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Making Her
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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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America's Coolest Stores

These Were Our Editors’ Favorite Cool Store Characteristics

INSTORE editors picked these stores as their top choices for interior, exterior, marketing and online presence.

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WE’RE NOT QUITE ready to announce who won the 2019 America’s Coolest Stores contest. But to pique your interest before the big reveal, we’re sharing INSTORE editors’ top picks in four of the judging categories: Exterior, Interior, Marketing and Online Presence. Entries always contain a wealth of good ideas, and we want to start sharing those as soon as possible. Stay tuned for the announcement of winners, chosen by our panel of industry-expert judges, on instoremag.com in late July, and in our annual America’s Coolest Stores issue in August. As always, the competition was tough. Thank you for entering!

BIG COOL INTERIOR DESIGN

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: When shoppers step into the new Park Place Jewelers in West Ocean City, they say they feel transported to a land of luxury. The 4,100-square-foot store has vaulted 30-foot-high ceilings, curved glass showcases and walls accented in shimmering Anatolia Baroque glass tiles. Even the restrooms attract attention with gold-tone hand dryers and fixtures. Owners Todd and Jill Ferrante welcome customers with a 50-inch flat screen TV, coffee bar, fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, and comfortable chairs for resting tired feet.

1. Mitchum Jewelers, Ozark, MO
2. Classic Creations, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
3. Day’s Jewelers, Nashua, NH
4. Provident Jewelry, Jupiter, FL
5. Park Place Jewelers, Ocean City, MD (Pictured)

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Big CoolEXTERIOR

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: Owners Sanjay and Sapna Singhania have pulled architectural inspiration from the White House, Las Vegas casino hotels and the temple of Vedic planetarium, under construction in India, to create Tanmai Jewelers, a palatial, 3,500 square-foot showplace in Irving, TX. The grand exterior is incredibly detailed; features include an eye-catching water fountain and the company’s logo inset into the corners of the building.

1. Day’s Jewelers, Nashua, NH
2. John Atencio, Lone Tree, CO
3. Tanmai, Irving, TX (Pictured)
4. H1912, Princeton, NJ
5. Provident Jewelry, Jupiter, FL

Big CoolMARKETING

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: In Bloomington, IN, John Carter, owner of Jack Lewis Jewelers, treats Facebook as if it were his own TV network, with regularly scheduled programming throughout the week that promotes elements of the business. “The other thing we do is highlight our staff in these features,” Carter says. “We are unique in the fact that we are not all about the owner. Our people are the key to what we do.” Video is an integral part of what drives business. Carter and his staff sing and lip-sync invented lyrics set to popular tunes with hilarious results. “If you’ve heard me sing, you know there’s no talent involved whatsoever,” Carter says. “When I started doing it, it was just me, but I’m blessed to have people who work for me who want to be part of the gag,” he says. “It’s nice to show we don’t take ourselves so seriously. It’s another way of bonding with our customer.”

1. Jack Lewis Jewelers, Bloomington, IN (Pictured)
2. Croghan’s Jewel Box, Charleston, SC
3. Day’s Jewelers, Nashua, NH
4. State St. Jewelers, Greensboro, NC
5. H1912, Princeton, NJ

Big CoolONLINE PRESENCE

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: Sisters Mariana Ramsay Hay and Rhett Ramsay Outten, owners of Croghan’s Jewel Box in Charleston, SC, have reason to celebrate their attractive new website, croghansjewelbox.com, which boasts 9,000 to 15,000 visits per month. Visitors are drawn to the site’s layered storytelling, including a blog with a behind-the-scenes vibe and an e-commerce section overflowing with treasures. The century-old family business also uses Facebook and Instagram to develop their online personality and engage customers directly. They’ve experimented with geofencing. During the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, which attracts more than 40,000 visitors, they drew a virtual fence around four luxury hotels and served ads to their visitors on sites including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Harper Bazaar and Vogue.com, which proved to be an inexpensive way to reach nearby visitors looking for something to do.

1. Croghan’s Jewel Box, Charleston, SC (Pictured)
2. Jack Lewis Jewelers, Bloomington, IN
3. Day’s Jewelers, Nashua, NH
4. Classic Creations, Toronto, Ontario
5. H1912, Princeton, NJ

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Small CoolINTERIOR DESIGN

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: The lobby of the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort is home to a luxurious surprise: Chronus Gallery, owned by David Veitsman and Fred Sirota. Encased in glass, it looks like a giant greenhouse showcasing ever-changing conditions in the Sunshine State; rain creates a pattern on the glass, while sunset illuminates the space with a red glow. To maintain some control over the changing light, a sculptural light fixture provides consistency, and a film shields the glass ceiling panels. Gold leaf back-painted glass panels reinforce the luxurious look. Art Nouveau-style showcases and furniture feature chrome metal legs, a high gloss finish and smooth embossed leather that dress up the space.

1. Welling & Co. Jewelers, West Chester, OH
2. The Loupe by JB Hudson Jewelers, Minneapolis, MN
3. Chronus Gallery, Bal Harbour, FL (Pictured)
4. EAT Gallery, Maysville, KY
5. Balefire Goods, Arvada, CA

Small CoolMARKETING

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: Rather than spending money on traditional marketing, owner Jamie Hollier of Balefire Goods focuses on building relationships. Fostering relationships with magazines, local news outlets, and other publications has led to editorial use of Balefire jewelry as fashion features and gift guides. Being seen in the content of local media means more to her customers than seeing an ad, Hollier says. Donations of jewelry, space and time to non-profits, private groups and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce have helped to build the brand, too. In the look book for Balefire’s commitment line, called Kindle, models are real couples that represent a diversity of ages, sizes, and sexual orientation.

1. Yaf Sparkle, New York, NY
2. Brax Jewelers, Newport Beach, CA
3. EAT Gallery, Maysville, KY
4. Wanna Buy a Watch, West Hollywood, CA
5. Balefire Goods, Arveda, CO (Pictured)

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Small CoolONLINE PRESENCE

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: At EAT Gallery in Maysville, KY, owned by Simon and Laurie Watt, the focus is on colored gemstones, which means jewelry tends to be bright and ideal for great photography. This helps the gallery stand out on Instagram and Google. Manager Katherine Cotterill has launched a video blog series, “Welccome to the Gallery,” which is featured both on the website and on YouTube. In each episode, Cotterill models jewelry so viewers can see how it looks on a person. It’s a great way to showcase their jewelry in a casual, conversational way online. They’re also using social media contests with great success.

1. Yaf Sparkle, New York, NY
2. EAT Gallery, Maysville, KY (Pictured)
3. Wanna Buy a Watch, West Hollywood, CA
4. Balefire Goods, Arvada, CO
5. Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, Portland, OR

Small CoolEXTERIOR

WHAT THE EDITORS SAY: Yaf Sparkle, owned by Yaf Boye-Flaegel and Torsten Flaegel, sparkles and shines on an iconic street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. If Broome Street looks familiar, you may have seen it in the movies; it went back in time for “The Knick” set in 1901 and again for “The Irishman” by Martin Scorsese, set in 1972. Owners Yaf Boye-Flaegel and Torsten Flaegel spread glitter across the sidewalk outside, making it impossible for party folks to overlook the store on a lively Saturday night.

1. Welling & Co. Jewelers, West Chester, OH
2. JC Jewelers, Jackson, WY
3. Balefire Goods, Arveda, CO
4. Yaf Sparkle, New York, NY (Pictured)
5. Amor Fine Jewelry, Brooklyn, NY

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America's Coolest Stores

Century-Old Store Embraces Change With Futuristic Features

Lighting and high-level interior design enhance a dramatic renovation.

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Reis-Nichols Jewelers, Indianapolis, IN

OWNER: William P. “BJ” Nichols; URL:reisnichols.com ; FOUNDED: 1919; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION:1998; LAST RENOVATED: 2017; STORE DESIGNER: Jill Duzan LLC; EMPLOYEES: 76 in two locations; AREA: 2,100 sq. ft.; TOP BRANDS: Rolex, Patek Philippe, David Yurman, Roberto Coin, JB Star, Forevermark


B.J. and Lori Nichols with daughter Hannah Nichols

A HUNDRED YEARS AFTER its founding, Reis-Nichols Jewelers is teeming with energy and optimism — from its mood lighting and comfortably elegant interior to the debut of Hannah Nichols, who represents the family’s next generation.

Highlights of the 12,000 square-foot space, expanded and reinvented in 2017, include sophisticated brand boutiques, cases designed for side-by-side selling, futuristic lighting and a glass-walled custom shop.

“The feeling when you walk in is a lot of energy,” says president William (B.J.) Nichols. “Our vendor reps say it’s the busiest store that they are in.”

Nichols sought to set a friendly tone for all of those visitors and welcome them in a natural manner, with a hospitality bar at the front of the store staffed with greeters. Refreshments are served there, and a video explains the history of the business.

History is reflected in the interior design itself. “We’ve used lots of the hip, dark-colored woods with white brick and some wrought iron and steel around the windows, so it feels a little bit more like a manufacturer, which is basically the origins of our company,” Nichols says.

Reis Jewelers was founded in 1919 as a manufacturing company that produced handmade, emblematic jewelry for Masonic organizations. In 1957, William Nichols began working for his uncle, the owner, and became an expert on jewelry manufacturing and wholesale distribution. When he bought the company, he renamed it Reis-Nichols. William later opened a public showroom and began selling to consumers. In the late ‘80s, William sold ownership of the company to his five children, including B.J.

Reis-Nichols’ latest retail incarnation does more than pay symbolic homage to its manufacturing past. In addition to a sprawling showroom and administrative offices, it also houses an authentic shop integrated into the space with steel and glass factory-style windows that reveal behind-the-scenes craftsmanship. If customers take a peek, they will notice a busy operation, with 10 jewelers and three watchmakers on staff. The watchmakers hold several Swiss-brand certifications. The versatile jewelry team has created everything from a 19 total carat weight yellow diamond ring to the official dog collar for Blue III, Butler University’s mascot.

Growing a strong in-house shop has helped Reis-Nichols thrive in a hot custom market, where smart jewelers are finding favorable margins and where consumers aren’t able to easily compare prices among competitors. It’s also very personal. “You can really make a connection with your client, and they’ll tell 100 people about what you did with a diamond they may have brought in,” Nichols says.

“It’s important for customers to know you have top brands. But brands are less important to engagement-ring buyers, and so we are designing most of the engagement rings we are selling.”

Jill Duzan Willey of Jill Duzan LLC, who is both an interior designer and a jewelry designer, was tasked with creating the overall customer experience, working with architects, lighting experts, engineers and builders to achieve that goal. “B.J. wanted it not to look like any other jewelry store,” she says.

By moving the main entrance to the south side of the building from the original north side location, the design team was able to create a modern new identity while adding space. All sides of the exterior were reimagined using up-to-date forms and materials.

A stately chest, left, deployed to display estate jewelry, is juxtaposed elsewhere with modern seating and cases.

Willey also fashioned a floor plan based on a multi-path pattern that allows shoppers to meander at will.

“It is not a typical one-path jewelry store. It is more of a boutique layout — each designer is identified, but all fit under the Reis-Nichols brand umbrella,” Nichols says.

The design team created a graceful traffic flow around the casework and used cases of different styles and sizes to add visual interest. Five curved showcases, usually set up in a semi-circle at the front, can be easily converted into a serpentine showcase for special events. “We tend to put what’s new and coolest up front, what we’re trying to show off,” Nichols says. The new space also includes several seating areas: from a comfortable waiting space and a semi-private diamond showroom to a luxurious watch lounge.

One challenge was to smoothly balance high-end branded boutiques with an overall casual ambience and make it cohesive, a feat accomplished with the informed choice of materials, lighting and layout. Nichols believes that a sense of brand identity offers clients something unique — the feeling of an escape to another place. Customers can be transported by that experience, as if they were visiting Rolex or Cartier in New York. On the other hand, if the design of branded boutiques is not integrated well into the overall design, the effect could be that of a duty-free shop at the airport.

PROMOTION: Advertising emphasizes the tradition of enduring craftsmanship.

“We tried to overcome threshold resistance while still presenting a luxurious experience,” Nichols says. “Our concept is to not be too intimidating for the younger clients, and not too casual for the higher-end luxury client.”

Layout, décor and technology are ambitious and look to the future. A steel structure, which was hoisted into the space with a forklift, creates a semi-private circular diamond showroom in the middle of the sales floor. A lucite table glows with light to enhance bridal sales or the delivery of an important watch.

A Ketra lighting-control system is connected by wi-fi to each light on the sales floor, shops and offices. The lighting in different areas can be customized to be cool or warm, based on whether it’s being used to illuminate watches, diamonds or colored stones. But the most exciting use for this system, Nichols believes, is to change the mood, scenery and feel of the store, especially during parties and trunk shows. During a Rolex event, the lights were a perfect shade of “Rolex Green,” while red lighting has been used for Valentine’s Day. In December, exterior accent lights glow green. Settings are programmed for morning set-up, daytime selling and overnight security, all activated with the click of a button on keypads placed around the store.

The company’s delicate balance between branded and unbranded, casual and elegant, past and future, modern and traditional, appears to have been achieved, with a big dash of wow factor.

PHOTO GALLERY (15 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Reis-Nichols

1. A weighty wall. The stainless-steel wall behind the guest-services area was handmade by a local artisan, weighs 700 pounds and took half a dozen construction workers to install. The current installment contains permanent initials for father/founder William P. Nichols, who died in 2011, the names of B.J. Nichols and VP Cindy Nichols, and the initials of Megan, the graphic designer who designed the concept. Additionally, magnetic plaques recognize employee anniversaries of more than 10 years.

2. A brilliant idea. Reis-Nichols developed Brilliant, its own custom point-of-sale, inventory and client-management system. It was conceived by Nichols, brought to life by the company’s long-time CEO, and has been modified to fit ever-changing business needs, including real-time website inventory interface. “We can do entire store audits in less than two hours, and we’re able to make changes quickly and inexpensively to be more customer-centric,” Nichols says.

3. Finders keepers. For a Valentine’s Day promotion, Reis-Nichols staff hid clues throughout the city leading to treasure. “When they find it (the clue), they bring it in and we present them with a piece of jewelry and donate $100 to their favorite charity,” Nichols says.

4. E-commerce evolves. “We decided to get serious about e-commerce over five years ago,” Nichols says. “We tend to do very well with showing merchandise on the website and having customers come in and ask for it. For actually transacting e-commerce on the website and someone hitting the purchase button, that’s still a work in progress, but it’s growing.”

5. Hope for the future. B.J.’s daughter Hannah Nichols, graduated with a marketing degree from Indiana University five years ago, and is working as an assistant diamond buyer and bridal-jewelry consultant. “Customers like to see a family member,” says her dad. “And she’s developed a following from her days at Indiana University.”

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Jill Maurer: Reis-Nichols Jewelers is a beautiful blend of heritage and modern. Rather than resting on their impressive laurels they pushed boundaries with their redesign. I especially love the programmable lighting system!
  • David Lampert: Nice store. Seems like they do a good amount of digital marketing.
  • Laura Davis: What a cool experience. And their Instagram should be a best-in-class shout-out. I can see why they get national attention. Just a fantastic story. I want to know these people! 🙂
  • Larry Johnson: Beautiful choices of colors and textures make the interior combination of iconic brands seamless.
  • Katherine Bodoh: I love the interior and exterior. The lighting, whitewashed brick and modern cases add a cool vibe to a more “traditional” store layout. The Est. 1919 sign is a great way to inform customers of their heritage without being “stuffy”.

 

ONLINE EXTRA: Q&A with BJ Nichols

What kind of philanthropy do you participate in?

We love to give back and probably the biggest one is our watch battery donation. We ask our clients to donate to a charity. A big one we’ve sponsored is Second Helpings, which is the repurposing of food from restaurants and is a very large organization in Indianapolis. We do the yearly event, Corks and Forks, where restaurants donate their food. With the watch-battery program we’ve bought now two $20,000 delivery vehicles, with our name on the side of it in small print. When you have a purpose, each month we’ll do a charity and customers will get excited and sometimes write a check for a thousand dollars. We tend to donate to our better customers’ charities and juvenile diabetes and Indiana university cancer research

Are your customers expressing concern about responsible sourcing, or other ethical issues?

The majority rely on our reputation to be ethical but certain customers, younger, more informed customer today is more curious about that. We’re very good at explaining our processes, the Kimberley process and we carry Forevermark diamonds, which is a very important part of their positioning and marketing.

What has been your approach to lab-grown diamonds?

We do not market synthetic diamonds to the public. We will sell them by special request if it’s important to them to have that. But the main issue with lab grown diamonds is it’s a race to the bottom as far as pricing. We’re not comfortable selling someone a diamond that will continue to drop significantly in price. People buy jewelry from us to maintain its value over time. When I talk to my better clients, they’re all like `I want the real thing.’ If I’m promoting synthetic diamonds, it’s like speaking two different languages. It’s difficult to do both. And I want customers to have the confidence to know it’s all natural – rubies and sapphires and diamonds.

What have you learned about the latest generation of engagement-ring shoppers?

It’s very easy to be stereotypical and I don’t think you can generalize, but the bridal portion of our business has a more transactional approach than other parts of the business. But the majority want to buy in store and appreciate the experience and are buying based on their relationship with the sales person. So I see both sides of it. The average amount spent is down but we are selling higher end diamonds to younger and younger engagement ring buyers. There’s more variation between how people shop for engagement ring, and there is a trend that the latest generation is spending more on the experience and the wedding than they are on the diamond ring.

Have you noticed any engagement-ring trends?

Shoppers are looking for more curved shapes, ovals and cushions are strong. Less important are princess and Asscher cuts.

What’s the Most Important Lesson You’ve Learned as a Retailer?

After nearly 100 years in business, we’ve learned not to wait for customers to give you enough feedback to do something cool. Customers always want more. Lead, don’t follow. Be an innovator, don’t be ordinary. Start selling new and creative lines before anyone else. Make changes to the look of your store and develop out of the box ideas first. Be the jeweler (and sales professionals) that people want to spend time with, for fun! A word of caution: make sure to poll a couple of your good customers before implementing those changes. Just because it’s a great, out of the box idea doesn’t mean that your best customers will actually love it!

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America's Coolest Stores

This Cool Store’s Design Was Influenced by Aviation History

Contemporary design lends their building a new purpose.

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Beré Jewelers, Pensacola, FL

OWNERS: Barry and Laura Cole; URL:berejewelers.com ; FOUNDED: 1985; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Jesse Balaity, project designer; Patrick M. Pillot, architect; Morette Construction, contractor; JMJ Inc. showcase manufacturer; EMPLOYEES: 9 ; AREA: 7,350 square feet; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; BUILDOUT COST: $2.1 million


A ROUTINE DRIVE HOME from the airport changed everything for Barry and Laura Cole. After a buying trip to Las Vegas in June 2016, the couple passed a furniture store they had long imagined would be the ideal spot for a jewelry store. In fact, for years, they had peeked in the windows and dreamed about its potential transformation. This time, they did a double take when they noticed a for-sale sign. “Our wheels started spinning,” Barry says. Despite years of daydreaming, they never really believed they’d be starting over after 31 years in business, but they wanted to set up the business for its best possible future for their second generation, sons Conner and Harrison. Conner won the Atlanta 24 Karat Club’s Robert Foreman Memorial Scholarship in August 2018 and has earned a graduate gemologist degree.

Bankers were called, and construction began about four months later under the guidance of store designer Jesse Balaity. It was to be a remarkably quick turnaround with the opening in April 2017.

“Jesse is a little more contemporary and I am a little more traditional,” Barry Cole says. “But I’m a pretty laid back guy, and we wanted it to have a less traditional feel to it than most stores. I didn’t want dark cherry wood or drop cloud lighting systems. I just wanted it to be different.”

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Balaity was happy to deliver that distinctive look.

The building was in great shape, he says — a well-designed furniture store with a wide-open canvas inside and an exposed ceiling.

“It lent itself to having a more contemporary feeling,” Balaity says. “I often advise clients working with a big open ceiling not to pursue a traditional approach. Dark woods and lower ceilings don’t work with a big volume of space. If they do want to finish out everything with wood veneers and moldings, it gets uncontrollably expensive to deal with all those finishings.”

So, finding themselves in agreement, the Coles and Balaity kept the industrial-style open ceilings and added old reclaimed Chicago brick from local sites to build columns and walls.

Another important consideration was to determine which generation (or generations) the Coles were trying to woo as clients. “Pensacola has a good mix because of the Air Force base,” Balaity says. “And we want to be able to broadly attract younger bridal customers and older customers alike into this space. Having a contemporary approach was more approachable for everyone.”

To balance the jewelry and watch brand identities with the Beré identity, each was given its own distinct zone, created by a mix of wood plank and porcelain. The Breitling enclave is defined by wood plank and the Forevermark zone is highlighted with a similar material in a lighter color. “We had to pick and choose how each would have its presence and how they would play together, and we found ways to overlap Forevermark and the bridal zone,” Balaity says.

The store is across the street from the airport, says Cole, who can sit in his conference room and look at the runway. The city is known for being the home of naval aviation and the Blue Angels, local themes Cole wanted to tie into the store.

An entire wall anchors a bar, lounge and Breitling watch zone, where panel walls with rivets mimicking old airplane and antique propellers pay homage to the local military and aviation history.

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The bar boasts local craft beers on tap, wine champagne and bourbon. Entertainment includes eight large-screen LED TVs playing sports, fashion videos and brand stories. The children’s play area is equipped with LED TV, toys, books, puzzles and original paintings of sea creatures.

An 18-foot granite community table is the center for meetings and events and invites customers to relax with a hot cup of coffee or cold beer. The Coles offer their space to local charities for events and board meetings, too. Original artwork by Laura Cole hangs throughout the store.

Barry believes the design achieved all of his goals, even goals he didn’t realize he had and wouldn’t have been able to articulate without Balaity’s input. “On front-facing showcases, the drawer pulls are made out of leather,” he says. “Just little details like that that I never in a million years would have thought of. Showcases all of a sudden looked like an old trunk. I’m good at what I do, but I never would have thought of those things.”

Balaity says the store is an extension of its owners’ personalities. “Barry and Laura are community-engaged and affable, and they grasped the idea of the store being a community hub,” he says. “They took a big leap to create a full bar area, an outside seating area and a lounge area. When you walk in and see Barry in this environment, it looks like you’re seeing him in this large living room. It really is the owner’s personality that melds with the design and makes it a retail experience.”

Cole agrees it can feel like his living room and that the hospitable atmosphere is good for business. “We will sit here at night and open a beer and really enjoy being here,” he says. “It’s pretty cool when you feel you don’t have to be away from this place. Every single day someone comes in and is wowed.” In fact, during the first six months the store was open, the Coles welcomed 3,000 new customers. In the first fiscal year, revenues were 50 percent over the previous year, even though the previous year had included a Wilkerson sale event.

Origin Story

Barry Cole’s origins in jewelry can be traced to a high school job at Zales. “I loved working with people and selling diamonds and watches,” he says. During his senior year in college, Ray Jones, his former boss at Zales, suggested they open their own store. “I was 21 years old, I was living at home, going to school. We spent the better part of that year, late 1984, saving up money. We each saved $10,000, and we found a bank to loan us $25,000.” They rented a 700 square-foot store, had some cases made, secured some inventory on memo and chose a name, a simple combination of their names. “Goofy, but it worked!” Cole says. “We opened on Oct. 15, and on Dec. 31, we had an armed robbery and we lost everything.” Although they were insured, much of the inventory was on memo and it took nine months to start over. In June 2005, after Jones died suddenly, Cole relocated the Pensacola store closer to the heartbeat of the Pensacola shopping area.

The Coles have come a long way and aren’t afraid to evolve.

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“Don’t be afraid of change,” Cole says. “I’m a big college football fan and I follow the University of Alabama. (Coach) Nick Saban is willing to change, to hire the right people who know the things to do to change with the times. That’s what I aspire to.”

PHOTO GALLERY (13 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Beré Jewelers

1. The Golden Ticket. The Coles created a VIP event with a “golden ticket” inspired by Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. VIP customers are offered a Golden Ticket invitation with a discount good for one night only. The evening features a full bar, catering from Pensacola’s best restaurants and live music.

2. The Blue Angels. Beré teams up with Breitling to sponsor the Blue Angels air show in Pensacola. “There will be about a quarter million people attending, and they blast our name over the intercom system,” Cole says. “We’ll end up selling between 10 and 25 watches as a result of that show.”

3. Embracing watches. The Coles are building a new watch shop on site. “I have a big passion for watches,” Cole says. “As much as a lot of jewelers are getting out of watches, I’ve kind of embraced watches because it gets people in our store. Guys come in and look at Omega, Breitling, Tag Heuer, Shinola, Oris, and that gets them exposed to our brand and our store.”

4. Marketing strategy. The Coles built a strong Facebook presence with 125,000 followers. After contracting with an agency, they began using geo-fencing and got into Instagram. They’re on network TV every day and advertise on seven or eight billboards. They’ve also got an ad on the back cover of several local magazines. “We’re the most aggressive advertiser in our market. It’s a transient community and I’ve got to let people know we are here.”

5. Community presence. “We’re big into charities and events around town,” Cole says. “We do a lot of sponsoring of ball teams and schools. When you support these things, the parents will support you.” During construction, they also made a concerted effort to use the community as a resource, going to local furniture and lighting stores and working with people they knew, even though at times they paid a premium to do so, Balaity says.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Geoffrey Brown: This overall brand and the online presence of the business is great. It appeals to every age. They are engaging on social media and review sites, and they are experts with a blog. They hit three major millennial and small business market must-haves.
  • Laura Davis: Very nice store, super-enlightened and experience-based approach. It’s a great brand and business.
  • Larry Johnson: The interior is the best I’ve seen in years. Definitely cool. Laura’s art gracing the store is a classic touch. The long table in the watch area creates a central gathering point that works extremely well.
  • David Lampert: I like that they have an active blog.
  • Jill Maurer: The Golden Ticket event is a great way to celebrate VIP customers and sounds like a lot of fun!
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