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America's Coolest Stores

Cool Store: James Free Jewelers



For this Ohio jeweler, it’s about witty merchandising and a serious commitment to all things excellent.

For some businesspeople, “good enough is good enough.” But for Michael Karaman, that shortcut makes no sense. Since he purchased James Free Jewelers in 1984, Karaman, who is president and owner of two luxury jewelry stores in Ohio, has been committed to offering customers everything first-class. That best-of-the-best mindset became especially apparent when Karaman rebuilt his flagship store in Dayton two years ago, just a hop-and-a-skip away from the existing store, which was leveled to offer additional parking. At the same time, Karaman launched an ambitious and witty marketing initiative directed at the bridal market. “Today in business, you have to be original,” Karaman says, “whether that’s in amusing and eye-catching advertisements, your state-of-the-art space, the premium amenities you offer, or the superior customer service you provide.”

Quick Facts

James Free Jewelers

Dayton, OH

OWNERS:Michael S. Karaman
AREA: 15,000 square feet
EMPLOYEES: 27 full-time, 3 part-time
TOP BRANDS: Rolex, TAG Heuer, David Yurman, Charles Krypell, Jack Kelege, Marco Bicego, John Hardy, Roberto Coin, Mikimoto, Christopher Designs, Scott Kay, Precision Set, James Free Jewelers Collection


cool reason # 1: ‘engaging’ website  

Two years ago, as part of its commitment to bridal, James Free Jewelers launched a separate consumer website,, to help couples through all the steps of their engagement. The home page banner reads “Where Dayton gets engaged” and the site offers recommendations for romantic restaurants, bed and breakfasts, photographers and the like. Because it’s designed for couples typically in their 20s and 30s and Internet-savvy, it’s highly interactive. So, for example, site visitors can access a playlist of more than a dozen romantic songs from iTunes … or work with a “Proposal Generator” (modeled on the retro Mad Libs word games familiar to the Millennial Generation) to help a man fashion an interesting and original marriage proposal … or create a personalized wine label that says “Will you marry me?” “We have a full-time social media manager on staff,” Karaman says, “who communicates with consumers on this site as well as with those logging onto our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channel.”

cool reason # 2: billboards that drive bridal

“Your girlfriend wants me,” the billboard reads. Or, on another: “You should take all that screaming as a yes.” On still another: “It’s time to tell your boyfriend about me.” Yes, drivers and passengers in the Dayton area can’t easily miss those uber-sized outdoor posters. The billboards were launched in conjunction with the website and, therefore, the only other copy on the huge roadside posters is that website address and the James Free Jewelers name. Simple and eye-catching, the short, clever statements change every six to nine months.

cool reason # 3: a bit of versailles for vips

Need a little privacy while shopping? James Free provides it with a VIP room decorated floor to ceiling in the period style of the Palace of Versailles. Customers who call ahead get the full first-class treatment: Upon arrival, their favorite music is playing in the room, their beverage of choice is waiting for them, along with some edible delicacies. James Free maintains full profiles on their customers, not only with their jewelry wish lists, but also their music, food and drink preferences.


cool reason # 4: display concept

With the help of their son, Roth Michaels, Thomas and Nora are pioneering a multimedia display to showcase hundreds of their copyrighted designs. It includes a large format LCD display, sound system and local network control software. While idle, the system presents a series of high-quality product photographs and accompanying music. Using a wireless touchscreen device for navigation, the HD display can be used as a learning center providing detailed information on products and materials. But although imagery is important, it will never replace the opportunity to touch and examine the finished product. “We are master jewelers as well as designers and we need to show the quality of what we put together,” Thomas says.

cool reason # 5: lighting up the night

A lighting engineer was hired to do both the internal and external lighting. Dramatic night lighting was essential, with exterior lighting carefully chosen for overall evening elegance. During the holidays, a decorating service is hired to make the outside evening lighting extra-special. Inside, soft fluorescents show off the vaulted dome ceiling, while showcase lighting has been chosen to highlight whatever is featured, be it a colored stone or a unique watch dial.

Store Interior

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Store Exterior

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Store Marketing

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Store Video


Five Questions with Michael S. Karaman

From the time I was a kid, I loved art and gems. I got into jewelry right out of college — even though I was an accounting major. I’ve never regretted the decision. In fact, my wife says I love this business so much that, if there were eight days in the week, I’d work at it eight days.

We were ready for it because eight years ago we started going heavily after the bridal market. And then two years ago we launched the bridal billboards and website. The bridal business isn’t affected by a recession.

No, but for all of our local TV and radio commercials, we end the spots with: “Does anyone pay retail for a diamond anymore? Not at James Free.”

Yes, we have signature gift wrapping, and it’s in the same colors as our store. We get the paper and ribbon from France and each package has a French wax seal. All of our sales associates get lessons in the art of gift wrapping.

All showcases are mahogany. Marble columns are inside as well as outside. The fireplace creates a homey atmosphere and it has an arch over it, like the arches on the exterior. We have two 52-inch flat screens, one over the fireplace and one over our bridal area, with videos running on the screens all the time.


Try This

When it absolutely has to be lobster

CONSIDER WHAT LOCAL SPECIALTIES you might share with customers as thank-you or Christmas gifts, particularly if you’re in a tourist destination. In Maine, it’s a clear choice: “We often ship lobsters overnight to clients for special occasions.”

Try This

Do a monthly product analysis

HAVE MONTHLY MEETINGS to analyze how every product is performing. Michael Karaman says, “You need to do this with every category — fashion, bridal and
watches — because you’re a store, not a museum.”


I HAVE A CUSTOMER IN CHICAGO, who once called me in a panic and said, “I’m in trouble — it’s my wife’s birthday and I want to get her a diamond ring.” But he had just realized it was her birthday. So I chose something I knew they’d both like, then hopped on a plane, flew to Chicago, and hand-delivered one to him at the airport. He was very grateful, but he also said, “If she asks you, tell her I bought it a long time ago.”

This story is from the October 2010 edition of INSTORE

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