Underwoods Fine Jewelers of Fayetteville, AR, named America’s Coolest Store by INSTORE in 2006, was designed in 1966 by architect E. Fay Jones, who won awards for the timeless design of Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, AR. Underwoods has stood the test of time, too. Craig Underwood, a child when the store was built, was honored this year by the American Gem Society with the Robert Shipley Award for decades of service. Craig’s son, Troy, joined him in the business just a year ago. Founder Bill still spends time in the store as well. Since his three sons left the nest, Craig’s hobbies have been photography and cycling, often combined. Since 2011, he and his wife, Laura, have cycled thousands of miles all over the world: China, Japan, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy. One of his landscape photos was selected as the cover photo for the Nature Conservancy’s 2022 Day Planner Calendar. “Being an empty nester is awesome,” he says.
Q & A with Craig Underwood, owner of Underwoods Fine Jewelers in Fayetteville, AR
By Eileen McClelland
Q. How has your business model been consistent throughout the years?
A. One of the things we’ve always done is focus on our own name and our own product. The only name you can protect is your own. The only name we promote is Underwoods. We produce our own advertising. We don’t share our ad space with any product line or vendor line. That’s very important to us and unusual in today’s industry. It is a much harder path to take. We constantly have to innovate and come up with our own designs. But we’re known as a custom house; we four full time bench jewelers and a full time design artist. The vast majority of what we sell is going to be something we made ourselves.
Q. What is most important in your custom business?
A. One of the things we talk about when we do our custom is focusing on the details. The devil’s in the details. Anyone can do something good that’s easy. But to do something great, to attend to the details, that takes a lot of effort. Most people clean jewelry cases but we want to go the extra yard and making sure that every single item in the case is spotless and fully cleaned. My dad had told me something years ago, never show a piece of jewelry that has a fingerprint on it because that sends a subliminal message to the customer that somebody else has looked at it and rejected it. With the custom shop, we make sure every aspect of it is perfect. Every piece we bring in we look at under the microscope.
Q. What is most satisfying about your job on a day to day basis?
A. Working with the color stones. I love color stones. That and a beautifully cut diamond. Just the jaw dropping gorgeous beauty of mother nature in these gemstones, which are spectacular. Just to see things like that and work with them, that’s what’s fun. Having your own business you wear so many hats: personnel, finance, inventory control, advertising, customer relations. Working with beautiful gemstones and custom designs, that’s really what floats my boat.
Q. When did you learn you’d won the Robert Shipley Award this year?
A. I was totally shocked. My wife had kept it a secret. I had found out later that 2020, the COVID year, was the year I was selected. She knew about it and of course Conclave was canceled that year. The following year Conclave was moved to a month that we had had plans. So for two years she kept that from me. It was perfect in the timing. This year the conclave was in Oklahoma City, which is just three hours away from Fayetteville. So my youngest son picked up my parents, drove them to Oklahoma city for the lunch and an early dinner, then drove them home at night. How often does Conclave happen so close to home? I’ve been going to Conclave for the 40 years I’ve been in AGS and that was the first time it was that close to home. My oldest son drove up from Waco. And my middle son and my wife were already there at Conclave. It totally caught me off guard. I found out it was me when Cathy Calhoun announced it. They kept my family out in the hallway. It brought back all the emotions and gratitude I had for being able to be involved in AGS. Two months prior I had been asked to give a speech to Baylor University’s business school. I talked about getting involved in the industry and having mentors in the industry and how important it was to put the time into the industry you’re involved in. That the more you put into it the more you get out of it. That’s the fist thing that came to mind when I won the Shipley Award. How important to me the American Gem Society is, how it had helped me in my growth as a professional and the great things that it stands for, the ethics, the education, and the networking. It’s all about rolling up your sleeves and getting involved. The more you give the more you get out of it.
How did your middle son, Troy, come to join the business?
A. Like my dad, we never pushed our kids to be in the business. Life is too short to do something that is not a passion. If you are forced to do it you’re not going to enjoy it. So the rule was No. 1, it has to be a passion. No. 2, you have to have your college degree, gemological degree and two years of experience in another jewelry store outside of Underwoods. Troy had a double major in finance and management and worked in heavy equipment sales and rental in St. Louis. He never expressed an interest in the business through college or the first two years in St. Louis. Then he said he’d been thinking about it but he was having fun in St. Louis. So after another year in St. Louis, he went to the GIA, got his graduate gemologist degree, then went to Lee Michaels in Baton Rouge for an internship and worked there for two years. He’s been here now for a little over a year. He absolutely loves the business, has a passion for it and is very gifted, sharp and analytical.
Q. If Troy hadn’t joined the business, had you given much thought to what would have happened?
A. A friend asked me once, `what’s your exit strategy?’ None of the kids at that time were interested in it and there’s not a huge market for people selling jewelry stores. But one of the things that was so freeing and took a huge weight off my shoulders was one time my dad said, if it turns out that none of the grandsons want to go into the business and if the store closes, it had a good run. You can only do what you can do. I can’t tell you what a huge burden that was off my shoulders. Having his blessing in a sense to look at it and weigh the options. Because the store is like a first-born child, like a sibling to us. There is an incredible emotional attachment to businesses, particularly for the founder.