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America's Coolest Stores

America’s Coolest Stores 2012: Big Cool 1

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The design of Jim Tuttle’s jewelry shop is his best marketing tool, advertisement, reference and resume, all in one colorful and eclectic 7,500-square-foot package.

“The main goal was for customers to come in here and — even before they see the jewelry — say ‘Wow — these people get it. They are artistic, they have style, they understand design and fine craftsmanship,'” Tuttle says.

While some jewelry stores are designed in a minimalist style to let the gems shine forth from the cases, Green Lake Jewelry Works is the gem. Because the jewelry that’s displayed in the hand-crafted cases may not turn out to be anything like what Tuttle’s custom-bridal client has in mind, the warm and colorful environment itself must build trust in the custom-design process. Any jewelry that happens to land in the cases is just a suggestion.

“Eclectic, edgy, artsy-fartsy, that’s what you want when someone’s designing you something,” Tuttle says, while relaxing by the fire in the center of his shop on a misty-cool June afternoon. “You don’t want to go someplace that looks like a bank and expect them to make you an artistic, nuanced piece.”

Green Lake Jewelry Works does not look like a bank.

The look is cool and theatrical, but also warm, comfortable and inviting — and about as far as you can get from minimalist. There’s a lot going on.

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A jewelry case up front made by New Hampshire artist Todd Von Mertens looks as if it grew there, supported by a blackened metal tree branch and extended with metal work by Celeste Tracy, a staff artist and blacksmith. Inside the case, jewelry hangs from a complementary display, also a tree form.
Hand-painted murals snake across the cement slab floor.

A motorized bike rack suspends employees’ bikes from the ceiling.
A milling operation takes place in a glass display cabinet just left of the main entrance.

A professional-grade coffee bar and blazing fireplace invite visitors to venture in a little farther.

Video screens and photos that show off custom designs are mounted above design stations where customers and artists collaborate.

Speaking of artists, the staff fit into the scene as well. There are no suited salesman strategically positioned to watch the door — no one in the shop even has professional sales training since two-thirds are hired right out of art school. But Tuttle worked in the back of enough jewelry stores to know what he does not want. “Coming from the bench rather than coming from sales I have a very different perspective. I know all the tricks, but I identify with the customer who does not want to be sold to.” So designers gracefully emerge as needed, as if walking out onstage on cue.

As for dress code, that’s different, too, from a lot of places. The staff are the actors in this particular theatrical production and they need to dress the part.
“Not too dressed up, not too dressed down,” Tuttle — who favors jeans, boots and patterned shirts — tells his staff. “I love it when people dress in an edgy way that makes people say this place is cool or edgy or unusual.”

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GOOD TO GREAT

Before Green Lake Jewelry Works came to be, Tuttle had a small trade shop in Atlanta. He was paying his bills and was motivated to keep the business growing so that he’d do well financially. He describes himself as a good jeweler, but never felt his skill reached the level of great. He felt restless, like something was missing.
The problem was he didn’t believe deep down in his bones that he had found his true calling. But when CAD and the Internet came along, their convergence created a perfect storm of creativity and commerce that sparked an idea.
He and his wife, Jytte, decided to find a good location for a custom retail shop that could incorporate new technology. They deliberately settled on Seattle, which was popular, youthful, and booming, and opened up in all of 500 square feet with a view of scenic Green Lake.

Because it was a picturesque, romantic setting, the Green Lake area of Seattle tended to attract young, marriage-minded couples out for a stroll around the lake. As a result, Tuttle almost accidentally found himself in the custom bridal business when those couples would stop by to check out his shop. What they found was a simple display case filled with mostly green wax ring molds, peppered here and there with a few finished pieces.
“We dealt in possibilities, mainly,” Tuttle says. “Our initial sales were hinged on promises and handshakes more than 3D renderings or a library of immaculate work.”

After a few years, Tuttle moved down the road to get more space, retaining the idyllic view of Green Lake.

Eventually, though, as Tuttle added jewelers and equipment, he decided it was time to relocate somewhere much larger. That meant trading the lake for a more commercial setting near a mall — but keeping the name, of course.
When Tuttle realized a restaurant he had frequented was vacant, at first he thought it was too much space for too much money. But when it was still vacant 18 months later, business had grown enough that he decided he could afford the rent and would need the space soon enough.

It’s never been part of his business plan, though, to borrow much money, so he didn’t hire an architect, a contractor or any more tradespeople than he absolutely had to.

Instead, Tuttle sketched out the floor plan and with the help of his family, friends and staff did everything he could himself. “It was all about hands-on, budget-conscious building methods,” he says.

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The mismatched layers of old flooring — carpeting, wood, subfloor — were replaced with a concrete slab designed to be painted. About 20 staff members, including his two daughters, Melissa and Krista, staked out sections of the floor they wanted to design and paint. The project began creeping behind the counter and into the shop after they ran out of space for everyone to add their own touch to the sales floor. Although Tuttle had veto power over the design, he didn’t use it much. He says he was looking for cool, but not completely crazy. So there’s a koi fish, a sundial, a henna pattern and a few images he admits he’s never been able to identify.

As for the ceiling, he chose a shade of very deep purple to conceal the Southwestern restaurant’s distinctive shade of orange and covered both the ceiling itself and the exposed pipes with paint. “I sprayed it on the ceiling wearing a full body suit and face mask,” he says.

Tuttle planned the halogen lighting with the help of a catalog. “It’s warm and comforting, which is something we had in the old shop and wanted to continue.”

The restaurant’s bar became the dividing line and the meeting place between customer and staff, where clients pull up leather Parsons chairs and sit down across from artists at design stations to look at finished pieces and peruse a vast portfolio of styles on video screens. The design station creates a low, curved physical barrier between shop space and customer space without blocking the view or creating a jarring division.

In the shop, exhaust hoods that once covered commercial ovens now provide ventilation for the polishing room.

 

 

QUICK FACTS
 

Location: Seattle, WA
URL: greenlakejewelry.com
Owners: Jim and Jytte Tuttle
Founded: 1996
Opened Featured Location: 2006
Cost of buildout: $300,000
Area: 7,500 square feet
Employees: 45
Tagline: Artists at Work

 

 
   
   
   
     
   
   
 

Some of the guys wear a tie every Friday and go out for Thai food and they call it Tie or Thai Friday.

 
     
   
   
 

“We tried to hire (artist) Kyle Coffee (above) more than six years ago. In the next month or so after his interview, we got a huge box of stuffed animals in the mail. They were taken apart and sewn back together — a bunny head on a frog, stuff like that. There was a stuffed animal with a zipper for Harry my dog. We didn’t know who it was. Years passed before we found out that Kyle had made them and sent them as an anonymous thank you. He appreciated the job offer but didn’t want to leave his job at the time.” — Jim Tuttle

 
     
   
   
 

Green Lake’s ads stress the artistic process of custom design.

 
     
   
   

If a customer spends $200 or more on a gift certificate for a custom experience it comes enclosed in a snow globe.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Despite its non-traditional look, Tuttle describes Green Lake Jewelry Works as a technologically savvy traditional shop.

Staff artists carve waxes, cast, hand-forge, hand-engrave and match and hand-set the stones, while designers, including Tuttle’s daughters, Melissa and Krista, meet with clients up front. In most cases designers possess hands-on skills as well. Krista, for example, has worked as a goldsmith.

“When we opened in 1996 it was just me on my own, and what I could do at the bench with my own hands,” Tuttle says. He made a conscious decision to hire artists whose skills or potential exceeded his own, he says. But despite the Old World artistry in the ranks, hand-carving pieces alone limited the opportunity to reuse designs. Because the business adopted a CAD strategy early on, many staff artists are also extremely proficient, nuanced CAD designers. Tuttle says each staff member is encouraged to find his or her niche. “We all settle into what we would like to do, whenever possible,” he says.

He constantly receives applications from jewelers who are “bored in other people’s shops.” Employee benefits include health care, vacation, flex time, sick days and bereavement leave. Employees receive commission for each piece they sell, design or work on, plus an hourly rate. One of the best benefits, though, says staff member Kyle Coffee, is being able to pick up skills on the job. “The size of the shop is the biggest thing,” he says. “Being able to learn from so many other people is huge.”

The custom-design process takes more than three weeks, so if couples haven’t allowed enough time for the full custom experience, partially finished rings are shown in cases, ready for couples to add a few personal flourishes. It’s rare that the store ever sells something ready to walk out the door. It goes against the company ethos.

“We really believe in custom,” Tuttle says. “Even if someone is interested in buying something from the case, we have an ‘I can make it better or cooler’ attitude.”

About 90 percent of couples come in together, whether they are designing engagement or wedding bands. Sometimes the groom retains an element of surprise by trying to pretend the ring isn’t finished yet.

But grooms who try to fly solo through the custom experience are taking a bit of a risk, since the design is fully guaranteed only when the recipient is involved, too. One engagement ring created in the shape of a bird’s nest with two little “egg” sapphires and no center stone was not a big hit with the bride-to-be and had to be scrapped.

Artist Krista Tuttle Robertson says she has worked on pieces she would describe as “horribly awesome,” that made no sense to her aesthetically. When that’s the case, the artists try to make them as beautiful as they can within the limits of the customer’s requirements. So far, no request has been refused, not even that of a man who asked for a silver “slave” collar with engravings and flush-set stones for the woman who accompanied him.

Seattle may have been ahead of the curve as far as custom bridal jewelry when Tuttle opened his first shop there, but now demand for the full custom experience seems to him to be universal. He’s confident this business model represents the future of the industry.

“I very much see the future of the jewelry business as bricks and clicks. People will not buy things online that mean something to them, if there’s a good walk-in option. And if we don’t stay ahead of the curve, someone will catch up. We plan to keep running faster.”

 

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FIVE COOL THINGS

1. ALTERNATIVE BRIDAL – Every day artists push alternative bridal to the limit. Artist Susan Meier has created rings with skulls, a sunflower and tree-stump designs. She has designed an engagement ring with a snake motif modeled on a woman’s pet corn snake.

2. THE DESIGN EXPERIENCE – Each client is provided with an online gallery of photos, sketches and stories at the end of each project. These client galleries dovetail with the social media revolution — where the staff blogs, posts, and pins not only about products but also about the people who inspired them. Tuttle’s son-in-law, Eric Robertson, is leading the marketing effort, which has recently shifted emphasis from traditional to social media.

3. GLOBAL APPEAL – About a third of Green Lake Jewelry Works’ custom sales are made online to customers all over the world. Designers and jewelers collaborate remotely with customers with micro-blogs and on occasion, live video chat. Sometimes, though, “bricks and clicks” converge. A client from South Africa spent months working with a designer online, then came to Seattle with the diamonds to be set into the piece.

4. GROW YOUR OWN JEWELERS – Tuttle says that although he will pay for outside training when it’s needed — engraving school, a CAD class, or online users groups, nearly all training can be provided in-house, usually between peers. “You CAN find and grow your own jewelers. You don’t have to have 20 years of experience to become good. A year or two of intensive training with people who really want you to learn really does work.”

5. OUT IN THE OPEN – The mills encased in big displays and the glass-enclosed hand-forging area both showcase a process of creation that is so often (and curiously) hidden away, says Tuttle, who next plans to strip away remaining visual obstacles between clients and artists and replace them with glass walls so the entire operation is transparent.

QUICK HIT Q&A WITH JIM TUTTLE

Business goals? I’d like to open a second shop. My goal is to have a chain of these all over the country.

What feature did you consider for your store that you didn’t implement? I thought dead serious about the whole front corner being a coffee shop with booths and an espresso bar with stools right up next to the glass looking into the shop. I would’ve done it if we were at the mall and had more traffic.

What would you like to do better? Non-bridal is a crap shoot; it’s nothing we hit a home run on. And I want to learn how to sell larger diamonds better.

Average sale? The sweet spot is $2,000 to $3,000 sans center stone.

Favorite business book? The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace by Robert I. Sutton.

How do you hire? My goal has always been to create a great environment for creative excellence and no one can do this with unpleasant personalities in the mix. This rule personifies how we hire and operate. Everyone is a self-motivated adult here.

Advice for a new store owner: Be unique; the middle of the road is for roadkill.

Pitfalls to watch out for: Boredom and complacency. You must stay moving. If I’d known about CAD modeling then, life would have been a whole lot easier.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Harry Friedman: Everything is cool. This store to me sets the standard of cool. The store is great, the story is great, and I get to be involved instead of buying what I was told to by other designers and manufacturers. Love it.
Jim Rosenheim: I love the store and the story. It so feels like that Seattle counterculture approach. A group of craftsmen who built the place and build the jewelry to their own tastes that think will sell is unique but very appealing. I love the frieze on the exterior of the building that reminds one of the mountains. The floor is amazing! I think you have created a very cluttered interior that works.

Andy Malis: What stands out here is a focused organization that is comfortable in its own skin. They are in tune with the high-tech market they serve, but never at the expense of the artistry and craftsmanship of their work. But … the store outshines the marketing. When they get aligned, watch out!

Pam Levine: What a delightful, unintimidating jewelry store and great overall approach to customer-engaged retailing. Here, creativity and design are integrated within a thoughtful flow of showcases and merchandise mixed with knowledgeable sales consultants who are also the artisans and craftsman. Jim Tuttle understands how to balance a friendly museum that invites interaction while stimulating the inner desire to play, create and buy.

Lori Wegman: The entire store screams “An artist lives here!” It is innovative and encourages customer creativity and with loads of personality. The brand communication is also very true to its core message and executed consistently.

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