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Michigan Success Story

Starting as a store janitor, this entrepreneur found his calling in the jewelry business.

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James C. Smith Fine Jewelry, Traverse City, MI

URL: jamescsmith.net; OWNER: James C. Smith; FOUNDED: 2006; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2006; LAST RENOVATED: 2011; AREA: 1,500 square feet; OPENED BUILD-OUT COST: $25,000; EMPLOYEES: 4 full time, 2 part time; BRANDS: ll inventory is made in-house.; ONLINE PRESENCE: Yelp: 5 Stars; Facebook: 1,226 Likes; ALEXA TRAFFIC RANK:6,370,716


HOPING JUST TO GRADUATE high school, James Smith ended up with a career.

“I was one of those rebellious teenage kids,” Smith says. His troubles meant he might not walk at commencement with the rest of his 1987 senior class, unless he made up some credit working a job through his school’s co-op program.

“The assistant principal literally went through a Rolodex, pulled out an index card, and said, ‘Go to this place, they need a janitor,” Smith recalls. “It was a jewelry store three generations old.”

Smith started doing custodial work there part-time. Something about him must have impressed the owner, who invited him to spend his downtime on an empty bench next to the store’s goldsmith. “He said, ‘I’m not gonna pay you to be there, but you can spend your time seeing what it’s like.’”

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Six months later, once Smith had grasped the basics of polishing, casting and other bench work, the owner did start paying him. The store’s goldsmith, Christian DeCamillis, became a lifelong mentor. And Smith began in earnest an apprenticeship that would lead to him striking out on his own in 2006.

If his story is a spin on the traditional American dream of learning to apply yourself and finding success, Smith’s namesake store is a bit more atypical — especially for a Northern Michigan town of 15,000. A sharp mix of clean, straight lines and lots of glass, adorned smartly with lively colors, it more closely resembles a metropolitan art gallery than a small-town jewelry shop.

“People see it and think it looks like something that would be in a big city. They go, ‘What’s that doing here?’” Smith says.

Inside, they find Smith’s custom designs on display in acrylic boxes suspended from industrial-looking wires.

“Traditional jewelry stores have real low cases,” he says. “People are always bending down trying to see in them. I wanted something that was closer to eye level and more light and airy.”

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The store’s design was a collaboration between Smith’s wife, Linda Hankes-Smith — a professional artist herself — designer friend Richard Taylor and Smith. “It was challenging,” Smith says, because of the strong creative opinions they all had. “But it was also very exciting. The three of us had a lot of fun with it.”

He admits to feeling trepidation when he opted to start his own business, after Taylor recommended he and Linda check out a retail space that had just opened up. “She said just do it — the worst thing that could happen is we could lose our house,” Smith says. Despite the down economy, the worst never came to pass.

The majority of Smith’s work is custom; about 30 percent of that is bridal. Many of his clients, he jokes, are people who come in and say, “‘I was standing in the grocery line and the lady in front of me had the same ring as me.’”

His work and his aesthetic have garnered a fervent following, as evinced by the store’s annual Christmas party, which is not a selling event but a thank you to his customers.

“We’ve had nights there was an absolute snowstorm, where you couldn’t see halfway down the block, and you think, ‘OK, this is going to be a bust,’” Smith says, remembering one event. Half an hour after the start time, the store was empty. And then: “The store was full. I don’t think we could have fit another person in.”

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Smith has paid tribute to his community with two particular pieces: his Peninsula Pendant and his Pure Michigan Pendant. Both are aerial maps of the region, done in 14K gold and sterling silver. The fun part is that customers get to choose their own special spot to set a small diamond. “Whether it’s Traverse City or their cottage on the lake, they walk out with a unique piece,” he says.

The store does everything in-house, including casting (except for platinum). Smith abashedly notes that although he has a strong crew of employees ranging from 25 to 62 years old, they don’t have a “selling philosophy” per se.

“The pieces really sell themselves,” he says. “We just try to inform people to make the best decision they can.”

It’s working. “I’m very blessed,” Smith says. “The people who came to work for me are people I’ve known for a long time, and they’re dedicated to the art. That’s made all the difference for me.”

PHOTO GALLERY (9 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About James C. Smith Fine Jewelry

1. BOXES, OUTSIDE THE BOX: Acrylic boxes, wired to the ceiling and floor, serve as showcases at James C. Smith. They instantly give the store the sophisticated-yet-boho vibe Smith hoped to convey. “It was just a leap of faith, and it worked out real well,” he says.

2. INDIVIDUAL FLAIR: shop, which changes regularly but lately has featured large, sparkling, eye-catching fiber-optic orb lights. Paintings by Smith’s wife, Linda, deck the walls, adding streaks of vivacious color. The sea-blue exterior tile calls out to passersby, too.

3. LABOR PANE: A projector displays a rotating slide show of Smith’s custom designs on one of the huge windows facing the street. The images are large enough to be seen easily by cars passing through downtown. (The big windows also let in plenty of natural light, putting a brighter and bolder spin on the gems on the jewelry in the cases.)

4. MAKE ME A MAP: Smith’s signature Peninsula and Pure Michigan pendants were an alternative to the cherry charms sold by local jewelers. (Traverse City bills itself as “the Cherry Capital of the World.”) Because many clients are seasonal dwellers, he needed something area-specific. The little maps, marked with a diamond in the spot of the customer’s choosing, fit the bill perfectly.

5. TEACHABLE MOMENTS: ecause mentors Chris DeCamillis and Jim Hawkes of Mesa, AZ, gave him so much, Smith aims to do the same for his people. He hooked up a camera to his master goldsmith’s microscope so the other bench jewelers could watch the work. “They can ask questions while it is happening, and we have an instant class.”

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Bruce Freshley: I liked very much the “Define Yourself” TV commercial. Rarely do I see a locally shot and produced TV ad with this level of quality. It is romantic, dreamy and sexy … not what you might expect to find in a market this size. Well done!

Danielle Pelletiere: Great street appeal! The large windows and clean storefront allow for any passerby not only to see inside but want to walk through. The layout of the shop is impeccable. The modern, clean lines are unique and really showcase the jewelry. The artwork is bold but not overwhelming. The sense of team camaraderie among the employees stands out, and the focus on giving back to the customer is huge.

Gerry Gonda: A true gallery-like appearance with great visual appeal from the street. A unique concept in merchandising, which forces customers to focus on the product. This fact may or may not intimidate potential customers who appreciate privacy.

Julie Romanenko: I liked the fusion of color and starkness in the interior of the store.

R. Grey Gallery: One of the strong points of the store is the suspended showcases. They provide a clean and tailored look, while providing the customer a clear view of the product lines.

Josh WImmer has been a contributor to INSTORE since 2006. He has coordinated the annual America's Coolest Stores contest for several years. The job mostly involves pestering jewelry store owners to start their contest entries, pestering jewelry store owners to finish their contest entries, and figuring out computer problems over the phone from hundreds of miles away.

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