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A Walk in the Woods

Northern Michigan store reflects its environment with rustic elegance.

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URL: michigansjeweler.com;  OWNERS: Ken Branham and Joyce Hill;  FOUNDED: 1959;  OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2016;  TOTAL LOCATIONS: 2;  DESIGNER: Michelle Bailey;  AREA: 6,000 square feet;  EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time; 8 part-time;  BUILDOUT COST: $400,000;  ONLINE PRESENCE: 5 Stars on Yelp;  TOP BRANDS: Alex and Ani, Effy, Gabriel & Co., Kameleon, Lashbrook, Levian, Michou, Pandora, Reactor, Rhythm of Love, Seiko, True Romance, Twogether


 

When the Branham family began renovation work on their new jewelry store in the northern Michigan town of Tawas, residents showed up to cheer.

The building had been so reviled — with its big green vinyl signs — that the fact they were buying and renovating it created a sensation.

“It was amazing how many people gathered around and cheered as we cut the awning away from the building and let it fall to the ground,” says Ken Branham, who owns the business with his sister, Joyce Hill. “As we did the countdown, much like the traditional New Year’s Eve countdown, you could feel the excitement build. The cheering could be heard throughout the neighborhood when the signs hit the streets. People were talking about it for weeks.”

Tawas is a picturesque Saginaw Bay village on Lake Huron that attracts vacationers, so when a landmark hotel was torn down to create a ghastly green discount retail outlet, the building and its owner became notorious. “When we announced that we would be purchasing and remodeling the old ‘Norman’s Building,’ the support we received from the community was overwhelming,” Branham says. “It really helped drive our passion for creating a jewelry store that complemented the community it belongs to.”

They told interior designer Michelle Bailey they wanted to create an interior that reflected the city’s personality and location.

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“I began designing Branham’s Jewelry from a perspective of walking through the northern woods,” Bailey says. As a result, the store has large pine trees, ash planks and a “river walk” running through it that invites customers to meander around showcases until they arrive at a two-story fireplace with a waterfall feature and a coffee bar.

All of the big timber and wood paneling on the walls and showcases came from the Branhams’ family property, including the 20-foot trees that function as support posts, the barn wood and the branches used in the custom lighting creations.

Branham and Hill sketched out what they wanted on paper. “We’re kind of artistic that way,” Hill says. “We kept getting ideas and sticking them together and hoping for the best. Everybody’s heart poured into it. We had a dream and it came to life.”

As  they collaborated with the design team, which included an architect with an engineering specialty, new ideas emerged every day. “It was exciting, but also there was a lot of pressure,” Hill says. “We really wanted to make sure we did it right so that everybody in town would be proud.”

Experiential Retail

The new store offers something extra for bridal customers.

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On the second floor is the Treasured Memories room. It can be converted easily to a conference or training room, but it was also designed to provide a space for brides to prepare for their weddings, many of which take place outdoors in the summer at lake or river settings. One such wedding-venue beach is directly across the street from the store. The room is equipped with full-length mirrors, lighted makeup stations and holders for curling irons. Once the bridal party is ready, they can have their picture taken on the staircase or in front of the fireplace. If the couple buys their rings at Branham’s, there’s no charge to use the room, which has proved to be a good incentive.

They host wedding parties every weekend in the summer, and sometimes two or three on a weekend. 

For Hill, the most memorable bride posing on those stairs was her daughter, Katie. “I remember her coming down the stairs and the customers running over to take her picture. They didn’t even know who she was.”

Branham says the feedback they’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive and he finds it humbling.

“We tried to find something that reflected the area so our customers felt comfortable,” he says. 

“It’s not over the top but it’s memorable. Our customers seem to just love it. I always joke around that I’m going to put a sign on the ceiling that says please occasionally look down at the jewelry.”

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Branham says he can tell when customers haven’t  been in the store before because they stand in the entrance with their mouth hanging open.

A Tourist Attraction

The store has become more of a destination than ever and has helped grow the business.

Hill says her brother began asking couples that came in whether they’d been to Branham’s before. And three or four out of five had never been in the old store even though they’d been visiting Tawas forever. “People drive by and want to see what’s inside,” Hill says. “It’s right on the corner. And it’s so drastically changed from that bright green box. People go home and drag over 10 more people.”

Branham’s Jewelry has been in Northeast Michigan for more than 50 years. Ken and Joyce’s parents, Joe and Betty Branham, founded the business and are retired now. “I think that any time the next generation takes the business to another level instead of just coasting on what’s been laid down for them, that’s always a prideful moment. I think they’re pretty pleased with what we’ve done,” Ken Branham says. 


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5 Cool Things About Branham’s Jewelry 

CUSTOM CHANDELIERS. Interior designer Michelle Bailey designed two types of custom chandeliers in the showroom. The first suspends Mercury glass pendants from barn beams through plumbing pipe. The second suspends Mercury glass pendants from inverted 15 by 9 foot platforms through large branches and logs that were created as a group effort by Bailey, the contractors and the owners.

2.NEVER SAY “I CAN’T.” Branham has banished the words “I can’t” from their business vocabulary, because, Ken Branham says, they are the enemy of success — excuses that some teams use to stay within their comfort zones. “Our team has replaced these damaging words with, `How can we?’ We don’t settle for quick answers. We take a moment for all of us to examine a challenge from all angles. Egos don’t drive our organization; solutions do.

3.LOCAL TRIBUTE. The Tawas Destination Bracelet was designed as a tribute to the Saginaw Bay region and appeals to locals and visitors alike. The Tawas Point Lighthouse is wrought as a “T” that embraces the sunrise, and the union of the two symbols represents the “hook” that this locale has on the hearts of many. Two 14K gold wraps symbolize East Tawas and Tawas City.

4. ORIGINS HONORED. The original neon sign from the first Branham’s location is displayed in the showroom.

5.ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT. Since the first store opened in 1959, the Branham family has operated as many as five stores at one time. They have two larger stores now instead of smaller ones. The original was opened by Joe Branham in 1959 and the second one came along in the early ‘70s. 

Try This: Journey Videos

Branham’s works with Collected Concepts to offer customers personalized videos. The videos are created using a customer’s choice of pictures and music. They can be used to announce an engagement or a benchmark anniversary. Once they receive their video, they will almost certainly share it with others in person and on social media, which in effect allows customers to actively promote their store.

 

Online Extra: Q & A with Michelle Bailey, Interior Designer

What did owners Ken Branham and Joyce Hill say they wanted when you designed the store?

They wanted to create a store interior design that reflected the personality of the city and location of the store: Up north, woodsy inspiration.

What did you do to help them achieve that?

During the design process, we were able to incorporate large trees, as well as ash planking into the design scheme that actually were harvested from the owner’s own property. I began designing Branham’s Jewelry from a perspective of walking through the northern woods.

Please describe three of the most unique elements in the store.

I designed two types of custom chandeliers in the large showroom. The first suspends Mercury Glass Pendants from Barn Beams through plumbing pipe. The second was more complex and suspends Mercury Glass Pendants from inverted roughly 15’ x 9’ platforms through suspended large branches and logs that were created by contractors, the owners, and myself. The custom chandeliers provide functional lighting, but lend to greatly to the overall interior design of the showroom.

The interior “River Walk” meanders through the store along showcases and runs indirectly from the front entry through areas of main walk traffic along jewelry cases and ends at an interior side showroom entrance to 2-story fireplace with water feature and coffee bar seating area. The floor covering is strategically placed to allow customers to feel as if they are walking along a river, and offers a chance to travel beyond a strait line through the showroom.

I created a large private room that overlooks the showroom from the second floor we lovingly started calling “the transformer” room. This room converts easily into a large conference room offering a relaxed seating area, as well as, traditional conference table style seating for up to 36, as well as, converts as needed into a training facility. The “wild card” aspect of this room is that it transforms into a beautiful Bridal Suite space that allows Brides and their Bridal Parties to get ready for their weddings after purchasing engagement rings from Branham’s Jewelry. This “wild card” room is state of the art, and has brought customers to the showroom to purchase rings for use of the Bridal Suite. To our knowledge providing a Bridal Suite to Customers is a new idea, and it has proven a profitable venture that began somewhat as an experiment

What were some of the challenges you faced?

The main challenge I face when working on interior design projects is getting contractors to think outside of the box, to create to the maximum of their abilities, and to utilize materials in ways that are not just standard. When designing Branham’s Jewelry store the biggest challenge was pushing contractors to execute their fullest potential in creating a truly one of a kind showroom.

Had you worked with trees as design elements before? What was that like?

In the past, I have created large-scale custom artwork for healing environments, as well as, created interior design projects. I created a series of large sculpted bonsai tree panels for St. Peters Hospital’ Healing Garden, as well as sculpted a 12-foot-high Tree of Life for Maimonides Medical Center’ Oncology Departments, among other projects

I enjoy creating design elements that I have not ever executed or seen before. There is an element of fear, but also extreme excitement in implementing design elements that are cutting edge while pushing myself to the fullest of my own abilities. I have not ever utilized actual trees or branches in any previous design project, and had not ever created custom chandeliers. It was enjoyable creating the custom chandeliers for Branham’s Jewelry as contractors constructed elements of my design, and the owners and I created the remainder on site utilizing a scissor lift, wire, huge branches / logs, and other materials.

What has your clients’ and their customers’ reactions been?

The owners of Branham’s Jewelry are very excited by the design of their new store, and it exceeded their expectations. Good design often increases sales and business growth. Branham’s customers are extremely impressed with the new store, customer bases have been expanding, and there have been increased sales as a result. Word of mouth referrals have also brought much new business to Branham’s from a much larger geographic radius, resulting part from the interior design of the store, but also part from the amazing customer service that Branham’s Jewelry provides to their customers. The interior design of a store is the first impression; the customer service is part of why a customer wants to repeat an experience.

We created an interior design that functions even better than it looks, and customers are extremely impressed with the design, while the employees and owners are impressed with their increased ability to build relationships while operating their business.

Eileen McClelland is the Managing Editor of INSTORE. She believes that every jewelry store has the power of cool within them.

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America's Coolest Stores

Urban Planning Background Helps 4th-Gen Jeweler Find Perfect Location

Ohio store was once an airplane hangar.

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Welling & Co., West Chester, OH

OWNERS: Bill Welling, Daniel Welling; URL:wellingsjewelers.com ; FOUNDED: 1920; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2015; SHOWCASES: KDM Pop;DESIGN: Leslie McGwire & Associates Interior Design Co.; MTL Construction; EMPLOYEES: 4 full-time; 3 part-time ; AREA: 2,000 square feet; TOP BRANDS: Breuning, Christopher Designs, Frederic Duclos, Vahan; ONLINE PRESENCE: 53 Google reviews with a 4.9 rating; 1,706 likes on Facebook; 669 Instagram followers; BUILDOUT COST: $225,000


Daniel and Bill Welling play to their strengths at Welling & Co Jewelers.

IF YOU’RE VISITING Welling & Co. Jewelers in West Chester, OH, and happen to hear music from ‘70s progressive-rock band Ambrosia playing, it’s a good bet that Daniel Welling is out of town.

Daniel and his father, Bill Welling, clash a bit over what kind of music to play in the store, with Daniel leaning toward something more modern than Bill, the Ambrosia fan, would choose. No doubt hashing out a playlist is a typical source of exasperated eye-rolling in many a multi-generational family business.

There are other challenges in an overall deeply rewarding experience.

“It’s a learning experience working with Dad,” Daniel says. “I have to juggle being professional, but also having a personal relationship. It’s awkward for me sometimes, to say, ‘Hey, Dad,’ in front of a customer. We have a different relationship here than we do outside the store. For the most part, I’m being educated by him on how to run the business.”

The most important thing he’s learned from his father is how to be flexible by adapting to changes in shopping habits and inventory. When Daniel expresses his concerns about how to handle laboratory-grown diamonds or online shopping, his dad is able to put it in perspective, since he’s been through many changes himself over a 47-year career.

One of the most important changes they’re navigating lately, Bill believes, is that the current generation doesn’t see jewelry in the same light that his generation or his dad’s generation did. It just doesn’t carry the same significance. Second, the customer walking in the door is much more knowledgeable than in years past.

That means everyone in the store needs to be well-educated. “You have to be able to answer the questions,” Daniel says. “I want them to have an experience and not just come in and drop their watch off for a battery. They have to be engaged, even when they are waiting for a battery.”

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Daniel hadn’t planned to go into the business, but when he graduated in 2007 with a degree in urban planning, prospects in his field were few. He worked at Welling & Co. as a stopgap, but his level of commitment reflected the fact that he considered it temporary.

“My dad started getting annoyed, because I was just kind of hanging around,” Daniel says.

But Bill had an idea about where Daniel might shine. Although they had invested in Matrix, their bench jeweler didn’t have time to learn it. “Dad said, ‘Why don’t you try this out?’” Daniel recalls. Daniel agreed, and when he trained with Gemvision, something about it just clicked for him. Now he spearheads the custom design side of the business. ”Probably the thing I like the most about it is helping engagement ring customers make rings. That’s something that’s so exciting to them. That’s kept me going as far as being productive here, and it’s a full-time job for me.”

Both Wellings are pleased with their new store in Butler County, which is one of the fastest growing counties in Ohio and a bedroom community for both Cincinnati and Dayton professionals. The renovation of an old building — once an airplane hangar — on the road between Cincinnati and Dayton drew a lot of attention in the town of West Chester. Exposed brick interiors, an assortment of modern pendant lighting, high, open ceilings and modular cases all combined to add a fresh possibility to regional retail design. Impressed neighbors even stopped by to take a look at the floor, which is a vinyl material made to look like wood. And to marvel at the walls of windows that were once garage-style doors.

A converted airplane hangar provides a wide open space for a casual concept store.

After they made the decision to move out of a shopping center, Daniel and Bill met with interior designer Leslie McGwire during the JCK Las Vegas show to plan the place. ”She guided us through the process and pulled out information about what we wanted the same way we do with custom-design jewelry customers,” Daniel says. “She asked about the ambience and how we wanted our customers to feel when they came in.”

The inspiration for the store is a Starbucks coffee shop. It’s designed to create a relaxed setting, with organic elements throughout, including an open slate-gray painted ceiling and a textured wood plank floor, and textured stone on the wall behind the logo wall and the diamond bar. The focal point is the live-edge recycled walnut wood tables that display much of the jewelry. The neutral colors of the chandelier’s glass globes over the wood jewelry cases blend smoothly with the finishes.

“The amazing thing was that Leslie never stepped foot in this store,” Bill says. “But she did a terrific job coordinating. When customers first experience our store, they don’t know what to expect, because it’s not a traditional jewelry store. I think for that reason, they are more receptive to how you approach them and what you show them.”

Daniel agrees it’s made a big difference in how the business is perceived. ”People think it’s warm and inviting,” Daniel says. “Customers really appreciate us being on the same side of the case with them. I didn’t want people to come in here and feel like they were in a bank. I don’t wear a suit. I want to be comfortable and feel comfortable when I interact.”

Welling & Co. was founded a century ago in Loveland, OH, where it has returned to open a second store recently.

After the building was complete, a customer dropped by with a surprise: a Welling & Co. clock dating from the family’s first store, which opened in 1920 in Lockland, OH. The customer had inherited it from a relative who had found it in a building she owned. Now it occupies a place of honor on the new store’s wall.

In 1920, Richard E. Welling purchased a jewelry store in downtown Lockland, OH, on a recommendation from a friend in the wholesale business. After serving his country during World War II, William F. Welling, son of Richard, took over the store and was later joined in business by his younger brother, Thomas. They continued to thrive in downtown Lockland and decided to open a second location in 1979 in nearby Mason, OH. William F. Welling, Jr. had a large role in the success of the second location and eventually purchased the store from his father and uncle.

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Nearly 100 years since the store’s founding, four Welling family members are on staff: Bill and Daniel, as well as Josh in jewelry and watch repair, and Taylor in sales.
Good-natured disagreements about the musical playlist aside, Bill says his son’s interest in the business has inspired him.

“A jewelry store today is very much generational, and when he came onboard, it solidified to me that I did the right thing from the very beginning,” Bill says. “When you’re the employer and the father, you have to learn which boundaries you can step over and which boundaries you can’t, because no one will do the job exactly the way you want it to be done. I let him make mistakes. I just don’t let him make big mistakes.”

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Five Cool Things About Welling & Co.

1. Back to the future. In August, Welling & Co. opened a second store in downtown Loveland, OH, where the business was born a century ago. The 700-square-foot space has a mid-century modern theme and polished concrete floors. Because the town has boutiques already, Welling & Co. in Loveland will steer away from fashion jewelry and concentrate on traditional and fine jewelry.

2. Summer soiree. An end of summer bash in September is a time to have fun with customers, Daniel says. “We rented a beer truck with three different local craft beer choices. We also had a food truck and DJ for the event. Our idea was to just have a fun night with customers and not necessary to have a big sale. We ended up having a large sales day early on and clearing up some space for new merchandise before the holidays. Later, our staff was able to enjoy the beautiful evening with our customers who hung out and enjoyed the beer, music and free food.”

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3. Something for everyone. It’s tough to pinpoint a typical Welling & Co. customer for marketing purposes because Welling & Co. really does offer a wide range of inventory, from Kendra Scott fashion jewelry to custom bridal.

4. Great Google reviews. This feedback forum has been the best form of marketing for Welling & Co., although the team also employs a wide range of social media, local publications, billboards, mail, e-blasts and, on occasion, movie-theater ads or TV commercials.

5. Floor plan. Clients can sit and enjoy a beverage at the L-shaped bar while shopping for diamonds. Instead of talking to customers over a counter, staffers are able to walk around with them from case to case, with many of them pulling out to allow customers to take a closer look.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: The interior and exterior of the store is beautiful! I love the history of the building and the fact that the store has been in the family for over four generations. The L-shaped bar and End Of Summer Bash are great ideas and smart marketing tactics.
  • Julie Ettinger: I love the generations that continue to flourish in this business. The story behind the building is fabulous, and it must be the coolest exterior of any store that I have seen.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : I especially love the warmth of the hardwood floors. I am impressed that this business is 99 years old and still in the same family. Excellent online reviews tell me that this store has been a beloved retailer in the community for a long time. Kudos to them!
  • Hedda Schupak: It’s a lovely store, a lovely story, and a great third-generation business. I like how the design pays homage to the vastness of the space.
  • Eric Zimmerman: The Welling family’s store is a pleasing combination of materials such as walnut wood furniture, textured stone walls and glass chandeliers. They have done an excellent job of creating a warm and comfortable environment for their customers.
  • Joel Hassler: They did a great job of keeping the character of the building but still creating a unique shopping feel. I like that it has an open industrial feel without looking cluttered and mismatched.

 

Try This: Gem Lightbox

The purchase of a new piece of tech equipment will allow Welling & Co. to more easily photograph its jewelry (the images can be rotated 360 degrees) and prepare for e-commerce on their Gemfind-designed website, launched last year.

 

ONLINE EXTRA: Q & A with Daniel

Will you carry lab-grown diamonds?

We live in Cincinnati and it’s a pretty conservative area. We haven’t really gotten a lot of requests for it yet. I wouldn’t say I’m against it. The hardest thing is to see in the future. At our store and at a lot of stores, if you buy a center stone and you upgrade it later, you get that price back. But are lab-growns going to drop in price and how will that affect the trade-in policy. That’s our biggest hesitation. That and just being transparent. I want to be as transparent as possible.

Why did you decide to open a second store?

We felt like it was a great opportunity to get a footprint somewhere there wasn’t much competition. It’s going to be more work but we signed a five-year lease. After five years, I’d rather say I failed than be kicking myself for not trying. Dad is the type of person who loves having sales and events where people are lined up out the door. Opening a new store is giving him energy and excitement in the industry.

How did you choose your current location in West Chester?

My major was in urban and regional planning. I was able to look at this location from that perspective and say I think this is a positive and evaluate the whole area. Butler has been one of the fastest growing counties in the country. So it wasn’t too difficult to choose something here. Cincinnati/Dayton will eventually be one large metro area. West Chester is ranked the No. 1 county in the area, it’s an affluent area and an easy commute to Cincinnati or Dayton. There are lots of parks around here and shopping. The mall is two exits up.

How did you get into the family business?

I did not know I’d go into the business. It was a fallback plan. My sister works here and I have two other siblings, but when I graduated the job market wasn’t great. I started working here and my dad started getting annoyed because I was just kind of hanging around. Our jeweler had done the Matrix course and he just wasn’t grasping it and didn’t have time to learn it. Dad said, why don’t you try this out? So I went out to Gemvision and got trained on it and I’ve been doing it over 10 years. Probably the thing I like the most about it is helping engagement ring customers make rings. That’s something that’s so exciting to them. And that’s kept me going as far as being productive here, that’s a full-time job for me here.

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America's Coolest Stores

New York’s Yaf Sparkle Excels at Hospitality

Creating an experience comes naturally.

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Yaf Sparkle, New York

OWNERS: Yaf Boye-Flaegel and Torsten Flaegel; URL:yafsparkle.com ; FOUNDED: 2012; OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2017; EMPLOYEES: 4 ; AREA: 1,400 square feet total; 720 square foot showroom TOP BRANDS: Vieri, Elements Studio NYC, Lyon Fine Jewelry, John Varvatos, Sarah Michiko; ONLINE PRESENCE: 8,600 Facebook likes, 4,515 Instagram followers, 161 Trip Advisor Reviews with a 5.0 rating. Yaf Sparkle is No. 6 of 1,001 shopping experiences in New York City on Trip Advisor; BUILDOUT COST: $85,000


ON A SULTRY JULY afternoon, an out-of-town customer, who had reluctantly left Yaf Sparkle without buying anything, returned soon after. She couldn’t shake the feeling she had to buy that pair of earrings that caught her eye.

Even after sealing the deal, she was reluctant to leave. Her husband, resigned, was ready to sink into a chair in an air-conditioned reprieve from the muggy air outside. As his wife succumbed to a number of add-on purchases, he told store owner Yaf Boye-Flaegel that she had mastered the art of the ABCs.

ABC? Yaf inquired.

“Always be closing,” he said.

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But Yaf said she had never heard that expression. For her, closing is about a lighthearted musical laugh and a playful “Hey, where are you going?” That’s what she might say if customers don’t seem certain whether they’re ready to leave or buy a second or a third piece of jewelry. Temptation is everywhere within reach, like low-hanging fruit. Add-ons abound in the form of stackable rings and layered pendants. She floats from one customer to another, jangling a pile of Julie Voss-designed bangles on her wrist with enthusiasm. She sells those gold-plated brass items as quickly as if they really are pieces of fruit.

Yaf says it’s the hospitality she learned from her parents in her native Senegal that helps her so effortlessly create such a welcoming atmosphere. Working in other people’s jewelry stores before she had her own, she observed that her friends weren’t comfortable stopping by even to say hello, let alone to hang out. Now that she’s created her own environment with a Caribbean-music soundtrack that makes swaying to the beat impossible to avoid and a playful approach to mixing and matching layers and stacks of jewelry, everyone who happens by wants to stay a while.

Sometimes a regular will dash in just to pull out one of Yaf’s “Goddess” cards from a stack to read an inspirational message guaranteed to improve their day. Or they might stop by for a hand-painted card, handmade candle or a New York postcard. There’s something for everyone. More than anything, though, they have become hooked on the positive, pervasive energy Yaf exudes.

Yaf and her husband, Torsten Flaegel, a native of Hamburg, Germany, are adept at inventing ways to enchant everyone in their orbit.

Torsten, long fascinated by the quality of light on the street, worked with Yaf on an event for the Manhattanhenge, also known as Manhattan Solstice, a time during which the setting or rising sun is aligned with the east-west streets of the main street grid in New York City. The sunsets and sunrises each align twice a year, on dates evenly spaced around the summer and winter solstices. For Yaf Sparkle’s Manhattanhenge event, there was music, a tarot card reader and a feeling that magic was in the air.

The ranking fluctuates, but customers have voted Yaf Sparkle as the third-best shopping experience in all of New York City on tripadvisor.com. At most, though, only a third of Yaf Sparkle shoppers are tourists. The majority are New Yorkers. “Online sales are growing and online is what brings people into the store,” Yaf says. “We’re not on a main street, but we have lots of content online.”

Affordable pieces displayed casually in the center of the store encourage shoppers to try something on.

They see their store as a walk-in jewelry closet and encourage customers to bring in a special-occasion outfit to be accessorized. Yaf constantly develops her own collections, presents the work of new local and international designers and changes the displays every other week to stay fresh.

“We have this internal competition of who can surprise our customer with the coolest new jewelry outfit that they didn’t consider wearing a day ago,” Torsten says. “There’s no being shy in our store; adorning oneself is fun and that’s what we are experts in. All in all, it is about being happy. Sharing a laugh is what keeps us in mind, and there’s nothing easier than that once you understand that every customer is first and foremost a potential friend.”

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The space itself, they say, was a raw diamond when they found it, veritably buried in layers of concrete. The little laundry that had occupied the space before them had cemented its machines into the ground, and the new landlord had no idea what lay behind the cement smeared on walls and floors. Months after they started digging, they realized that the old brick walls were in good condition. Even the ceiling was made of bricks with original ironwork between the arches. Once they got down to the bones, they pulled wires through the walls for showcases and laid out a beautiful wood floor. All of the wooden furniture is made from reclaimed wood.

The store is on Broome Street on the Lower East Side, which has a lively street life as well as a cinematic quality. It’s just around the corner from the Tenement Museum, which brings tourists by the busload. Martin Scorsese recently transformed the block into a 1972 backdrop for the 2019 Netflix film “The Irishman”. The street also starred in the 2014-2015 Cinemax TV series “The Knick,” set in 1901.

Adding to the charm, they scatter glitter across the sidewalk outside, a tactic that draws attention to the store even after it’s closed. They’ve also collaborated with other neighborhood businesses to host block-party sales events.
Social media just adds to the energy. When Yaf announced her birthday on Instagram, she ended up with an impromptu in-store surprise party, where the director of “Dirty Dancing” danced with a former MTV VJ, a Broadway ballerina and a Wall Street broker.

“Yaf Sparkle,” says Torsten, “was created out of the desire to provide an environment where fun, fashion and pleasure are combined as one. We know the day we forget that, we will be forgotten.”

Yaf Sparkle’s previous location, also on New York’s Lower East Side, was featured as the No. 3 Small Cool Store in the August 2016 issue of INSTORE.

VIDEO: YAF SPARKLE STORE TOUR VIDEO


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Five Cool Things About Yaf Sparkle

1. Start ‘em young. The Yaf Sparkle team invites pre-K kids into the store for gem-education classes and birthstone giveaways.

2. Content-rich marketing. They’ve begun implementing automated email marketing, in which a customer will receive information about the pieces and the designer behind it. Their online database is segmented down to collection, metals and gemstones, so they can fine-tune their offerings. The idea is to provide continuous education.

3. In-house marketing. They use an in-house photo studio every day for model and product shots. In fact, 99 percent of marketing is created in-house. Social media is important, but they also rely on phone calls and postcards to share news of an event, a promotion or a specific gemstone that could be of interest. “Our newsletter marketing resembles our in-store experience,” Torsten says. “We don’t take ourselves or our product too seriously. Our love for local is what ties us all together. This is where we met our customer, and this is where we will see her again.” They improved their website to be increasingly ADA-compliant, which means it can be read by machines.

4. Block parties. Together with two other local shop owners they befriended, they gathered contact information for local merchants, set up a Facebook group and host regular events to brainstorm on marketing and event ideas. As a result, the group threw a neighborhood-wide event with 21 local merchants, each offering unique specials.

5. Good causes. Ten percent of net proceeds go to non-profits, most notably the ASB Foundation that Yaf founded in 2007. The ASB Foundation is an international humanitarian organization that supports the growth and development of the children in Koutal, Senegal, a small village created in 1968 to house people with leprosy and their families. The goal is to enrich the lives of the children who have been affected by their parents’ disease.

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Gotz: As a former New Yorker, I know how hard it is to stand apart from the thousands of other stores in the city. This is an amazing location with lots of cool and funky shopping options. The store has a great social-media presence and brings in a sense of community with their posts.
  • Julie Ettinger: I so appreciate the energy and passion in this store. It’s so New York; the interior, the exterior, the video marketing all connect. I also love their passion for shopping local and pulling surrounding stores and community together.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : Yaf’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre are what make this store so special. You can feel her love of what she does loud and clear through all of her online marketing, including her videos. I also love the custom-design page that seeks to educate her customer on the design process. Finally, her philanthropy and the foundation she started is important and brilliant.
  • Hedda Schupak: This business clearly “gets” both millennials and female self-purchasers, two sectors that are critical for our industry to do a better job in attracting. I love the fact that customers can walk in and try on fashion jewelry, but then there’s fine jewelry that costs five digits yet doesn’t look too precious. I love how they restored the original building under layers of soulless concrete.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Today’s retail environment is all about creating an experience and connection for the customer, and Yaf Sparkle is succeeding at just that. I also love the job they have done in making their store part of the culture and energy within NYC’s Lower East Side community.
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America's Coolest Stores

Portland, OR, Couple Fine-Tunes the No-Pressure Engagement Ring Sale

Website and window displays create perfect curb appeal.

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Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, Portland, OR

OWNERS: David and Ronnie Malka; URL: malkadiamonds.com ; FOUNDED: 2010; ARCHITECT AND DESIGN: One Hundred Agency and Bedford Brown Store; EMPLOYEES: 3 ; AREA: 1,000 square feet total; 700 square foot showroom; TOP BRANDS: Custom, vintage, Point No Point Studios, Vatche, Jolie Design; ONLINE PRESENCE: 1,645 Instagram followers, 957 Facebook followers, 4.9 Stars with 62 Google reviews; RENOVATED: 2018; BUILDOUT COST: $75,000; SHOWCASES:KDM


Ronnie and David Malka

VINTAGE RINGS DISPLAYED in authentic, retro jewelry boxes share space with newly minted engagement rings in the front window of Malka Diamonds & Jewelry, a boutique shop in the historic Hamilton building in the heart of downtown Portland.

Passersby enchanted by that tempting array are welcomed inside by owners David and Ronnie Malka, who offer guests a warm greeting and refreshments from the coffee shop across the hall.

Adding to the relaxed environment, they rarely ask for the prospective customer’s information right away. “Our customer is our friend. Just like you don’t ask someone you just met for all of their information, you really should try to take the same approach with your customers,” David says.

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Once guests have a chance to settle in and look around, graduate gemologist David loves to share what he knows by comparing loose diamonds at his desk. What makes the Malka experience distinctive is that David includes tricks of the trade in his consumer education, such as explaining what kind of diamonds people in the jewelry business might select for themselves.

“A lot of people who are thinking about buying diamonds online have done some research, and I like to educate them on the stuff you can see in a diamond that you should pay for,” David says. “The stuff you can’t see, why pay for it? Common sense goes a long way when you’re spending thousands of dollars. Great, if you want to buy a VVS stone, we have it, but most of the people who see the difference, or don’t see the difference, between D and F color are making a much more informed purchase, and they feel good about it.”

Large windows allow passersby to glimpse a mix of vintage and new rings on display while flooding the space with natural light.

They’re also adept at explaining the difference between the diamonds and their paperwork. “The cert says XYZ, but if you lined it up with five others, you might see why that stone was priced so low in its bracket,” Ronnie says.

They think it’s just fine if their customers walk out without buying anything on their first or second visit — even if they’re headed to the competition.

“We keep it really simple in here,” says Ronnie. “A lot of the guys who come in are buying something they don’t know anything about. We don’t bombard them with phone calls or emails; we just offer education. They continue to explore and research, and most of those people we see back here.”

The Malkas are taking the long view. “We want to be like their grandparents’ jewelers with a state-of-the-art shop so we can create things that are going to last,” Ronnie says. “Like the 1920s-era jewelers you trusted but still current and evolving with time.” Although engagement and wedding rings dominate their business now, with as much as 85 percent of sales, they believe that as their original customers continue to mature, they’ll eventually diversify into jewelry for other occasions.

By the time the customer does make a purchase or put a deposit down on a custom ring, David and Ronnie have developed a relationship with them. They give their customers a Malka hat, pin or T-shirt. They also give them a pamphlet detailing the history of their three-generation tradition of diamond dealers, and paperwork that includes an appraisal. There’s no paperwork involved with the guarantee; that is automatic for the life of the ring.

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As for that history, David’s father, Yossi Malka, who still has an office across the street from his son’s store, began his career as an apprentice under his great uncle in Israel, studied diamond cutting and later became a wholesale dealer in Portland.

David studied at the GIA, earned a graduate gemologist degree, and worked in a retail store for several years. David also ran his own jewelry appraisal lab, Independent Gemological Services, for the trade and private clients. “That’s a tough gig to be looking through the scope all day,” he says. “I was getting a little bit bored.”

Still, everyone thought he was crazy, he says, when he decided to open his own store. “It was the recession. It was a tough time.” Three major Portland jewelry stores had closed. “I figured if we took this plunge and we could stay afloat for two years, we should be able to weather anything,” he says. They’d been considering a variety of different names for the business when a friend offered this advice: “When you put your name on the door, you’re putting your name behind the business.”

Perfect. They had a name.

Ronnie Malka collects retro jewelry boxes to display vintage engagement rings.

They leased a prime 1,000-square-foot spot within a vacant 10,000 square-foot space. It was bare bones, with not much beyond walls and floors.

“Welcome to the world of retail,” David says he remembered thinking. Traffic was thin at first, and David continued to operate the appraisal lab, taking it month by month. Although changing shopping habits of American consumers had seemed to be a bad omen, it turned out that Portland shoppers who did spend money on jewelry wanted to make sure they were investing in local, independent businesses. Within a couple of years, they’d won Oregon Bride Magazine’s “Best Rings of 2012” award.

In 2013 Malka became the official fine jewelers of the University of Oregon and their shop got very busy. Ronnie left her teaching job to join Malka full time after it became clear David needed help with marketing and events.

In 2018, they expanded the shop and fine-tuned their interior design, adding metallic cork wallpaper, a custom woven rug, a gathering area with a modern, round table and gray leather chairs, and custom-built display cases. The counter now boasts a marble top and black paint. Other additions include a gold light fixture and a trio of geometric mirrors. The look is upscale without feeling stuffy. The decor is also a personal reflection of what makes David and Ronnie comfortable, complete with a prominently displayed black and white wedding photo of the couple.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you meet a Malka,” Ronnie says. “We want them to know us as we want to know them.”

VIDEO: MALKA STORE TOUR

VIDEO: MALKA “ABOUT US”

VIDEO: MALKA CUSTOM DIAMONDS


PHOTO GALLERY (30 IMAGES)

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Five Cool Things About Malka Diamonds & Jewelry

1. Salt-and-pepper diamonds. A year ago, Malka started showcasing the work of a Seattle designer, Point No Point Studios, which has a strong Instagram presence and specializes in salt-and-pepper diamond rings. “We knew that going out-of-the-box and trying something new would potentially bring new traffic,” says Ronnie, who gets several inquiries about them every week. David, as the son of a diamond dealer, admits he was reluctant at first to move in that direction. “My dad says, ‘How much is that per carat?!’ Ten years ago, it would have been used for drill bits, but now there’s an actual marketplace for it. I don’t think it’s a fad, either,” David says.

2. Collaborative environment. “We all know the projects, what’s going on, and what’s coming up,” Ronnie says. “It doesn’t feel compartmentalized.” That approach also creates opportunity for growth. Chloe, who works in the showroom, says Malka has the friendliest atmosphere of anywhere she has worked, as well as enormous growth potential and pride in values. “It gives me satisfaction learning-wise and experience-wise, knowing what the jewelers have to do to have a certain outcome for whatever kind of piece we’re making,” she says.

3. Custom connection. A 2018 expansion made room for two full-time master jewelers and more equipment in the shop. “We wanted everything done under our roof,” David says, from design to manufacture. Sometimes they are simply consultants: “An architect is doing his own CAD design for us to look at and make sure it’s going to translate into a ring and not a building,” Ronnie says.

4. Website curb appeal. Ronnie considers Malka’s digital presence, including its website, to be online curb appeal. “People want to engage online first,” Ronnie says. “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, your website was a placeholder for your contact info, but now it tells your story.” People know what to expect.

5. Digital marketing ROI. Digital marketing has for the most part replaced traditional radio and TV, because as Ronnie says, “Our customer is online and if they’re seriously looking for a ring, they are seriously looking — not seeing it on TV. Many jewelers will say this is a waste of time, but in the last six months when our followers have doubled, we have noticed customers referring to an image they saw on Instagram or Facebook. It is a real relief to see the return on investment on the time spent taking photos and creating tag lines.” Even shop dog Toby has his own Instagram handle!

JUDGES’ COMMENTS
  • Julie Ettinger: This store is a real gem! I love the shop-local feel and that it can all be done in house. I also appreciate the mix of vintage and new.
  • Julie Gotz: I love that the owners are so invested in the customer and their life cycle. Many stores are too focused on the sale and not enough on the relationship. It is great to hear that a store is using social media in such a successful way.
  • Joel Hassler: I like the approach to gathering customer information. Building a relationship is more important than data-mining.
  • Barbara Ross-Innamorati: : The store interior is exquisite and feels upscale but also warm and inviting. The website is quite informative and I love their blog, “Stories,” as it features a lot of interesting topics with gorgeous photography.
  • Hedda Schupak: I like the laser focus on diamond rings, and I love the impressive depth of selection they have, especially nontraditional styles. The store itself is very hip and welcoming. Their online presence is very strong; they’re using all social media quite well.
  • Eric Zimmerman: Malka Diamonds has done a wonderful job of creating a modern elegant boutique while still highlighting the building’s historic features. Their store’s design tells a story that complements the products they showcase: modern and antique.
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