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America's Coolest Stores

ACS 2010: Second Place Big Cool, Cornell’s Jewelers



There are remodels that are a little like a scheduled maintenance upgrade. And then there are those that go far beyond a lick of fresh paint or a new coffee corner and become an all-consuming life-changing adventure. The two-year renovation of Cornell’s Jewelers in Rochester, NY, was a lot like that. Not an inch of the original store was left untouched. “It became a mission that we lived and breathed 24/7,” says David Cornell, who co-owns the store with his wife, Olivia. After nine years of planning and dreaming, and 24 months of work that required three different entrances to be built to allow the store to stay in operation, the pair were exhausted but done. The result is one of the most jaw-dropping jewelry stores in America. Here, the glass is treated so as not to give off glare, the lighting counters seasonal affective disorder, and the customers can lose themselves in a world of diamond lounges, brand boutiques and watch galleries.

Quick Facts


URL:  |  Owners: David & Olivia Cornell  |  Founded: 1923  |  Remodeled: 2007  |  Architect: William Chapin  |  Design: Formatum, Norma Goldman  |  Cases: Alliance Store Fixtures  |  Lighting: Robin Muto  |  Area: 13,000 square feet  |  Employees: 20  |  Top Brands: Hearts On Fire, Memoire, Chopard, John Hardy, Judith Ripka, Marco Bicego, Doris Panos

Five Cool Things About This Store

Take-Your-Breath-Away Entrance


1On entering Cornell’s, customers pass through a small antechamber that leads to the main showroom — an airy chapel-like space with a soaring double-height ceiling and huge suspended light soffit. Olivia says the dramatic transition still takes her breath away and validates their decision to invest in the complex engineering that was required to pull it off. (The 1-ton soffit had to be hoisted up by a genie lift and is held in place by aviation cable and a custom-designed frame.) The grand feeling of space above amplifies the intimate feel of the “shop-in-shops” and boutiques below. “The goal was to have spatial surprises,” Olivia says.

The Future of Jewelry Retail

2Want to see the future of jewelry retail? Come to Rochester. Starfire glass, which avoids glare for security cameras and supports true color rendition of the merchandise, is used in all the casework. An Eyeson security system monitors the store via more than 120 cameras (and also allows management to revisit sales situations to scrutinize everything from a staff member’s body language to sales protocol). CyberLock electronic keys gauge casework use and track threshold door use. High-efficiency HVAC and economizers pump fresh air into the store in the cooler months while the lighting counters seasonal affective disorder, helping staff and customers feel more energetic. Cornell’s was also one of the first stores in America to employ articulating LED task lights, which not only flatter the wearer but make the diamonds “pop,” David says.

The Watch Tower

3Cornell’s Jewelers had its beginnings in a watch repair service started in 1923 by David’s father, Harry, who is still alive at 103, although not surprisingly no longer involved in the store’s operation. That history is hinted at by the store’s most prominent exterior feature — a three-story-high clock tower. The tower serves double-duty as a special events billboard for the 60,000 commuters who pass the store daily.

The Vault


4Anchoring the store is a Class III vault that weighs 186,000 pounds. The vault pieces were delivered on three semi-trailers, and each module was put into position by a crane and secured by more than 4,000 feet of welds. “Our building is literally built around this massive piece of equipment,” Olivia says.

Diamond Lounges

5For much of its history, the Cornell family business involved trading  diamonds on a wholesale basis. The shift to focus exclusively on retail came in 1997, some 13 years after David had taken over the firm. Nevertheless, diamond-related sales, in particular bridal and engagement, remain a principal source of earnings and a passion for David, a former member of the New York Diamond Dealers Club. The decision to place the diamond division on the second floor was thus made with some trepidation, and helps to account for the detail that went into its planning. “My inspiration was actually Cheers, the TV program,” says David, explaining he wanted to create a friendly atmosphere where at the same time people wouldn’t feel like other customers were looking over their shoulder. The solution was a series of islands with the showcase glass set high at 42 inches above the floor “to get the product close to people’s eyes,” he says.


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       Try This

Casual Nametags

Due to its size and stand-alone design, Cornell’s is an inherently intimidating store. Among the strategies implemented to put customers at ease are the nametags that all staff wear: They are all done in lower case.


superstitional su-per-STI-tion-al adj. 1. Used to describe store birthday parties. Every staff birthday is celebrated with a ritual that includes slicing the cake with an upside down knife and smearing the birthday girl or boy’s name for good luck.

       Fun Facts

OCT. 14, 2009 was declared Cornell’s Jewelers Day by Monroe County in recognition of the business’s commitment to the local community.

What the Judges Said

Gurhan: Cornell’s Jewelers is exactly what a fine jewelry store should look like. It is elegant, sophisticated, and the perfect setting for my designs.

Wendy Furrer: Cornell’s Jewelers is a classic, beautiful store. I absolutely love the TV lounge area — it’s a must-have for any cool store. The exterior is lovely — it’s inviting and elegant, as I am drawn to the clock and beautiful front door.

Bess Anderson: A neutral, residential color palette where the execution of different textures and finishes work together to create an amazing, elegant, tactile experience. The environment is warm, inviting, and allows for merchandise to be beautifully presented. The open floor plan is welcoming, and I love the offset, almost private seating/family room area that provides intimate customer service when needed. National brands merchandised within wall cabinets were tastefully done and gave each brand equal in-store status. Brilliant design and attention to detail — even down to the pull handle on the upholstered chairs.

Jean Philippe Meunier: Cornell’s Jewelers is a picture of elegance and sophistication. In two tones of white and beige brick, the exterior is a mini clock tower surrounded by pleasant manicured gardens. The same color theme is extended into the interior and perfectly maintains harmony and tasteful elegance. The use of classical design elements, for example in the columns, display cases and fireplaces and tastefully modern furniture in the showroom and lounges make for a sophisticated and comfortable environment.

Candy Udell: The store showed a very strong relationship between the design of the exterior and the interior. While showing a very traditional look for both, it still incorporates unique designs and a high-tech approach. The interior is very warm and elegant and clearly demonstrates that this is a house of luxury. There is a strong residential element that gives the entire store an inviting and welcoming look. They have taken their tradition in the area and put it into a fully modern location.

This story is from the August 2010 edition of INSTORE



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