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America's Coolest Stores

ACS 2004: Fourth Place (Tie), Gary Michaels

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Gary Michaels Fine Jewelry

Conquering cousins create a hip store with an urban edge

Address: (Epicentre Shopping Center), 55 US Highway 9 South; Manalapan, NJ 07726  |  Phone: (732) 577-1030
Opened: 2002 |  Est. property value: $3,000,000  |  Staff: 18 full-time and part-time  | Store area: 6,000 sq. ft.
Location type: Standalone store  |  Store slogan: “Largest Diamond Selection in NJ”  |  Sales in 2003: $5,000,000+

Sometimes the most profound business advice can come at the most mundane moments in life, often when it’s least expected. After long and exhaustive searches for an ideal store location, Gary and Michael Littman decided to cool their heels and enjoy a Labor Day family barbecue. During the event, a family friend who once owned retail shopping centers suggested looking into a site in Manalapan, NJ. A couple years later, the first cousins opened Gary Michaels Fine Jewelry at that exact location.

Going from 130 jewelry stores down to one must have been a dramatic adjustment for Gary and Michael. Their family used to own Littman Jewelers, one of the country’s largest jewelry chains. Free of the chain stores, the first cousins used the experience earned in the family business to create their own stand-alone jewelry store.

Growing up close to New York City, Gary and Michael sought to import the Big Apple’s urban edge to their New Jersey store. The first cousins wanted their store to have a completely modern look.
In addition to its contemporary flair Gary Michaels Fine Jewelry is simply a very hip store equipped with an urban edge, a look achieved by adroitly combining wood and steel. “A modern look with staying power,” says Michael Littman.

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But creating such an extraordinary look wasn’t achieved with run of the mill wood. The wood flooring selected for the showroom floor is Caribbean rosewood with African makore and cherry wood used in the showcases, the inside of which are detailed with perforated steel. Inside the display cases, charbrown leather and novasuede buff and white was used to complement certain types of jewelry.

The Littmans also wanted to create a high-end store unique to the area — a retail setting that would reflect their unusual and important pieces of jewelry. Houston-based architectural and design firm Brand+Allen Architecture worked closely with the Littmans, including Michael’s mother — who served as consultant and liaison on the project.

The end result is a jewelry store with incredibly unique features, like the two large drop ceilings that echo the store’s showcases. A skylight, a feature rarely seen in a jewelry store, divides the two large drop ceilings and provides additional natural light.

All in all, the result is what Michael Littman likes to call “perfect synergy” — and with more than $5 million in sales last year, the cousins’ gamble is paying off in a very cool way.

STORE REVIEWS

The store owners on their cool store: “Gary Michaels Fine Jewelry is so special because every detail of millwork, every display, every light fixture, every inch of the Caribbean rosewood floor, down to each bathroom accessory complements each other perfectly and looks as important as the merchandise we sell.  Our store is hip yet classic, sexy and dramatic yet understated, luxurious yet not intimidating.  We believe providing this incredible environment is a major element in helping us offer our customers an extraordinary shopping experience.” — Michael Littman

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“Our inspiration is drawn from many of the funkiest, coolest, and sleekest restaurants, hotels, and clubs in Manhattan. Not only is Gary Michaels one of the most uniquely designed and aesthetically pleasing stores in the country, it is also a manifestation of perfect functionality. [For example], to offer our clients added peace of mind, we built our cappuccino/espresso bar to overlook the jewelry repair area. This way, customers never have to leave the sight of their most personal treasurers, while our master jeweler is working on them. We also offer two private selling offices for a more intimate setting.  The goal of Gary Michaels is to offer our clients an incredible shopping experience in the most astonishing setting possible.  Michael and I are definitely realizing our dream come true.” — Gary Littman

Karen Karch: “Not my personal style, but impressive and grand. The floor is beautiful. Tell me how you can have 6,000 square feet with a lack of storage?? I have 600 square-feet!”

Greg Gorman: “Great look! Love the materials and contrast of chrome, glass and wood. Everything complements as a solid retail package.  A Retro Modern approach that is timeless. Love the cappuccino espresso bar. Sleek lines and interesting use of suspended custom lighting package to complement the floor display cases is a winner.  The suspended ceiling treatments nicely complement the centered skylights that really bring in the outside making this an experience visit for sure. Soft woods with hard metal look great. Nice contrast. Display cases are not typical and vary throughout. Not as heavy as most jewelry stores. Great attention to detail. Wonderful ceiling level changes and visual interest. Great sight lines and visual treatments.”

Linda Cahan: “My sense here is that the photos don’t do it justice. The curved lighting and walls look great but I sense that they feel even better once in the space. There is an overall light, energetic feel to the space rather than the traditional hushed, heavy quality of man traditional stores. The skylight is an excellent addition as natural light always uplifts the energy and mood of both the customers and staff. The interplay of the squares and rectangles combined with the curves makes an interesting and positive architectural statement.”

Deborah Yonick: “Very unique, ultra modern setting that reminds me of a cool bar/club — I want to hang out here, drink and buy jewelry! And in fact I can, as the store boasts a cool beverage bar overlooking the repair area. How brilliant is that? Very urban in wood and steel, the interior of the store is exciting and interesting, but not overpowering that you can’t appreciate the jewelry. It’s a bit on the industrial side in look and needs to be softened a bit with some flower arrangements, which would also add nice splashes of color besides the green in the plants. I love the drop ceilings, too!”

Mark & Monika Clodius: “Exterior does not live up to interior design. The balance/proportions ‘layers’ of space and light are magnificent. Breaking strong linear design with curved areas keeps our interest. Not sure if the floor looks a little heavy with the light colored walls and ceiling. Like the atrium — it’s got a nice, clean look. Island is cool.”

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This story is from the August 2004 edition of INSTORE

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America's Coolest Stores

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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America's Coolest Stores

America’s Coolest Stores 2019 – Winners Revealed!

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Check out America’s Coolest Jewelry Stores of 2019!

Congratulations to the winners of the 18th annual America’s Coolest Stores Contest! In the following pages — and in the months ahead — discover why these stores earned the stamp of approval from our judges. As in past years, we divided the entries into two categories — Big Cool (six or more full-time employees) and Small Cool (five or fewer). We asked two six-member teams of judges to evaluate stores based on their back story, interior, exterior, marketing, online presence and what we here at INSTORE believe is the most important intangible: individuality.

Our six America’s Coolest and additional 10 Cool Stores — each of which will be featured in INSTORE issues through June 2019 — represent creative approaches to doing business as well as aesthetically pleasing retail environments. Each of the six winning stores also offers an omni-channel shopping experience, with merchandise available for purchase online.

If you haven’t taken the time to enter yet, why not give it a shot in January 2020? Retailers have told us that the entry process alone can be inspiring and motivating because it requires them to assess all aspects of their businesses. And if you entered and weren’t chosen this time, fine-tune your entry and try again. That’s proven to be a winning strategy.

Check out America’s Coolest
Jewelry Stores of 2019!

Congratulations to the winners of the 18th annual America’s Coolest Stores Contest! In the following pages — and in the months ahead — discover why these stores earned the stamp of approval from our judges. As in past years, we divided the entries into two categories — Big Cool (six or more full-time employees) and Small Cool (five or fewer). We asked two six-member teams of judges to evaluate stores based on their back story, interior, exterior, marketing, online presence and what we here at INSTORE believe is the most important intangible: individuality.

Our six America’s Coolest and additional 10 Cool Stores — each of which will be featured in INSTORE issues through June 2019 — represent creative approaches to doing business as well as aesthetically pleasing retail environments. Each of the six winning stores also offers an omni-channel shopping experience, with merchandise available for purchase online.

If you haven’t taken the time to enter yet, why not give it a shot in January 2020? Retailers have told us that the entry process alone can be inspiring and motivating because it requires them to assess all aspects of their businesses. And if you entered and weren’t chosen this time, fine-tune your entry and try again. That’s proven to be a winning strategy.

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America's Coolest Stores

Here Are This Year’s America’s Coolest Store Honorable Mentions

These 10 stores will be featured over the next year in INSTORE.

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Big Cool Honorable Mentions

Day’s Jewelers

Nashua, NH

The Coreys

Jeff and Kathy Corey opened a 5,000-square-foot destination store, their eighth location, in 2018. With updated branding and imagery, the store design grabs millennials’ attention while maintaining a reputation for representing fine jewelry. A two-story vestibule creates a transparent glass wall along its curved exterior, establishing a theme that carries throughout the casework and ceiling. The curves create a free-flowing traffic pattern that leads patrons throughout the interior while also maximizing linear-display space.

John Atencio

Lone Tree, CO

John Atencio

Jewelry designer John Atencio’s sixth store was designed to create a visually compelling and luxurious experience while maximizing display space within a 600-square-foot footprint. The most striking aspect of the location is the large, transparent facade crafted from oversize panes of tempered glass. From the outside, the store looks sleek and inviting, and inside, the space is flooded with natural light.

Provident Jewelry

Jupiter, FL

Geoff Fear, Rob Samuels, Nick Linca, Seth Berman, Scott Diament

Owners Seth Berman, Scott Diament, Nick Linca and Robert Samuels teamed up to create a Dream Factory luxury lounge inside their flagship location. Clients can mingle, relax and enjoy a cocktail for a memorable in-store experience. Custom experiences for clients extend far beyond the store’s walls and have included test driving one-of-a-kind cars, meeting the CEOs behind watch brands, racing a car at YAS Marina Circuit, golfing with pro golfers, sailing on the America’s Cup committee boat in Bermuda and flying to Switzerland to tour a watch factory.

H1912

Princeton, NJ

Hamilton owners

Under the leadership of owner Martin Siegel and store manager Lea D’Onofrio, H1912 is part of the Hamilton Jewelers family of brands. It’s on the same street in the same small town as one of its parent locations of Hamilton Jewelers, but since its 2015 inception, it’s carved out a niche for itself that it backs up with a cutting-edge website, charity partnerships and a digital-first marketing plan. The 1912 in its name references the year Hamilton was founded and plays up the vintage angle of its inventory. H1912 buyers travel to estate shows, antique shows and auctions to handpick one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. Every vintage item at H1912 is refinished, refurbished, polished, or overhauled in-house before hitting the showcase.

Mitchum Jewelers

Ozark, MO

Mitchum jewelers

Mitchum Jewelers, owned by Randy Mitchum, doubled its size in 2018 in an upscale renovation orchestrated by store designer Jesse Balaity of Balaity Property Enhancement. One eye-catching element of the new building is the illuminated diamond prominently displayed on the building’s exterior. Mitchum has also set itself apart marketing-wise with a hugely successful TV commercial campaign that features customer testimonials. Use of the slogan “Your Jeweler For Life” in all of Mitchum’s ads has added to the branding surge, as has a related jingle that customers love to sing whenever they happen to run into Randy.


Small Cool Honorable Mentions

Yaf Sparkle

New York, NY

Yaf Boye-Flaegel

This is the second Lower East Side location and second America’s Coolest Stores Award for Yaf Sparkle, owned by Yaf Boye-Flaegel and Torsten Flaegel. When the couple moved into the new spot and peeled off layers of cement, they were excited to find old bricks in good condition crowned by an arched brick ceiling. They added a wooden floor and brought in furniture made of reclaimed wood for a vintage rustic look. The neighborhood is full of life and excitement, to which Yaf Sparkle contributes by spreading glitter across the sidewalk outside the store. Marketing benefits from an in-house photo studio. Customers have voted Yaf Sparkle as among the top three shopping experiences in New York City on Trip Advisor.

JC Jewelers

Jackson Hole, WY

Jan and Jeter Case

Jan and Jeter Case greet visitors from all over the world in their 240-square-foot log-cabin showroom in a gateway town to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Three to 4 million people visit the area every year, and of those, about 1 million are from China. They’ve gone to great lengths to be hospitable, learning Mandarin phrases and labeling gemstones with translations. They also use Google Translate to communicate with non-English speakers. These efforts have gone a long way, they say, toward making international guests feel comfortable.

Malka Diamonds & Jewelry

Portland, OR

David and Ronnie Malka

Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, owned by David and Ronnie Malka, is a 1,000-square-foot boutique shop in downtown Portland that specializes in engagement and wedding jewelry. David is a graduate gemologist, who enjoys educating clients in a no-pressure atmosphere. The shop also highlights the work of two master jewelers on site. The store houses a collection of modern designs, antique and vintage jewelry and unconventional options, such as salt-and-pepper, rose-cut and unique-shaped diamonds. The store is bolstered by a cheerful staff and robust digital presence.

Talisman Collection

El Dorado Hills, CA

Andrea Riso

With a 3,300-square-foot showroom, this Small Cool store lives large! Owner Andrea Riso designed the floor plan to accommodate wide-open spaces, plenty of seating and a meandering river-style path that creates a sense of discovery. Décor is surrealistic and includes massive blown-glass fixtures, a library-lounge man cave, a tech oasis for kids, a bar and interactive areas that engage and enchant people of all ages. They’re known for designing and rendering original custom pieces for clients within 48 hours, as well as offering the custom-design services of 78 independent designer brands represented in the store.

Welling & Co. Jewelers

West Chester, OH

Bill and Daniel Welling

Father and son owners Bill and Daniel Welling built a modern, industrial-style jewelry store on a well-traveled road between Cincinnati and Dayton, in Ohio’s booming Butler County. The family-owned store, founded in 1920, makes its most recent home in a hangar built in the 1940s by a pilot to house a folding-wing airplane. Interior designer Leslie McGwire retained original interior brick from the building to set the tone for the renovation, which is complemented by an open slate-gray painted ceiling and a textured wood plank floor. A wide range of merchandise and price points adds to the welcoming ambience.

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