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James Free Jewelers, Dayton, OH

URL: jamesfree.com; OWNER: Michael S. Karaman; FOUNDED: 1940; BUILT FEATURED LOCATION: 2008; 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


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.”

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Five Cool Things About James Free Jewelers

1. ‘ENGAGING’ WEBSITE.  Two years ago, as part of its commitment to bridal, James Free Jewelers launched a separate consumer website, www.propose2day.com, 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.”

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 propose2day.com 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.

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3. ANNIE, GET YOUR GUND.  If a young child comes into James Free Jewelers with an adult shopper, chances are the lucky girl or boy will walk out with a Gund stuffed bear. In addition to being an example of the store’s impressive customer service, the bears are indicative of this jeweler’s passion for superior craftsmanship — Gund are the crème de la creme of teddy bears. Karaman spends nearly $20,000 a year on the Gunds but says it’s worth it. “I have customers who come into the store and tell me they remember the Gund we gave them when they were children. Many of those are now bridal customers. One woman recently reminded me of the toy we gave her as a child and said she hopes we continue this because now she’s pregnant and wants her child to have one, too!”

4. A BIT OF VERSAILLES FOR VIP’S.  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.

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.

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Five Questions with Michael S. Karaman

1. WHY DID YOU GET INTO THE JEWELRY BUSINESS? 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.

2. HOW DID YOU DEAL WITH THE DIFFICULT ECONOMY OF 2009? 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.

3. DO YOU HAVE A COMPANY TAGLINE? 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.”

4. DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL GIFT WRAP? 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.

5. TELL US ABOUT SOME SPECIAL DÉCOR IN YOUR STORE’S INTERIOR. 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.

Lorraine DePasque is a contributing writer for INSTORE and INDESIGN. She is also a freelance journalist who has covered the fine jewelry industry for more than two decades. Having seen thousands of collections, met thousands of artisans, schlepped through hundreds of trade shows, judged hundreds of design competitions, and writtten several thousand jewelry articles, she has one simple request: “Please don’t tell me something is innovative when it isn’t.”

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