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[h4][dropcap cap=B]lood. It’s thicker than water. Because you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick … your friend’s nose. Okay, a boring cliche and a stale old joke … but there is a reason why we opened this particular feature with such hackneyed writing. Aside from the possibility that we’re just a bunch of hacks, of course. You see, this is a story about working day in and day out with family — a way of life that can come to feel like one giant cliche wrapped up in an endless blanket of stale old jokes.[/dropcap][/h4]

If you let it, that is. In the following pages, you’ll meet jewelers who are part of long-standing family businesses, who know all too well some of the pitfalls of such arrangements, but who nonetheless work hard to keep their outlooks as fresh as their inventory. Because while the benefits of working with family are obvious — built-in loyalty, cost-savings in various areas, hand-me-down expertise, etc. — the fact is, a falling out between co-workers who are also family members is a much more serious concern than a rift between acquaintances who happen to work together. You really can’t pick your family, after all (yes, that’s how the darn thing is supposed to go …).

So if you happen to be getting started in the family business — or even if you’re a first-generation jeweler with kids who may one day join the firm — listen to what the jewelers on the following pages have to say. They know what it’s like to take over the leadership of a business from parents, to pass those responsibilities on to offspring … and most importantly, to maintain a loving family all the while.

[componentheading]JOHN ANTHONY JEWELERS[/componentheading]

[contentheading]Philadelphia, Pennsylvania[/contentheading]


John Anthony Jr. may be 50. He may have worked in the jewelry business since 1971. But that doesn’t mean he’s the king of the castle — both his 80-year-old father, John Anthony Sr., who founded the well-known Philadelphia store in 1946, and his mother, who is the bookkeeper, still show up for work. “We don’t roll out of here in a hurry,” jokes Anthony Jr., who serves as vice president, while Dad is president and CEO.

Anthony Jr.’s parents, however, never considered their children to be part of the business plan. Besides Junior, one sister is in the health care industry and a brother works for Kodak. A third sibling is a housewife, but does restringing part-time at the store. When asked whether his parents pressed him to join the business, he laughs, “What are you, nuts?” Instead, he explains, they did everything possible to discourage him from making the retail jeweler’s life his livelihood. “They didn’t talk me out of it, but they tried to tell me that it’s difficult, that the industry is very hard,” he says. “It’s one of the few industries where you have to not only invest your time and effort but also inventory and everything else.” Anthony went to college and studied corporate finance, planning to specialize in corporate fundraising. “But the pay wasn’t what I could get in the jewelry industry,” he says.

In any case, Anthony had already fallen in love with the jewelry business. At age nine he was working at the benches, making his first tie-tack. “I soldered a post on and everything,” he remembers. Still, his parents didn’t give him the easy way out, even though he was the owners’ son. “Are you kidding me? I was the low man on the totem pole,” he recalls. “I cleaned castings, polished inventory, did all the twisting of the wire.” He worked at the store part-time throughout high school and college and finally made the move to full-time when he graduated. “I just liked doing it … so I didn’t stop doing it.”

Now, with three children of his own – John III, 13, Kathleen, 11, and James, 6 – a third generation is in line to take over. But Anthony says he won’t encourage them to join the jewelry game. “I would just as soon have them be lawyers, doctors, insurance brokers, whatever,” he says. “I’m making them very aware that this isn’t the business to get rich in.” But one son might already have the itch, he admits. “John III is very interested in gemology,” he says. “He’s very into stones, he wants to know what their chemical structures are and all that.”

And in the Anthony family, jewelry is very much a part of everyone’s life, whether they’re at home or at work. “There is no separation between our family life and what goes on in the store,” says Anthony Jr. “If you’re in our kind of business it all rolls together. There’s not separate wheels to a car – part of the program is that you learn to live with it.” The family members who work in the store have learned to negotiate and compromise along the way, says Anthony. “It’s just like being married. You have to pick your battles.” On the plus side, being a close and caring family means that all of the members know each other’s idiosyncrasies and can deal with them. “There are days when they bother you and days when you know you should just stay away.”

Want to learn from the Anthonys’ experience? Here are a few of his secrets to working successfully with family:


[dropcap cap=1.] Recognize different family members will have different philosophies. One of the toughest challenges, says Anthony Jr., is finding common ground. “You’ll want to do it one way and someone else will have a different way of doing things. Eventually you have to sit down and work it out.” Anthony Jr. says he had to drag his parents “kicking and screaming” into the 21st century, when it came to computerizing the business and putting up a website. “My dad never believed in credit cards,” he remembers, “so we never accepted them until we modernized.”[/dropcap]

[dropcap cap=2.] Give your kids the straight dope. Anthony Jr.’s parents didn’t mince words, and he plan doesn’t plan to candy-coat the truth if his children express interest in taking over the business. And he says all retailers should be as honest: “I would tell my child to remember all of those nights when I showed up at his basketball game in the third quarter, or all those Saturday afternoon games I missed because I had to be at the store. That’s the retail business, it’s 24/7.” If the kids do decide to come on, the Pennsylvania jeweler suggests that you make sure they know the business inside and out. John Anthony Jewelers has been a custom jeweler since its earliest days, he explains, and he would want his children to know about making classic jewelry as well.[/dropcap]

[dropcap cap=3.] Make sure you understand the legal issues regarding family succession. “You can’t just wake up one morning and say, this business is going to my son or daughter,” warns Anthony Jr. “It’s a whole sticky situation in its own right.” There are transfer laws depending on what state you live in and the government doesn’t make it easy, says Anthony. Consult your lawyer, he advises.
Over the past decade, Anthony has become the day-to-day head of John Anthony Jewelers as his parents have begun to slow down in their later years. However, his father, John Sr., is still “the main man”. “He’s the one who started this — I’ve been playing with his money for a long time now.” And while he knows the jewelry life is not an easy one, he has no regrets about signing on. “It’s nice to carry on the family name and do the same kind of work my father did,” he says. “There’s something neat about that.”[/dropcap] — SHARON GOLDMAN EDRY

[componentheading]SAMUEL GORDON JEWELERS [/componentheading]

[contentheading]Oklahoma City, Oklahoma[/contentheading]


When Gary Gordon’s grandson Braden was born, the possibility of a new generation of jewelers entered the world with him. “It would make my day if he became a jeweler,” says Gordon. “It would make my life.”

While running a jewelry business is never easy, Gordon loves the idea of his family running Samuel Gordon Jewelers forever. And so far, they’re doing pretty well toward that end: The business was founded in Oklahoma City in 1904 by Samuel Gordon, whose son Norman took over in 1956. Gary Gordon was proud to take the reins in 1982. A fourth generation came on in 1996, when his son Daniel, now 30 [pictured right, with gary], joined the biz. “I feel like everything’s happened the way it should,” says Gordon. “I think it is destiny that the right family members, the ones who were inclined, have taken over at the right time.”

But passing on the joy of jewelry didn’t happen by accident. Gordon’s interest in the business was nurtured at a very early age. In the first grade, his grandfather gave him his first melée parcel to sort. “I remember it clearly,” says Gordon. “I held my hands out and he put the open diamond paper in my hand.” Grandpa Norman slowly trained Gary in the business throughout grade school and high school, while the boy performed other store duties, including working in the mailroom and cleaning toilets. Gordon immediately loved working with his father and grandfather, but he gave the pair a bit of a scare when he began to pursue his favorite hobby, as a rock and roll drummer. “For a long time my father was scared that that’s what I would want to do with my life,” laughs Gordon.

“But I told him I wanted to be a jeweler when I grew up. The drums were just for fun. I loved jewelry – I thought it was so pretty and exciting. The day of my college commencement exercises I was at the store at 9 am.”

Samuel Gordon died in 1956; Norman Gordon in 1980. Since then, Gary has been at the helm mostly alone (a brother and sister used to be a part of the business but eventually left to pursue different careers) until Daniel came on board. Father and son have an excellent relationship, says Gordon, though he stresses that family members have to decide what their relative strengths and weaknesses are in terms of running the business. “There are many things he does better than me. He’s a better salesperson, a better negotiator, and is better at advertising.” As for himself, “Daniel would say I’m better at the financial side and designing the store layout.” As co-CEOs, the two have come up with an arrangement that suits them: Daniel is the store’s spokesperson and is in charge of advertising and administrative duties, while Gary is in charge of sales, works with the accountant and bookkeeper and handles display issues.

After working for so many years together, the family has melded their personal and business relationships – and they like it that way. “If anyone ever commented to us that all we talk about is the jewelry business, my father would always say ‘Well, if you need to have something to talk about it might as well be something you have a passion for.’ And we continue to adopt that attitude.”
So what can a retailer do to emulate the Gordons’ golden touch when it comes to passing on a family business? Here are his words of wisdom:

[dropcap cap=1.] Learn to give up control. Allowing a child to become a business partner – and not simply an employee – is essential in passing on a family firm, says Gordon. “They have to have room to breathe and grow and learn the business in a comfortable way. My tendency is that I’m very hands-on. But I have a talented, capable son and I need to let go, and we peacefully co-exist because of that. I respect him and he respects me.”[/dropcap]

[dropcap cap=2.] Show support early on. When your child shows he’s dedicated to the business, start transferring stock into his or her name, Gordon advises. “If they have the talent and are capable and dedicated, they deserve to have that kind of display of support.” And emotional encouragement is just as important, he adds. “When Daniel’s mother and I agreed to invite him to come into the firm on his 23rd birthday, we had his new business cards printed up, put in a box and gift-wrapped. At his birthday party, we gave him the box and his mother said, ‘Gee, I hope you like this cologne,’ He was struggling to act happy and then he opened the box and saw the cards. He freaked out, he was so excited!”[/dropcap]

[dropcap cap=3.] Get your child the proper training. Make sure your offspring has the right training – from the parent and from the industry — to support their desire to join the business, emphasizes Gordon. “My plan would be multi-pronged — GIA training, Jewelers of America courses, and then the school of hard knocks from the parent to the child – that’s priceless. I taught my son how to sort melée just like my dad and grandfather taught me.”[/dropcap]

Gordon can hardly believe that the family business will be 100 years old in 2004, but that doesn’t mean the staff doesn’t already have big plans in the works to celebrate. “I can’t say what we’re doing because we haven’t finalized anything, but I’m very proud of it,” he says. And he doesn’t mind when other retailers admire the family’s perseverance. “Yeah, when I’m talking with industry friends they think it’s cool that Samuel Gordon Jewelers is as old as it is,” Gordon admits. “When you have a multi-generational business, it’s a real asset.”

And if little Braden Gordon decides to take a pass on the jewelry business? “My son is very hopeful that he won’t, but for me, it’s whatever makes him happy,” says Gordon. Hey, you never know. — SHARON GOLDMAN EDRY

[componentheading]MARKMAN’S DIAMONDS AND FINE JEWELRY[/componentheading]

[contentheading]Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee[/contentheading]

Tennessee’s Harold and Ida Markman poured everything they owned into Markman’s Diamonds and Fine Jewelry when they launched the business in October of 1976. Their social life became their work.

Two years later, their son Steve entered the firm. A second son, Stewart Markman, offers legal counsel whenever it is needed.

The Markmans’ family business began as a single store with Ida and Harold both selling full time, helped by one part-time employee. They now have three stores: two in Knoxville and another in Chattanooga. Since April 2002, they have also had a new partner, Joe Sedges. Between the three of them, they have grown the business from $8 million annually to more than $12 million. They are recognized for their quality diamond pieces, custom work, repairs and watches.

“It’s an advantage to us that ours is a family business and when Steve was little, I used to tell him that,” says Harold Markman.

What are these advantages? Perhaps most evident is the communication between the partners. “It’s like a kitchen-table conversation, the way we sit down and talk straight-up to each other,” says Sedges. “We don’t have to put a special spin on things to please anyone. We can freely discuss what is happening without any fear of breaches of confidentiality or worrying about the way someone will interpret what you are really trying to say.”

In fact, Sedges wanted to join the family firm because he’d liked what he first seen between the Markmans. “There’s a certain emotional relaxation that father and son have together. They commingle without having any conflict. Theirs is a close-knit family,” he says.

Steve Markman concurs: “Decision-making is really very simple. Sometimes people ask how we all get along so well together. Perhaps it’s that we are big enough not to get in each other’s way. Each doing very different things within the business also helps.”

Each of the four who work daily in the business have different responsibilities and strengths. Harold likes to roll up his sleeves and sell. He’s in charge of the sales floor.

Ida Markman is happiest taking care of the customers. As Sedges describes her, Ida is “one of the rocks of the store. Many customers come in and just want to deal with her. She has a certain way of working; she never complains or argues. Here six days a week, she always opens and closes [the store]. Each customer has her full attention.”

Steve seldom deals directly with customers. He’s knowledgeable about diamonds and travels regularly to Antwerp to buy loose stones. Each one is chosen with incredible care. As he explains, “We do our own manufacturing and I oversee styling of all merchandising. I’m more particular because it is our name, I guess. You could say I go a little overboard trying to get the match but quality is what we’re about for our customers.”

When Sedges approached the Markmans, they were pondering how to expand their business. Sedges had been working in sales for another jeweler and wanted to come in off the road. “Perhaps they’d read the same article in the jewelry publication I had,” he says. “The writer suggested that family firms find someone outside the family to help bring a more objective tone to what they are doing.”

Before Sedges came to the firm, the family philosophy was more about getting on with work and doing better than yesterday. Sedges brought a stronger sense of organization to the business, computerizing the inventory, and developing staff training and reviews, as well as budget and fiscal planning.

“I like the business end of things. I’m not so strong on sales,” he admits. For the holidays, however, he still goes out on the floor with all the other staff and partners.

Markman’s employs three jewelers. When they renovated their original Knoxville store, they tripled their showcase footage and were able to expand their watch lines.

“We have too much work to do to have too much ego,” says Steve Markman about the way the four partners work together. “That helps all of us. We respect each other’s abilities and we have learned how to pleasantly agree to disagree. You may have an opinion and if that’s your opinion, go for it. We give each other that freedom and don’t step on each other’s toes.”

The stores are designed to look good and work effectively. “It’s a combination of all of us working together and reviewing the plans, “ says Harold Markman. “There are no arguments about it. We work until we get it right. None of us are adamant about how things must look; we’re pretty open-minded about the process. It’s important for us to feel special but not overwhelmed by the building. We like to keep it simple.”

To keep home life separate from work, Harold and Ida have an agreement not to discuss business outside the store. He and Steve do talk out of hours at times, however. And the Markmans are solid members of their community. The family firm contributes generously to local charities like schools and churches, and to national organizations. “We have a personal relationship with the community that comes from our commitment to the business. It helps create greater trust between our customers and us. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be the best we can be; it’s our name and our business,” says Harold.

None of the next generation of kids has as yet shown any inclination to join in the family business full-time, but everyone lends a hand and does giftwrapping and other chores during the hectic Christmas season. “We hope we can continue on in the family way,” says Joe Sedges. You can bet Markman’s customers hope so too — the tradition of providing good customer service and quality merchandise to anybody who comes through the door is a source of family pride. — SARAH YATES

[componentheading]DAVID RICE JEWELERS[/componentheading]

[contentheading]Winnipeg, Manitoba[/contentheading]

Goldsmith David Rice started his business in his apartment bedroom, using his night table for casting. He sold his work in boutique stores throughout Winnipeg, Canada in the 1970s.

Thirty-one years later, David Rice Jewelers is a recognized destination store in the prairie city.

When Marie Christoffersson first joined the business in sales, she was attracted by its Danish and Swedish designs. Her father had been a Swedish goldsmith. “I was very comfortable with that aesthetic because I’d been brought up in a visually-oriented world. It was already a beautifully developed visual philosophy, when David taught me his visual merchandising techniques. I had an immediate understanding of what they were doing so I could just step in,” she says now.

Marie married David Rice and continued to work in the store after the birth of their son, Osten. Her training in photography and graphic design and his in theater design and visual merchandising have contributed to the contemporary Canadian design and art aesthetic which helps direct the store’s operations. Subtly, through example and through hands-on teaching, Marie has passed on that training in visual merchandising and visual awareness to reaffirm their reputation as a contemporary aesthetic icon.

The 1200 sq. ft. store on Osborne Street in Winnipeg sells originally-designed jewelry in gold, silver and other metals and set with precious stones; 80 percent of it designed by Rice himself. The store also represents several other Canadian jewelry designers. Rice maintains a studio in the top floor of their home, within a few blocks of the store, where he works with another trained goldsmith, Calvin Kelly. The front of the store serves as a gallery, with work on consignment from internationally-recognized ceramics and glass artists. Christoffersson does all the buying for the store.

“Collaboration is sometimes a problem but we all tend to play to each other’s strengths,” says Rice. “It’s an ongoing and evolving shift in a family business as intimate as ours is. I think of the design and workings of a jewelry store like designing an experience. There’s a lot of romance in selling jewelry. You’re participating in people’s major life events like engagements, weddings, anniversaries, Christmas, Hanukkah and other gift-giving times. We try to deliver service coupled with the right environment to create that positive experience. But what’s the point of it looking good if it doesn’t sell?”

Currently, Rice and Christoffersson are interpreting the trend toward mall buying by adapting their own visual merchandising, whereby pieces are clustered in categories. “Customers are used to seeing lots and lots of boxes of rings all together, we interpret it our way but nonetheless try to keep abreast of these changes to make customers comfortable, even while we offer them a unique buying experience,” he says.

Meanwhile, Rice admits that because of his own intensity and perfectionism, it’s easier for everyone now that he no longer comes into the store as much as he once did … acting more as a consultant on day-to-day operations. He leaves the display and ongoing maintenance of merchandise to the women working on the floor with Christoffersson.

“A family business is a juggling act as far as keeping your personal life intact,” says Christoffersson. “Everything is so close and interconnected. You want to be able to create some space. It works fine now with the studio at home and the store elsewhere. Having a manager helps enormously too. The bookkeeping part of it has never been my skill and though I know what is happening, when bills comes up, it’s not me the wife talking to my husband and getting into an argument. It’s as if Jennifer, our manager, is a buffer between us.”

Manager Jennifer Bottomley has been with the business now for eight years and she’s an integral part of the family firm, though not a partner. “We’re very fortunate to have her … She is dedicated and devoted like a family member because she truly cares about the business and about us,” says Christoffersson. “Jennifer learns quickly, stays calm even when things get tense and is very good at dealing with clients who are difficult. She’s not afraid to stand her ground.”

Rice adds: “We count on the support [goldsmith] Calvin and Jennifer give us. After all, you’re spending more time with these people than your partner so you have to be able to get along and to share personal things. David Rice Jewelers is not a big corporate office; it’s small and we must work together as a team to make it work.”

Jennifer and Marie work together full time on the sales floor; they also hire three students part-time to work at various busy times of the year. Calvin works with Rice in the studio. Every Saturday, David Rice meets clients for custom design consultation.

The couple work hard to ensure there is some separation between work and home. “Once I’m home from the store we discuss a few things very briefly, then we don’t discuss it anymore,” says Christoffersson.

“When things need to get sorted out or when David or I have an idea for some changes, we make time during business hours to sit down and talk. At-home time is our time and it has always worked out well. You have to be aware of these things, otherwise they can consume you. You can have nothing but work, especially since the studio is in our home. It’s a delicate balance.”

Their son Osten has always been supportive and involved in the store’s special events, particularly their annual Open House prior to Christmas, but he’s never worked in the store. When he was younger, he made a couple of pieces in the studio, sitting on his Dad’s lap so he could be tall enough to saw the pieces on the bench properly. Rice admits he actively dissuaded him from direct participation, feeling the business was not a viable one for his son. But Christoffersson says, “If it was really in Osten’s heart, either the design or the business part of it, it would be great to have another family member, especially a younger one in the business. I think it would be kind of comforting.” In more candid moments she admits that it would be tough to balance the creative perfectionism which drives both men in her life.

Instead of a jewelry designer, Osten Christoffersson Rice became a chef. Now his original hors d’oeuvres contribute to that distinctive family look at all of the store’s special events like their annual Open House.

Each family member has separate responsibilities and each contributes separately as part of the team. David Rice is both pleased and cautious about the family business.

“I don’t feel David Rice Jewelers has been a huge financial success but we have certainly succeeded in developing a reputation and an image,” he says.

“We’ve been through the peaks and valleys of any business and encountered various difficulties as does any family or any business. But after everything is said and done, we do have credibility and we’re still going. I can’t think of any other thing I would have wanted to do with my life.”

When Marie Christoffersson returned to the store after some time away following the death of her father, and saw the way it had been decorated without her direct hand, she felt reassured. “Wow! What a nice store; it’s just beautiful, I thought to myself,” she said to Bottomley, who retorted: “We had a great teacher!”

Family and extended family continue to work together as a unit, making David Rice Jewelers a must-visit shop in Winnipeg … and for many regulars, the only place to purchase jewelry and objets d’art. — SARAH YATES

[componentheading]BORN TO THE BUSINESS[/componentheading]

[contentheading]Columnist and jeweler David Atlas gives a first-person account of growing up in the family store[/contentheading]

For many people in the jewelry industry a tale of being born into a family business will be very familiar. Families who own and operate small private businesses share a lot of common elements … and you often have to take the bad with the good.

A parent with a successful business often hopes that their child may someday consider working and continuing the family tradition. They may not push it very hard, but you can see them crossing their fingers and hoping that going away to the military or college won’t tear the fragile fabric which binds family members together in a joint venture. Mature adults know that it takes teamwork to run any business. Recently employed younger family members may not yet realize this fully. One can expect the most from their own family members who join the “team”. One can get away with not paying them a whole lot; let them live at home a while longer. They can commute with other family members and save a bit. They can all sit around and eat last night’s leftovers for lunch.

Parents might even hope that the child will always be dependent and never grow up and assert their own will on anyone … some “team rules” just are not as reasonable as others. Some families use good judgment. Others fail to let their family members grow into the roles that must be played.

An important issue is the expectation of total honesty, loyalty and agreement with the values set forth by those who currently run the business. Family members are expected to toe the line and not to readily or frequently question the business decisions of their peers. In these situations, an argument is not welcome. Even a suggestion may seem argumentative. It is really difficult to hold your tongue at work, when you have grown used to speaking your mind in more normal surroundings. One must learn to see the guiding principles of how the family has run and intends to run their business. One is reasonably expected to agree, submit or keep their opinion to themselves unless they like to fight in front of everyone.

My grandfather began our business in 1898 as a new immigrant to the United States. He must have worked hard because he was very successful in the early part of the 1900s. He brought the entire family here, over 30 people, and made sure everyone had a place and a job. He was held out to me as the consummate example of responsibility. I was born in 1947, and he died in 1948. I have a photo of him holding me in his arms. I never knew him, only of him. When I went to New York weekly with my father in the late 1960s and 1970s, people my grandfather had done business with told me he had been a great guy and a most honest one. They laid a huge burden on me with his tradition and reputation. My father never hesitated to reinforce honesty and responsibility as guiding principles of long-term success and as our business policy. It’s darned difficult to be honest and hold one’s tongue sometimes. I proved it was too difficult for me many times by having some memorable verbal exchanges with my father and the occasional customer. You might call them arguments; I prefer to think of them as boardroom discussions where raising the volume of one’s voice was allowed. My dad was very hard of hearing anyway, so when I would make my feelings known, I needed to put them into a slow and rather loud set of words. I used to boil over at any time and on any subject. I think I am over it at this stage. My children have not come into the business, so I won’t need to put myself to the same test.

What else about working in the family is difficult yet entertaining? How about when a member of the family has a good yet rather novel idea? How can the idea be accomplished without spending any money? How can one do it without changing any pre-existing concept or strategy? Who will accept responsibility for the extra work entailed and who will be willing to take the blame if it fails?

Who else dares to back the idea? Who will get credit if the idea happens to work? Big businesses operate in much the same way, but you are not related to the parties. Being related entails many more points of possible conflict. If you fight, will you not get invited over to their house again? Will their spouse say you are taking unfair advantage? Will you hurt feelings or even split up a family over a business dispute? There are many real dangers working so closely with those you are supposed to love and respect.

One thing which creates problems in family businesses is the passing down of the business to the next generation. Will it be funded properly? What about inheritance taxes? What about retirement pensions, continued salaries, extended health benefits? Who will be able or willing to pay? Will the next generation honorably and competently manage the affairs of the business in order to meet these obligations? What is the risk of some sort of default? What safeguards can be constructed to protect those who have worked a lifetime to create a good business, without weakening it so much upon their retirement or death that it can’t be continued? Estate planning is often left to only those who are planning on leaving the business, but I believe it should involve the younger generations too. Those who continue the business need to have knowledge of the issues and know how it is supposed to be resolved. It benefits all parties when done properly. When done badly, the business will weaken and likely not be there long enough for another generation to take over.

[span class=note]This story is from the January 2003 edition of INSTORE[/span]



Gene the Jeweler

When Gene the Jeweler Speaks, His Employees Listen

In this episode of Jimmy DeGroot’s Gene the Jeweler series, Gene has a simple request for his employees. The good news is that they follow his instructions. The bad news is that they follow a bit too literally.

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America's Coolest Stores

This Cool Store’s Design Was Influenced by Aviation History

Contemporary design lends their building a new purpose.



Beré Jewelers, Pensacola, FL

OWNERS: Barry and Laura Cole; ; FOUNDED: 1985; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Jesse Balaity, project designer; Patrick M. Pillot, architect; Morette Construction, contractor; JMJ Inc. showcase manufacturer; EMPLOYEES: 9 ; AREA: 7,350 square feet; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; BUILDOUT COST: $2.1 million

A ROUTINE DRIVE HOME from the airport changed everything for Barry and Laura Cole. After a buying trip to Las Vegas in June 2016, the couple passed a furniture store they had long imagined would be the ideal spot for a jewelry store. In fact, for years, they had peeked in the windows and dreamed about its potential transformation. This time, they did a double take when they noticed a for-sale sign. “Our wheels started spinning,” Barry says. Despite years of daydreaming, they never really believed they’d be starting over after 31 years in business, but they wanted to set up the business for its best possible future for their second generation, sons Conner and Harrison. Conner won the Atlanta 24 Karat Club’s Robert Foreman Memorial Scholarship in August 2018 and has earned a graduate gemologist degree.

Bankers were called, and construction began about four months later under the guidance of store designer Jesse Balaity. It was to be a remarkably quick turnaround with the opening in April 2017.

“Jesse is a little more contemporary and I am a little more traditional,” Barry Cole says. “But I’m a pretty laid back guy, and we wanted it to have a less traditional feel to it than most stores. I didn’t want dark cherry wood or drop cloud lighting systems. I just wanted it to be different.”


Balaity was happy to deliver that distinctive look.

The building was in great shape, he says — a well-designed furniture store with a wide-open canvas inside and an exposed ceiling.

“It lent itself to having a more contemporary feeling,” Balaity says. “I often advise clients working with a big open ceiling not to pursue a traditional approach. Dark woods and lower ceilings don’t work with a big volume of space. If they do want to finish out everything with wood veneers and moldings, it gets uncontrollably expensive to deal with all those finishings.”

So, finding themselves in agreement, the Coles and Balaity kept the industrial-style open ceilings and added old reclaimed Chicago brick from local sites to build columns and walls.

Another important consideration was to determine which generation (or generations) the Coles were trying to woo as clients. “Pensacola has a good mix because of the Air Force base,” Balaity says. “And we want to be able to broadly attract younger bridal customers and older customers alike into this space. Having a contemporary approach was more approachable for everyone.”

To balance the jewelry and watch brand identities with the Beré identity, each was given its own distinct zone, created by a mix of wood plank and porcelain. The Breitling enclave is defined by wood plank and the Forevermark zone is highlighted with a similar material in a lighter color. “We had to pick and choose how each would have its presence and how they would play together, and we found ways to overlap Forevermark and the bridal zone,” Balaity says.

The store is across the street from the airport, says Cole, who can sit in his conference room and look at the runway. The city is known for being the home of naval aviation and the Blue Angels, local themes Cole wanted to tie into the store.

An entire wall anchors a bar, lounge and Breitling watch zone, where panel walls with rivets mimicking old airplane and antique propellers pay homage to the local military and aviation history.


The bar boasts local craft beers on tap, wine champagne and bourbon. Entertainment includes eight large-screen LED TVs playing sports, fashion videos and brand stories. The children’s play area is equipped with LED TV, toys, books, puzzles and original paintings of sea creatures.

An 18-foot granite community table is the center for meetings and events and invites customers to relax with a hot cup of coffee or cold beer. The Coles offer their space to local charities for events and board meetings, too. Original artwork by Laura Cole hangs throughout the store.

Barry believes the design achieved all of his goals, even goals he didn’t realize he had and wouldn’t have been able to articulate without Balaity’s input. “On front-facing showcases, the drawer pulls are made out of leather,” he says. “Just little details like that that I never in a million years would have thought of. Showcases all of a sudden looked like an old trunk. I’m good at what I do, but I never would have thought of those things.”

Balaity says the store is an extension of its owners’ personalities. “Barry and Laura are community-engaged and affable, and they grasped the idea of the store being a community hub,” he says. “They took a big leap to create a full bar area, an outside seating area and a lounge area. When you walk in and see Barry in this environment, it looks like you’re seeing him in this large living room. It really is the owner’s personality that melds with the design and makes it a retail experience.”

Cole agrees it can feel like his living room and that the hospitable atmosphere is good for business. “We will sit here at night and open a beer and really enjoy being here,” he says. “It’s pretty cool when you feel you don’t have to be away from this place. Every single day someone comes in and is wowed.” In fact, during the first six months the store was open, the Coles welcomed 3,000 new customers. In the first fiscal year, revenues were 50 percent over the previous year, even though the previous year had included a Wilkerson sale event.

Origin Story

Barry Cole’s origins in jewelry can be traced to a high school job at Zales. “I loved working with people and selling diamonds and watches,” he says. During his senior year in college, Ray Jones, his former boss at Zales, suggested they open their own store. “I was 21 years old, I was living at home, going to school. We spent the better part of that year, late 1984, saving up money. We each saved $10,000, and we found a bank to loan us $25,000.” They rented a 700 square-foot store, had some cases made, secured some inventory on memo and chose a name, a simple combination of their names. “Goofy, but it worked!” Cole says. “We opened on Oct. 15, and on Dec. 31, we had an armed robbery and we lost everything.” Although they were insured, much of the inventory was on memo and it took nine months to start over. In June 2005, after Jones died suddenly, Cole relocated the Pensacola store closer to the heartbeat of the Pensacola shopping area.

The Coles have come a long way and aren’t afraid to evolve.


“Don’t be afraid of change,” Cole says. “I’m a big college football fan and I follow the University of Alabama. (Coach) Nick Saban is willing to change, to hire the right people who know the things to do to change with the times. That’s what I aspire to.”



Five Cool Things About Beré Jewelers

1. The Golden Ticket. The Coles created a VIP event with a “golden ticket” inspired by Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. VIP customers are offered a Golden Ticket invitation with a discount good for one night only. The evening features a full bar, catering from Pensacola’s best restaurants and live music.

2. The Blue Angels. Beré teams up with Breitling to sponsor the Blue Angels air show in Pensacola. “There will be about a quarter million people attending, and they blast our name over the intercom system,” Cole says. “We’ll end up selling between 10 and 25 watches as a result of that show.”

3. Embracing watches. The Coles are building a new watch shop on site. “I have a big passion for watches,” Cole says. “As much as a lot of jewelers are getting out of watches, I’ve kind of embraced watches because it gets people in our store. Guys come in and look at Omega, Breitling, Tag Heuer, Shinola, Oris, and that gets them exposed to our brand and our store.”

4. Marketing strategy. The Coles built a strong Facebook presence with 125,000 followers. After contracting with an agency, they began using geo-fencing and got into Instagram. They’re on network TV every day and advertise on seven or eight billboards. They’ve also got an ad on the back cover of several local magazines. “We’re the most aggressive advertiser in our market. It’s a transient community and I’ve got to let people know we are here.”

5. Community presence. “We’re big into charities and events around town,” Cole says. “We do a lot of sponsoring of ball teams and schools. When you support these things, the parents will support you.” During construction, they also made a concerted effort to use the community as a resource, going to local furniture and lighting stores and working with people they knew, even though at times they paid a premium to do so, Balaity says.

  • Geoffrey Brown: This overall brand and the online presence of the business is great. It appeals to every age. They are engaging on social media and review sites, and they are experts with a blog. They hit three major millennial and small business market must-haves.
  • Laura Davis: Very nice store, super-enlightened and experience-based approach. It’s a great brand and business.
  • Larry Johnson: The interior is the best I’ve seen in years. Definitely cool. Laura’s art gracing the store is a classic touch. The long table in the watch area creates a central gathering point that works extremely well.
  • David Lampert: I like that they have an active blog.
  • Jill Maurer: The Golden Ticket event is a great way to celebrate VIP customers and sounds like a lot of fun!
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This Store’s Murder Mystery Killed at the Party

Events coordinator enlists customers to stage murder mystery she wrote herself.



LYNNETTE SOLOMON HAD never thought of herself as a playwright, but as special events coordinator at MJ Miller & Co. in Barrington, IL, she isn’t afraid to try new things.

“When we do an event, we always try to do something the customer can participate in — toga parties, pirate parties; those tend to work out the best for us. It’s a great way to get people engaged and wearing the jewelry.”

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But when it came to trunk shows, she realized they needed something to spice them up for her clients who craved the kind of interactive, in-store experience that really could be described as an experience.

So Solomon spent a whole year writing a murder mystery and pitched it to owner Michael J. Miller as a way to create drama around designer Victor Velyan’s two-day visit. Velyan’s dramatic jewelry designs seemed perfect for such an

event, especially because they’re less traditional and very different in style from anything else in the store, Solomon says. She debuted both the concept and the play itself over two days in October.

A dozen customers were invited to be characters. Another small group came just to watch.

Of course, each character was wearing jewels from Velyan’s collection, and each was teamed up with a staff member so they received personal attention.

“A lot of the characters had a back story with Victor, so they had to pay a lot of attention to Victor,” Solomon says.

Velyan, known for his global exploration, was one of the central characters. “

The scenario? Velyan, returning from his latest adventure in Africa, brought his whole new couture line to the store and thieves lay in wait to steal his new collection.

Sales associates invited clients based on whether they thought they’d enjoy it; many also had a history of purchasing Velyan’s pieces.

Sandy and Greg Kern of Arlington Heights were invited — and thrilled — to participate. “People were given a dossier on their character and told to dress in costume. My character was a teacher, and so I was supposed to dress in a pretty plain way — in a tweed skirt,” says Sandy. Greg’s character was a chemist.

“Everybody had a fabulous character, and some people did an amazing job of dressing like their characters,” Sandy says. “It was a lot of fun.”

Characters were invited, of course, to try to figure out who the murderer was.

“In our group, no one got who the murderer was,” Sandy says. “It was so clever, it was wonderful. It involved people in the store and with the fabulous jewelry, we had a great time.”
Diversions were built into the plot.

“The twist was that I had a police officer (an actor) come in and tell Mr. Miller there had been an incident at his home and he had to leave,” Solomon says. “Then someone ran out from the back and announced that a character was killed in the back of the store.”

Solomon was the narrator as well as the playwright and experienced opening-night jitters.

“I was very nervous, but everybody really had a great time,” she says.

Even the store’s signature drink, the Gold Rush, played a pivotal part in the action.

There were appetizers, sweets and bourbon-spiked punch. The soundtrack featured Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and Hall and Oates’ “Man Eater.”

Props in the showcases doubled as clues.

At the end of the day, the drama had the best possible ending: there were a number of pending sales.

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Stores Create Displays That Are Made To Be Touched

Make some merchandise accessible.



IN MOST JEWELRY STORES, there’s not much that shoppers can touch without asking. But these jewelers allow customers the freedom to hold and try on pieces to their heart’s content.

Mixed Media

At Balefire Goods in Arvada, CO, owner Jamie Hollier uses blocks of wood atop a glass shelf to create an intriguing textural contrast while providing a simple, organic base for sculptural, artisan-made jewelry. Wood, metal and concrete furniture and fixtures soften an industrial aesthetic, while creating a neutral backdrop where jewelry and art become the focus.

An Heirloom Look

At H1912 in Princeton, NJ, an offspring of Hamilton Jewelers, watch bands are cleverly displayed in a vintage printers tray (discovered at a garage sale) and on bulletin boards. Rustic displays and period furniture reflect the store’s focus on heirloom jewelry and one-of-a-kind finds. “We recently started putting additional accessories up on bulletin boards in our store, but we only feature very few straps on the board because it’s important clients can touch and feel the different materials of the watch straps and be able to hold them against their watches on their wrist,” says store director Lea D’Onofrio.


A Study in Contrasts

Lindy’s in Fernandina Beach, FL, embraces an eclectic decor in which it seems perfectly natural to hang long, beaded necklaces from deer antlers mounted on an exposed brick wall. The quirky wall display co-exists with elegant elements, including a large mirror propped against a wall and a chandelier. “It’s difficult to display long necklaces (that are so popular right now) in the showcases,” says owner Lindy Kavanaugh. “Our dress forms are another favorite for displaying long necklaces, and we love using the mineral specimens and cool gemstone-related pieces we find in Tucson as it seems to bring it all together with a fancy, but earthy vibe. Kind of like wearing pearls with a sweatshirt!”

Front and Center

At Adornment & Theory in Chicago, an accessories table in the center of the store draws shoppers to try on bracelets and pendants, while staff is prepared to fill them in on the story behind each piece. “People are looking for a personal touch,” says owner Viviana Langhoff. “They want to know if it’s handmade, they want to know about the designer, the story, the fair-trade component, where the stones are coming from. They like knowing the details.”

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