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Cool Store: Almaza Jewelers

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Cool Store: Almaza Jewelers

Almaza Jewelers proves not everything’s big in Texas

BY EILEEN MCCLELLAND | Published in the December 2012 issue

Photos by John Everett

Location: Houston, TX | URL: www.almazajewelers.com | Owners: Ziad H. Noshie | Founded: 1968 | Current Location: 1992 | Last renovated: 2012  | Area: 898 square feet | Employees: 4 | Cost of buildout: $230,000 | Brands: Lieberfarb, Benchmark, Charles Hubert Watches Online Presence | Yelp: 5 Stars| Facebook Likes: 132

The “Almaza” in Almaza Jewelers means “small precious diamond” in Arabic. Almaza’s family of owners treasure their business accordingly, polishing its reputation every day with an emphasis on customer service, fine craftsmanship and custom design.

The staff, the store, the shop and the ad budget all are tiny. Everything is small except selection, which is wide, and customer loyalty, which runs deep. Owner Ziad H. Noshie believes if “everyone” knew about the store it would not be a hidden gem. “I don’t like big stores,” Noshie says. “I want to stay small and strong.”

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Even so, plenty of people have found Almaza through word of mouth or by walking past its well-trafficked location between a Gap and a Sprint store. Since 1992, Almaza has occupied a prime spot in Rice Village, a sprawling, upscale shopping area. Due to its proximity to Rice University and the vast Houston Medical Center, Almaza serves customers from all over the world. Though Almaza’s staff is small, they can provide help in six languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, Greek, French and Italian.

The staff includes Noshie’s wife, Lydia, his daughters Amy and Alissa, and bench jeweler Jose Hernandez, who may as well be family, having begun work with Noshie when he was 19 — some 30 years ago. Amy studied merchandising in college, and Alissa majored in business management. Noshie beams with pride when speaking of his daughters’ decision to join him in the business, something he had dreamed of since they were born.

Adding more employees, Noshie believes, would change the nature of the family business. Adding to the mystique of the hidden gem, is that the family tends to keep a low profile on Houston’s lively social scene, donating to causes but rarely attending the associated galas, preferring to retreat to their house in Galveston for family fishing trips. And because they want to keep the business personal and intimate, and avoid adding staff, they do very little advertising. “It keeps a certain exclusivity to the business,” Alissa says. “We know everyone by name, we know their family stories. If we advertised a lot, we would get too many people and we would falter in customer service. They come to us for customer service.”

If a customer walks in the door, after being admitted by buzzer, whoever greets them likely knows them already, and if they don’t, they will engage the newcomer in casual conversation while committing their name, face and hobbies to memory, and pouring them a glass of award-winning wine or grappa, crafted by Noshie himself.

Most of the jewelry displayed in the cases is handcrafted by Noshie in 18K gold. The store specializes in custom bridal and colored stones.

His cases are already so full of his finished jewelry that there is precious little room for anything else. And Noshie decided years ago not to compete with himself by bringing in well-known brands. They do have a collection of simple studs, sterling silver and watches, which are brought out on request.

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The store is tastefully decorated with Noshie’s collected treasures of a lifetime, which lend it a global museum shop feel. In fact, says Alissa, her dad rotates décor between the store and his own house, which looks like the mother museum from which the shop sprung.

Italian glass artist Gianpaolo Nason specially designed the chandelier in the center of the store to fit in the small space, since most of his creations were made for highceilinged rooms in Italy.

The store’s “lucky charm” is a limited-edition mosaic statue of the Virgin Mary, made in Italy in 1971. A 5-foot Buddha, purchased during a business trip to Thailand, lends a sense of peace and mystery to one wall. Noshie’s office is filled with African and Asian art, including mastodon ivory carvings, housed in rosewood cabinets made in Hong Kong. The showroom’s wood floors are covered with just a sample of Noshie’s large rug collection from Iran and Afghanistan.

“They are just things,” Alissa says of her dad’s collection, “but beautiful things enrich your home and your life.” Noshie is the son of Hashim and Elfat Noshie. Hashim moved his family from Lebanon to Ghana, West Africa, where he worked as a rough diamond dealer while also operating a general store. When Ziad Noshie, who was born in Ghana, first came to the U.S. to study at the University of Houston and what is now the Glassell School of Art, he knew “not one soul” in the States, yet he felt at home anyway, and became a citizen in 1976. “It’s a wonderful country. I’m the first one to clap when the wheels of the plane touch down in Houston,” Noshie says. “I will never leave Houston.”

Noshie does leave his store, but often he leaves to do more lapidary work at home. It makes too much noise in a retail setting, and his shop isn’t far from his sales floor. He also works off-site on his wine hobby — he has transformed a city townhouse into his own winery.

Since his daughters joined the business full-time, Noshie has been dealing with new customers less than he used to, spending as much time as possible in his perfectly arranged, neat little shop. Of course, Noshie still makes time to see his old friends and clients, sharing with them his award-winning wine.

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It’s natural, given his interest in his hobby, to assume that Noshie will one day retire and buy a vineyard in the Texas Hill Country, the Napa Valley or Tuscany, but he says no way. “I will never leave Houston. I don’t plan to retire and I don’t plan to be a vintner. My dad told me, ‘Son, you cannot hold two watermelons in one hand.’ The wine is a hobby and it will always stay as a hobby.” So, you’ll find Noshie, as always, at his bench.

Five Cool Things

1 ALMAZA HAS ITS OWN WINERYNoshie is a star in Texas winemaking circles, winning more than 100 awards for red and dessert wines, made from California grapes. Customers are treated to a sample from Almaza Wine Cellars, Noshie’s winery, which is run out of a Houston townhouse.

2A SPECIALTY IN COLORED STONES “My forte is colored gems,” Noshie says. “I can spot a nice Burmese ruby from across the room.” He travels to Malaysia, Japan and Thailand to buy loose stones, has mined his own fire and black opals in Australia and has a huge inventory of loose stones of all kinds.

3WINNING DESIGNSIn 1998 Noshie began to enter his jewelry in competitions, immediately winning first place in that year’s Platinum Guild International Competition for a wedding set. To date, he has won 66 national and international awards. “I took an oath that I would never, ever, sell a piece that had won an award,” says Noshie, who explains that those treasures are set aside for his daughters. He will, however, make similar pieces on commission.

4A CODE OF ETHICS Noshie learned a strict code of business ethics from his father, who was a merchant of rough diamonds. He has committed to memory many things his father told him including, “Son, if a diamond is 0.99 carat do not call it a carat. You must call it 0.99 carat.”

5THE QUETZAL In 2005, Noshie was inducted into the Gemological Institute of America Circle of Honor for his donation of the Quetzal, a jeweled bird objet d’art, to the GIA’s collection. Quetzal, which took 11 months to handcraft, is a 3-D, life-size replica of Guatemala’s national bird. The piece can be found perched on a branch of Moroccan black coral in the main rotunda of the GIA Museum in Carlsbad, CA.

Q&A WITH ZIAD NOSHIE

Most significant mentor My father, because he was a shrewd Phoenician businessman.

Favorite business book Minding the Store by Stanley Marcus.

Best advice ever receivedMy father told me a long time ago, “If a diamond is 0.99 carat never call it 1.00 carat.”

What question do you wish customers would not ask you? What religion are you?

What’s your sign? Gemini

How do you stay current? I read trade magazines and attend gem shows.

How do you stay current? I read trade magazines and attend gem shows.

When I meet people,the first thing I notice about them is their jewelry.

If I were a precious stone, I would be a ruby because of its magnificent power! Favorite places to shop Italy and Spain. Favorite lunch Soup and salad.

Best vacation everWhen the family was all together on an overseas trip.

Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers When I am creating something beautiful for the store (jewelry).

If I weren’t a jeweler I’d be a vintner or get involved with horticulture.

Career goal I would like to create a special piece that would go on a museum tour around the country, but have not started it yet … it is a bit of a secret!

Current life goal I feel I have been blessed and am just enjoying life day by day.

Favorite gemstone Ruby and fine, Ural mountain chrysoberyl Alexandrite

Favorite store that’s not my own A few fine shops in Murano, Italy

I am most frustrated when, I put all the love and effort into a job and a client does not recognize it.

I am happiest when I make a client very happy.

Weekend activity Going to my Galveston Bay house and fishing.

Favorite art period Traditional African art and late Islamic Period art.

Favorite all-time jewelry designer Van Cleef & Arpels

Thing I worry about that I know I shouldn’t Leaving a legacy and my children carrying on the business when I am gone.

TRUE TALES

Almaza’s first location was underground. Downtown Houston has a tunnel system, a subterranean world where office workers grab lunch and run errands, avoiding intense heat or rain above. So Noshie found himself in the heart of oil-company headquarters during a big oil boom, and business boomed for him, too. He estimates 14,000 people passed his store every day; many of those passersby were inclined to splurge with their own cash or their company’s expense account. Among unusual requests he fulfilled: A gold cast of an oilman’s girlfriend’s torso, and gold-plated gun handles studded with precious gems, to be given as gifts to Arab sheiks.

TRY THESE

Send a coupon. Although Almaza does little advertising, they did have the opportunity, through their landlord, to offer a 20 percent coupon for repair, batteries and appraisals, to be included in a mailer that was sent to 15,000 homes. It cost them nothing and reaped rewards. One coupon holder came in for a repair and bought a $1,500 necklace.

Almaza’s in-case displays of jewelry are interspersed with tiny collectibles — miniature clocks, animals and chairs — most made of glass in Murano, Italy, which often sell right along with the jewelry. They are such fast sellers they have to be reordered frequently, especially around the holidays.

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