA: 750 square feet


WHEN VIVIANA LANGHOFF PLANNED a pop-up tattoo event to celebrate her first year as an entrepreneur, it seemed like the kind of thing her artistic, creative core customer would enjoy.

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It usually takes a year to get an appointment with Kelsey Moore, the tattoo artist Langhoff recruited. The two even collaborated on designing gem and art deco-inspired tattoos to personalize the experience. So while Moore was virtually guaranteed to draw a crowd to the Logan Square gallery, Langhoff was still amazed when the line stretched for two blocks and some people camped out the night before, as if Apple had launched a new iPhone or Black Friday deals were about to be unveiled.

Langhoff is adept at putting jewelry in context, so she also seized the opportunity to explore the history of body adornment, which can be traced back to the invention of tattoos. A fun event combined with storytelling was destined for success.

See video below.

Langhoff’s interest in the historical roots of adornment also inspired the name of her business.

“I wanted to select a name that sheds light on the history of jewelry, which is ‘adornment,’ as well as the ‘theory’ portion that is the practice that artists have in studios. From the beginning of civilization, we find that cultures made currency and jewelry and adornment. I want to highlight the history and continuation of that into contemporary studios all around the world. We draw on aesthetics from many different artists: feminine, edgy, approachable and most important, wearable.”

Langhoff’s retail experience appeals to the independent, confident woman who loves beautiful design, knows what she likes and delights in artist-made pieces. Langhoff encourages her customers to let creativity dress them. “People are limited sometimes by what they think they can and can’t wear and what magazines tell you you should wear. Really, ultimately, If you love it, wear it.”

A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she studied fine art and design and then worked for a variety of jewelers, some specializing in fine jewelry and others specializing in art jewelry, before creating a niche for herself that pulls inspiration from both. Her studio showcases one-of-a-kind work that pushes accessory design into wearable art. “We are passionate about representing emerging artists and brands who are crafting the future of functional art and design,” she says. She also custom designs and makes by hand wedding and engagement rings in precious materials.

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Her gallery is in the Logan Square neighborhood in northwest Chicago, about six miles from downtown. The neighborhood’s diverse, artistic population of young professionals and families is attracted to bike-friendly park-like boulevards and an ethos that includes green construction and preservation of historic buildings. Other draws are Michelin-starred restaurants, music venues, breweries, craft cocktail bars, a farmer’s market and art galleries.

The business is very experiential. She’s hosted “make your own silver ring” workshops and invited gemstone miners into her store. She mixes it up with lectures.

“I select and curate events that highlight the theory portion of jewelry,” she says. “And I love history. Once a week on Instagram I use points of jewelry history from ancient Egypt to the crown jewels.”

For Valentine’s Day, she recruited neighboring businesses to join her in a collaborative approach with the theme of “bazaar love.” She organized the bazaar and featured a pop-up shop of luxury lingerie and chocolates. She suggested to neighboring card-shop owners that they host an event for kids to make their own cards. She connected the eye-care professionals next door with a photographer and encouraged them to host a kissing booth.

“Each store offered a fun and enticing event,” she says. “It wasn’t just jewelry focused; all of the businesses pulled together and people came out. I was shocked because the weather was terrible.”

For the holidays, she hosted a Great Gatsby-themed Christmas party.

During the sustainable fair-trade conference in Chicago, she invited a group of international miners to bring rough-cut gemstones to the gallery so her clients could make their own selections. Then she sent the gems out to lapidary artists to cut them.

A summer workshop called Diamonds 101 introduced customers to diamond basics — color, cut, how to use a loupe and what to look for when shopping. Other workshops included metal etching (creating a pair of etched earrings in copper) and jewelry illustration.

Langhoff has no formal training in event planning or marketing, but it seems to come naturally to her; both she and her staff of four find events fun and energizing.

She even created her own interior design. “I drew inspiration from contemporary art galleries, Hollywood Regency as well as Moorish design with our floors,” she says. “I wanted to create a jewel box that was contemporary and glamorous while simultaneously being warm and inviting. I think we achieved that.”

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About half of Langhoff’s business is bridal-related, and much of that is custom, but most of her clients prefer alternative stones to traditional diamond jewelry. Most of the bridal work is custom, but she also showcases rings made by several other fine jewelry artists. “So if someone wants gray diamonds and an earthy look, I have several artists who have styles that have that, who are distinctly different from other artists and from myself. I’m not very big on mimicking another artist’s aesthetic.”

E-commerce to this point has been limited, but Langhoff credits her website and social media for driving business into the store. “I still count those visits and sales as website sales. I think our website is really important even as a landing pad for people to get a taste and flavor of what our brand is about.”

Everything she sells is handmade and everything has a story. “People are looking for a personal touch,” she says. “They want to know if it’s handmade, they want to know about the designer, the story, the fair-trade component, where the stones are coming from. They like knowing the details.”

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Five Cool Things About Adornment + Theory

1. DESIGN OVER DRINKS. “Our Jewelry Bar is a space where individuals or couples can pull up a bar stool as I serve them drinks and discuss creating the piece of their dreams,” Langhoff says. “Once drinks are served, we review A+T’s full service menu and walk them through the highly personalized design process. The goal is for them to walk away with an heirloom piece that they will wear for a lifetime. I take the client/designer relationship very seriously and want each one to feel welcomed and delighted in.”
2. ART EVENTS. Beyond jewelry events, Langhoff hosts bi-monthly fine art openings in the store. “We’ve showcased everything from conceptually driven contemporary art jewelry (in conjunction with SOFA Expo), as well as fine art photography and paintings,” she says.
3. SOFT SCENT. Customers always comment about how lovely “our little jewel box smells,” she says. The in-store scent is created from candles and the notes are typically flowery, clean and beachy. It’s all intended, she says, to evoke a romantic, relaxed, beautiful and approachable space.
4. A SWEET IDEA. “We teamed up with a chocolatier to create a custom-branded ‘chocolate jewel box’ for our Valentine’s season,” Langhoff says.
5. MONTHLY WORKSHOPS. “Our monthly workshops are fun-filled afternoons where attendees learn hands-on techniques that help them create and appreciate the art of metalsmithing and other accessory-based techniques. We’ve hosted workshops on ‘How to Make a Silver Ring’, ‘Shibori Dying: Make Your Own Scarf’, as well as ‘How to Read Diamonds’. These workshops have helped cultivate community and further the customer experience. Not to mention, everyone has a great time. I love hearing the store filled with laughter,” Langhoff says.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • Jimmy Degroot: If we’re looking at location as the primary form of marketing, then Viviana is spot on. It’s so refreshing to see a space as well-appointed and thought-out as this. Beautiful.
  • Sofia Kaman: Love the interior design and concept. Very polished!
  • Tiffany Stevens: I’m obsessed! Smart and beautiful choices on every level.

 

Try This: Offer a Workshop

Offer your customers an unexpected hands-on experience. Why not try a “make your own silver ring” workshop, if you have the facilities for it?

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