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ACS 2006 - Special Feature: Underwood’s Fine Jewelers

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Underwood’s Fine Jewelers, Hipsville, AR

FAYETTEVILLE? NO, COULDN’T BE. Maybe it was all those hillbilly jokes, but I just couldn’t believe INSTORE’S “America’s Coolest Store” was going to be found nestled among the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains.

I now stand corrected. And Arkansas, I owe you one big apology.

The moment I drove out of the airport, it became clear that Fayetteville is one of our country’s most beautiful, and best-kept, secrets. The soaring trees and quaint farms that welcome the visitor soon give way to a gorgeous vista — the rolling hills that are northwest Arkansas. Fayetteville is also home to one of the loveliest college campuses I’ve ever seen, the University of Arkansas, and some genuinely friendly locals.

So it was with great anticipation that I arrived at Underwood’s Fine Jewelers, less than a block from campus on lively Dickson Street. The store — and its people — did not disappoint. They proved to me that to build a cool store, you don’t need a big city… just a dogged devotion to quality, a terrific attitude, and a ton of passion for the jewelry business.

 

    FRIDAY, JUNE 30
    10 A.M.

    One of the most striking jewelry-store exteriors in the world greets me as I approach Underwood’s. With so many retailers moving towards curved shapes and circles in their build-outs, it is refreshing to see such an innovative use of squares and rectangles, layered and intersecting my line of vision in such a way as to force me to stand motionless for a few seconds just to take it all in.

    I enter the store to find a long, hallway-like showroom, impeccably kept, with just a few subtle features to draw the eye. A wall of vertical “sawtooth” showcases lines the right side of the entryway, while on the left, shadowboxes are spread along a wall that runs up toward a showroom before curving away from view.

    An open doorway in that wall allows a peek of the private showing room, and a line of AGS diplomas hanging along the back.

    At the entryway to Underwood’s H-shaped showroom stands a fountain made from a solid block of wood. (Craig Underwood will later tell me that his father, Bill, has a soft spot for the soothing nature of fountains, and tries to include one in each of his developments).

    Above, a sparkling Baccarat chandelier hangs from the ceiling.

    While the first half of the showroom includes the bridal and watch areas, accented by a large plasma screen TV displaying video footage of Underwood pieces, the second half includes designer jewelry and a small kids’ area. As I stand admiring a former AGTA Spectrum Award-winning design, Craig Underwood approaches, offering a big smile and a firm handshake.

    10:05 A.M.

    At 44 years of age, Craig (who looks nowhere near 44) is already president of both Underwood’s and the American Gem Society.

    He will later confess to being rather highstrung, but this doesn’t show through in his easy, affable manner.

    He begins by taking me on a tour of the store. It turns out that when Bill Underwood, who carries the title company chairman, built the store in 1966, Underwood’s only occupied the first half of the space. The other portion was rented out to another retailer, and the entire second floor served as office space for other tenants. Today, Underwood’s takes up the entire first floor of the building, most of the second, and will fill more space once an extension to the building is complete.

    Both Craig and Bill credit the store’s success to its reputation for an unswerving commitment to quality. As a reflection of this commitment, Craig points out the five microscopes placed around the store.

    “Everything we sell at Underwood’s must pass the microscope test,” he says. “Most customers have never seen jewelry through a microscope, as many jewelry stores just use a loupe, if anything.” A microscope offers customers the chance to see the item in stereovision, using both eyes instead of just one, giving them a better sense of depth and feel. It also offers the benefit of controlled lighting.

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    “Most jewelry is not made to be scrutinized under a microscope,” says Craig. “Thin prongs and poor workmanship are much easier to detect. Here, we use heavy prongs, durable and well-mounted. It’s riskier and more difficult for the jeweler, but worth it for the customer.”

    After touring the showroom, we move to the back of the store — and enter a warren of cluttered, tightly-packed office space.

    Craig shows me upstairs, where the jewelers’ shop features a laser welder, a fully accredited gemlab, and the nation’s first certified master bench jeweler, Tom Weishaar. Weishaar speaks at Jewelers of America events several times a year, and has written columns for Professional Jeweler magazine. “Everything and everyone up here has to be top of the line,” explains Craig, “since the majority of our sales are custom work. We do everything from start to finish in-house, with the exception of platinum casting.”

    While upstairs, I get to see the store’s videoediting suite, where Craig produces all the store’s television ads and annual video catalog.

    Additionally, Underwood’s has a room dedicated to shooting jewelry footage for these ads. It can be a time-consuming process; shooting one piece of jewelry can take upwards of 30 minutes. “Hundreds and hundreds of hours of labor have gone into shooting this footage,” says Craig, pointing to a wall bookcase stacked with videotapes from top to bottom.

    As we turn from the video-editing station, an older man rises to shake my hand — Bill Underwood, the company’s founder. Far from sitting back and reaping the rewards of his long service, Bill is busily working on a new custom design at the GemVision CAD terminal.

    With a Southwestern drawl and quick smile, Bill tells us he’ll catch up with us later.

    With just a few minutes to spare before an upcoming photo shoot for INSTORE, Craig shows me back downstairs, where Underwood’s latest venture is taking shape — a 1,000 square-foot office space addition at the back of the store. The expansion will include offices for both Bill and Craig, as well as a mail-processing area and main secretarial and support office. An elevator will be installed to connect all three floors (the basement serves as a storage area). “They’re putting
    the doors on now, and it should be finished by the time your August issue hits mailboxes,” says Craig.

    10:37 A.M.

    The professional photographer is ready in the showroom to shoot the entire Underwood’s staff, so we make our way back to the front. While setting up for the shot, Bill, smiling and chatting, walks over to straighten the apron of a young bench jeweler.

    The unforced rapport between the store’s employees and its owners is obvious.

    At this moment, an elderly couple from Fort Smith, a town 50 miles away, walks into the showroom. Craig and Bill wring their hands nervously behind their backs as there’s no one available to help customers as everyone is in this shot. “Trace, would you mind striking up a conversation with these folks while we take this photo?” Craig asks.

    Curious to speak with an Underwood’s customer, I comply. (I figure it’s the least I can do, since store business has been interrupted on behalf of this INSTORE feature.)

    It turns out that the couple has never been inside Underwood’s before. They saw Underwood’s recent TV ad, which encourages people to come in and buy a diamond not only on special occasions, but also “just because.” So, they’re here “just because”… to buy an Underwood’s diamond.

    10:54 A.M.

    In the time it takes to learn this, the staff has finished their photo shoot and the salesperson returns. I take a brief break to down a soft drink while the photographer moves his equipment to the private showing room. I peek around the corner to see Bill in full conversation with the Fort Smith couple, showing them a diamond ring through the nearest microscope. I feel confident it will pass the test. Sure enough, Bill later tells me the sale was closed, and the two lovebirds are coming
    back later to pick up the ring once it’s sized.

    11:20 A.M.

    After the photographer finishes the individual shots, Bill pulls me aside to show me his “baby” — the new, patent-pending Beauty Grade machine. He believes the device, which uses laser light to measure the light return of any size or shape of diamond, will revolutionize the industry. He gets no argument from me. Bill is still unsure whether he will market the Beauty Grade commercially, or sell the technology to diamond cutters, enabling them to better replicate the highest
    possible cut grades.

    Meanwhile, Craig returns from the back of the store with photos of another soon-to-berealized project: Underwood Plaza. Breaking ground next door in September, it will be the largest building on Dickson street at nine-stories tall. A 15-18 month buildout is expected.

    Craig and Bill plan to lease the first floor to retailers, with some space reserved for restaurants, complete with outdoor eating areas.

    “The look will be similar to the Underwood’s store building, but more urban,” says Craig.

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    12:31 P.M.

    We phone in our orders at Penguin Ed’s Barbeque (they have phones at each booth in the restaurant), and I settle down to listen to Bill’s tale of Underwood’s beginnings, which are as humble as they come. Bill grew up working in his dad’s service station back in “Dust Bowl, Oklahoma”. They were dirt-poor.

    “It was real Grapes of Wrath stuff,” he claims. Seeking to make his way in the world, Bill set off for Southwestern Oklahoma State University.

    He wound up going to the college’s watchmaking school — one of the best in the country. The three-year program taught him not just how to repair watches, but how to make them. He left with a degree as a certified master horologist.

    Bill then spent four years in the Navy during the Korean War. During that time, he took gemology classes by correspondence.

    When he got out of the service, he realized that watchmaking was a dying art. He came to Fayetteville in search of a business degree, and fell in love with the area.

    The regional jewelry store chain that Bill was working for decided to close its Fayetteville location, and offered to sell the store to Bill. The only money he had was $1,000 borrowed from his parents. “I approached banks and told them I was a certified master horologist,” he says. “They’d never heard of such a thing. They probably thought I wanted to start a whorehouse.”

    Regardless, they refused to loan him any money. But, he bought the store anyway — on December 28, the worst possible time to buy a jewelry store. “I was inept and very naïve,” Bill admits.

    The G.I. Bill kept him alive, as he’d go to class in the mornings and work the afternoons.

    The store did jewelry repairs and sold animals and trophies. “We had no gold, no watches, no diamonds,” marvels Bill. The business turned over just $25,000 the first year, and no profit.

    But in three years, Bill had his business degree. And over the next 46 years, he would see Underwood’s grow slowly but surely. “I never compromised on quality, even in the beginning,” he states.

    He became involved in the AGS, something he’d wanted to do since visiting AGS stores up and down the Northeastern seaboard during his time in the Navy. His stature in the industry grew. And the store really took off once Craig came on board in 1987.

    Over the years, the store became known as a destination for bridal jewelry. Peter Fonda once purchased a custom wedding band (“I don’t know if the marriage lasted, but I’m sure the wedding band did,” says Bill). Raymond Floyd, the pro golfer, shopped stores in Florida and New York before settling on Underwood’s for a custom ring and one of the largest diamonds in the store’s inventory for his wife Maria on their 10th anniversary. She flew into Fayetteville with her daughter on a
    private jet to pick it up.

    Perhaps the most unusual occurrence happened when a young couple came in to look at diamond engagement rings. They were seated in the private showing room, and the woman became so overwhelmed at the idea of receiving such a ring that she fainted. “She just fell over,” says Bill, who was working with the couple at the time. “We laid her down on a chair and she was okay. I tell people she’s the only woman who ever swooned over an Underwood diamond so visibly!”

    It’s quite a story, and quite a meal (the barbeque sandwich is fantastic). “Shall we take Trace up to see The Cliffs?” Bill asks Craig cryptically.

    “Lead on,” I say, ready for more adventures.

    1:40 P.M.

    The Cliffs, it turns out, are the nicest apartment complex and town homes in northwest Arkansas. There are 750 apartments in all, covering 110 acres. The entire development, located just five minutes from downtown, was developed by the Underwoods… and there are still 50 acres left.

    “All the streets are named after gemstones,” says Craig as we pass Tourmaline Way and Citrine Link. The complex features a 2,500 square-foot workout facility, two pools, tanning beds, a masseuse that gives free massages to tenants — and oh yeah, drop-dead gorgeous views from its hillside perch.

    Bill purchased most of the land from a local farmer as an investment, with Craig buying 30 adjoining acres later on. The investment has paid off in spades, as the complex was fully rented out almost even before it opened.

    “Not sure yet what we’re going to do with the last bit of acreage,” says Bill. The space still left offers the best views of all, as it sits right at the top of the hill. “Might turn it into luxury homes,” he says, “or maybe even more apartments.”
    Between the Underwood’s store, The Cliffs, and Underwood Plaza, it seems that despite their humble origins, the Underwoods
    now have the Midas touch.

    2:35 P.M.

    Over the next few hours, I interview Craig, Bill, and manager Cindy Beil. One aspect of the business that intrigues me is the fact that Craig and Bill are both so involved in every facet of the company, from the front of the store to the back.

    All this in addition to the building development next door, the apartment /townhouse complex, and AGS committee work. How do they have the time — and energy — to be so involved? And how well do they work together?

    “Wearing so many hats is what makes it so much fun,” replies Craig. “It never gets old.

    Dad and I get to build on the foundation that he laid down. Now we’re hitting two different generations of customers.”

    Clear differences mark son from father, and not just in height (Craig is noticeably taller).

    Bill is laid back, where Craig is more intense.

    “Maybe it’s because Dad’s been through the battles, and knows it’s not worth getting worked up,” says Craig. “I seize things and focus on them.”

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    That said, the two work together smoothly. “I’ve never heard them argue,” says Beil, who’s been with the store for 15 years.

    “They have lots of respect for each other. They debate, but always in a friendly manner. It makes for a pleasant work environment.”

    One project the two work on each year is the annual video catalog. Craig develops the concept, Bill writes the script, and then Craig produces it. “We may bounce a script back and forth eight, 10, or 12 times before we finally settle on it,” says Craig.

    The bottom line, he says, is that they bring different strengths to the table. “Dad is still heavily involved in design work, while I handle vendors, advertising, and the sales floor,” says Craig. “Meanwhile, Cindy is a walking encyclopedia.

    She knows everything in stock, and who sold what to whom.”

    5:00 P.M.

    As I get ready to take my leave, Bill regales me with stories from the past 50 years in business.

    In one, a man asked Bill to make his wife a pin shaped as a turkey vulture. It’s not a bird most people consider attractive, but the couple had a special place in their hearts for it.

    The man said he’d even given the bird a name.

    As Bill handed over the piece, he said, “I hope your wife, Frances, likes it.”

    The man responded with chagrin: “Francis isn’t my wife … he’s the vulture!”

    Another customer asked to have a machinegun bullet from World War II turned into a necklace centerpiece. Yet another requested his kidney stone be turned into jewelry for his wife.

    In the end, says Bill, the thing he hears most often from customers is, “I came here because I wanted to deal with someone I could trust.”

    “People don’t generally know as much about jewelry as other things they buy,” says Bill, “and they don’t want to overpay or be embarrassed.

    We make sure that doesn’t happen.”

    He adds: “We never say ‘trust us’ in our ads, because it’s not something you ask for. It’s something that’s given freely after you’ve proven you can be depended on.”

    After everything I’ve seen and heard on thisday, it makes perfect sense. Underwood’s in Fayetteville? It’s no longer a mystery to me. I now understand it’s a place where residents know they’ll find the friendliest service, the best-quality merchandise, and people who will stand behind their jewelry and tell God’s honest truth no matter what.

    Oh, and they just happen to work in a store designed for the ages.

    Now that’s cool.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (6 IMAGES)

Trace Shelton is the editor-in-chief of INSTORE magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

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