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ACS 2007: First Place, Traditional Jewelers

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Just A Good Ol’ Boy: Traditional Jewelers named the country’s coolest retailer for 2007

Traditional Jewelers

Location: Newport Beach, CA
URL: www.traditionaljewelers.com
Owner: Lula Halfacre
Year founded: 1979
Opened featured location: 1991 (remodeled 1999)
Store area: 6,000 square feet
Employees: 33
Architect/design firm: (for remodel) Display Works and Blackline
Slogan: “Exceeding Your Expectations”

STORE FACTS

• About 350 people come through the store on an average day, more than 600 on weekends.

• The ocean is visible from the store.

• Traditional Jewelers supports more than 100 charities.

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• The showroom features motorized showcases that descend into the floor, so the jewelry never moves from its stands.


Marion Halfacre, Who Died June 9, Leaves a Cool Legacy in Traditional Jewelers

“Good Mornin’, Lord!”

The phrase was a favorite of Marion Halfacre, who would shout it out as he entered his Newport Beach store, Traditional Jewelers, during morning setup.

It is his staff’s suspicion that he probably hollered the same thing, more loudly than ever, as he strolled up to Heaven’s gates on the morning of June 9, 2007.

Marion was 58 years of age when a heart attack prematurely claimed his life. He was an industry giant. He was a community leader. And boy, did he build one heck of a jewelry store.

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Like Marion himself, the story of how he built Tradi-tional into a $30-million-a-year business is an industry legend.

The son of a Tennessee farmer, Marion got involved in jewelry retailing by chance when, in November 1975, two friends invited him to join them in buying a store in Jackson, MS. “I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a jeweler,” Marion once told instore. Within four years, the friends had built the store into a profitable business doing $850,000 a year. But disagreements over the direction of the business eventually broke up the partnership, and Marion sold his stake in mid-1979.

With cash in the bank, but no business to run, Marion had no idea what he would do next. That is, until he picked up the September 1979 edition of JCK magazine — where he saw a classified ad for a small jewelry store in Newport Beach, CA, for sale for $60,000. Marion consulted his wife of 3K years, Lula, and made a big decision. They would head west. Their son Erik was 5 weeks old.

When the Halfacres arrived in Newport Beach in 1979, it wasn’t the ultra-hip center of glamour and youth culture as portrayed in The OC. Nor did it have the airport-sized malls that now dot its landscape. But one thing was exactly the same both then and now — a local market that was affluent, finicky and that really knew its jewelry. It turned out to be the perfect match.

Marion’s persistence, zest for innovation and irresistible Southern charm quickly won over the shoppers of Newport Beach. Over the next 28 years, he brought in some of the world’s most recognized jewelry and watch names, including Cartier and Patek Philippe, eventually catapulting Traditional Jewelers from strip-center store to centerpiece of Fashion Island, Orange County’s hippest mall.

I think about Marion’s story as I make my way down I-405, through the San Joaquin Hills toward Fashion Island, a lifestyle center with palm-tree-lined walkways, fountains, carousels and the Pacific Ocean on the western horizon.

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In the fall of 2004, I covered Traditional Jewelers for my first monthly Cool Stores feature, and in speaking with Marion, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit — a Southerner with no jewelry background who had somehow fallen into the jewelry industry.

But that was the funny thing about Marion — probably everyone who ever met him felt he had found a kindred spirit. Traditional Jewelers sales manager Shawna Brewer explains it best: “He was just a good ol’ boy.”

As I enter Fashion Island, the sweet sound of Spanish guitar floats through the air. It fits just right with the atmosphere: stucco-and-tile buildings, soaring pergolas and columns wrapped in blooming vines.

Traditional Jewelers is impossible to miss. It stands facing two main entrances to the south and east of an open courtyard, with smaller crosswalks coming in from the north and west. Its rounded façade recalls the Roman Colosseum and includes a series of blue awnings with logos that announce the presence of the world’s finest jewelry and watch designers. Enormous windows above and below the awnings let in plenty of natural light.

Leaving the perfect summer day behind, I walk inside.

The irony of Traditional Jewelers is that the store experience is totally at odds with its name. There’s absolutely nothing traditional about this store. Not a thing that’s stuffy or conservative. Inside you’ll find smiles and positive energy aplenty.

You’ll also discover a store that’s truly beautiful — even intimidatingly so. I mean, how could one not feel a little intimidated when seeing the ceiling, 30 feet up, covered by a huge version of Michelangelo’s famous fresco, “The Creation of Man.” Of course, there’s one slight difference — in this version, Adam is snuggled close to Eve. (See what I mean about innovation? This is a store that knows love pays its bills.)

Supporting the ceiling are four tall columns, which rise from the center showcase island that serves as a greeting area for the store. Between the columns are two enormous Rolex clocks — one facing each entrance, both labeled “Traditional Jewelers.”

More columns surround the showroom in semi-circular fashion just behind the center island, with long mirrors attached to the back of each. There are also plenty of mirrors on top of the counters; no one will ever lack the opportunity to see how gorgeous they look while wearing Traditional jewelry.

Within seconds of arriving inside, I’m greeted by cheerful staff members well-trained in the delicate art of helping patrons to pick their jaws up off the floor. Immediately, I feel welcomed — at home.

Marion once told me he and Lula wanted their store to feel like it was lifted right out of old-world Italy. And, as authentic experiences go, it’s extremely close. The use of plaster and intentionally-generated cracks make the ceiling painting look as if it’s been there hundreds of years, and the mottled marble tiles do the same for the floor.

Nine short pillar-like showcases, set in a half-circle around the front of the showroom, highlight top designer collections. Double-sided window boxes also display designer pieces for customers passing by the store’s exterior, while the inside of each box is covered with a duratrans print promoting branded products.

Top-of-the-line technology is used throughout the store, but is integrated so unobtrusively that you have to really look for it. The most visible evidence of high-tech is the two vertical plasma screens — one strategically placed just above eye-level on the balcony overhang, and the other gracing the back wall of the main showroom. Both are framed by box mountings the same sky blue as the walls upon which they rest — so that the moving pictures seem framed by the showroom itself.

The majority of customers will never notice two of the most impressive technological features used at Traditional Jewelers. First are the motorized showcases that drop into the floor each night, making closing time easier while protecting the valuable merchandise inside with stainless steel walls and roll-over tops. Second is the fiber-optic lighting over the top of each showcase, installed a couple years back, that nullifies the bleaching effect of the outside sunlight. (These small lamps were one of Marion’s proudest purchases for the business.)

When Lula arrives from upstairs, she tells me that she and Marion have always been very proud of the Newport Beach store. But she adds that much of the business’s success can be attributed to the lessons the two of them learned back in Mississippi.

“Since we didn’t come from a multi-generational store, we did make mistakes,” Lula says.

But even the errors had an upside. “You learn more from mistakes than accomplishments.”

Overcoming problems was made easier by smart, supportive vendors. But even more important were Marion’s open-mindedness and enthusiasm for new ideas. Still, the move to Orange County from Mississippi was a major shock for both the couple and their business.

The turning point for Traditional Jewelers came when the store landed rights to sell Cartier and Patek Philippe — “huge accomplishments that Marion always cherished,” Lula says. With those brands on board, things got easier.

“People in our market saw that this little country jewelry store now had wonderful lines,” Lula says. “They started to think that maybe these kids knew what they were doing.”
It became even more clear that “the kids” knew what they were doing when in 1991 they decided to move out of their strip-center store and into Fashion Island.

“Lots of people said, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing?’” Lula recalls. “But Marion was adamant. And he didn’t want just any location. He had his nose pressed against the window, saying ‘This is the one I want.’ ”

Once again, Marion was right. The mall location resulted in far more traffic, and the expanded sales space and impressive store design attracted many new designer brands.

The crown jewel of the store’s most recent renovation, in 1999, was the addition of a new area devoted entirely to watches, called “The Creation of Time.”

Shoppers walking into this room from the main showroom pass under another ceiling painting — this one showing God creating the sundial. The top half of an enormous watch dial with Roman numerals covers the entire left-hand wall of the roughly triangular room. Fifteen of the world’s most prestigious watch brands are on display.

It’s no accident that each customer has to walk through this room to get to the cashier.

Everyone at Traditional seems genuinely friendly and happy to be there. But with only two weeks having passed since Marion’s death, tears are always near the surface.

“I haven’t cried so much since I lost my own father,” says Anna Cleveland, the store’s marketing manager.

Yvette Eckmann, the custom designer for Traditional Jewelers, is the store’s longest tenured employee, having been with Traditional for 23 years. (Which, to look at her, means either that she started with the store at age 7, or that people in Newport Beach simply don’t age at the same rate as the rest of us.) She was there for the strip-center days, and saw the store do $1 million in its first year at Fashion Island.

Says Yvette: “Working here has been my life. This is my family.”

She says the thing she will miss the most about Marion is his gracious, down-to-earth personality. “I’ve never met anyone who was so thankful for the little things you did for him,” she says. “He had a heart of gold.”

Angela Patin is one of the store’s two floor managers. Eight years ago, she left her own family’s jewelry store to work at Traditional. She quickly realized it was the right environment for her — like a brand-new family.

She repeats what has become a common theme — that Marion was about as gracious and humble as a person could be. “It was never about what I could do for him, but what he could do for me, no matter how busy he was” Angela says. “Whether you were an employee, client, or friend, he made you feel special.”

But as do other staff members, she notes that while Marion was usually their greatest cheerleader, he had very high expectations. Attention to detail was important to him — this was a man who would pause on his way around the store to pick up lint off the floor. Says Angela: “We didn’t get this far without making sure every step is followed.”

One of the ways that Marion made sure those steps were followed was something he called the “Daily Sparkle” — a 15-minute meeting each morning in which every staff member outlined what he or she would be doing for the day. And so staff who arrived later would not miss out on the wisdom shared in these meetings, Marion insisted that meeting minutes be kept and posted on the store’s bulletin board.

These were the types of things that Marion did to provide the most extraordinary experience imaginable for the store’s customers. But he cared just as much about the experience his store provided for its employees.

Shawna Brewer shares the story of her first encounter with Marion in September 1998. Having managed several retail-chain stores, she realized she wanted to work in a family business. And though she was very interested in working with Traditional Jewelers, the only time she could interview for the position was Labor Day.

“Marion said he’d be there to see me,” Shawna says. “Then he offered me the job on the spot. And a few days after the interview, I received a hand-written thank-you card from Marion, thanking me for the interview!”

It was that kind of charm that won over most of the women who either shopped or worked at Traditional Jewelers, Shawna says. “Secretly, all the girls who work here thought we were his favorite,” she laughs. “He did the thoughtful things that a lot of us don’t take the time to do. Many of us have good intentions. But he followed through on every one of his.”

Like her brother, operations manager Sarah Halfacre Verble is full of Southern charm. (She’s known me for just a few hours before she’s calling me “sweetie.”)

Sarah, who made the trip west with Marion in 1979, says that her brother always “refused to meet a stranger.” In other words, everyone became an immediate friend.

More details from Sarah on Marion: He never missed a single day of a school until the eighth grade. And he was definitely a world-class “schmoozer.”

As proof, Sarah tells of a typical Christmas dinner at their grandparents’ house where Marion would eat, get up, give his grandmother a big hug and say, “That was a great meal — the girls [meaning

Sarah and her sister, Teresa] will help you clean up.” And then he’d disappear. You don’t get much smoother than that.

But Marion could also be a terrible tease. Sarah tells about the time that, as teenagers, the two of them were part of a nativity play at a local church. “I was Mary and he was a Wise Man,” Sarah says. “We were told that it was very important that we didn’t move. So, of course, Marion stood behind me throughout the entire play, pinching me over and over, knowing I couldn’t get back at him — until later, of course!”

So, no, Marion was definitely not perfect. But he tried to be. And, Sarah says, the tears once again coming near: “He wasn’t through yet … he wasn’t through yet.”

Erik Halfacre first told his father he wanted to join the family business on Father’s Day several years ago. He gave Marion a card that showed a little boy looking at a pair of gigantic shoes. Inside the card he had written: “I know they’re big shoes to fill, but I’d like to try. I’d like to become more involved in the store.”

While Marion’s immediate answer to Erik was to challenge him — “Graduate college, go to the GIA and get your graduate gemology degree, do some interning at other stores and then if you still want to be a part of this, I’ll be here to mentor you” — Lula says that, secretly, it was the happiest Father’s Day her husband had ever had.

After finally joining the Traditional Jewelers staff, Erik started on the sales floor, but soon Marion was having him spend more and more time in his office, letting his son see how he ran the business.
It was a revelation. Says Erik: “When I was a kid, I used to ask him — ‘Is this all you do all day — sit in your office?’” While Erik’s previous interests in the jewelry business were 1. watches, 2. watches, and 3. watches, he’s now learned to buy diamonds.

But the biggest, most important lesson that he’s learned since joining the family business is The Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have done unto you. It’s an easy lesson to ignore when it’s told to you. But it’s completely different when you see it lived as Marion did. Says Erik, who is now the store’s vice president: “That’s really what it boils down to. The staff was an extension of his family, and the store was an extension of his home.”

Marion’s funeral fell on Father’s Day of this year. His memorial service a week later drew more than 1,000 mourners. Since the Sunday following Marion’s death, almost three weeks after his passing, Lula, now CEO and president, has yet to take a day off.

“Lula is our rock,” Yvette says. “We should be her rock, but she’s ours.”

Says Lula: “I haven’t taken any time in part because it’s important that we all be here to support each other. My staff is feeling the loss as much as our family is. And for me it’s just a natural — this is what we did together every day, and it’s where I belong. Erik is here, [daughter] Natalie’s here — thank goodness they’re all close by. Everyone’s going on and doing great, and I’m sure Marion’s not surprised at all.”

Sarah says the store will continue to prosper without its founder. “He equipped us with what we need to do it,” she says. “He always said there was no one here that was irreplaceable … including himself.”

Now Traditional Jewelers is faced with the challenge of proving it. And if America’s Coolest Store for 2007 continues to  hold its place among the ranks of the country’s most important jewelry stores, there’s one thing you can be sure of: Marion Halfacre will be looking down on them with a giant grin on his face.
Because he’d be right. Yet again.

Marion Halfacre January 8, 1949 — June 9, 2007 — Trace Shelton

FIVE COOL THINGS ABOUT TRADITIONAL JEWELERS

1 A Nod to Eve

Two ceiling murals recall the European Renaissance. The first is a reproduction of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Man” from the Sistine Chapel, with one difference: It features not only Adam, but Eve as well. The second mural, in the watch area, depicts God creating the sun dial (rather than the stars and the moon).

2 Uplighting

Besides the natural light pouring through the huge windows, Traditional Jewelers boasts another innovative lighting technique: halogen lamps that shine up through prisms, projecting soft beams of red and blue upwards onto the walls.

3 Time’s Memorial

Set off from the main showroom is “The Creation of Time,” an area devoted to showcasing Traditional Jewelers’ many lines of fine watches from across the globe. Twenty cases varying from 6 to 9 feet long display the extensive selection of timepieces, featuring more than 15 brands.

4 Invitation to Browse

Not one but two entrances open to the outdoor mall area of Fashion Island — and they remain open throughout the store’s hours of operation. The doors — made of glass — invite a huge amount of traffic to browse the store, up to 1,000 visitors per day during the holiday season.

5 Popping Diamonds

Fiber-optic lighting, added just two years ago, helps Traditional’s diamonds to pop, despite the abundance of natural light. The small, unobtrusive lights run along the front and back of the cases, blocking very little. Fluorescent lights at the rear of each case eliminate shadows.

         TRUE TALES

“We had a necklace coming in for a client, but the snow had delayed it. ‘No problem,’ he said, ‘but I’ve got this big company party, and I want her to wear that necklace.’ Marion said, ‘It’ll be here, and you’ll have it.’ The necklace did come in, but the gentleman had already gone up to Santa Barbara. Our son Erik was working around the store, and at 14 years old had never flown by himself, nor ever taken a taxi. But Marion packaged up the necklace, and Erik takes his little backpack, flies by himself, takes a taxi and delivers the necklace, gets back in the taxi, and came back. This whole entire time I’m thinking, ‘Marion, if anything happens to Erik, you are toast!’ Erik was our only means to get it there, and he rose to the occasion, and I have no doubt he will rise to the occasion now.” — Lula Halfacre

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

Larry Johnson
Merchandising Expert

This store definitely raises the bar for Southern California jewelers. The experience begins in the parking lot and just gets better. The clock-based wall graphic in the watch area is inspired.

David Peters
Jewelry Educator

Traditional offers an elegant environment to view fine jewelry. From its museum-style floating cases set against soothing earth tones, to the open flow of space, the store creates a sense of calm and trust for the sometimes anxious and confused customer contemplating an important jewelry purchase.

Ruth Failer
Tradeshow Consultant

There is a running European theme. Before walking in you can tell it is elegant, with the large windows with a view of the painted ceiling and the round shaped exterior with blue awnings. Inside the blue is carried in with the warm feeling of customized curved wood and glass showcases and paintings throughout.

Nick Failla
Sales Consultant

Their mixture of contemporary design with romantic murals creates a setting that supports both the romance of their jewelry and the cutting-edge technology they employ in their store. Using large arching windows allows for natural light to enhance both the fascinating beauty of their jewelry and the customer’s appreciation for the natural beauty that is Southern California. Embracing your surroundings and providing the uniqueness that respectfully departs from mainstream store design can be done by any store, with any budget.

Craig Underwood
2006 Cool Store Winner

The circular exterior with high glass windows and deep blue awnings makes for a visually pleasing and welcoming presence. Upon entering the store you are greeted by the soft brown color of the marble floors along with the wood cases accented with copper. This earthy combination along with the striking blue color makes for a visually stimulating yet comfortable feeling. To top things off (literally), the ceiling mural brings home the message of old-world quality and craftsmanship.

Berj Alexanian
Jewelry Display Designer

An original and graceful mix of sea, sand and murals.

Rhonda Faber Green
Jewelry Designer

The store offers a sublime elegance that honors the memory of Marion Halfacre. His desire to create beauty for those around him will live on through the awe-inspiring design of his store. Its use of space makes you feel like you’re outdoors and offers a sense of peace and calm, which is further accentuated by the beautiful overhead mural.

Leatrice Eiseman
Color Specialist

The store is quite dramatic. There’s an interesting play of traditional California architectural features — old-fashioned Spanish stucco that has been made contemporary, against modern features. The store owners stayed with a two-color story with the beige colored exterior and coordinating natural colors along with the blue/green turquoise secondary colors. The turquoise color is also an interesting choice because it is a Southwestern color in a California retail setting. Plus there’s the cool, soothing qualities of the color. The painted dome in the ceiling, although it’s a Sistine Chapel-like image, is mainly blue, which gives the feeling of the sky or sky light, which is another relaxing color element that doesn’t overpower the store’s overall interior design and color scheme.

Shane Decker
Sales Trainer

They have an incredibly gorgeous location. It feels like you’re walking up to a castle. You can see the ocean from their shopping center, which is also cool. The store gets an unbelievable amount of traffic on a daily basis. Marion Halfacre was one of the best I’ve ever known at civic work, working in the community and bringing people in from the outside.

STORE IMAGES

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This story is from the August 2007 edition of INSTORE

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