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ACS 2010: First Place Big Cool, O.C. Tanner



Quick Facts

O.C. TANNER, Salt Lake City, UT

URL:  |  Owner: O.C. Tanner Co.  |  Chair of the Board of Directors: Carolyn Tanner Irish  |  Vice President of Retail Operations: Curtis Bennett  |  Company founded: 1927  |  Opened first jewelry store: 1976  |  Opened featured location: 2009  |  Design committee: MJSA Architects, Big D Construction, Bob Martin and Curtis Bennett  |  Area: 20,000 square feet  |  Cost of renovation: $25 million  |  Employees: 29  |  Top brands: Rolex, Patek Philippe, Wellendorf, David Yurman, John Hardy, Roberto Coin, the O.C. Tanner Grace Diamond

Behind the solid, century-old wooden doors of a downtown beaux-arts building in Salt Lake City lurks an interior with startlingly modern features. A floating glass and steel spiral staircase rises through the core of the building, and within the core, a sculptural light fixture flows from a rich mahogany ceiling that crowns the third floor high above.

Natural light pours in from original arched windows, adding luster to sleek, African-ebony jewelry cases, where gems sparkle and watches gleam from clean white displays.


Inside, a visitor leads her daughter up the staircase, while sharing a slice of city history with her: This building, on the National Register of Historic Places, used to be the planetarium, and before that, the city library, she tells her.

Since September 2009, it has been the O.C. Tanner flagship jewelry store and the fulfillment of a dream long held by company founder and philosophy professor Obert C. Tanner — well known, among myriad other claims to fame, to have been a consummate lover of all things beautiful.

A mural on the far wall helps tell the story: Etched in glass, images of constellations, library patrons and Obert C. Tanner himself shine brightly, illuminated by the morning sun.

It took $25 million, two years and a wealth of imagination at the height of the Great Recession to transform a dilapidated antique into a 21st-century showcase of a jewelry store.

A Gift to the City

“It knocked my socks off,” says the Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish, whose father, Obert, died in 1993. “Dad was a lifelong lover of beauty. Creating the most beautiful jewelry store in the country was one of his more audacious dreams. I’m pretty sure he’d agree that this is it. Everyone who walks in here has a little intake of breath. It lifts people’s spirits to be in a nice space.”

Philanthropy is fundamental to Irish, who is both chair of the board of directors for O.C. Tanner and bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. She says the reconstruction of the former library and planetarium is, above all, a gift to the city, which is in the midst of a large-scale downtown revitalization marked by massive construction projects.


The Salt Lake City Library, which cost $140,000 to build in 1905, was designed by Heins and LaFarge, the architects who designed New York City’s first subway system and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The library enjoyed a second life as the Hansen Planetarium, but by 2003 it was used for little more than SWAT-team training, and had the paintball stains to prove it. A $5 million city referendum to restore the building had been rejected by voters.

Curtis Bennett, O.C. Tanner’s vice president of retail operations, says the firm acquired it in a bidding process focused not only on price but also on proposed use, which was embraced by the Utah Heritage Foundation.

Bennett and the architectural team estimated the restoration would cost $10 to $12 million, at least twice what the city had asked voters for. The final bill ballooned to $25 million.

The first $10 million quickly vanished into infrastructure essentials (a seismic upgrade and rebuilt concrete floors to name a few) and luxuries, such as a snow-melt system.

“Some of the floors we tore out were not attached to anything,” Bennett says, still incredulous. “They were just wood and duct tape” resting atop heavy columns.

Eventually, all that remained was a three-walled shell that Bennett feared a strong wind might topple. Adding to the sense of vulnerability was the fact the foundation was being rebuilt as well, allowing for higher-ceilinged offices in the basement.


Project architect Kathryn Anderson of MJSA Architects called it the most difficult project she had ever undertaken. The team often worked 60 to 80 hours a week.

Gradually, the exterior was restored to its beaux-arts glory. Sandstone steps were replaced, and limestone blocks were cleaned with a wire brush. Each window was removed, and 105 years of varnish and wear was stripped away before it was reinstalled.

“Those are the original lights out front,” Bennett says, pointing to antique fixtures. “Except for the handrails required by building codes, it does look exactly like it did the day it opened in 1905.”

But the original back wall, knocked out to create the planetarium, remained a mystery lost to history. The addition was demolished to create a parking lot paved with Zimbabwe granite. While the roofline and third floor pediment were maintained, the wall on the lower two floors is now glass and stone, laser-etched with a mural of images honoring the building’s former and current uses. The images were also meticulously transferred to the heavy limestone blocks that make up the rest of the back of the building.

The biggest structural change was opening up the center of the building from the first to third floors to accommodate the curved staircase. The focal point is a custom light sculpture designed by Sharon Marston of London that contains more than 14,000 hand-folded “Flora” shapes — the signature of the artist — in white polymer and steel, interwoven with optical fibers. The sculpture also includes more than 3,000 hand-blown glass leaves in gold and amber tones to reflect the store’s jewelry collections. Bennett admits he isn’t yet sure how to clean it.

The third floor — home to the store’s eclectic gift department — is blessed with the rich original mahogany ceiling and rafters.

There are no loose ends in this seamlessly sleek store. The basement hallway leading to the customer restrooms is finished in limestone floors and ebony woodwork. Offices, the vault and the emergency generator are all concealed behind locked doors. The restrooms themselves are finely finished with ebony doors and Lalique fixtures.

But upstairs, the finishing touches proved controversial when Bennett told vendors he wanted to de-emphasize branding to create a seamless look, including all white within the cases. Wall signs were ruled out with few exceptions, one being an understated Rolex sign. Though some vendors pulled out initially, they all came back, Bennett says.

Inside the cases, strips of LED lighting alternate between blue and gold lights that enhance everything from white and rose-colored metal to diamonds.

In November 2009, O.C. Tanner’s inaugural event in the new store produced an immediate $300,000 in revenues. In the ultimate employee recognition program, Agel Enterprises, a network marketing company, wanted to reward its top salespeople with a black-tie party and surprise shopping sprees of up to $30,000. So Agel handed out certificates to 28 honorees as O.C. Tanner opened the doors of its flagship store for a private evening. “It was a great way to open a business,” Bennett says.

But the timing was, to say the least, tight.

“We had construction workers walking out the back door while the Agel people walked in the front doors,” he recalls.

Obert’s Legacy

Employees still strive to make Obert Tanner proud, whether they knew him or not, says bridal specialist Ericka Weissman, a 12-year veteran who joined the company when she was 18. “Obert is very much still a part of the company,” she says. “Everybody takes pride in his legacy. He has done so much for the city.”

In his youth, Obert worked as a clerk at Schubach’s Jewelry Store in Salt Lake City, before launching the O.C. Tanner Co. in 1927 to make graduation pins and class rings in his mother’s basement. He graduated from the University of Utah in 1929, earned advanced degrees, and taught at Stanford and Harvard before returning to Salt Lake City, where he taught philosophy at the University of Utah for 29 years. In the ’40s, he also began to market and manufacture awards for employee recognition, inventing a lucrative, untapped niche for his company. Still, it wasn’t until 1976 that Obert opened his first retail jewelry store.

Now the O.C. Tanner Co. has 1,600 employees and revenues of $450 million annually. Retail jewelry stores in Salt Lake City and Park City are a small but important part of that, Bennett says.

“It was never intended to be a growth part of the company,” Bennett explains of Obert’s interest in jewelry. “It was a gift to the community to be able to see beautiful things.” A dreamer himself, Obert identified with people drawn to jewelry.

Not only did the board of directors stick by its decision to rebuild the Salt Lake City Library during the Great Recession, but the company also has stuck by its employees in difficult times, Bennett says. Benefits remained constant, and the O.C. Tanner Co. took measures to help out the commissioned sales staff. “The last thing you want to do is lose good people.”

Naoma Tate, stopping by the basement shop to bring in repair and custom work for friends, says she worked in sales and appraisals for 30 years before retiring from O.C. Tanner. “You don’t meet people with this kind of vision very often and when you do you are loyal for life,” she says.

Five Cool Things About This Store

A Culture of Appreciation

1O.C. Tanner Co. is in the appreciation business, supplying companies with employee-recognition gifts ranging from traditional (rings and pins) to non-traditional (kayaks, for example). This spirit of giving is extended to the company’s own employees, who receive gifts on their birthdays and anniversaries, and cash for achievements, small and large. Company benefits are wide-ranging and include tuition reimbursement. “We go to great lengths to recognize employees,” Bennett says. “Everyone feels very valued,” says bridal specialist Ericka Weissman.

Giants in the City

2During his lifetime, Obert Tanner donated dozens of fountains to communities, hospitals and universities, sponsored a free, local concert series, established 11 philosophy library rooms at universities and endowed the Tanner Lectures on Human Values series. Other gifts included the Adams Shakespearean Theater at Southern Utah University and the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater at Zion National Park. The Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish continues this tradition. The humanities building at the University of Utah bears her name and she has been honored by the Chamber of Commerce as a “Giant in Our City.”

High-Tech Highlight

3A $400,000 snow-melt system automatically makes the cold white stuff disappear from the sandstone steps and the limestone parking lot and walkway by heating those surfaces to 42 degrees. Not only does it save labor and reduce liability, it also solves a space problem. Since the store is on a relatively tight lot, there would be nowhere to put the snow once it were removed from the parking lot.

Olympian Feats

4O.C. Tanner made the medals for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and continues to participate in the Games by designing and donating the Olympic athlete rings. This year, O.C. Tanner has teamed with Omega to present rings and commemorative timepieces to athletes. Olympic parties take place in the Park City store, which has its share of celebrity clients, and which also hosts Sundance Film Festival events.

O.C. Tanner: The Magazine

5O.C. Tanner partners with Salt Lake City Magazine to produce a 50,000 circulation quarterly magazine of its own, O.C. Tanner Magazine. Because it is exclusive to O.C. Tanner and not a co-op venture with vendors, Bennett is able to have creative freedom and chooses to emphasize local charitable organizations. Each issue includes a photo shoot of local people wearing O.C. Tanner jewelry. The content is of a professional quality. His customers say they read it cover to cover.


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          SHOP TALK


noun. 1. A specialist in  appreciating co-workers and customers. Every employee of O.C. Tanner is known as an appreciatologist.


noun. 1. A percentage of revenues donated to charitable causes each year.


People who buy jewelry are unlike people in every other store. They are not practical. They are dreamers. They have stars in their eyes for someone they love. … The simple truth is we are love merchants.


          TRY THIS

A Culture of Compliments

O.C. Tanner provides forms with which employees can nominate one another for an award. When employees are honored by the company for any reason, their peers are all invited to add their own compliments to the presentation ceremony.

          TRY THIS

Choose Your Words Carefully

Curtis Bennett has banned the word “stones” from the store, believing it devalues gems. “I forbid the staff to call diamonds stones,” he says. “They have to call the gem what it is, or if they don’t know, at least call it a gemstone. Stones is a poor word choice. You get a stone in your shoe, kick it on the sidewalk, or get it in your kidney.”
He also has banned the word “discount,” preferring “price consideration.”

What the Judges Said

Bess Anderson: Preserving a historic building is an amazing gift to your city! Who doesn’t feel special when they walk the spiral staircase situated in the center of the space that connects all three floors? And that floating bubble chandelier is like a waterfall piercing through the center of the staircase. The renovation could have gone very dark, stately and heavy to match the era of the building, but the surprise is when you walk in and the space is very light, airy, clean, and organic.

Wendy Furrer: I love everything about this store. O.C. Tanner’s spiral staircase with the decorative modern lighting is stunning, the exterior is classic and beautiful, and the website is clean and sophisticated. All around, a very cool store.

Gurhan: The center staircase in O.C. Tanner creates a focal point in the store, especially with such an eye-catching chandelier! It also engages the customer to explore all levels of the store.

Jean Philippe Meunier: From initial glance, the stately, historic building impresses, especially after dark when the exterior lights are turned on. Yet the interior is surprisingly modern and harmonious, dominated by a spectacular spiral staircase and central light sculpture. The predominance of whites and off-whites against the dark walnut cases makes for a strong sensation of depth and dimension.

Candy Udell: The exterior is very stately and magnificent, the restoration a true testament to this historic building. The interior provides a sharp contrast, adding both visual elements and new technology to bring the building up to date. The O.C. Tanner story of strong family and community ties is integral to their concept for this building and a key to their success. They have also developed a strong luxury presence with their brands.

This story is from the August 2010 edition of INSTORE



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