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Making Her
Own Way

This Minnesota designer's store is just as distinctive as she is.

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T Lee Custom Designer Jewelry, Minneapolis, MN

URL: www.tleegold.com; OWNER: T Lee; FOUNDED: 1983; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2012; AREA: 868 square feet; OPENED BUILD-OUT COST: $70,000; EMPLOYEES: 3 full time, 2 part-time; TOP BRANDS: Lovelinks From Soldier to Soldier. All other inventory is made in-house;ONLINE PRESENCE: Yelp: 5 Stars; Facebook: 438 Likes; ALEXA TRAFFIC RANK:3,894,700


TLEE WON’T TELL INSTORE her real name.

It’s nothing personal. She simply dropped it back in college, in favor of her first initial and middle name, and dropped it will stay. I could press the issue, but I sense it would be pointless. It is clear upon meeting T Lee that she is a person of great resolve.

Moreover, it isn’t important what her real name is. What is important is that she picked a new one, because that tells you a lot about her: She is an artist. She makes conscious choices about who she is. She puts her own stamp on life. (And on her custom jewelry, too, of course.)

“I seem to reinvent myself every 10 years,” she says. We are standing in the latest incarnation of that impulse, the new retail space she relocated to in November 2012. (Her previous store opened in the same month in 2002.)

It is among the more distinctive jewelry stores I’ve set foot in (and I’ve set foot in a few). Which makes sense, because its design is a conscious reflection of Lee herself — and she is one of the more distinctive jewelers I’ve ever met.

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Making Her Way

ensued. She studied design at the University of Minnesota, and for a time lived in Breckenridge, CO, working as a ski and snowboard instructor and selling scrimshaw for a local retailer (“That is an amazing art form,” she says), but also creating jewelry in a tiny studio set up in her A-frame, which had no electricity.

In 1983, she founded her business, which revolved around the craft fair circuit for 21 years. For a good chunk of that time, Lee was also raising her son, Wilder, now 22. She kept his playpen next to her work space during the day when he was little, and frequently burned the midnight oil, working on new pieces, after he went to sleep.

Her consistent presence — especially at Minneapolis’s storied annual Uptown Art Fair — and diligent efforts paid off. Besides garnering a devoted following of jewelry shoppers, Lee won the Mort Abelson New Designer of the Year award at the JANY show in 2002 and a Rising Star award at JCK. She opened her original retail store that year. For three years, she also kept doing the craft fairs, but the overlap was unworkable.

“I got so many complaints, because people couldn’t be sure when I was open,” she says. “If you’re going to be part of the community, you need to be predictable.” It was also too difficult to maintain sufficient inventory for both the fairs and the shop.
That first store was a success, to be sure. But as time passed, it couldn’t meet some of Lee’s key needs. For one thing, the old space was split like many stores, with the sales floor up front and the workshop hidden behind a door.

“I had to choose between the front and the back,” she says. “Relationships are the most important part of the business for me, and talking with customers really took me off my bench.”

Form Follows Function

The new store solves that problem. Surprisingly, it is actually smaller than the old space — 868 square feet, compared with the previous approximately 1,500. But the upshot is that the reduction in size makes for a lot more contact between Lee and her other bench jewelers and the clients who stroll in.

The shop, as it were, is set on an elevated platform next to the showroom area, which consists entirely of 12 small windows in the cases built into the wall and a desk for reception and POS purposes. (The wall cases swing open to reveal storage.) Nearly everything is constructed of repurposed or sustainable, environmentally friendly materials.

LED fixtures hang from the white-painted corrugated ceiling. A row of framed photographs lines the wall that forms the front of the shop — black-and-white images from Lee and her staff’s lives, intermingled with vivid shots of Lee’s colored stone creations.

Straight ahead, toward the rear, is Lee’s office. The main wall is covered with a print of birch trees, and she can shutter herself and her clients behind glass doors during design appointments, which she holds on Thursdays, Fridays, and alternate Saturdays. “I try to be booked solid,” she says.

Tuesdays are “bench days” for the owner, and the new layout means she can easily hop down to meet a visitor. “I always interrupt the flow to greet a new client,” Lee tells me as she puts our interview on pause to do just that.

Otherwise, the flow is generally not interrupted — even during the move to the new space. “Our work never stopped,” says Laura Heiden, who left the corporate world a couple years ago to learn to make jewelry and helps Lee manage and market the shop.

A soft gray palette sets the tone in the store, from the wood of the cases and the desk to the chairs, rug, and floor. The muted neutral colors create a sense of calm, accentuated by the quiet but busy work going on among the three bench jewelers — all women — present during my visit.

“It just feels less complicated,” Lee says of the abundance of gray. Most important: “It makes the gemstones the superstar, the main event.”

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Colorful Methods

Colored gems are another of her true passions. T Lee Custom Designer Jewelry’s signature events are the periodic gemstone roundtables that now take up the whole of the sales floor after-hours. (The POS station desk is on rollers and cantilevered to handily slide out of the way for the large table.)

The roundtables give clients a chance to handle and bid on gems brought in by dealers and those Lee herself brings back from her trips to the mines. Veteran roundtable attendees are seated closer to the head of the table, giving them the first chance to “flirt with” the stones — that is, to set one aside and consider buying it.

One of those veterans, Stephanie, has come in to sit down with Lee to discuss making a new custom piece from one of the cache of stones she’s acquired at the events. Stephanie has known Lee since buying a ring from her at the Uptown Art Fair in the late ’90s.

“She was just really into talking about her process,” Stephanie recalls. “She lived in Northeast Minneapolis, where I grew up, and used to meet me at her home. It’s been fun to see her grow.”

It’s also fun to watch Lee in her element. She ably takes charge of the appointment, helping Stephanie decide on a rich, concave faceted plum-colored rhodolite garnet as the piece to work on.

“You’ve been talking about that one for a while,” she says.
Over the next hour, Lee sketches, brings out rings of various white and yellow metals for comparison, and breaks out several more coffers of gems to get an idea of the accent color. Gradually, a ring takes shape.

Her design philosophy is simple. “It always comes back to form follows function,” Lee says. She advises Stephanie against a particular look for a shank, because the design would make resizing a real pain if it were necessary. “Serviceability is important.”

Within a few weeks, Stephanie will have yet another T Lee piece to add to her collection. It will be made completely in-house, except for the casting. Lee used to cast, at her previous space, but it wasn’t doable in the new one. (“I’ve found it’s actually streamlined my process so much more.”)

“My clients really let me go where I want to go,” Lee tells me later. There is a literal truth to that: In 2011, she asked 25 of her best customers to fund a gem-buying trip to Africa with microloans. In return, the investors got a chance to buy the finished stones at a special event and could have their loans returned if they didn’t find anything they liked. (Nearly all the gems sold that evening.)

Always one to let others in on the fun, Lee has a sequel event planned for this summer (it may be going on even as you read this): a “Wine, Dine & Mine” trip to Southern California. Her tour group will check out the local food and vineyards, as well as the Pala mines, and will have a chance to try digging in the mines too.
“It really gives them a sense of the work that goes into it that most people don’t get to see,” she says.

Beyond that? Lee always has ideas in the pipeline, and it will be interesting to see what her business looks like in another decade. Is another reinvention in the works? Of course, it’s too early to say, but we can probably count on one thing: She won’t tell us her real name then, either.

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Five Cool Things About T Lee Custom Designer Jewelry

1. HIGH VISIBILITY: long bench with room for four jewelers sits up overlooking the store’s shop area, making it easy for T Lee and her staff to engage with customers without totally disrupting their work. It goes the other direction, too: Clients can watch as jewelry is fabricated, stones are set, and pieces polished, involving them even more in the design process. The tighter space has required some adjustment, but, Lee’s jewelers say, it’s fostered better communication among each other. “It reminds me of one of those contests homes win for being super small and efficient,” says goldsmith Alice Winker.

2. BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE: Sustainability is a value T Lee lives: She once took a vow not to buy anything new — clothes, furniture, etc. — for a year, and found it so achievable that she actually kept it up longer. Accordingly, when she built her new space, she went with eco-friendly options whenever possible. Her showcases are built of Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and she used a corn-based tile and water-based floor stain, as well as low-VOC paint.

3. THE MOST HAPPENING HAPPENINGS: In keeping with her philosophy of building relationships, Lee’s events tend to focus on ways that show laypeople more about what jewelers do and what goes into a piece of jewelry. Most famously, her gemstone roundtables expose clients to a wealth of colored stones and gem cutters — and create a huge incentive for them to commission custom designs using the gems they purchase. Lee’s latest event, “Wine, Dine & Mine,” will give a couple dozen customers the chance to mine their own stones in California and Oregon. “It’s one more way to give a person an intimate experience of the whole process,” Lee says.

4. WORKERS UNITE: Lee has honed her design skills for more than 30 years, resulting in her winning major industry awards. As a way of giving back to the many designers who’ve helped her learn her trade, she makes a point of hiring and collaborating with young jewelers. “We are a 100 percent jeweler-run store,” she says proudly.

5. TRADITION OF PROGRESS: Long before same-sex marriage became a mainstream issue, T Lee was serving GLBT clients. “They’re just people looking to be treated like everyone else,” she says. “I’m very grateful, because their referrals are genuine — it can exponentially grow to a phenomenal amount of work.” For years, she was the only jeweler in the Twin Cities regularly advertising in the regional gay magazine Lavender. People have commented to her that she’d be selling more rings with Minnesota’s legalization of same-sex marriage in May, but she already got so many of those jobs, she says, “I’m still doing the same business I’ve always done!”

Try This: Benches

The only holdover from T Lee’s previous location is a bench for the clients who sit opposite her during design appointments at the table in her office. She intended to replace it with two chairs but then noticed how it affected the couples working on rings with her. “They scoot closer, and then they touch. It’s really conducive to designing intimate jewelry to have intimate space,” she says.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

R. Grey Gallery: The innovative marketing caught our attention. The website was very well done, with great images and useful information. The gallery interior and exterior are both interesting and in line with the overall vision. This gallery looks like it’s worth a trip!

Bruce Freshley: T Lee’s print ads are bold and provocative with clean imagery that catches the eye and imagination. Her discreet use of nude models, especially male, adds to both her artistic credibility and her edginess.

Danielle Pelletiere: By using ancient techniques to design one-of-a-kind jewelry this jeweler has put her name on the map. I love the fact that there aren’t “customers” but instead “collectors.” By promoting socially responsible jewelry and educating the clientele, this store has hit a home run.

Julie Romanenko: I love the display cases set into the walls and how the jewelry is seen at eye level and you don’t have to bend over a showcase. The exterior is inviting and has a beachy sort of feel to it with the boardwalk planks. I love the idea of a dinner party set up in the store — how great for charity functions and jewelry parties.

Gerry Gonda: An intriguing exterior drew me in, as a first impression should. Its color palette correlates to what awaited inside, giving the store a very cohesive feel. The design of the vertical wall cases presents the product beautifully, enhancing the value and uniqueness of each piece. The sepia toned photos, selected by the staff, show the store has a heart and soul which could have been lost with the neutral color palette and non-dimensional finish on the walls and cases.

Josh WImmer has been a contributor to INSTORE since 2006. He has coordinated the annual America's Coolest Stores contest for several years. The job mostly involves pestering jewelry store owners to start their contest entries, pestering jewelry store owners to finish their contest entries, and figuring out computer problems over the phone from hundreds of miles away.

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Wilkerson Testimonials

When It’s Time for Something New, Call Wilkerson

Fifty-four years is a long time to stay in one place. So, when Cindy Skatell-Dacus, owner of Skatell’s Custom Jewelers in Greenville, SC decided to move on to life’s next adventure, she called Wilkerson. “I’d seen their ads in the trade magazines for years,’ she says, before hiring them to run her store’s GOB sale. It was such a great experience, Skatell-Dacus says it didn’t even seem like a sale was taking place. Does she have some advice for others thinking of a liquidation or GOB sale? Three words, she says: “Wilkerson. Wilkerson. Wilkerson.”

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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


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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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