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Philadelphia’s rockingest jeweler plays a new tune with allenttown store.

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Robbins Diamonds, Allentown, PA

OWNERS: Jerry Robbins; YEAR FOUNDED: 1912; LOCATION OPENED: 2006; DESIGNER: Grid/3 of New York; STORE AREA: 5,600 sq. ft; ADDRESS: 3900 Hamilton Blvd, Allentown, PA 18103;PHONE: (610) 433-1033; URL: robbinsdiamonds.com


W HEN JERRY ROBBINS, owner of Robbins Diamonds, decided to expand, Allentown, PA, was the logical choice for a new store. Although the city became something of a symbol of the Northeast’s industrial decline in the eighties, Allentown today is on the rebound. New service industries are springing up, it is home to the biggest hospital in the state and its population, which includes the neighboring communities of Easton and Bethlehem, is growing again.

Crucially, the market is also within reach of Philadelphia’s TV and radio stations, which means its residents have been exposed to the catchy rock ‘n’ roll jingles that have been used for decades to build the Robbins Diamonds brand. The ads have made Jerry Robbins something of a local celebrity. He’s known as that kooky, deep-voiced guy with the diamond in his beard who sings and dances while supported by The Dovells, a group that had a few big hits in the 1960s and who are still popular in Philly.

The irreverent fun Robbins has strived to generate with his ads is summed up in the stores’ slogan — “Robbins Rocks — And Romance Rules!”

“Basically I am a marketing specialist,” says Robbins, a graduate of the Owner/President Management (OPM) program at Harvard Business School, a three-week, intensive course of study for businessmen.

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“The Allentown public has known about us for decades, but they did not come 60 miles into Philadelphia to shop with us,” Robbins says. “Now that our Allentown store is open, it’s like a snowball, and it is rolling.”

The store opened in May, and it has been so successful that Robbins considers it a model for the four other Robbins Diamonds stores.

“We feel this store will be a benchmark for converting all of our others stores and that this store design will better represent our brand.”

THE HISTORY
Jewelers’ Row Gem

The family business got its start in 1912, when Jerry Robbins’ greatuncles emigrated from Russia and opened up shop on Philadelphia’s Jewelers’ Row. Jerry’s father, Leo Robbins, followed his uncles to the United States and joined them in business. Leo trained as a watchmaker and eventually opened his own store, Leo Robbins Jeweler.

Three years later, Leo moved the business to the corner of 8th and Walnut streets, and it was in that store that Jerry Robbins grew up.

“I have been working in that store for 54 years,” says Jerry Robbins, who took the helm of the family business when his parents retired in the 1970s.

Under Robbins’ stewardship, the business thrived. He saturated the local TV and radio stations with the rock ‘n’ roll advertisements, and started wearing the diamond in his beard, which remains his personal trademark to this day.

Robbins opened a second store in 1986, in a mall in northeast Philadelphia, and later expanded across state lines into New Jersey and Delaware.

“I was raised on a street with 125 jewelers on the same block,” Robbins says. “We were just one of the stores on that block, but we took that and with a lot of hard work we built that into five stores. No one on Jewelers’ Row was able to accomplish that. I am proud of that.”

Robbins attributes much of his success to a single-minded determination to succeed. “A lot of jewelers play golf, but I play the jewelry business,” he says. “That’s my game. I play it like a game, and I play it to win.”

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Robbins shifted the focus of his company’s business to engagement and wedding rings, and in the process helped revolutionize the way diamonds are sold at retail. “In 1975, grading for diamonds was used by jewelers and gemologists, but it was very rarely used with the public,” Robbins says. “I developed a presentation around the four C’s to allow salespeople to explain this to customers in a simple way.”

Today, Robbins Diamonds employs nearly 100 people and has five stores — two in Philadelphia, plus locations in Hamilton Township, NJ, Newark, DE, and now, in Allentown. A sixth, underperforming store was closed, with its inventory moved to the new Allentown store.

THE CONCEPT
A Diamond Superstore

In conceptualizing the Allentown store, Robbins wanted to make the experience of shopping for diamonds and fine jewelry as unique and special as the gems themselves.

“We wanted to do for jewelry stores what Borders did for bookstores — make the experience just as important as the sale,” Robbins says. “We wanted to create an exciting space that would create an aura of beauty with cozy romantic areas for couples to truly have a pleasant experience choosing their rings. It was key to project an environment that would set us apart as specialists.”

To find inspiration, Robbins and his team traveled all over the world to look at jewelry stores, especially bridal specialists. After picking up ideas in New Zealand and Ireland, he hired Ruth Mellergard of GRID 3 to design the store. Robert Dykman of RAD in Livingston, NJ, served as general contractor.

The new store features six private banquette areas, a coffee and beverage bar, a customer lounge with a large-screen plasma TV, and an Internet station featuring a Mac G5 computer installed with a program that allows couples to take digital photographs of themselves. There is also a kid’s room with toys, books and TV.

“It’s got just about everything a customer could want,” Robbins says.

To display jewelry, the store has 45 showcases containing designer collections of engagement rings and wedding bands.

Works of art grace the store’s walls and ceiling.

On one side is a tranquil water wall. On another side, panels run from the ceiling down a wall, visually interacting with a structural origami lighting installation by artist and sculptor Tim Elverston. On the ceiling hang kite-like, stretched fabric panels with computerized LED lighting that produces subtle color changes. Built by renowned kite designer Marc Ricketts, the artwork evokes the constantly shifting light and facets of a diamond.

THE TECHNOLOGY
Gemscan and Isee2

Every banquette area or room is equipped with a Gemscope “Path of Light” device to educate customers about what makes one diamond worth more than another. The presentation was developed and refined over the years by Robbins and is now used by jewelers throughout the country.

The store also has a new Isee2 Scanner, which uses digital technology to take 180 simultaneous moving photos of the facet structure of a diamond. Each image is then posted side by side on a computer screen, along with a score for each diamond.

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This ranking illustrates the differences in the way each diamond handles light, and how one may be more brilliant than another.

“The technology helps the customers to see for themselves all of the traits that affect the quality, beauty and value of a diamond,” Robbins says. “It puts their fears at ease and gives them greater peace of mind.”

But even with all of this technology, Robbins says he is now training his salespeople to focus less on the science and more on the intangibles.

“Everybody in the diamond business talks about the four C’s as if they were the end,” he says. “But they are only a means to an end. Our people are now being trained to get off the grades. Beauty, brilliance, quality and affordability — that’s what people want.”

THE PEOPLE
Five Generations

Jerry Robbins, with the diamond in his beard, is the face and the character behind most of the retailer’s advertising and marketing. But don’t ask Jerry how he gets the diamond to stay in his beard. He likes the air of mystery about it.

“No matter where I go, no matter who I see, they always ask me how I keep that in my beard,” Robbins says. “It causes curiosity. I never tell them how I do it. Sometimes I say it just grows there.”

And now, Jerry has been immortalized in an animated character that is featured in ads and as a store mascot at local sporting events.

“The TV commercials with me singing and dancing with the Dovells have been on the air for more than 30 years,” Robbins says.

“I’ve put on 25 pounds, lost much of my hair and whatever hair I have left as well as my beard has turned to silver and white. But our new animated cartoon character is based on what I used to look like. The cartoon of me conveys the fun image that we have developed over the years.”

Robbins’ three sons are all part of the business. Jason is in charge of merchandising, Gordon handles marketing, and Eric, who is a goldsmith and diamond cutter, runs the shop. Robbins’ wife of 50 years, Dena, is vice president of human resources.

With Robbins’ grandchildren also working in the stores, Robbins Diamonds is a fifth-generation privately owned family company.

“The cool thing about our staff is their friendliness and willingness to treat every customer as they would a guest in their home,” Robbins says.

“Most of our sales associates are chosen for their people skills.

“What sets us apart is this: We don’t just sell jewelry. First and foremost, we want to make the experience of buying jewelry as exciting and special as the jewelry itself,” Robbins says.

“We’re already one of only a handful of bridal specialists in the country and one of the few who can claim a family heritage that is now in its fifth generation. I — and now my kids and their kids — make it a priority to think creatively, beyond what already exists. We’re committed to making it fun and unique and memorable.”

PHOTO GALLERY (6 IMAGES)

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at [email protected].

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