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Best of the Best: T. Lee Gemstone Roundtables



‘Gemstone roundtables’ are big business for custom designer

[h3]T Lee Fine Designer Jewelry[/h3]
Address: 18 University Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413 
Phone: (612) 789-2656 

[dropcap cap=F]rom the “Camelot” of King Arthur to that of President John F. Kennedy, the concept of the “Round Table” has always been a romantic notion.[/dropcap]

[componentheading]THE IDEA[/componentheading]

Best of the Best LogoIn the late 1980’s, some retail jewelers continued this tradition of romance with Gemstone Roundtables, a lucrative way to stimulate customer interest in colored stones and custom jewelry work. For T Lee, owner of T Lee Fine Designer Jewelry in Minneapolis, the Gemstone Roundtable has rapidly become her customers’ favorite custom, bringing incremental growth to her colored stone inventory and sales while expanding custom jewelry design work. 

Jewelry designer turned retail jeweler, Lee is currently gearing up for her fourth Gemstone Roundtable in March. She credits Christopher Jupp of Christopher’s Fine Jewelry Design in Champaign, IL, with the concept that began over 18 years ago.


[componentheading]THE EXECUTION[/componentheading]

The Gemstone Roundtable begins with a retailer’s colored stone inventory. Lee suggests displaying unique and rare colored stones befitting of custom work. “In my store, when people ask questions about an unusual colored stone they see in a display case, I tell them that the stone is in my personal collection and not for sale,” Lee says. “But if they attend a special store educational event, they can learn more about that colored stone and other gems.” 

Throw in the possibility of owning that stone, and the seeds are planted. Excitement about the stone and the store event begins to build. But stimulating interest in color with people stopping by the store only makes up perhaps 10% of a potential Roundtable event phone list. For Lee, 90% of the people contacted for such events are those who have done custom work with her in the past. “This group of customers is more predisposed to doing custom work,” she says. “From the Roundtable events, I have a 90% return from my first two events and 50% percent return rate for custom work for the last one.”  

One key ingredient is the special guest — a gem dealer who must not only be a good seller with a diverse inventory, but someone who also possesses an outgoing personality.  

A month before the event, Lee and her staff make calls to a select group of customers. Eventually they confirm attendance with a core group of 15 people, with three to five people in reserve. A postcard is sent out a week before the event and a final reminder call is made the night before. “The confirmation process is key to the event’s success as an empty chair can disrupt the circle’s rhythm,” Lee says.  

On the day before the event, the gem dealer stops by the shop to prepare fresh gem parcel envelopes. Colored stones must have an event-specific parcel number. Lee also encourages the dealer to write details on the parcel paper that may pique interest in the stone, such as “the most vivid sample of a blue tourmaline ever seen.”


Best of the Best: T. Lee Gemstone Roundtables

Because the target audience is primarily a middle-aged, white-collar professional crowd, Roundtables are usually scheduled after business hours at 6:30 PM on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Each event runs two-and-half hours, with the first two hours dedicated to reviewing parcels and placing dibs on desired goods. The last 30 minutes are reserved for closing sales.

No more than 15 people at a large table are suggested. Lee strongly suggest that owners avoid serving oily foods — instead, offer mainly bite-sized portions that can be eaten easily with toothpicks. Attendees will be using their hands and a gem cloth, not gem tweezers and a loupe, to inspect the many parcels.  

As each parcel goes from the first chair to the last, attendees can place dibs on stones they like. Lee and her staff are always nearby, topping off wine glasses and serving food while writing down parcel number dibs from each customer. Calling dibs on a colored stone isn’t a buying commitment, or as the Gemstone Roundtable mantra goes, “it’s flirting, not marriage.” Placing dibs on stones is always encouraged, even if the person has no intention of buying. “That’s just playing the game well,” says Lee. 

As customers place dibs on desired stones, their position at the table gives them preferred buying status. If a particular gemstone has multiple bids on it, the person seated closest to the number-one chair to the gem dealer’s right gets the stone. Some people buy all their stones, while others pare down to their top choices.  

The buying portion of the two-and-half hour event eventually concludes in the final 30 minutes of the night as people buy up everything or purge choices that can go to a customer in a subsequent buying position. Customers often ask Lee how they can get a better chair. “It’s simple … buy some stones,'” she says.  


At the end of the event, people naturally ask what to do with a loose stone. On occasion, Lee will do a counter sketch to clinch a sale that’s wobbling, but not very often. “We prefer to get people back in the store for a consultation,” she says. “To encourage people to do custom work with me, I’ll give them 15% off, and on a rare occasion will allow a layaway. The important thing is getting them back in the store and talking about their jewelry and the event with other people.”

[componentheading]THE REWARDS[/componentheading]

Lee’s first Gemstone Roundtable didn’t live up to expectations, but after attending one of Jupp’s seminars on the subject at the AGTA Tucson Show in 2005, her events have been executed flawlessly with strong sales. (A similar free how-to Gemstone Roundtable seminar for retailers will be held at 9:00 AM and 1:00 PM on Friday, February 3 at the AGTA Tucson 2006 Show).

[span class=note]This story is from the February 2006 edition of INSTORE[/span]



Wilkerson Testimonials

When It’s Time for Something New, Call Wilkerson

Fifty-four years is a long time to stay in one place. So, when Cindy Skatell-Dacus, owner of Skatell’s Custom Jewelers in Greenville, SC decided to move on to life’s next adventure, she called Wilkerson. “I’d seen their ads in the trade magazines for years,’ she says, before hiring them to run her store’s GOB sale. It was such a great experience, Skatell-Dacus says it didn’t even seem like a sale was taking place. Does she have some advice for others thinking of a liquidation or GOB sale? Three words, she says: “Wilkerson. Wilkerson. Wilkerson.”

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Santa Fe’s Reflective Jewelry Aligns with Owners’ Ethics

Fairtrade Gold designation puts the focus on miners.



Marc Choyt and Helen Chantler work to ensure their business aligns with their environmental and ethical beliefs.

MARC CHOYT AND HIS wife, Helen Chantler, of Santa Fe, NM, have been focused on green initiatives for decades, in all aspects of life.

“We bought land in northern New Mexico in the ‘90s, and there was a creek bed there that was badly eroded from over-grazing to the point that there were cliffs instead of gentle banks,” Choyt says. “We began to realize the impact we have locally and globally. That is a core value for us.”

Their business, Reflective Jewelry, a custom and designer jewelry studio, has been named Green Business of the Year by the city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe’s Chamber of Commerce. “This is a great honor, especially given the industry we’re in and the fact that Santa Fe is a green business city,” Choyt says.

Reflective Jewelry is the only Fairtrade Gold jeweler in the United States, a certification they received in 2015.

“Though there are over 250 Fairtrade Gold jewelers in the UK, we are still the only Fairtrade Gold jewelers in the entire USA,” says Choyt. “We produce our entire two-tone line and much of our bridal collection in Fairtrade Gold. This supports local economies, alleviates poverty and reduces global mercury contamination for small-scale gold producers. Because it’s an international brand and is the only system that audits suppliers and jewelers, it is the best option to create a foundation for responsible jewelry.”

Fairtrade Gold was only one reason, though, that the city of Santa Fe recognized Reflective Jewelry. The shop uses LED lighting, washable cloth towels, biodegradable bags for shipping, organic dish soap and non-toxic floor cleaners. Jewelers use citric acid for pickling, fluoride-free flux, a soap-based solution for tumbling, sink traps for catching heavy metals, and vacuums that capture dust and compounds—all of which are recycled. Their landscape garden, once a concrete foundation, now has mature apricot and cherry trees and native plants fed by water channeled off their roof.

Chantler, an experienced bench jeweler, launched her jewelry design business in 1994, while Choyt led the sales effort, initially concentrating on distributing jewelry to 250 stores and catalogs.

By 2001, they refocused on online sales and their own retail store. Today, six people work in the shop and the store.

Along the way, they began using recycled metals in production, which was a logical place to start, Choyt explains, but doesn’t address the big picture. “Basically, gold is going to be mined, and that’s independent of how much is used by jewelers. If we’re going to really make an impact, we have to support small-scale mining communities.”

When Choyt explains to customers that the Fairtrade Gold designation is the same well-known global brand used for Fairtrade coffee and chocolate, they are “astonished that I’m the only one operating this way, out of a small shop in Santa Fe,” he says.

So while Choyt can point to numerous 5-star Google reviews and show clients the studio where the jewelry is made, he can also ensure ethical, fair-trade sourcing from mine to market, adding another level of authority and credibility.

“Certainly one of the most important elements of any jeweler is reputation. Fairtrade Gold is just another thing that makes people feel really good about buying from us,” he says.

When the U.S. consumer market adopts Fairtrade Gold, he says, hundreds of thousands (or possibly millions) of small-scale miners finally will find their lives improved.

“When this happens, we’ll be able to point to our small studio on Baca Street as one of the catalysts.”

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Borsheims Shareholders Weekend Demands All Hands on Deck

Hospitality crucial, no matter the size of your trunk show.



PLANNING A TRUNK show this fall? What if your trunk show involved 100 vendors, as many as 35,000 customers and 25,000 catered meatballs?

Borsheims in Omaha, NE, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, meets that challenge annually with an all-hands-on-deck approach when it opens its doors each May to all of the company’s shareholders who want to come.

The jewelry store plays host to a cocktail party on Friday night and a shareholder shopping day on Sunday. Both events spill into the mall, which is closed to the public, and into the parking lot. “We really look at this from a hospitality approach,” says Adrienne Fay, director of marketing and business sales. “We want to thank the shareholders for their loyalty and patronage.”

This year there were 100 jewelry, watch and gift vendors, some of whom brought in products for their trunk shows that wouldn’t be seen anywhere else in the U.S., Fay says. “You’ve never seen jewelry cases as packed as they are during Berkshire weekend. We call it our Christmas in May. We do a transaction every 11 seconds during the weekend.”


For weeks leading up to the event, job descriptions blur as every employee plays a role from helping with catering to managing vendors. They hire additional staff for the weekend, ask corporate staff to work the sales floor and bring in runners and cashiers.

“The last thing we would want to have is someone standing around and no one able to help them,” says Jaci Stuifbergen, who guides Borsheims’ experiential marketing. “Everyone involved is a representative of Borsheims, from those setting up a large tent to those providing food and beverages. We want every caterer to represent Borsheims well and have the same customer-focused mindset that we do the whole time they are here.”


Even though it’s a private event, shareholders are under no obligation to buy jewelry. So creating the right customer experience is vital in this, as in any, event situation. “Whether it’s a regular trunk show or during this event, the thing we want to provide is a really great experience,” Stuifbergen says. “We know they could buy this jewelry from other stores or on the Internet, but what we have to offer are customer service and knowledgeable staff. Complimentary alcohol never hurts!” she says.

It might be the only chance to convert shoppers. “It’s such a destination store that for a lot of people, this is the only time in the year, or maybe in a decade, that they come here,” Stuifbergen says. They set up two bars and two buffet lines in the parking lot under the biggest tent they can rent. Sunday’s party often features Bershire Hathaway CEO and Chairman Warren Buffett playing bridge or table tennis with Bill Gates, Microsoft founder. There’s also a live band and a magician. On Friday night, the caterer serves more than 25,000 meatballs.


The shareholders, who are Warren Buffett groupies, want to buy anything that’s affiliated with him, from pearl strands with his signature on the clasp and diamonds with his signature laser-inscribed inside to affordable gift products stamped with his face or the company logo. Last year, they used a custom etching machine to inscribe personal messages inside the diamonds while customers waited.


Almost immediately after the event, everyone in the company is asked for input and feedback, which is compiled into a seven or eight page document and carefully analyzed. Feedback has led to changes like improved security and gift bags for vendors as a token of appreciation.

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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.



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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