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Adventures in Retail

Alberta jewelry store creates an experience, even for passersby.

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Vandenbergs Jewellers, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

OWNERS: Ralph and Lori Vandenberg; website:vandenbergsjewellers.com; FOUNDED: 1976;
OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2019; ARCHITECT: Boss Designs; EMPLOYEES: 10; AREA: 1,490 square foot showroom; 3,300 square foot total; TOP BRANDS: Frey Wille, Hulchi Belluni, ALOR, Verragio, Midas Touch; ONLINE PRESENCE: 4.8 Star rating for 62 Google reviews; 1,224 Facebook followers; 456 Instagram followers; BUILDOUT COST: $600,000


AS A JEWELER, Ralph Vandenberg was always drawn to the adventurous side of the business; after he earned his GIA graduate gemologist degree as a young man, he embraced everything that those credentials equipped him to do, from traveling the world in search of rare gemstones to visiting South African and Russian diamond mines.

And recently, when he got the chance to build his dream store in a prime spot in an upscale mall in Edmonton, Alberta, he wanted above all else to convey his own sense of excitement about the business to clients, current and future.

To that end, he installed the casting room in the front of the store, where glass walls allow goldsmiths to put on a daily show for passersby. Pre-COVID-19, those pedestrians numbered in the thousands because the mall occupies the first two floors of a centrally located office tower.

The show has proven so popular that the goldsmiths post their schedule in the window, indicating when they expect to cast and make ingots so people can plan to stop by and watch. “There has been tremendous interest,” Vandenberg says, “It’s fascinating to watch the work being done, and we offer shop tours and process explanations to anyone interested.”

Ralph Vandenberg with his daughter, Chelsea, a GIA design graduate.

Ralph Vandenberg with his daughter, Chelsea, a GIA design graduate.

The hands-on nature of Vandenberg’s business also caught the attention of a client, Daron Donahue, an Edmonton-based cinematographer and two-time winner of the Canadian Screen Award for Best Photography. Donahue plans to make a documentary about why jewelry is important, focusing on one piece of jewelry, what it means and what it stands for, and has asked Vandenberg to narrate the film. It’s based on the idea that when man began to make art, man became human. One theory is that the very first piece of art was a shell necklace found in Africa.

Vandenberg relates to the idea that jewelry is imbued with meaning deeper than surface beauty.

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“We have a human side,” he says. “I’m not necessarily interested in making money on every sale. We’ve always been kind of different, interested in the story behind the jewelry, what it means and what it can mean. Jewelry, if you allow it to, can be extremely important and personal in your life.”

One way that philosophy plays out is matching loose diamond prices found on the Internet in order to make engagement-ring sales competitive. “It’s an entry sale for many people,” he says. “Other occasions outweigh the one purchase. So, it’s fine giving them a good deal on an engagement ring diamond to make lifelong customers.”

Vandenberg’s landlord recently invested $35 million to renovate common areas and offered favored tenants, including Vandenberg, great deals on prime mall locations, so he was able to grab an anchor spot with high visibility. “In normal times, we get 10,000 people who pass by the front door.” But even in 2020, business was good post-pandemic lockdowns, including the best July he had had in 15 years.

The store was a culmination of decades of letting his imagination run wild. “For 40 years, I was just always thinking, ‘I wish I had this, I wish I had that. If I could do it again, I’d do it this way.’” So, when it came time to build, Vandenberg knew specifically what he wanted. He picked the colors and materials and dreamed up the layout, using architectural support only for the technical drawings the builders would follow.

“Most important was the feel of the store,” he says. “I didn’t want anything fancy; I wanted it to be comfortable and relaxed.”

The shop is visible from the showroom as well as the mall.

The shop is visible from the showroom as well as the mall.

For the design itself, he blended industrial features such as exposed, painted black ceilings and old brick-and-concrete columns with lush carpeted areas and a floor-to-ceiling glass wall separating the workshop from the sales floor. He describes it as a meeting of luxury carriage trade with industrial aesthetic.

Vandenberg says his goal of creating a feast for the eyes was realized with handmade copper fan hoods, video walls, century-old safes, an acrylic, lava-like painted concrete walkway, a coffee lounge and a heritage photo wall. One important detail was lighting. “I did a whole lot of research and found these amazing lights that are full-spectrum LEDs. It looks like you’re in daylight.”

Unexpected details consistently draw attention. “Clients say they don’t want to leave because everywhere they look, there’s something else that they want to look at more closely,” Vandenberg says. “One gentleman was walking by and noticed our acrylic floor and came in to have a closer look at it. When he finally looked up and realized he was inside a jewelry store, he ended up purchasing a tourmaline necklace for $1,500.”

Ralph’s parents, Ralph Sr. and Jean Vandenberg, owned Hallmark card shops in the 1970s when a fortuitous turn of events landed the family in the jewelry business.

“One Christmas, my mother introduced a very inexpensive line of fashion jewelry,” Vandenberg says. “It sold so well, the mall manager took notice and offered us a 500-square-foot vacated jewelry space in the mall for free for six months if we wanted to try to sell fashion jewelry there.”

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The younger Vandenberg, who was in college at the time, managed the space. Because it was a former jewelry store, people continued to look for fine jewelry. In response, the Vandenbergs started carrying gold and gemstone jewelry.

“To make a long story short, we never looked back,” says Vandenberg, who left college to study jewelry design and gemology and develop a romantic mythology around his new profession.

“I grew my hair and my beard long, took my old leather backpack and traveled throughout Brazil and the Far East looking for gems to sell,” he recalls. “I realized I wanted to know as much as I could know and experience as much as I could experience. I decided early on I didn’t want to be just a retailer.

“I’ve been pretty much everywhere. You wouldn’t think that would be true in a small town like this or at a small jewelry store like mine. But I’ve done just about everything there is to do and see in this industry.”

PHOTO GALLERY (8 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Vandenbergs Jewellers

1. CUSTOM RETURN POLICY. Vandenbergs creates custom pieces at no obligation to the client. If the client doesn’t like how it turns out, the piece finds a home in a showcase. “I do caution that if they want skulls or crossbones on the item, then it is theirs,” Vandenberg says. The custom process is leisurely and detailed, though, so he’s only had to keep custom pieces a handful of times. The process begins with talking about design and beginning rough sketches. Once the concept is agreed upon, the client tours the design area, where watercolor paintings are made to scale. They’re also shown the CAD area and casting room. They return to look at the paintings and to finalize the design. “The biggest barrier to custom design is, ‘What if I don’t like it?’ Being involved in the process sets them at ease, particularly when you take the time to do the CAD, the painting, and interact three or four times,” Vandenberg says.

2. GEM SELECTION. Each of 35 individual cube cases is devoted to one gemstone and outfitted with information cards. The store carries an extensive collection of each, from tourmalines and rubies to sphene, aquamarine and peridot, and is able to offer the best available in all price categories. “The more they know, the better we look because we specialize in high quality,” Vandenberg says. “You can get amazing amethyst that is not that expensive.”

3. NO COMMISSION. Everyone on staff is a designer or a diamond expert. “Clients are welcome to talk with anyone on the staff about their purchase: gemologists, designers, goldsmiths,” Vandenberg says. “Ours is a non-commission, no-pressure experience. We are focused on education because an educated client is our best client.”

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4. LEADERSHIP STYLE. “I’m not someone who likes to be a boss,” Vandenberg says. “I hire people and give them the freedom to go and do and contribute. This works because we are very careful who we let join our team and we all have a say.” New hires complete a paid trial period of one to three days to make sure they are compatible with the team. “We joke among ourselves that we look for talented people that have been abused by their previous employers,” Vandenberg says. “It helps to experience the dark side of commission sales, competition and high-pressure targets to truly appreciate the fulfillment that working on a collaborative team gives.”

5. SALES STRATEGY. Mind reading? “There are lots of clues that can tell you a lot about a person,” Vandenberg says. “You can start to narrow down what you want to show them or draw for them. You look at their mannerisms and determine if they are technical, analytical, linear, if they prefer more hard edges. You can also tell if they are more romantic; if there’s a soft side to them, they may want something that is smooth and flowing; if their attire is more complex, they may want more detail.”

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Kathleen Cutler: I love the video on the website. They’ve done a great job with keeping up with custom design during COVID-19, even including a fully interactive design section online where clients can log in and create their own designs and then work with their staff.
  • Ken Nisch: Nice studio and workshop environment. There’s lots to look at.
  • Pratima Seth: The authenticity of the business, team and communication really comes through in the story and community involvement. It’s clear that the business focuses on involving the customer every step of the way, especially with the open concept of the jewelry-making process.
  • Jen Cullen Williams: It’s very cool how they mix traditional luxury elements with modern industrial, allowing the customer to be part of the jewelry journey.
  • Rod Worley: Everything about the Vandenbergs Jewellers location makes you stop and take notice. From the seemingly endless walls of glass to the handmade copper fan hoods to the casting room at the front of the store, you are compelled to notice. The online experience starts at the website. Videos and photos tell the story in a genuine, inviting way.

 

Try This: Teach Each Client At Least One Thing

“Educate your staff and by extension your clients. Every visit your clients make to your store, try to have them leave knowing something that they didn’t know when they came in. They pass it on and usually with your name attached.” — Ralph Vandenberg

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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