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Second-Generation Owners Devise Creative Corporate Culture That Propels Business Success

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Von Bargen’s Jewelry, Stowe, VT

OWNERS: Jason Thom and Julie Von Bargen-Thom; URL:vermontjewel.com ; FOUNDED: 1978; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2014; EMPLOYEES: 4 at Stowe; 26 total; AREA: 1,800 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Alex Sepkus, Todd Reed, Paul Morelli and Mark Patterson; ONLINE PRESENCE:: 3,122 Facebook Likes; 4.5 Stars on Yelp.; BUILDOUT COST: $200 per
square foot; STORE DESIGN: Gensler; ARCHITECT AND BUILDER:: Cushman Design Group, Sisler Builders


Do Good, and You’ll Do Well

IT’S A SIMPLE philosophy, but one that Jason Thom and Julie Von Bargen-Thom have embraced. As the second-generation owners of Von Bargen’s Jewelry, the couple is building on the tradition started by Julie’s late parents three decades ago, even as they find fresh ways to stay on trend and in touch with the changing needs of their clients. The company has five locations in Vermont, including the newest location in Stowe.

Forging strong relationships with their customers — and employees — is all part of the Thoms’ strategy.

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“Our vision is very simple,” Jason says. “To leave the world a better place.”

Joining the Family

It wasn’t love at first sight for Jason and Julie. But it was close.

In 2002, Jason attended a Von Bargen family reunion. Jason was a longtime friend of the family, but had never met Julie or her parents, John and Leslie Von Bargen, who founded the first Von Bargen’s Jewelry in 1978. Within three months of meeting, Jason and Julie were engaged.

At the time, Jason was in retail consulting for big-box stores. Julie was finishing up a degree at Dartmouth College. She’d been raised in the family business, and even learned how to make jewelry from her father.

By the end of 2003, Julie and Jason assumed their roles as the new heads of Von Bargen’s Jewelry with the opening of a new store in Hanover, NH.

Transitions

The Thoms set out to establish their own corporate culture, shaped by — of all things — a book on food: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan probes the problems with the American diet. After reading it, the Thoms found themselves taking a hard look at how they were living overall. They challenged themselves to improve, Jason explains, but realized that as business owners, they couldn’t simply leave that challenge at home.

“When you own a business, it is your life,” Jason says. “We wanted it to have a positive meaning.”

The Thoms decided that part of that positive meaning included cultivating a workplace where team members could shine. One of their newest initiatives is Von Bargen’s University, a professional self-training module focusing on essential aspects of their business. The concept is the brainchild of Jill Zborovancik, the Stowe manager.

Jason points to a time in American commerce when every shop was a mom-and-pop, and the employees were strongly invested in the success of the business. Now, he believes too many retail companies are sta ed by people who have not been encouraged by management to take risks, innovate and maybe even make a mistake that could teach them something valuable.

Jason calls that mentality “clerking, not working,” and it’s what Von Bargen’s is out to avoid, preferring to attract employees who want to develop personally and professionally. Jason says the Thoms encourage their employees to leave their community a better place, even as they strive to achieve their own dreams and goals.

That has meant giving their team members a chance to explore new ways to invest in the community they serve.

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Sabrina Leonard, a team member in the Von Bargen’s Hanover store, was volunteering with a charity of personal importance when she learned there were women who wanted to donate estate jewelry to local causes, but lacked the know-how and resources to do so. She stepped up to help, and the result is Jewels for Joy, a program where Von Bargen’s appraises and facilitates the sale or auction of unwanted jewelry so it can be donated to worthy organizations. “We let someone take something and run with it, and it turned out to be a great thing,” he says. “We have a mechanism or another way to sell jewelry for people in a positive way that helps the community.”

The company also grants an allowance to team members looking to grow outside the store in ways that might ultimately bene t the shop. One team member pitched the Thoms on paying for her Zumba instructor training, and they agreed. Now, Jason notes that employee is not just healthy and fit; when she’s teaching, she’s also a Von Bargen’s ambassador in the bargain. “The proudest thing Julie and I have accomplished is this culture that we’ve empowered our team to think like entrepreneurs,” he says.

Julie agrees. She adds that strong client relationships are essential. After all, jewelry easily can be bought online, but in a business that’s built around milestones such as weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, people often long for a human connection. Listening is key to forming that connection, and that’s a talent Julie says she inherited from her mother, Leslie, who died in 2012 (followed by John earlier this year). “She authentically
enjoyed learning about them,” Julie says.

And So, to Stowe

With the hanover store established and their new corporate philosophy squarely in place, it was time for the Thoms to kick back, relax and coast for a bit.

Well, not exactly.

Soon, the couple was eyeing a spot in Stowe. They found a building that seemed ideal: an old house they planned to renovate. But once begun, the plan had to be scrapped and the house demolished. Undefeated, the Thoms began again, with the mission of creating a Von Bargen’s that blended seamlessly into Stowe’s postcard-perfect New England cityscape. The couple worked with Stowe-based Cushman Design Group on the project.

“I think we hit a home run,” Jason says. “People come in and feel like this store has been in Stowe since the beginning of Stowe.”

The store had its first sale shortly before Christmas 2014, and its o cial grand opening in February 2015.

While the exterior fits with Stowe’s style, the contemporary interior is equally in sync with what Jason describes as the understated tastes of their Vermont customers. Von Bargen’s clients appreciate high quality — the Thoms reject about 38 percent of the ideal-cut diamonds sent to them — but they are not dazzled by big bling, Jason says. While the other Von Bargen’s stores feature glitzy, crystal chandeliers to light clients on their way to the jewelry showcases, the Stowe store welcomes them with custom-made drum-shaped light fixtures from Vermont lighting company Hubbardton Forge.

Finding that happy medium for the community and the client is merely another way of bringing their life philosophy into their business.

“Everything we do, we ask, how far away is it from our mission and vision, how far away is it from the customer, how far away is it from ourselves,” he said.

ONLINE EXTRA: 5 Questions with Jason and Julie Thom

1. What’s one jewelry trend that excites you?
Clients’ interest in unique and one-of-a-kind artisan jewelry. Our best clients aren’t looking to have what everyone else has. They want to see and select something unexpected and uncommon, rather than mass market. — Julie

2. What’s something you’ve learned recently?
We had a customer commission a 7-inch-tall, 3-D leapin’ 18K gold frog. This project challenged our studio to think differently about how to manufacturer large-scale fine jewelry. Managing the client’s timeframe expectations went a long way to keep the process fun and not too demanding on the studio. Don’t let one big project shipwreck your weekly bread-and-butter operations. — Jason”

3. What’s the best compliment a client has ever given you?
“I shop with you because of how you curate your jewelry collection. And because of you.” — Julie

4. Who is your hero and why?
Everyone is fighting some kind of battle, and it’s important to recognize individuals that can get up every day with that fight and still find a way to have a good day. These people are my heroes. — Jason

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5. What’s your perfect day look like?
Early morning time with my daughter. Yoga practice or a run. A full day of work, including interacting with best clients, spending time thoughtfully on our business and engaging with my team on the little fires and on the bigger picture. Then heading north to my favorite place, Lake Willoughby, for a family evening. — Julie

Five Cool Things About Von Bargen’s Jewelry

1. BE OUR GUEST. When the Thoms built the Stowe store, they had the foresight to finish the building’s upstairs as a cozy apartment. They’ve already donated the residence to several local charity events, pairing the stay with a Von Bargen’s gift certificate and
a welcome present of the beloved Vermont beer, Heady Topper. The couple also plans to lend it to visiting vendors and high-level clients.

2. A CLASSIC CASE. How jewelry is displayed is almost as important as the jewels themselves. That’s why in Von Bargen’s, cherry wood showcases were handcrafted in Underhill, VT. The custom cases have an operational component, too, with retractable legs and removable trays designed to fit neatly into the vault.

3. BACK IN THE BEGINNING. We love origin stories, and this one’s pretty darn cool. In 1975, John Von Bargen popped the question to his love, Leslie. Then he made another announcement: He was going to take $400 in tools and materials and become a jeweler. Not only that, he promised to have a paycheck by the weekend. (Which he did: $200.) The rest,
as they say, is cool store history.

4. TAKE THE V-LINE. In keeping with the Thoms’ philosophy of encouraging entrepreneurship in employees, the company recently introduced the V-Line. The jewelry is the brainchild of
Ali Dumont, a manager in the Von Bargen’s Burlington store, who brought her designs to the Thoms before handing them off to an inhouse jeweler to bring them to life.

5. WHO’S THAT DOG?. About five years ago, Jason and Julie Thom turned to local photographer Chris Mazzarella for
help in their print advertising. The Thoms decided to use Von Bargen team members rather than professional models. Ultimately, even Mazzarella’s pregnant wife and family dog took their turn in front of the camera, too.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

  • Brandee Dallow: The crisp, clean, classy and rich interior of Von Bargen’s is what makes it cool — and all of this perfectly complements the cool and snowy environment that is Vermont.
  • Debbie Fox:  Their website has powerful videos that speak to people’s emotions and life’s realities; Von Bargen’s personality is about being real and caring as opposed to being perfect and polished.
  • Becky Stone:  Von Bargen’s exudes a warm, genuine feeling — everything from the classic design of the storefront to the thoughtfully designed display cases and the fact that the store’s advertisements feature only staff members, not models, reveals an authenticity that makes Von Bargen’s feel trustworthy. The overall branding creates an impression of friendliness without sacrificing dignity or elegance. I love the idea of “buying fewer, better things.”
  • Todd Reed:  This story is a truly great one: a life of love and passion from John and Leslie down to Jason and Julie. They care so much about their community and their staff and family of designers.
PHOTO GALLERY (8 Images)

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America's Coolest Stores

Urban Planning Background Helps 4th-Gen Jeweler Find Perfect Location

Ohio store was once an airplane hangar.

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Welling & Co., West Chester, OH

OWNERS: Bill Welling, Daniel Welling; URL:wellingsjewelers.com ; FOUNDED: 1920; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2015; SHOWCASES: KDM Pop;DESIGN: Leslie McGwire & Associates Interior Design Co.; MTL Construction; EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time; 3 part-time ; AREA: 2,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Breuning, Christopher Designs, Frederic Duclos, Vahan; ONLINE PRESENCE: 53 Google reviews with a 4.9 rating; 1,706 likes on Facebook; 669 Instagram followers; BUILDOUT COST: $225,000


Daniel and Bill Welling play to their strengths at Welling & Co Jewelers.

IF YOU’RE VISITING Welling & Co. Jewelers in West Chester, OH, and happen to hear music from ‘70s progressive-rock band Ambrosia playing, it’s a good bet that Daniel Welling is out of town.

Daniel and his father, Bill Welling, clash a bit over what kind of music to play in the store, with Daniel leaning toward something more modern than Bill, the Ambrosia fan, would choose. No doubt hashing out a playlist is a typical source of exasperated eye-rolling in many a multi-generational family business.

There are other challenges in an overall deeply rewarding experience.

“It’s a learning experience working with Dad,” Daniel says. “I have to juggle being professional, but also having a personal relationship. It’s awkward for me sometimes, to say, ‘Hey, Dad,’ in front of a customer. We have a different relationship here than we do outside the store. For the most part, I’m being educated by him on how to run the business.”

The most important thing he’s learned from his father is how to be flexible by adapting to changes in shopping habits and inventory. When Daniel expresses his concerns about how to handle laboratory-grown diamonds or online shopping, his dad is able to put it in perspective, since he’s been through many changes himself over a 47-year career.

One of the most important changes they’re navigating lately, Bill believes, is that the current generation doesn’t see jewelry in the same light that his generation or his dad’s generation did. It just doesn’t carry the same significance. Second, the customer walking in the door is much more knowledgeable than in years past.

That means everyone in the store needs to be well-educated. “You have to be able to answer the questions,” Daniel says. “I want them to have an experience and not just come in and drop their watch off for a battery. They have to be engaged, even when they are waiting for a battery.”

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Daniel hadn’t planned to go into the business, but when he graduated in 2007 with a degree in urban planning, prospects in his field were few. He worked at Welling & Co. as a stopgap, but his level of commitment reflected the fact that he considered it temporary.

“My dad started getting annoyed, because I was just kind of hanging around,” Daniel says.

But Bill had an idea about where Daniel might shine. Although they had invested in Matrix, their bench jeweler didn’t have time to learn it. “Dad said, ‘Why don’t you try this out?’” Daniel recalls. Daniel agreed, and when he trained with Gemvision, something about it just clicked for him. Now he spearheads the custom design side of the business. ”Probably the thing I like the most about it is helping engagement ring customers make rings. That’s something that’s so exciting to them. That’s kept me going as far as being productive here, and it’s a full-time job for me.”

Both Wellings are pleased with their new store in Butler County, which is one of the fastest growing counties in Ohio and a bedroom community for both Cincinnati and Dayton professionals. The renovation of an old building — once an airplane hangar — on the road between Cincinnati and Dayton drew a lot of attention in the town of West Chester. Exposed brick interiors, an assortment of modern pendant lighting, high, open ceilings and modular cases all combined to add a fresh possibility to regional retail design. Impressed neighbors even stopped by to take a look at the floor, which is a vinyl material made to look like wood. And to marvel at the walls of windows that were once garage-style doors.

A converted airplane hangar provides a wide open space for a casual concept store.

After they made the decision to move out of a shopping center, Daniel and Bill met with interior designer Leslie McGwire during the JCK Las Vegas show to plan the place. ”She guided us through the process and pulled out information about what we wanted the same way we do with custom-design jewelry customers,” Daniel says. “She asked about the ambience and how we wanted our customers to feel when they came in.”

The inspiration for the store is a Starbucks coffee shop. It’s designed to create a relaxed setting, with organic elements throughout, including an open slate-gray painted ceiling and a textured wood plank floor, and textured stone on the wall behind the logo wall and the diamond bar. The focal point is the live-edge recycled walnut wood tables that display much of the jewelry. The neutral colors of the chandelier’s glass globes over the wood jewelry cases blend smoothly with the finishes.

“The amazing thing was that Leslie never stepped foot in this store,” Bill says. “But she did a terrific job coordinating. When customers first experience our store, they don’t know what to expect, because it’s not a traditional jewelry store. I think for that reason, they are more receptive to how you approach them and what you show them.”

Daniel agrees it’s made a big difference in how the business is perceived. ”People think it’s warm and inviting,” Daniel says. “Customers really appreciate us being on the same side of the case with them. I didn’t want people to come in here and feel like they were in a bank. I don’t wear a suit. I want to be comfortable and feel comfortable when I interact.”

Welling & Co. was founded a century ago in Loveland, OH, where it has returned to open a second store recently.

After the building was complete, a customer dropped by with a surprise: a Welling & Co. clock dating from the family’s first store, which opened in 1920 in Lockland, OH. The customer had inherited it from a relative who had found it in a building she owned. Now it occupies a place of honor on the new store’s wall.

In 1920, Richard E. Welling purchased a jewelry store in downtown Lockland, OH, on a recommendation from a friend in the wholesale business. After serving his country during World War II, William F. Welling, son of Richard, took over the store and was later joined in business by his younger brother, Thomas. They continued to thrive in downtown Lockland and decided to open a second location in 1979 in nearby Mason, OH. William F. Welling, Jr. had a large role in the success of the second location and eventually purchased the store from his father and uncle.

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Nearly 100 years since the store’s founding, four Welling family members are on staff: Bill and Daniel, as well as Josh in jewelry and watch repair, and Taylor in sales.
Good-natured disagreements about the musical playlist aside, Bill says his son’s interest in the business has inspired him.

“A jewelry store today is very much generational, and when he came onboard, it solidified to me that I did the right thing from the very beginning,” Bill says. “When you’re the employer and the father, you have to learn which boundaries you can step over and which boundaries you can’t, because no one will do the job exactly the way you want it to be done. I let him make mistakes. I just don’t let him make big mistakes.”

PHOTO GALLERY (15 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Welling & Co.

1. Back to the future. In August, Welling & Co. opened a second store in downtown Loveland, OH, where the business was born a century ago. The 700-square-foot space has a mid-century modern theme and polished concrete floors. Because the town has boutiques already, Welling & Co. in Loveland will steer away from fashion jewelry and concentrate on traditional and fine jewelry.

2. Summer soiree. An end of summer bash in September is a time to have fun with customers, Daniel says. “We rented a beer truck with three different local craft beer choices. We also had a food truck and DJ for the event. Our idea was to just have a fun night with customers and not necessary to have a big sale. We ended up having a large sales day early on and clearing up some space for new merchandise before the holidays. Later, our staff was able to enjoy the beautiful evening with our customers who hung out and enjoyed the beer, music and free food.”

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3. Something for everyone. It’s tough to pinpoint a typical Welling & Co. customer for marketing purposes because Welling & Co. really does offer a wide range of inventory, from Kendra Scott fashion jewelry to custom bridal.

4. Great Google reviews. This feedback forum has been the best form of marketing for Welling & Co., although the team also employs a wide range of social media, local publications, billboards, mail, e-blasts and, on occasion, movie-theater ads or TV commercials.

5. Floor plan. Clients can sit and enjoy a beverage at the L-shaped bar while shopping for diamonds. Instead of talking to customers over a counter, staffers are able to walk around with them from case to case, with many of them pulling out to allow customers to take a closer look.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: The interior and exterior of the store is beautiful! I love the history of the building and the fact that the store has been in the family for over four generations. The L-shaped bar and End Of Summer Bash are great ideas and smart marketing tactics.
  • Julie Ettinger: I love the generations that continue to flourish in this business. The story behind the building is fabulous, and it must be the coolest exterior of any store that I have seen.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : I especially love the warmth of the hardwood floors. I am impressed that this business is 99 years old and still in the same family. Excellent online reviews tell me that this store has been a beloved retailer in the community for a long time. Kudos to them!
  • Hedda Schupak: It’s a lovely store, a lovely story, and a great third-generation business. I like how the design pays homage to the vastness of the space.
  • Eric Zimmerman: The Welling family’s store is a pleasing combination of materials such as walnut wood furniture, textured stone walls and glass chandeliers. They have done an excellent job of creating a warm and comfortable environment for their customers.
  • Joel Hassler: They did a great job of keeping the character of the building but still creating a unique shopping feel. I like that it has an open industrial feel without looking cluttered and mismatched.

 

Try This: Gem Lightbox

The purchase of a new piece of tech equipment will allow Welling & Co. to more easily photograph its jewelry (the images can be rotated 360 degrees) and prepare for e-commerce on their Gemfind-designed website, launched last year.

 

ONLINE EXTRA: Q & A with Daniel

Will you carry lab-grown diamonds?

We live in Cincinnati and it’s a pretty conservative area. We haven’t really gotten a lot of requests for it yet. I wouldn’t say I’m against it. The hardest thing is to see in the future. At our store and at a lot of stores, if you buy a center stone and you upgrade it later, you get that price back. But are lab-growns going to drop in price and how will that affect the trade-in policy. That’s our biggest hesitation. That and just being transparent. I want to be as transparent as possible.

Why did you decide to open a second store?

We felt like it was a great opportunity to get a footprint somewhere there wasn’t much competition. It’s going to be more work but we signed a five-year lease. After five years, I’d rather say I failed than be kicking myself for not trying. Dad is the type of person who loves having sales and events where people are lined up out the door. Opening a new store is giving him energy and excitement in the industry.

How did you choose your current location in West Chester?

My major was in urban and regional planning. I was able to look at this location from that perspective and say I think this is a positive and evaluate the whole area. Butler has been one of the fastest growing counties in the country. So it wasn’t too difficult to choose something here. Cincinnati/Dayton will eventually be one large metro area. West Chester is ranked the No. 1 county in the area, it’s an affluent area and an easy commute to Cincinnati or Dayton. There are lots of parks around here and shopping. The mall is two exits up.

How did you get into the family business?

I did not know I’d go into the business. It was a fallback plan. My sister works here and I have two other siblings, but when I graduated the job market wasn’t great. I started working here and my dad started getting annoyed because I was just kind of hanging around. Our jeweler had done the Matrix course and he just wasn’t grasping it and didn’t have time to learn it. Dad said, why don’t you try this out? So I went out to Gemvision and got trained on it and I’ve been doing it over 10 years. Probably the thing I like the most about it is helping engagement ring customers make rings. That’s something that’s so exciting to them. And that’s kept me going as far as being productive here, that’s a full-time job for me here.

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America's Coolest Stores

New York’s Yaf Sparkle Excels at Hospitality

Creating an experience comes naturally.

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Yaf Sparkle, New York

OWNERS: Yaf Boye-Flaegel and Torsten Flaegel; URL:yafsparkle.com ; FOUNDED: 2012; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 4 ; AREA: 1,400 square feet total; 720 square foot showroom TOP BRANDS: Vieri, Elements Studio NYC, Lyon Fine Jewelry, John Varvatos, Sarah Michiko; ONLINE PRESENCE: 8,600 Facebook likes, 4,515 Instagram followers, 161 Trip Advisor Reviews with a 5.0 rating. Yaf Sparkle is No. 6 of 1,001 shopping experiences in New York City on Trip Advisor; BUILDOUT COST: $85,000


ON A SULTRY JULY afternoon, an out-of-town customer, who had reluctantly left Yaf Sparkle without buying anything, returned soon after. She couldn’t shake the feeling she had to buy that pair of earrings that caught her eye.

Even after sealing the deal, she was reluctant to leave. Her husband, resigned, was ready to sink into a chair in an air-conditioned reprieve from the muggy air outside. As his wife succumbed to a number of add-on purchases, he told store owner Yaf Boye-Flaegel that she had mastered the art of the ABCs.

ABC? Yaf inquired.

“Always be closing,” he said.

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But Yaf said she had never heard that expression. For her, closing is about a lighthearted musical laugh and a playful “Hey, where are you going?” That’s what she might say if customers don’t seem certain whether they’re ready to leave or buy a second or a third piece of jewelry. Temptation is everywhere within reach, like low-hanging fruit. Add-ons abound in the form of stackable rings and layered pendants. She floats from one customer to another, jangling a pile of Julie Voss-designed bangles on her wrist with enthusiasm. She sells those gold-plated brass items as quickly as if they really are pieces of fruit.

Yaf says it’s the hospitality she learned from her parents in her native Senegal that helps her so effortlessly create such a welcoming atmosphere. Working in other people’s jewelry stores before she had her own, she observed that her friends weren’t comfortable stopping by even to say hello, let alone to hang out. Now that she’s created her own environment with a Caribbean-music soundtrack that makes swaying to the beat impossible to avoid and a playful approach to mixing and matching layers and stacks of jewelry, everyone who happens by wants to stay a while.

Sometimes a regular will dash in just to pull out one of Yaf’s “Goddess” cards from a stack to read an inspirational message guaranteed to improve their day. Or they might stop by for a hand-painted card, handmade candle or a New York postcard. There’s something for everyone. More than anything, though, they have become hooked on the positive, pervasive energy Yaf exudes.

Yaf and her husband, Torsten Flaegel, a native of Hamburg, Germany, are adept at inventing ways to enchant everyone in their orbit.

Torsten, long fascinated by the quality of light on the street, worked with Yaf on an event for the Manhattanhenge, also known as Manhattan Solstice, a time during which the setting or rising sun is aligned with the east-west streets of the main street grid in New York City. The sunsets and sunrises each align twice a year, on dates evenly spaced around the summer and winter solstices. For Yaf Sparkle’s Manhattanhenge event, there was music, a tarot card reader and a feeling that magic was in the air.

The ranking fluctuates, but customers have voted Yaf Sparkle as the third-best shopping experience in all of New York City on tripadvisor.com. At most, though, only a third of Yaf Sparkle shoppers are tourists. The majority are New Yorkers. “Online sales are growing and online is what brings people into the store,” Yaf says. “We’re not on a main street, but we have lots of content online.”

Affordable pieces displayed casually in the center of the store encourage shoppers to try something on.

They see their store as a walk-in jewelry closet and encourage customers to bring in a special-occasion outfit to be accessorized. Yaf constantly develops her own collections, presents the work of new local and international designers and changes the displays every other week to stay fresh.

“We have this internal competition of who can surprise our customer with the coolest new jewelry outfit that they didn’t consider wearing a day ago,” Torsten says. “There’s no being shy in our store; adorning oneself is fun and that’s what we are experts in. All in all, it is about being happy. Sharing a laugh is what keeps us in mind, and there’s nothing easier than that once you understand that every customer is first and foremost a potential friend.”

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The space itself, they say, was a raw diamond when they found it, veritably buried in layers of concrete. The little laundry that had occupied the space before them had cemented its machines into the ground, and the new landlord had no idea what lay behind the cement smeared on walls and floors. Months after they started digging, they realized that the old brick walls were in good condition. Even the ceiling was made of bricks with original ironwork between the arches. Once they got down to the bones, they pulled wires through the walls for showcases and laid out a beautiful wood floor. All of the wooden furniture is made from reclaimed wood.

The store is on Broome Street on the Lower East Side, which has a lively street life as well as a cinematic quality. It’s just around the corner from the Tenement Museum, which brings tourists by the busload. Martin Scorsese recently transformed the block into a 1972 backdrop for the 2019 Netflix film “The Irishman”. The street also starred in the 2014-2015 Cinemax TV series “The Knick,” set in 1901.

Adding to the charm, they scatter glitter across the sidewalk outside, a tactic that draws attention to the store even after it’s closed. They’ve also collaborated with other neighborhood businesses to host block-party sales events.
Social media just adds to the energy. When Yaf announced her birthday on Instagram, she ended up with an impromptu in-store surprise party, where the director of “Dirty Dancing” danced with a former MTV VJ, a Broadway ballerina and a Wall Street broker.

“Yaf Sparkle,” says Torsten, “was created out of the desire to provide an environment where fun, fashion and pleasure are combined as one. We know the day we forget that, we will be forgotten.”

Yaf Sparkle’s previous location, also on New York’s Lower East Side, was featured as the No. 3 Small Cool Store in the August 2016 issue of INSTORE.

VIDEO: YAF SPARKLE STORE TOUR VIDEO


PHOTO GALLERY (33 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Yaf Sparkle

1. Start ‘em young. The Yaf Sparkle team invites pre-K kids into the store for gem-education classes and birthstone giveaways.

2. Content-rich marketing. They’ve begun implementing automated email marketing, in which a customer will receive information about the pieces and the designer behind it. Their online database is segmented down to collection, metals and gemstones, so they can fine-tune their offerings. The idea is to provide continuous education.

3. In-house marketing. They use an in-house photo studio every day for model and product shots. In fact, 99 percent of marketing is created in-house. Social media is important, but they also rely on phone calls and postcards to share news of an event, a promotion or a specific gemstone that could be of interest. “Our newsletter marketing resembles our in-store experience,” Torsten says. “We don’t take ourselves or our product too seriously. Our love for local is what ties us all together. This is where we met our customer, and this is where we will see her again.” They improved their website to be increasingly ADA-compliant, which means it can be read by machines.

4. Block parties. Together with two other local shop owners they befriended, they gathered contact information for local merchants, set up a Facebook group and host regular events to brainstorm on marketing and event ideas. As a result, the group threw a neighborhood-wide event with 21 local merchants, each offering unique specials.

5. Good causes. Ten percent of net proceeds go to non-profits, most notably the ASB Foundation that Yaf founded in 2007. The ASB Foundation is an international humanitarian organization that supports the growth and development of the children in Koutal, Senegal, a small village created in 1968 to house people with leprosy and their families. The goal is to enrich the lives of the children who have been affected by their parents’ disease.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: As a former New Yorker, I know how hard it is to stand apart from the thousands of other stores in the city. This is an amazing location with lots of cool and funky shopping options. The store has a great social-media presence and brings in a sense of community with their posts.
  • Julie Ettinger: I so appreciate the energy and passion in this store. It’s so New York; the interior, the exterior, the video marketing all connect. I also love their passion for shopping local and pulling surrounding stores and community together.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : Yaf’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre are what make this store so special. You can feel her love of what she does loud and clear through all of her online marketing, including her videos. I also love the custom-design page that seeks to educate her customer on the design process. Finally, her philanthropy and the foundation she started is important and brilliant.
  • Hedda Schupak: This business clearly “gets” both millennials and female self-purchasers, two sectors that are critical for our industry to do a better job in attracting. I love the fact that customers can walk in and try on fashion jewelry, but then there’s fine jewelry that costs five digits yet doesn’t look too precious. I love how they restored the original building under layers of soulless concrete.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Today’s retail environment is all about creating an experience and connection for the customer, and Yaf Sparkle is succeeding at just that. I also love the job they have done in making their store part of the culture and energy within NYC’s Lower East Side community.
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Portland, OR, Couple Fine-Tunes the No-Pressure Engagement Ring Sale

Website and window displays create perfect curb appeal.

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Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, Portland, OR

OWNERS: David and Ronnie Malka; URL: malkadiamonds.com ; FOUNDED: 2010; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN: One Hundred Agency and Bedford Brown Store; EMPLOYEES: 3 ; AREA: 1,000 square feet total; 700 square foot showroom; TOP BRANDS: Custom, vintage, Point No Point Studios, Vatche, Jolie Design; ONLINE PRESENCE: 1,645 Instagram followers, 957 Facebook followers, 4.9 Stars with 62 Google reviews; RENOVATED: 2018; BUILDOUT COST: $75,000; SHOWCASES:KDM


Ronnie and David Malka

VINTAGE RINGS DISPLAYED in authentic, retro jewelry boxes share space with newly minted engagement rings in the front window of Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, a boutique shop in the historic Hamilton building in the heart of downtown Portland.

Passersby enchanted by that tempting array are welcomed inside by owners David and Ronnie Malka, who offer guests a warm greeting and refreshments from the coffee shop across the hall.

Adding to the relaxed environment, they rarely ask for the prospective customer’s information right away. “Our customer is our friend. Just like you don’t ask someone you just met for all of their information, you really should try to take the same approach with your customers,” David says.

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Once guests have a chance to settle in and look around, graduate gemologist David loves to share what he knows by comparing loose diamonds at his desk. What makes the Malka experience distinctive is that David includes tricks of the trade in his consumer education, such as explaining what kind of diamonds people in the jewelry business might select for themselves.

“A lot of people who are thinking about buying diamonds online have done some research, and I like to educate them on the stuff you can see in a diamond that you should pay for,” David says. “The stuff you can’t see, why pay for it? Common sense goes a long way when you’re spending thousands of dollars. Great, if you want to buy a VVS stone, we have it, but most of the people who see the difference, or don’t see the difference, between D and F color are making a much more informed purchase, and they feel good about it.”

Large windows allow passersby to glimpse a mix of vintage and new rings on display while flooding the space with natural light.

They’re also adept at explaining the difference between the diamonds and their paperwork. “The cert says XYZ, but if you lined it up with five others, you might see why that stone was priced so low in its bracket,” Ronnie says.

They think it’s just fine if their customers walk out without buying anything on their first or second visit — even if they’re headed to the competition.

“We keep it really simple in here,” says Ronnie. “A lot of the guys who come in are buying something they don’t know anything about. We don’t bombard them with phone calls or emails; we just offer education. They continue to explore and research, and most of those people we see back here.”

The Malkas are taking the long view. “We want to be like their grandparents’ jewelers with a state-of-the-art shop so we can create things that are going to last,” Ronnie says. “Like the 1920s-era jewelers you trusted but still current and evolving with time.” Although engagement and wedding rings dominate their business now, with as much as 85 percent of sales, they believe that as their original customers continue to mature, they’ll eventually diversify into jewelry for other occasions.

By the time the customer does make a purchase or put a deposit down on a custom ring, David and Ronnie have developed a relationship with them. They give their customers a Malka hat, pin or T-shirt. They also give them a pamphlet detailing the history of their three-generation tradition of diamond dealers, and paperwork that includes an appraisal. There’s no paperwork involved with the guarantee; that is automatic for the life of the ring.

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As for that history, David’s father, Yossi Malka, who still has an office across the street from his son’s store, began his career as an apprentice under his great uncle in Israel, studied diamond cutting and later became a wholesale dealer in Portland.

David studied at the GIA, earned a graduate gemologist degree, and worked in a retail store for several years. David also ran his own jewelry appraisal lab, Independent Gemological Services, for the trade and private clients. “That’s a tough gig to be looking through the scope all day,” he says. “I was getting a little bit bored.”

Still, everyone thought he was crazy, he says, when he decided to open his own store. “It was the recession. It was a tough time.” Three major Portland jewelry stores had closed. “I figured if we took this plunge and we could stay afloat for two years, we should be able to weather anything,” he says. They’d been considering a variety of different names for the business when a friend offered this advice: “When you put your name on the door, you’re putting your name behind the business.”

Perfect. They had a name.

Ronnie Malka collects retro jewelry boxes to display vintage engagement rings.

They leased a prime 1,000-square-foot spot within a vacant 10,000 square-foot space. It was bare bones, with not much beyond walls and floors.

“Welcome to the world of retail,” David says he remembered thinking. Traffic was thin at first, and David continued to operate the appraisal lab, taking it month by month. Although changing shopping habits of American consumers had seemed to be a bad omen, it turned out that Portland shoppers who did spend money on jewelry wanted to make sure they were investing in local, independent businesses. Within a couple of years, they’d won Oregon Bride Magazine’s “Best Rings of 2012” award.

In 2013 Malka became the official fine jewelers of the University of Oregon and their shop got very busy. Ronnie left her teaching job to join Malka full time after it became clear David needed help with marketing and events.

In 2018, they expanded the shop and fine-tuned their interior design, adding metallic cork wallpaper, a custom woven rug, a gathering area with a modern, round table and gray leather chairs, and custom-built display cases. The counter now boasts a marble top and black paint. Other additions include a gold light fixture and a trio of geometric mirrors. The look is upscale without feeling stuffy. The decor is also a personal reflection of what makes David and Ronnie comfortable, complete with a prominently displayed black and white wedding photo of the couple.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you meet a Malka,” Ronnie says. “We want them to know us as we want to know them.”

VIDEO: MALKA STORE TOUR

VIDEO: MALKA “ABOUT US”

VIDEO: MALKA CUSTOM DIAMONDS


PHOTO GALLERY (30 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Malka Diamonds & Jewelry

1. Salt-and-pepper diamonds. A year ago, Malka started showcasing the work of a Seattle designer, Point No Point Studios, which has a strong Instagram presence and specializes in salt-and-pepper diamond rings. “We knew that going out-of-the-box and trying something new would potentially bring new traffic,” says Ronnie, who gets several inquiries about them every week. David, as the son of a diamond dealer, admits he was reluctant at first to move in that direction. “My dad says, ‘How much is that per carat?!’ Ten years ago, it would have been used for drill bits, but now there’s an actual marketplace for it. I don’t think it’s a fad, either,” David says.

2. Collaborative environment. “We all know the projects, what’s going on, and what’s coming up,” Ronnie says. “It doesn’t feel compartmentalized.” That approach also creates opportunity for growth. Chloe, who works in the showroom, says Malka has the friendliest atmosphere of anywhere she has worked, as well as enormous growth potential and pride in values. “It gives me satisfaction learning-wise and experience-wise, knowing what the jewelers have to do to have a certain outcome for whatever kind of piece we’re making,” she says.

3. Custom connection. A 2018 expansion made room for two full-time master jewelers and more equipment in the shop. “We wanted everything done under our roof,” David says, from design to manufacture. Sometimes they are simply consultants: “An architect is doing his own CAD design for us to look at and make sure it’s going to translate into a ring and not a building,” Ronnie says.

4. Website curb appeal. Ronnie considers Malka’s digital presence, including its website, to be online curb appeal. “People want to engage online first,” Ronnie says. “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, your website was a placeholder for your contact info, but now it tells your story.” People know what to expect.

5. Digital marketing ROI. Digital marketing has for the most part replaced traditional radio and TV, because as Ronnie says, “Our customer is online and if they’re seriously looking for a ring, they are seriously looking — not seeing it on TV. Many jewelers will say this is a waste of time, but in the last six months when our followers have doubled, we have noticed customers referring to an image they saw on Instagram or Facebook. It is a real relief to see the return on investment on the time spent taking photos and creating tag lines.” Even shop dog Toby has his own Instagram handle!

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Ettinger: This store is a real gem! I love the shop-local feel and that it can all be done in house. I also appreciate the mix of vintage and new.
  • Julie Gotz: I love that the owners are so invested in the customer and their life cycle. Many stores are too focused on the sale and not enough on the relationship. It is great to hear that a store is using social media in such a successful way.
  • Joel Hassler: I like the approach to gathering customer information. Building a relationship is more important than data-mining.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : The store interior is exquisite and feels upscale but also warm and inviting. The website is quite informative and I love their blog, “Stories,” as it features a lot of interesting topics with gorgeous photography.
  • Hedda Schupak: I like the laser focus on diamond rings, and I love the impressive depth of selection they have, especially nontraditional styles. The store itself is very hip and welcoming. Their online presence is very strong; they’re using all social media quite well.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Malka Diamonds has done a wonderful job of creating a modern elegant boutique while still highlighting the building’s historic features. Their store’s design tells a story that complements the products they showcase: modern and antique.
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