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Beginnings

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Beginning

In the beginning … there was an eager but slightly green jeweler. Five store-owners tell what they learned from the start-up process.

BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND

Published in the January 2014 issue

Lessons from the inception of 5 stores (and what long-established stores can learn from them)

THINK BACK to how it all began. ¶ You made your girlfriend a bracelet out of beads; you began selling turquoise out of the trunk of your car; you set up a booth at a local craft fair. Your first sale was a toe ring, a watch battery, or maybe even a diamond engagement ring.

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However it began — and there are as many stories as there are retailers — you had an idea and you turned it into a business.

David Brown, president of the Edge Retail Academy, says it’s always exciting — at the beginning — to open a retail jewelry store.

“Everyone starts out with this great vision and energy and passion and drive, and they can’t wait to get the keys and open the door because they have this dream lifestyle they’ve envisioned for themselves. And sadly, for many retailers, this dream turns into a nightmare.”

One problem can be that without a clear objective — and this is just as true for long-existing stores — owning your business can begin to feel more like you bought yourself a somewhat thankless job.

To avoid burnout, fatigue and resentment, Brown says, identify not only your objectives but also the strategy and resources you’ll use to get there. Consider where you want to end up and work backward from there.

“I can’t be a $3 million store if I’ve got the resources of a $1 million dollar store or the same level of thinking,” he says.

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Joanna Bradshaw, author of Be a Millionaire Shopkeeper: How Your Independent Shop Can Compete with the Big Guys, says every business needs a mission statement. It describes your purpose, your niche in the marketplace, the focus of your business and its aims. A good business plan, aligned with your mission statement, can keep you on track to reach your objectives, Bradshaw says. View your business plan as a blueprint and a living document, reviewing it often and updating it every year.

Brown warns that flexibility and adaptability need to be built into your business plan for best results these days.

Modern jewelers also will struggle if they are generalists. Instead, Brown says, “decide what to specialize in and be the best at that chosen path that you can be.” Your unique selling proposition is your competitive edge, whether it’s location, specialization, customization or outstanding customer service.

Michael Lebowitz, director of jewelry for White Pine Trading, which offers consultant services, spent 40 years behind the counter in a family retail business. On a day-to-day basis, it can be tough to keep up the excitement. “But an owner or manager is much like a professional coach, both a life coach and a sports coach. It’s up to him or her to train and nurture the staff, to help them understand that what they are putting in their customer’s hand is going to light up someone’s eyes and put a smile on someone’s face.”

Leibowitz says when it comes to the grand opening, retailers must make a great first impression in three key areas — product, presentation and promotion. “It is important to show the world who you are, to show the right merchandise and plan a promotion around that merchandise. In 2014, from a product standpoint, you are what you sell and you have only one chance to make a good first impression.”

Presentation, too, is more important than ever. Pay attention to traffic flow, lighting, color and displays, Leibowitz says. “Lighting has gone so high-tech, and it is now so wonderful to show off diamonds and colored stones. There’s no reason a customer should look into the showcase and not be overwhelmed by glitter.”

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As you read the “beginnings” stories that follow, take a few minutes to look back on your own beginning and ask yourself what you’ve learned from the progression of your business and what you can do today to make sure your business plan is a living document.

And understand, Brown says, that you can have the successful jewelry store of your dreams and a wonderful quality of life at the same time.

TRUE TALES

HARRIS JEWELERS: “We purchased a 300-square foot store in 1998 for $25,000,” says Karen Fitzpatrick of Harris Jewelers in Rio Rancho, NM. “We had a man on our first day come in for a battery and he said that we were robbing the community charging $6 for a battery and he would tell all of his friends never to shop our store. Fifteen years later we own a 9,000-square-foot building, have 11 employees and have won countless community service awards.”

VALENTINE’S JEWELRY: “For a year and a half I sold jewelry out of a blue plastic toolbox,” says Elva Valentine of Valentine’s Jewelry in Dallas, PA. “Then I moved into one room in an antique shop, and I gradually grew and grew, until now I have the whole building. ”

TROY SHOPPE JEWELLERS: “My first store was scary,” says David Blitt of Troy Shoppe Jewellers in Calgary. “Two walls in a small upstairs vintage building. The front door did not even have a lock. Every night we would put the merchandise in a bag and carry it to our car that was a two-block walk through downtown. It scares me to think of the chances we took.”

CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTS: “When I opened my store, it was a few days before I had a sale,” says Janne Etz of Contemporary Concepts in Cocoa, FL, “and that first sale was a $6 toe ring. The lady pulled out her checkbook and started writing the check. When she asked how to make it out, I told her my name rather than my business so I could go cash it. I wanted to put the first dollar in a frame on the wall. She insisted on giving me an extra dollar in cash. That dollar is still in a frame 21 years later!”

WHAT TO CONSIDER FROM THE BEGINNING
(AND REMINDERS TO THOSE ALREADY IN BUSINESS)

 

1Consider what you want your end business to look like and work back from that.

2Take advantage of industry education and learning from others. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

3Be ambitious. A lot of people go into it very cautiously. They buy themselves a job instead of creating a business with a vision. At the end of the day, ask yourself why are you doing this?

4Find a great financial planner and CPA.

5Before you look at vendors, define what you want your business to look like. Do you want a bridal store? A bead store? Then partner with vendors that can really help you with your business success.

6Launch your inventory effectively. Most people go to shows, buy product, bring it back to the store and put it on a shelf. Train your staff about it. You can’t sell a secret. Let people know you have it.

7Know what you are good at and recognize your own shortcomings. Then create a team of people who are good at what you are lacking. It’s only a weakness if you don’t recognize it.

8Create a culture that people want to work in. This will help ensure that your customers have the best experience in the world.

9Understand the science of retail: Know your stock turn and key performance indicators to understand the health of your business. It’s like knowing your blood pressure when it comes to knowing your own health.

10Lead the business, set the vision and the direction, keep it on track.

11Join a group of peers in the jewelry industry as well as a local group representing a variety of local businesses.

12Know where you are financially. Don’t wait for your accountant. You need to know by the first week in January whether you’re on track or off track.

By David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy

Revolution Jewelry Works
Location: Colorado Springs, CO / Owner: Jennifer Farnes / Founded: 2013 Employees: 1 / Unique Selling Proposition: Custom cut gemstones

Jennifer Farnes, a rock hound since she was a kid, took a first anniversary trip to Montana with her husband, Jeremy, in 2003, and came home lugging 10 pounds of quartz crystal. Although Jeremy had talked about buying Jennifer a diamond pendant, she suggested they have one of the rocks cut instead.

That’s how she met a stonecutter who offered her an apprenticeship, Eventually, she decided to pursue stone-cutting full time. Fast forward to May 2013 — 10 years into her profession as a master faceter — and Farnes was in the process of purchasing an established jewelry store. Two weeks before the closing was scheduled, the owners backed out of the deal.

“I was sitting on our bed, just bawling my eyes out and my husband thinks somebody has died. He said it just wasn’t meant to be, that something will come along. We went to sleep and the next morning, he said, ‘This was meant to happen because you need to open your own place.’ It had never dawned on me that that was an option. As it turned out, the type of setup I wanted would be half the cost, and it meant that instead of buying someone else’s vision I could create my own.”

Working with the bank, the Small Business Administration and local contractors she knew through a networking group, she was able to build out the space and open in November.

She made the build-out a social media event, letting customers vote online about the color-scheme and layout, and updating followers daily on how the construction progressed with photos.

“It has made our existing customers feel even closer to us, and we have attracted many new out-of-state people via their friends sharing our posts,” she says.

She is focusing on custom design, repairs and ordering basics from the Stuller catalog as needed, as well as inviting American jewelry artists to showcase their work on memo. So far, 10 designers have signed on, based on her references in the industry as a stonecutter.

“The first day was amazing,” she says. “A couple of repairs turned into a $1,300 sale.” Traffic and sales continued to pick up throughout November and a grand opening party drew more than 100 people.

The 1,274 square foot store — with an additional 400 square foot loft — was designed with an industrial look and an open floor plan. Farnes envisioned a fusion of wood and metal, for a look both luxurious and industrial. A wrap-around half wall with a window allows views of stones being cut.

“It’s really modern, with kind of a different twist,” she says. “It’s what I had in my head all along. If I had bought the other store, I would have been buying someone else’s dream. This is an opportunity to make my dream come to life.”

Although she started with one employee, metalsmith Pedro Llanas, she was immediately so busy she’s thinking of adding staff already.

She continues to take on work for jewelers, including custom cuts.

“Jewelers all over the country send me stones for repair. I wouldn’t be at the place I am now if it weren’t for the support of all those jewelers. I can’t give that up.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
JENNIFER FARNES

If your first attempt fails, don’t give up on your dream.

If you hit a roadblock, try sleeping on it. Inspiration might come in the morning.

Dare to think big.

Generate excitement for a new store — or a remodel — through social media by inviting input into the store’s color scheme and layout.

NINE-EIGHTEEN
Location: Dallas, TX / Owners: Kim Burgan and Darin Kunz/ Founded: 2011 / Employees: 3 full-time; 2 interns Unique Selling Proposition: Exclusivity

Siblings through marriage, Darin Kunz and Kim Burgan began working together in a jewelry store when they were just kids. Their parents met and fell in love while working in a Dallas jewelry store, and wed on Sept. 18, 1976.

In 2011, Kunz and Burgan opened Nine-Eighteen, a fast-rising Dallas jewelry boutique named for that important day in their shared history. It seems inevitable, looking back.

“It’s in our bones,” Burgan says. “This is the industry we grew up in. We were 10 or 11 and in the store, doing the grunt work, wrapping gifts, cleaning cases, serving drinks. And we did that all through college.”

After that, they both detoured into the corporate world. But when Burgan and her husband adopted three children a few years ago, she wanted to travel less. “If I was going to work that hard I wanted to work for me, not someone else. Darin said, ‘Have you thought about the jewelry business?’”

Kunz had been working with his dad in a wholesale jewelry business, while continuing to meet with private retail clients. “We wanted to go back to the basics,” Burgan says. “We wanted more of a retail experience, but not traditional retail.”

Nine-Eighteen operates primarily by appointment and offers a number of designer lines as well as traditional best-selling basics, such as diamond studs and hoops.

“Clients like exclusivity, so while we wanted to lean more retail we didn’t want to lose the private shopping experience,” Burgan says. “We brought a lot of what our mom and dad taught us back into the business. Their business was very social, they did a lot of events and partner tie-ins.”

So they host happy hours for small groups, trunk shows and even art shows in their 1,000-square-foot space.

They self-funded their business and had a head start as new store owners since the family already had strong vendor relationships.

“What my dad didn’t have and what we cultivated was the fashion designer set of relationships,” Burgan says. “We have chosen to do business only with people that we truly like, that we have a connection with, at least on the supplier side of the business.” The business has taken off, doubling its growth each year and going head to head with Dallas’ eight-figure independents in consumer media popularity contests.

“Trust is crucial,” Burgan says. “Our business has been predominantly word-of-mouth referrals. We are starting to do paid advertising and print marketing. But our engagement rates on social media and email marketing are through the roof.” They’ve come full circle and the jewelry bug is likely to infect the next generation.

Burgan’s oldest daughter, Cassie, is 12 and she’s already doing her share of case cleaning and gift-wrapping, i.e. grunt work. “She asks me all the time, ‘Can I come down and work?’” Kim says. “She’s cheap labor.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
KIM BURGAN

Be patient. “It’s a slow road. You have got to understand that. It’s not going to happen overnight and I need to keep reminding myself of that.”

Offer stellar service. “A lot of it we learned from our parents. Things they taught us when we were 12 years old, the way you treat customers, the way you treat vendors.”

Word of mouth and engaging social media can create trust and propel a business to succeed.

J LANDA (FORMERLY J SILVER)
Location: Houston, TX / Owner:Jay Landa/ Founded: 1999 Renovated and reimagined: 2013 / Employees: 3 full-time; 3 part-time Unique Selling Proposition: Designer Collections

 

Jay Landa studied government and English in college. But it was an internship at the Gap, of all places, that led to his unexpected career twist. After he graduated, Landa was recruited by Donna Karan, and almost against his will, he says, he shifted his focus to fashion.

In 2011, Kunz and Burgan opened Nine-Eighteen, a fast-rising Dallas jewelry boutique named for that important day in their shared history. It seems inevitable, looking back.

Later, he moved to Houston and began buying and selling silver jewelry and then designing his own. Something clicked. “It began a crazy journey,” Landa recalls. “I would show at festivals, private homes, out of the trunk of my car. I traveled all over, and my vision was to open a storefront.”

His search led him to Houston’s Rice Village, a heavily trafficked and casually upscale conglomeration of strip malls, apartments and restaurants that lends itself to window shopping. “The gift has always been the location for me,” he says. “I didn’t have to advertise so much, because people are always walking by.”

But his first encounter with a landlord there was more than a little intimidating to a fledgling, 20-something entrepreneur without a business plan. The property company insisted he needed extensive financial proof that he could make a go of it — proof he didn’t have and felt sure he didn’t need at the time.

He looked into another, older shopping center a couple blocks away, whose landlord turned out to have an old-school approach. “The owner said, ‘If you want this space, it’s yours.’ All I needed was the first month’s rent.”

He wanted it; the store became J Silver.

As he grew into his business, he began understanding his market by listening to clients, vendors and designers. “I had been catering to all kinds of people at festivals, but I found an interesting demographic here. I thought, ‘This is the market I want to cater to,’ and I need good pieces, classic looks and a variety of price points to do that.”

His mom, who is a retail entrepreneur as well, has been an important mentor.

“My mom’s advice has always been to stay grounded and make good sound decisions and enjoy the moment. I tend to be very intense and overly ambitious sometimes.”

As his business became more successful, designer Chan Luu, who sells some of her pieces exclusively at his store, became a mentor, too.

“She pushed me to see outside my realm of consciousness, to consider global markets,” Landa says. “I began to see how attainable the world is, how exciting other cultures are. Travel has definitely helped, and social media.”

One outgrowth of that change in perspective was Landa’s pursuit of e-commerce, which accounts for perhaps 10 percent of his business now, but which he would like to see grow to at least 50 percent.

“I have to treat e-commerce as I would a storefront to take it seriously. Being in an international city, people from all over the world come to the store so it’s important to keep the website current, relevant and structured.”

In addition to his own and Chan Luu’s jewelry, Landa carries extensive lines from Alexis Bittar, Uno de 50 and Dian Malouf. “I don’t do anything halfway,” he says.

At age 40, Landa seeks more financial advice than he did in the beginning, looking to the future and an exit strategy. “The idea is that in 10 years, I may sell my brand — or not — but I want to know what my options are.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
JAY LANDA

Surround yourself with young minds; those are the innovators. Landa recently hired two recent college graduates who live and breathe social media.

Reach out to the local media to garner as much free publicity as possible. Landa recently hosted a bloggers’ night out at the store, for example.

Believe in the product. When selecting a new line for his store, Landa takes a personal approach. “I have to like their designs, it has to flow in the store, price point is important and I have to like how they conduct business. Integrity is very important to me. The designers I work with are friends of mine, people who have a personal relationship with me.”

When you find the right product, go all the way. Landa carries full lines from designers he represents.

Find a work-life balance. “That’s the most difficult part for me,” Landa admits. “I definitely take some vacation. I try to make myself completely disconnect. I’m closed on Sundays; I made a very conscious decision to do that.”

AMES SILVERSMITHING
Location: Ames, IA / Owner: Gary Youngberg/ Founded: 1976 Employees: 9 / Unique Selling Proposition: Custom Design

When Gary Youngberg was in college, he didn’t have the money to buy his girlfriend, Karen, a piece of jewelry. So he improvised, stringing together some cord and beads to make a necklace. (“Hey, it was the ’70s,” he says, in defense of his materials.) His girlfriend was thrilled — as were her friends, who all wanted one, too.

“I bought more cord and beads, produced more pieces and ended up selling them to girls in the surrounding dorms.” He also received requests for rings, pendants and earrings, so he checked a few books out of the library, bought some raw materials and transformed his dorm room desk into a rudimentary jeweler’s bench. “And yes, I did have a torch in my dorm room!” he says.

As he taught himself how to fabricate silver jewelry set with turquoise, jasper and agate, he began to lose interest in his classes. He started showing his wares at area art fairs and soon realized his hobby had some financial potential. “So, on a whim and with a strong desire to do something I liked, my girlfriend — who became my wife about a year later — and I decided to open Ames Silversmithing in downtown Ames.” He used $1,500 he had saved from selling his jewelry.

He was 19 years old.

“By the time that we opened on Aug. 1, 1976, I didn’t even have enough money to buy stamps. Fortunately, I was a waiter at a sorority so I had food on the table, but it was slow going at first. I’d hand out fliers in my bell-bottom jeans and tell people I was the new store in town. I’d work in my little 12-by-12-foot shop from 6 in the morning until 9 at night, my workbench and one display case sharing the same area. Eventually, a few people started showing up.”

As the business grew, both Gary and Karen received diamond training through the GIA, and Gary began working in gold, platinum and gemstones.

They were able to rent more space a year later, but Youngberg says it took about 10 years and subsequent expansions to feel that they had “made it.”

“Today, with nine employees, including my wife, two sons and two daughters-in-law, I can say not a day goes by that I don’t think about how I started and what a lucky man I am. Now if I can just get those five grandkids to follow.”

Having sons Kyle and Kirk join them in the business has been a graceful melding of the young and old, he says. “They value our business sense and we value what they brought to the store, and continue to bring to the store as far as technology goes. We’re still behind, but we are way more forward than if the boys weren’t in the business.

“I love what I do so much and I probably never will retire. In another 40 years the boys will come in the morning and Dad will be lying dead in the front of the store at age 92. That would be a hell of a way to go out.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED

GARY YOUNGBERG

Admit your mistakes. “If you try to cover it up, it gets worse and worse. I’ve made my mistakes and I regret every one, but I have addressed them head on. That’s the way we want to treat our customers.”

Do what you love.

Don’t overextend yourself. “The creation of our store has been an ongoing process and we’ve done what we’ve been able to do because we were conservative, and we made capital investments when necessary when we got to a growth phase. Some people want to keep expanding. No doubt I could have made more money, but I’m not greedy. You shouldn’t let the store run you. You should run the store.”

Be committed. “Those of us who have been successful understand you are working your ass off and not just 9 to 5. Hard work can reap great dividends.”

J Roberts Fine Jewelry
Location: Jacksonville, FL / Owner: Bobby Wallo/ Founded: 2008 / Employees: 5 Unique Selling Proposition: Stuller’s CounterSketch Studio

Bobby Wallo worked in construction for 20 years before a glimpse into jewelry led to a radical career shift.

“I was working on a project with someone in the jewelry business, and I found myself becoming more interested in the industry and then eventually became enamored with it — all the gems and jewelry — and then I became infatuated with it.

“Also, as I got older I decided that I didn’t want to climb ladders the rest of my life. I found this was something I could do forever, so I decided to open my own store.”

Wallo opened his first store in 2008, the worst possible timing, he admits, in light of the Great Recession. He survived by being competitive and providing exceptional service, he says.

When his lease ran out five years later, he was forced to move, rebrand himself and start all over again in September 2013. In moving closer to downtown Jacksonville, Wallo says, “There’s a lot more happening near the inner city, more restaurants and a more energetic nightlife, and you can tell from those who visit the store that the people who live and work in the downtown area are more fashion-driven than the more family-oriented atmosphere in the suburbs.”

The new store is named for Wallo (Robert) and the J is for Joe Espinosa, the designer and bench jeweler who owns a portion of the business. Rich Gammiere, Wallo’s business partner for more than 30 years, continues to run the construction business and is also an investor in the jewelry store.

Wallo’s main focus is bridal. He and Espinosa recently became certified in Stuller’s CounterSketch Studio software, which Wallo believes will help his new business take off by offering customers easy input into designing their own rings. It will set him apart in his market with a unique selling proposition.

Besides, he says, being able to build something in front of someone’s eyes is kind of cool.

After five years, the glamour hasn’t worn off.

“It’s a fun experience to be a part of,” he says.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED
BOBBY WALLO

Stand behind everything you do and say. We guarantee the ring for life.

If a customer ever loses a stone we take care of it. We don’t charge for a service plan. Everything is inclusive.

It’s not for the fainthearted. You really have to be dedicated to work a lot of hours. You’D better like dealing with people.

You’ve got to want to do it — to have it in your blood — to do it with sincerity and a smile. If your heart’s not in it, your gut’s not in it, then don’t get into it.

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America's Coolest Stores

Portland, OR, Couple Fine-Tunes the No-Pressure Engagement Ring Sale

Website and window displays create perfect curb appeal.

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Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, Portland, OR

OWNERS: David and Ronnie Malka; URL: malkadiamonds.com ; FOUNDED: 2010; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN: One Hundred Agency and Bedford Brown Store; EMPLOYEES: 3 ; AREA: 1,000 square feet total; 700 square foot showroom; TOP BRANDS: Custom, vintage, Point No Point Studios, Vatche, Jolie Design; ONLINE PRESENCE: 1,645 Instagram followers, 957 Facebook followers, 4.9 Stars with 62 Google reviews; RENOVATED: 2018; BUILDOUT COST: $75,000; SHOWCASES:KDM


Ronnie and David Malka

VINTAGE RINGS DISPLAYED in authentic, retro jewelry boxes share space with newly minted engagement rings in the front window of Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, a boutique shop in the historic Hamilton building in the heart of downtown Portland.

Passersby enchanted by that tempting array are welcomed inside by owners David and Ronnie Malka, who offer guests a warm greeting and refreshments from the coffee shop across the hall.

Adding to the relaxed environment, they rarely ask for the prospective customer’s information right away. “Our customer is our friend. Just like you don’t ask someone you just met for all of their information, you really should try to take the same approach with your customers,” David says.

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Once guests have a chance to settle in and look around, graduate gemologist David loves to share what he knows by comparing loose diamonds at his desk. What makes the Malka experience distinctive is that David includes tricks of the trade in his consumer education, such as explaining what kind of diamonds people in the jewelry business might select for themselves.

“A lot of people who are thinking about buying diamonds online have done some research, and I like to educate them on the stuff you can see in a diamond that you should pay for,” David says. “The stuff you can’t see, why pay for it? Common sense goes a long way when you’re spending thousands of dollars. Great, if you want to buy a VVS stone, we have it, but most of the people who see the difference, or don’t see the difference, between D and F color are making a much more informed purchase, and they feel good about it.”

Large windows allow passersby to glimpse a mix of vintage and new rings on display while flooding the space with natural light.

They’re also adept at explaining the difference between the diamonds and their paperwork. “The cert says XYZ, but if you lined it up with five others, you might see why that stone was priced so low in its bracket,” Ronnie says.

They think it’s just fine if their customers walk out without buying anything on their first or second visit — even if they’re headed to the competition.

“We keep it really simple in here,” says Ronnie. “A lot of the guys who come in are buying something they don’t know anything about. We don’t bombard them with phone calls or emails; we just offer education. They continue to explore and research, and most of those people we see back here.”

The Malkas are taking the long view. “We want to be like their grandparents’ jewelers with a state-of-the-art shop so we can create things that are going to last,” Ronnie says. “Like the 1920s-era jewelers you trusted but still current and evolving with time.” Although engagement and wedding rings dominate their business now, with as much as 85 percent of sales, they believe that as their original customers continue to mature, they’ll eventually diversify into jewelry for other occasions.

By the time the customer does make a purchase or put a deposit down on a custom ring, David and Ronnie have developed a relationship with them. They give their customers a Malka hat, pin or T-shirt. They also give them a pamphlet detailing the history of their three-generation tradition of diamond dealers, and paperwork that includes an appraisal. There’s no paperwork involved with the guarantee; that is automatic for the life of the ring.

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As for that history, David’s father, Yossi Malka, who still has an office across the street from his son’s store, began his career as an apprentice under his great uncle in Israel, studied diamond cutting and later became a wholesale dealer in Portland.

David studied at the GIA, earned a graduate gemologist degree, and worked in a retail store for several years. David also ran his own jewelry appraisal lab, Independent Gemological Services, for the trade and private clients. “That’s a tough gig to be looking through the scope all day,” he says. “I was getting a little bit bored.”

Still, everyone thought he was crazy, he says, when he decided to open his own store. “It was the recession. It was a tough time.” Three major Portland jewelry stores had closed. “I figured if we took this plunge and we could stay afloat for two years, we should be able to weather anything,” he says. They’d been considering a variety of different names for the business when a friend offered this advice: “When you put your name on the door, you’re putting your name behind the business.”

Perfect. They had a name.

Ronnie Malka collects retro jewelry boxes to display vintage engagement rings.

They leased a prime 1,000-square-foot spot within a vacant 10,000 square-foot space. It was bare bones, with not much beyond walls and floors.

“Welcome to the world of retail,” David says he remembered thinking. Traffic was thin at first, and David continued to operate the appraisal lab, taking it month by month. Although changing shopping habits of American consumers had seemed to be a bad omen, it turned out that Portland shoppers who did spend money on jewelry wanted to make sure they were investing in local, independent businesses. Within a couple of years, they’d won Oregon Bride Magazine’s “Best Rings of 2012” award.

In 2013 Malka became the official fine jewelers of the University of Oregon and their shop got very busy. Ronnie left her teaching job to join Malka full time after it became clear David needed help with marketing and events.

In 2018, they expanded the shop and fine-tuned their interior design, adding metallic cork wallpaper, a custom woven rug, a gathering area with a modern, round table and gray leather chairs, and custom-built display cases. The counter now boasts a marble top and black paint. Other additions include a gold light fixture and a trio of geometric mirrors. The look is upscale without feeling stuffy. The decor is also a personal reflection of what makes David and Ronnie comfortable, complete with a prominently displayed black and white wedding photo of the couple.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you meet a Malka,” Ronnie says. “We want them to know us as we want to know them.”

PHOTO GALLERY (30 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Malka Diamonds & Jewelry

1. Salt-and-pepper diamonds. A year ago, Malka started showcasing the work of a Seattle designer, Point No Point Studios, which has a strong Instagram presence and specializes in salt-and-pepper diamond rings. “We knew that going out-of-the-box and trying something new would potentially bring new traffic,” says Ronnie, who gets several inquiries about them every week. David, as the son of a diamond dealer, admits he was reluctant at first to move in that direction. “My dad says, ‘How much is that per carat?!’ Ten years ago, it would have been used for drill bits, but now there’s an actual marketplace for it. I don’t think it’s a fad, either,” David says.

2. Collaborative environment. “We all know the projects, what’s going on, and what’s coming up,” Ronnie says. “It doesn’t feel compartmentalized.” That approach also creates opportunity for growth. Chloe, who works in the showroom, says Malka has the friendliest atmosphere of anywhere she has worked, as well as enormous growth potential and pride in values. “It gives me satisfaction learning-wise and experience-wise, knowing what the jewelers have to do to have a certain outcome for whatever kind of piece we’re making,” she says.

3. Custom connection. A 2018 expansion made room for two full-time master jewelers and more equipment in the shop. “We wanted everything done under our roof,” David says, from design to manufacture. Sometimes they are simply consultants: “An architect is doing his own CAD design for us to look at and make sure it’s going to translate into a ring and not a building,” Ronnie says.

4. Website curb appeal. Ronnie considers Malka’s digital presence, including its website, to be online curb appeal. “People want to engage online first,” Ronnie says. “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, your website was a placeholder for your contact info, but now it tells your story.” People know what to expect.

5. Digital marketing ROI. Digital marketing has for the most part replaced traditional radio and TV, because as Ronnie says, “Our customer is online and if they’re seriously looking for a ring, they are seriously looking — not seeing it on TV. Many jewelers will say this is a waste of time, but in the last six months when our followers have doubled, we have noticed customers referring to an image they saw on Instagram or Facebook. It is a real relief to see the return on investment on the time spent taking photos and creating tag lines.” Even shop dog Toby has his own Instagram handle!

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Ettinger: This store is a real gem! I love the shop-local feel and that it can all be done in house. I also appreciate the mix of vintage and new.
  • Julie Gotz: I love that the owners are so invested in the customer and their life cycle. Many stores are too focused on the sale and not enough on the relationship. It is great to hear that a store is using social media in such a successful way.
  • Joel Hassler: I like the approach to gathering customer information. Building a relationship is more important than data-mining.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : The store interior is exquisite and feels upscale but also warm and inviting. The website is quite informative and I love their blog, “Stories,” as it features a lot of interesting topics with gorgeous photography.
  • Hedda Schupak: I like the laser focus on diamond rings, and I love the impressive depth of selection they have, especially nontraditional styles. The store itself is very hip and welcoming. Their online presence is very strong; they’re using all social media quite well.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Malka Diamonds has done a wonderful job of creating a modern elegant boutique while still highlighting the building’s historic features. Their store’s design tells a story that complements the products they showcase: modern and antique.
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This Retailer Combined Diamonds with Donuts for a Sweet Event

Social media played a big role in drawing 50 new customers.

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DIAMONDS AND DONUTS are each desirable in their own right, but put them together and the combination proves irresistible. At least it did in April for customers of Bernie Robbins Jewelers, whose purchases hit seven figures in four locations over two days.

Owner Harvey Rovinsky said he had noticed “donut roll” events in other types of retail-store promotions and thought donuts would be a great draw to add to the Bernie Robbins promotional repertoire, which has included a Yoga Fest, a Chic at the Shore series of summer events and trunk shows, a student design contest and a high-profile Super Bowl ticket giveaway, along with a recent emphasis on social media, digital advertising and geo-fencing.

“We always want to do something that is different, unique, that people will talk about,” Rovinsky says. “In my mind, donuts go with everything, and they certainly go with diamonds. Because of what the marketing team put together, there was a story to tell besides this jewelry store and their diamonds. It was a way to make a jewelry store visit more fun.”

As it happens, the shape of donuts is even suggestive of a ring.

Integral to promoting the event was a “donut wall” for customer selfies, created entirely by the staff, who invited customers to decorate the donuts with bridal toppers.

Says Peter Salerno, digital-marketing manager: “The idea came in the form of having a part of the store that is more photogenic, something new and fun. Our sales staff used their own Instagram accounts to reach out to customers, and we also advertised on traditional digital platforms. It was a cool space, a departure from a typical jewelry store. It had interaction and on-site activation.”

Customers were invited to decorate donuts with bridal-themed toppers, adding to the in-store experience, during Bernie Robbins’ Diamonds and Donuts event.

The store also borrowed wedding gowns for display that the staff accessorized with diamond jewelry.

“We had champagne, flowers, and it smelled like a bakery,” says Cristin Cipa, director of marketing.

The sales event represented true value for customers, who shopped at up to 50 percent off for mountings, engagement rings and wedding bands, and saved up to 40 percent on a large selection of GIA-graded loose diamonds. Instant credit and interest-free financing added to the appeal of instant gratification.

While salespeople set up appointments in advance to ensure their best clients would visit, the promotion also lured 50 new customers over two days.

“We had cooperation from all of our staff — marketing, selling, support staff,” Rovinsky says. “We checked all of the boxes when it came to marketing and we did an enormous amount of clienteling. Sightholders sent us hundreds of thousands of dollars in diamonds for two days at great prices. It was a win-win-win — a win for our clients, for our salespeople and for Bernie Robbins.” The entire staff was given a bonus as a result.

As for timing, April is diamond month, Rovinsky says. “Is it a popular time for engagements? Who knows? But we made it into one.”

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America's Coolest Stores

America’s Coolest Stores 2019 – Winners Revealed!

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Check out America’s Coolest Jewelry Stores of 2019!

Congratulations to the winners of the 18th annual America’s Coolest Stores Contest! In the following pages — and in the months ahead — discover why these stores earned the stamp of approval from our judges. As in past years, we divided the entries into two categories — Big Cool (six or more full-time employees) and Small Cool (five or fewer). We asked two six-member teams of judges to evaluate stores based on their back story, interior, exterior, marketing, online presence and what we here at INSTORE believe is the most important intangible: individuality.

Our six America’s Coolest and additional 10 Cool Stores — each of which will be featured in INSTORE issues through June 2019 — represent creative approaches to doing business as well as aesthetically pleasing retail environments. Each of the six winning stores also offers an omni-channel shopping experience, with merchandise available for purchase online.

If you haven’t taken the time to enter yet, why not give it a shot in January 2020? Retailers have told us that the entry process alone can be inspiring and motivating because it requires them to assess all aspects of their businesses. And if you entered and weren’t chosen this time, fine-tune your entry and try again. That’s proven to be a winning strategy.

Check out America’s Coolest
Jewelry Stores of 2019!

Congratulations to the winners of the 18th annual America’s Coolest Stores Contest! In the following pages — and in the months ahead — discover why these stores earned the stamp of approval from our judges. As in past years, we divided the entries into two categories — Big Cool (six or more full-time employees) and Small Cool (five or fewer). We asked two six-member teams of judges to evaluate stores based on their back story, interior, exterior, marketing, online presence and what we here at INSTORE believe is the most important intangible: individuality.

Our six America’s Coolest and additional 10 Cool Stores — each of which will be featured in INSTORE issues through June 2019 — represent creative approaches to doing business as well as aesthetically pleasing retail environments. Each of the six winning stores also offers an omni-channel shopping experience, with merchandise available for purchase online.

If you haven’t taken the time to enter yet, why not give it a shot in January 2020? Retailers have told us that the entry process alone can be inspiring and motivating because it requires them to assess all aspects of their businesses. And if you entered and weren’t chosen this time, fine-tune your entry and try again. That’s proven to be a winning strategy.

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