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ACS 2011: First Place, Big Cool: The Tiny Jewel Box



Quick facts

Owners: Jim and Matt Rosenheim
Founded: 1930
Opened feature location: 1997
Area: 12,500 square feet
Architect: Mary Oehrlein: Oehrlein & Associates, Washington, DC
Employees: 25 full-time, 7 part-time
Top Brands: Alex Sepkus, Marco Bicego, Mark Patterson, David Yurman, Tiny Jewel Box Vintage Collection, Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Stephen Webster, Cathy Waterman, Penny Preville

On a typical day at his store, Jim Rosenheim is wearing a French-cuff shirt, fine silk tie, and maybe Brioni or Armani dress pants — “Washington-appropriate attire,” he calls it. Oh yes, and one more thing: a pair of cushiony sandals, sans socks. “I’m not trying to make some sort of fashion statement,” says the CEO of Tiny Jewel Box, “but I need to be comfortable — I walk to work every day.”

Understood. And given that his shop is a six-floor building with only one small elevator Jim’s comfy footwear is surely a benefit. Six floors? Not exactly the norm for a jewelry store. But many things about Tiny Jewel Box aren’t ordinary. That suits Jim and his son, Matt Rosenheim, president of the company, just fine. The fact is, located in the central business district of Washington, less than a mile from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Tiny Jewel Box is a fine jewelry operation so unusual that two words, “iconic” and “ironic,” thread through much of the past and present of the store.


Starting with the Tiny, Tiny Jewel Box

In 1996, when Jim and Matt purchased the current 12,500 square-foot building, it touched off a period in the history of the company that brought iconic and ironic to a whole new level. From that day on, the business as they knew it dramatically changed. For the better? Well, as their vice president of operations, Patricia Holt, says, “In 2010, Tiny Jewel Box had its best bottom line ever in its 80-year history.”

Surely, Roz and Monte Rosenheim could never have imagined such financial success when they started the store in 1930. “My parents loved retail, but a smaller type of business was good for them.” It was Roz who came up with the name of the business. Aptly, the sign on their store’s door read: “Monte & Roslyn: A folksy little store.” It was small, just 100 square feet. To emphasize its narrowness, Matt extends his arms, saying, “It went from here to here, you could almost touch both walls. It was an alley breezeway. If more than three customers visited the shop at the same time, someone had to wait outside.” Thus the G Street store’s half-number address: No. 1327-1/2. “My grandparents paid $20 a month rent each to the stores on either side of them.”

Jim remembers that special showcases had to be built because regular ones were too big. “And the walls had tack boards on them with jewelry hanging everywhere. There was so much jewelry on those walls and in the showcases that you could never see the surface behind the jewelry, which was all antique.” Monte told his son, “I want to carry what no one else in the area has” — a concept that inspired Jim to concentrate his business on unusual antique jewelry … at least in the beginning.

When Jim was 16, the original Tiny Jewel Box was torn down to build a subway, and the business moved to a 450-square-foot store. “My mother wondered how she’d ever fill up so much space!”

She did, of course. Fast-forward to the early ’70s when the business arrived on Connecticut Avenue — buying a 1,500 square-foot building, now the home of Godiva chocolate. With “soooo much more space,” Jim started exploring the craft jewelry market, bringing in a few names like David Yurman and Paul Morelli he’d found at the Rhinebeck, NY, Craft Fair. Jim and his wife, Marcia, also started to shop Europe and brought back bold 18K-gold Italian jewelry and unusual antiques they’d find — prints, silk screens, lighting — and sold such items in the store. “But Jim became restless,” remembers Marcia, “and I knew he was ready for more changes in the business. So we started to talk about looking for more space and getting more heavily into contemporary jewelry.”


The Big Project

They didn’t have to look far — only two doors away, in fact. It was the original Elizabeth Arden building, which had been vacant for a few years. The iconic cosmetics maven of the mid-20th century had built an empire and this was the original U.S. building from 1929. Like his mother years earlier, Jim wondered how he’d ever fill such a large space: 12,500 square feet and six stories.

Soon after, however, he began to realize that was exactly the size he needed to expand the business into areas he’d been contemplating: adding many contemporary designer jewelry brands, launching a corporate gifts division, further developing the fine accessories business with treasures from around the world, like art glass and a few women’s scarves and handbags, and later, launching rather heavily into contemporary bridal and high-end watches. (An irony, of course, being that most independent jewelers begin with wedding jewelry and timepieces.) He decided two of the six floors would be used exclusively as corporate space, for offices and the custom jewelry design business that uses CAD technology.

Still, iconic as it was, the landmark Elizabeth Arden building immediately presented the Rosenheims with three challenges: how to maintain the coziness of the larger space that the previous smaller stores had and still make it look elegant but not stodgy; how to make the building, abandoned since 1990, functional again; and how to restore the structure to the mandated specifications, as it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Jimmy called me,” recalls Allyn Kilsheimer. A boyhood friend of Jim’s, Kilsheimer is an icon in his own right as the principal of KCE Structural Engineers. After Sept. 11, 2001, Kilsheimer was called to the Pentagon to head a project to rebuild the portion of the government building damaged by the terrorist plane attack. He’s worked on many other landmarks — the Capitol, the White House, the Statue of Liberty, the Smithsonian — so restoring TJB’s new digs would be a piece of cake, right?

Kilsheimer chuckles at the question. “Remember, we had to comply with so many regulations. Mary Oehrlein is an architect who specializes in historic preservation and she was able to get the preservation authority to allow us to install modern insulated windoW that fit into the historic fabric of the building.” The new awnings they bought for those windows, however, had to fit in with the same artistic shape as the original Elizabeth Arden ones, and Jim remembers they had to match the trademark shade of red that Arden had made famous.


Mary Douglas Drysdale was in charge of the interior design, much of which Jim and Matt were able to develop with her. “My father had a vision what this building should be,” Matt recalls. “Luxurious without being pretentious. We decided not to go modern, but we did go with a lighter wood so it wouldn’t look old. It’s a particular pine, difficult to get.” But even more difficult was faux-finishing the pine. “We had eight painters working for 30 days putting on something like 10 coats to get that final finish we wanted,” Jim adds.

The building is oddly shaped — wide in front and narrowing as it goes back, so the space is smaller than it appears from the outside. That worked to create the intimate feeling they desired. But that narrow back caused Monarc Construction (a renovation construction company with structures like the Bond Building and the British ambassador’s residence on its resume), many problems. “We didn’t have much access from the back because it was so narrow,” Kilsheimer says, “so, during construction, almost everything went through the front door.”

Another challenge was the elevator. “Jim and Matt wanted the inside to look like the interior of the rest of the store, so we had to put limestone and pine in there, too,” Kilsheimer recalls.

To comply with fire regulations, they had to modify one staircase and install a second, although Tiny Jewel Box customers use only the elevator to get from floor to floor.

“I also remember we had to structurally modify the building so that the vaults were sturdy — a big job,” Kilsheimer says.

In 2005, an additional $250,000 was invested in renovation, this time to replace all showcases on shopping floors one, two, and three. The showcases have LED and natural fluorescent lighting — and, of course, the outside is in the same pine with the same labor-intensive faux finishing.

Infrastructure Changed, Too

In some ways, the reconstruction and renovation of 1147 Connecticut Ave. was only the beginning. Tiny Jewel Box moved into the building at the end of 1997 after purchasing it in early 1996. Within the first year, they introduced a huge corporate gifts division and expanded their contemporary jewelry brands from four to at least 50.

Adding categories along with space meant going from six or seven employees to 25 or 30. “We were redefining Tiny Jewel Box,” Jim says. And Matt, who’d joined the business right about the time they purchased the new building, remembers, “Suddenly we went from a mom-and-pop operation to a small business.” After one year in the new space, they hired Patricia Holt, formerly with Neiman Marcus, as vice president of operations to build the company’s infrastructure. “We recruited her,” Jim says, “realizing that, in order to move forward, you have to have enough self-awareness of your weaknesses as well as your strengths.”

Holt recounts some of the immediate changes: New accounting and computer systems, daily 15-minute staff meetings, a formalized system for reviewing performance and giving raises, and a bonus system tied directly to yearly sales performance. But no commissions — because Jim and Matt encourage a team-player atmosphere and discourage high-pressure selling.

One last thing about the ironic name — Tiny Jewel Box — that Jim says people always comment on, saying things like “You’re not so tiny!”

While the renovation was occurring, they hired three independent research firms to simultaneously explore whether they should change the name, but all three marketing companies concluded the original name should stay. Jim says, “Their findings indicated that it was a name that was very well known. And they told us if we changed the store’s name, we’d have to educate both new and existing customers. And all three said people loved the name, ironic as it was. Who knew?”

Store Highlights

Hole-Y Wow!

There’s a 6-foot-square hole in the second-floor ceiling — or a 6-foot hole in the floor of the third level, depending on where you’re standing. And, thanks to Jim’s wife, Marcia, It’s intentionally there. She came up with the idea after seeing such a “space” in the former Takashimaya branch in New York City. “Located in Washington, we get a lot of out-of-towners visiting for the first time. And they may be on the second floor and not even realize they can shop upstairs, too. It’s a good way to let customers know that there is a third floor.” It’s also a great communication channel, says Jorge Schefer, watch manager, who works on the third floor. One day Barbara was looking for a piece of paper and I said, ‘Air mail coming!’ as I dropped it down.” Marcia says, “Customers get a big kick out of it, and it lends to the relaxed atmosphere we are always striving for.” It also lends itself to interesting interior displays, which Tiny Jewel Box’s John Begusch frequently changes throughout the year.

Landmark Digs

Tiny Jewel Box at 1147 Connecticut Ave. is the original Elizabeth Arden building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a Georgian Revival structure, built in 1929 by the cosmetics maven. It still contains some original elements. For example, the TJB directory of floors (left) is the genuine gold-toned art deco frame from the Arden building. The exterior awnings of the building are the same shape as Arden’s and in the same trademark red. TJB’s color scheme is cream and red, used in its signature packaging. They have a “Red Room” for customers wanting privacy, and some walls, as well as the interior of the contemporary bridal showcases, are “Arden red.”

Ritz-Carlton Partnership

Tiny Jewel Box has a cross-marketing agreement with The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, DC. Anyone who purchases an engagement ring from the store may borrow up to $20,000 of wedding-day jewelry from Tiny Jewel Box and is treated to a free night’s stay at the Ritz-Carlton. In addition, couples who book their weddings at the hotel receive monogrammed champagne flutes and a first anniversary gift certificate to be used at the store.

A Signature Sparkler

In 2005, to commemorate its 75th anniversary in business, Tiny Jewel Box created and trademarked its own 104-facet Double Brilliant Diamond. The store promotes it as “a diamond that sparkles with twice the intensity, depth, and fire as a standard 58-facet diamond.” Not a classic round, it has a double-angle pavilion, and it is certified by the GIA.

A “Capitol” Idea

When the current multi-level Tiny Jewel Box opened, a corporate gifts collection was launched. Within a few years, The Federal Collection premiered, becoming the strongest seller in the store’s corporate gift business. All items, between $65 and $395 retail, are based on famous landmarks in the DC area. Premier decoupage company Willan F. Inc. uses the images and creates desk accessories, photo frames and giftware such as wine coasters and decorative boxes for the exclusive collection.


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What the judges say

Bruce Brigham: This is a store that has always tried something new, and it shows. It is a unique blend of old and new.

Curtis Bennett: I loved the events they hold. I’m sure their customers do as well, and the idea of being able to hold such events in that venue is the added cherry on top! This is what our customers want … a beautiful place to go and a fantastic and unique reason to be there!

Robin Rotenier: What impressed me most is the level of attention to detail, the woods! The cabinets, the displays — all exude a sense of quality and elegance in a class by itself. It feels effortless and offers the jewelry a presentation that is exquisite, with great use of space. It is a store you would want to visit time and time again, knowing you will always discover something new.

Glenn Rothman: The store is visually beautiful both inside and out, conjuring up the image of an actual jewelry box. The Rosenheims have leveraged their store culture and location to maximize PR and creatively cater to politicians and celebrities. They offer their customers a unique value proposition with a strategy of niche merchandising as the retail experience.

Miho Koshido: The store is rich with history and occupies a beautifully restored landmark building, yet it is forward in its discovery of unique and cutting-edge designer jewelry and technology. Tiny Jewel Box is a wonderful example of how tradition can merge with the avant-garde.

Try This

Ask for Brands

When a client comes in who wants a piece of custom jewelry made, ask what clothing brands they wear. “When the customer leaves, go online and look at the clothing — the patterns, the fabrics, and shapes. It really helps when designing a custom piece.” ALICIA ARNOLD, CUSTOM JEWELRY DESIGNER AND METALSMITH

Create a Gift Niche

“Wherever your store is located, figure out what is unique to your area or region and see if there are ways you can work with that and create a niche gift area all your own. It distinguishes you.” — ANNE FERENZ, MANAGER, BUYER, JEWELRY ACCESSORIES AND GIFTS

True Tales

“A couple wanted custom wedding rings, and I showed them some sketches I’d come up with. The husband is blind, and I knew he couldn’t see the sketches, so I went upstairs and got a razor blade, a box of sheet wax, paper clips and a lighter. In front of them, I made a multi-layered model, so the husband could feel the design and detail of the ring I wanted to make. I put it into his hands and he said, ‘No one ever did anything like this. You have me now,’ and the wife started to cry. So we’re making two complementary bands for them.” ALICIA ARNOLD, CUSTOM JEWELRY DESIGNER

“I have a customer I’ve never met, but when I see something I think he’ll like, I send him a picture. He’ll write back something short like: ‘Yes. Nice. Tell me about it. Price?’ I call him ‘the man of many words’ — but he’s bought $100,000 in jewelry from us this way!” MAGGIE HAYNES, SALES ASSOCIATE

Play List

Music is kept low so as not to interfere with conversations. Sometimes the staff brings in CDs, with music like Ella Fitzgerald, Otis Redding or the Beatles. Or they play a modern soft rock radio station, with artists like Katy Perry or Carrie Underwood. At the holidays, there’s Christmas music throughout the store.

This story originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of INSTORE.

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