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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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PHOTO GALLERY (7 IMAGES)

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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America's Coolest Stores

New York’s Yaf Sparkle Excels at Hospitality

Creating an experience comes naturally.

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Yaf Sparkle, New York

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


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

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

ABC? Yaf inquired.

“Always be closing,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIDEO: YAF SPARKLE STORE TOUR VIDEO


PHOTO GALLERY (33 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Yaf Sparkle

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

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

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

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

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

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: As a former New Yorker, I know how hard it is to stand apart from the thousands of other stores in the city. This is an amazing location with lots of cool and funky shopping options. The store has a great social-media presence and brings in a sense of community with their posts.
  • Julie Ettinger: I so appreciate the energy and passion in this store. It’s so New York; the interior, the exterior, the video marketing all connect. I also love their passion for shopping local and pulling surrounding stores and community together.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : Yaf’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre are what make this store so special. You can feel her love of what she does loud and clear through all of her online marketing, including her videos. I also love the custom-design page that seeks to educate her customer on the design process. Finally, her philanthropy and the foundation she started is important and brilliant.
  • Hedda Schupak: This business clearly “gets” both millennials and female self-purchasers, two sectors that are critical for our industry to do a better job in attracting. I love the fact that customers can walk in and try on fashion jewelry, but then there’s fine jewelry that costs five digits yet doesn’t look too precious. I love how they restored the original building under layers of soulless concrete.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Today’s retail environment is all about creating an experience and connection for the customer, and Yaf Sparkle is succeeding at just that. I also love the job they have done in making their store part of the culture and energy within NYC’s Lower East Side community.
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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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Regional Family-Owned Jewelry Company Expands Presence in New Hampshire

Bold, new store in Nashua embraces the future.

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Day’s Jewelers, Nashua, NH

OWNERS: Jeff & Kathy Corey; URL:daysjewelers.com; FOUNDED: 1914; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2018; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Ron Gay, YCC Jewelry Store Designs; Fulcrum, Ouellet Construction and Guy Labrecque Jr., architect from CWS; EMPLOYEES: 130 total; 13 in this location ; AREA: 6,000 square feet total; 5,000-square-foot showroom; TOP BRANDS: Forevermark, Martin Flyer, Gabriel & Co., Frieda Rothman; TOTAL NUMBER OF LOCATIONS: 8; BUILDOUT COST: $1.4 million


ON JEFF COREY’S FIRST date with future wife Kathy, the couple not only talked about getting married and having kids, they also dreamed of opening a jewelry store together. “Why not multiple jewelry stores?” they mused. The possibilities opened up before them.

“It’s always been our vision to provide opportunities to others,” Kathy says. “Having multiple locations has always been our vision, right from the start.”

Years later, they were operating one store — Jeffrey’s Fine Jewelers in Waterfield, ME — when they received a serendipitous phone call.

At one time, Day’s was the largest jewelry retailer in New England with 22 stores, but by the time the owners, brothers David and Sidney Davidson, were in their 80s and ready to retire, they could not find a buyer to sell the company intact. They were forced to sell their legacy piecemeal for the value of the real estate.

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When they had just one remaining store, the brothers called the Coreys. The Davidsons had known Jeff’s dad, who got his start with Day’s. “He said my brother and I want to retire, but don’t want to see the name Day’s die,” Jeff recalls.

“We’d like you to buy the company from us and revive Day’s.”

What could have been the end for Day’s turned into a new beginning. The Coreys did buy the last Day’s. Soon there were two Day’s locations when they changed the name of Jeffrey’s Fine Jewelers to Day’s and began rebuilding the brand. Now there are eight.

The grand opening of Day’s Jewelers in Nashua, NH, celebrated the beginning of a new era for the Coreys. It is the first store they built from the ground up.

The Nashua Chapter

The Coreys built their first New Hampshire store in Manchester in 2003, but knew that in order to have a strong presence in that state, they’d need another location. So when the Nashua location became available in a desirable, high-traffic area, they were beyond ready. This buildout would be their first from the ground up, giving them a chance to modernize their look and branding.

“We were looking for a store that was more engaging, that allowed the comfort and freedom to walk around without shoppers feeling they were being observed or pressured to buy,” Kathy says.

A circular design sets the stage for a natural traffic flow that draws shoppers throughout the space while maximizing linear display space. The two-story entryway has a glass wall along its curved exterior, creating space for advertising display opportunities both inside and out, and establishing an interior theme that carries through to casework and ceiling. The circular design creates an open lounge area in the center for customers to settle in, enjoy a beverage and watch TV, creating the feeling they had walked into a home.

Black brick around the building’s perimeter establishes a solid base for the lighter exterior finish system above. The finishes selected for the window systems, canopy and awnings are a play on metal work and fabrication. The exterior is a modern interpretation of traditional detailing and material use while maintaining strict regulations for energy conservation and sustainable design practices. As with the exterior, materials selected for the interior represent the display of fine jewelry in a modern, sleek, but accessible fashion.

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Kathy considers the Forevermark bridal enclave to be the crown jewel of the store with its custom-built benches and furniture, as well as the story of Forevermark playing on a continuous loop.

The Virtual Diamond Boutique allows shoppers to view and virtually try on exceptional loose diamonds, most of which can be ordered for viewing in store the next day.

Standing the Test of Time

From the beginning, Kathy and Jeff were determined to have a long-range vision. “We’ve resisted the temptation to hold sales, for one example,” Kathy says. “ It’s a matter of integrity — and of doing things for the long term.”

Day’s point of differentiation in its markets is partly a result of the size of its stores, which are all between 5,000 and 10,000 square feet. “The selection we offer our customers is hugely more vast than other stores,” Kathy says. “We also pride ourselves on services, engraving, goldsmith, pearl stringing, appraisals, gemologists, and ear piercing. We do hundreds of ear piercings a year. We do all of this with that hometown comfortable feel without being perceived as a big box.”

Day’s is one of five independent retail jewelers to be certified by the Responsible Jewelry Council as the result of a third-party audit. “RJC has given us an opportunity to evaluate long-term structural, strategic initiatives that help businesses survive the times.”

In maintaining the company’s family jeweler tradition, Jeff and Kathy’s son Joe, along with two nephews, have begun to assume leadership roles in the company.

Their long-term view also means they take time to hire and then invest in employee growth. Their 25-page hiring handbook is informed by experts in the field, including Kate Peterson and Peter Smith. “We clearly define skills, experiences and talents that are necessary to succeed at a particular job. We use screening tools to determine if a candidate fits the profile.”

They ensure that every new hire feels a sense of empowerment and has the knowledge and education to make independent decisions in the best interest of the company and customers. “We want our employees to feel that this is a career, not just a job,” Jeff says. “They have to feel like they’re learning and growing all the time. So we invest in training and career advancement, including college courses.”

Everyone learns that the customer is the boss. “If you ask any one of our 130 employees, they will tell you that,” Jeff says. “Google reviews and Facebook reviews tell that story quite clearly.”

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They also work hard to find good leaders and facilitate strong communication. It’s working: a statewide survey has deemed Day’s one of the best places to work in Maine based on employee responses to questions about company culture, leadership, their level of satisfaction and a variety of HR-related criteria.

Ensuring employee satisfaction ultimately leads to customer satisfaction.

At the Nashua store, buying jewelry is absolutely fun, the Coreys say, thanks to their enthusiastic team. “They bring an energy to buying jewelry that is like none other,” they say. “Bring your dog to Day’s, bring your baby, have a beer, kick your feet up, relax. You’ll become part of our family the minute you walk into our store.”

PHOTO GALLERY (8 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Day’s Jewelers

1. The Bridal Box. Whenever Day’s sells a diamond engagement ring, the engaged couple receives a large gift-wrapped box that includes a bottle of champagne, a jewelry gift, promotions for wedding rings and bridal attendant gifts, toasting flutes and a certificate for a free engraved cake knife. Day’s has partnered with a local photographer, formalwear provider, and other bridal-related businesses; each includes a gift or coupon in the box.

2. Core values. Stationed high above the entrance on the copper trim at the building’s pinnacle is the company’s signature emblem, each point of which represents one of Day’s Jewelers four core differentiating values that have guided the company for more than 100 years. “Value: We promise to always provide the best value to our customersin our goods and services. Opportunity: We promise to provide everyone with the opportunity to own and enjoy fine jewelry. Trust: We promise to always do business in an environment of trust and transparency. Sentiment: We believe the true value of a piece of jewelry is not in how much it costs, but what it means to the person who wears it.”

3. Enchanting the children. A graphics product called Visual Magnetics adds interactive scenery to the children’s play area. Magnetic paint is applied under the store’s color paint, turning its walls into magnets. Then thin, high-resolution images can be rolled directly onto the wall. The first layer is a colorful, under-the-sea background. The second layer is cut-outs of sea life that children can move around to create their own customized seascape.

4. The media mix. “I find marketing to be very exciting today,” Jeff says. “It’s so much easier to hypter-target the market with the proper message.” While social media has become a very important part of the ad mix, Day’s has found value in everything from TV and radio to cinema ads and airport billboards. Even newspaper advertising has its place as a way to reach the over 50, more affluent demographic. Having a team of eight people on staff in the marketing department, including graphic designers, a videographer/photographer and a copywriter allows most of the work to be done in house.

5. Philanthropy. In 2014, to celebrate 100 years in business, Day’s set a goal of raising $100,000 for Jewelers for Children. Day’s 138 employees were invited to participate voluntarily, primarily through weekly payroll deduction. With generous contributions and hard work from employees, customers and suppliers, the firm contributed $102,000 to JFC in January 2015.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Benjamin Guttery: This jeweler exemplifies that the entire family is welcome at their store, from kiddos to Corgis. The second floor window really shines to passersby and is a recognizable feature of the community as well as an advertising display opportunity.
  • Elle Hill: The store is fresh, clean and bright, allowing the customer to bathe in warm natural sunlight. Engaging with the community and touches such as the Bridal Box are important ways of fitting in and standing out.
  • Bob Phibbs: The kids’ section is inspired. I’ve never encountered anything like that to keep kids occupied.
  • Michael Roman: Exquisite showroom! Unique space for small children. Strong core values are evident in the stores’ success. Well-done YouTube video. It gives the shopper a feeling about what their experience will be like if they visit Day’s.
  • Mark Tapper: The interior of the Nashua store is cool, modern and beautiful. I love the sleek lines and rounded cases. The showroom appears to be flowing with natural light. The Forevermark boutique has a great presence.
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