August 2014 issue, INSTORE Jewelry Magazine [instoremag.com]

Our 13th annual America’s Coolest Stores Contest drew 126 entries, making our independent judging panel’s choices tougher than ever. Check out which stores rose to the top and why. And feel free to draw inspiration for your own store — remember, it took years for these businesses to achieve “Cool” status. They paid their dues before achieving their dreams. And remember, too, that America’s Coolest Stores are cool beyond their interior design. They’re judged on individuality, marketing and how they tell their often remarkable stories. Among this year’s honorees are a few who launched their business or opened a store five years ago and showed their mettle by overcoming the obstacles of a Great Recession. We can all learn from stories like these. Happy reading! And congratulations to this year’s crop of Cool Stores! INSTORE magazine invited Leslie McGwire™ to be one of four judges to evaluate each jewelry store. It was an honor for Leslie McGwire™, ASID (American Society of Interior Designers) Allied to be chosen to judge the latest design work of some of the industry’s coolest looking jewelry stores.

Story by Eileen McClelland

2014 Small Cool 1: Alchemy

Location: Portland, OR
URL: alchemyjeweler.com
Founded: 1994
Opened Featured location: 2005
Full-time employees: 3
Area: 1,800 square feet
Build-out Cost: $165,000
Top Brands: Alchemy, Assael, K Brunini, Paula Crevoshay, Sarah Graham, Ray Griffiths, Kataoka, Todd Reed, Temple St. Clair, Alex Sepkus, Anne Sportun, Victor Velyan, Zaffiro
Online presence: Yelp: 5 Stars; Facebook Likes: 1,478 Facebook Likes; 5 Stars on Yelp; Alexa global rank: 2.84 million

David Iler describes his shop as a tool junkie’s dream. It’s also a playground for the imagination.

He’s got a new 3-D printer back there, a laser welder, Old World anvils on the bench and Matrix and CounterSketch running on the computers.

But if there were a fire, the first thing he’d try to save — once his staff was safe of course — would be his Marshall stack amplifiers and a collectible guitar, also stashed in the back. Clear evidence he’s a man of many talents.

Iler, a custom jeweler who’s achieved renown for plati num casting, spends part of his days leaning over a counter with paper and pencil, sketching clients’ dreams into possibilities.

But the heart of the store is in the back, where Iler and company render those visions in precious metal.

He takes pride in the fact that he and his store are the real thing, that he is a goldsmith and stone setter with a full-service, well-equipped shop. That he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.

And although he hasn’t yet transformed base metal into gold (the original meaning of the word alchemy) that doesn’t mean he isn’t achieving magical transformations every day in his store called Alchemy.

It all started with reinventing himself.

 

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT STEEL

The showroom suggests a stage, with its black steel walls, stained concrete floor, 15-foot concrete ceilings, and elegant blue curtain separating shop and showroom.

Steel walls aren’t for everyone, Iler says, but steel reflects his aesthetic and his past.

Iler is a former guitarist and backup singer in a heavy metal band called Alloy.

He also trained to be a welder at age 19, increasing his certifications till he reached the top of the trade and worked as a metal fabricator, spending years assembling skyscrapers.

“Seventeen years into the steel trade industry, I was looking for a career change.”

He also likes to fish and had gotten to know a group of fishermen called the Northwest Steelheaders. Many of them were rockhounds, representing another popular hobby in the Northwest. “When they found out I was a metal worker and interested in a career change, they had a suggestion that I try jewelry,” Iler says. ” I remembered having fun taking jewelry classes in junior high, and so the idea of working on small intricate metal items definitely appealed to me.”

He appenticed for a third-generation goldsmith for two years. He learned that different kinds of metals — even steel and gold — have similar properties.

George Von Brandt, Iler’s mentor, had a retail store in Oregon City with a full-service shop and rockhound supplies, too. So Iler became familiar with the customer service aspects of retail. “It was a pretty magical place. And it was a key element in what I decided to do later,” he says. “Dealing with jewelry is simple; it’s a piece of cake compared to working with personalities. You have to be pretty much prepared for every type of personality style you come across, and believe me, there’s lots of different styles. I wouldn’t say I was driven at that time to open a retail location, I was more driven to become the best technician that I could be. Once I mastered that, then the reality of ‘Now what am I going to do?’ came about.”

After years of practicing skills at the bench, working as a tradesman by day and jeweler by night, Iler landed a job as lead master goldsmith at Zell Brothers, one of Portland’s most venerable jewelry companies.

In 2005, Iler took the next big step and opened Alchemy in Portland’s Pearl District, near the heart of downtown. In the Pearl District galleries rub shoulders with fine restaurants and artisan boutiques, all with an upscale warehouse vibe.

The store is designed not just to look cool, but to put the focus right where it belongs — on the jewelry.

“Alchemy is a stage to show off what I do,” Iler says.

The open floor space allows him to accommodate as many as 50 guests during events. There’s still space for a couple of chairs along one wall, and for CounterSketch to be tucked away neatly in a corner.

There’s even a good spot for a musician or two. An event is planned at least once a month during the neighborhood’s First Thursday gallery walk.

SURVIVING A SLUMP

When the great recession hit Portland with a vengeance, Iler held on tight to his business as he watched many big-name jewelry stores vanish, Zell Brothers among them.

“We kept watching these people disappearing, wondering how much the market was going to shrink,” recalls Laura Mapes, Iler’s partner in life and in business.

That time brought an additional challenge for Alchemy because two blocks of Lovejoy Street were closed for the installation of a streetcar line.

They could even hear the jack hammer from inside.

But Iler persevered.

“Some small companies did make it by going lean and mean and staying under the radar and by doing that specialized, customized service,” Iler says. Alchemy was one of them.

“When you would get a customer, you would really take care of that customer, whatever it took.

“I hunkered down, stripped it down to one person (me), I cut every expense I could find to make a profit and to survive.”

Iler opened his store in 2005, but for years his business was focused on wholesale manufacturing, especially platinum casting, as well as custom retail work, so he initially had five people working in the shop. When things began to stabilize Iler began to hire again, cautiously, first Sander Raymond, then Mapes, and most recently, Brooke Hart, a bench jeweler, designer, and graphic artist, who is adept at social media as well as CAD.

Iler says the past few years have taught him the importance of patience.

“It’s hard to do. It’s definitely been a challenge. Being a jeweler, people believe we are full of patience. When I’m setting diamonds, I am very patient. I treat the stones with the utmost respect so that they stay in one piece and are set perfectly. But all those other things involved in the business require patience as well.”

ARTISTS ON BOARD

While customers are prized at Alchemy, no one is going to give them a hard sell. Iler, working on the bench, might just wave at them through the window to the showroom and let them browse.

Sander Raymond was brought aboard as Alchemy’s customer service specialist, to help guide customers through the custom design process or introduce them to the art in the cases.

“It’s a great atmosphere here,” Raymond says. ” It’s a positive environment, an uplifting environment. The business has been building since I’ve been here. The sky’s the limit.”

Once the retail business began outpacing the wholesale side, Iler began to consider offering customers some variety.

In 2009, the first year Iler and Mapes made a buying trip to the Couture and JCK shows in Las Vegas, they asked themselves whether they were there to pick up new casting accounts, or whether they were there as retail buyers.

The answer to that led them in a new direction as they began to look for jewelry designers whose work they wanted to see in the store.

Still, Iler wasn’t immediately convinced. He asked Mapes what he was going to make, if they began to carry the work of other artists in his store.

Her answer? “You’re going to make money!”

“David always takes baby steps, and that’s where we get where we are going,” Mapes says. In recent years, little by little, they’ve built an impressive collection to fill those showcases, beginning with the work of Temple St. Clair.

They make sure that the work of each artist is distinct enough to stand out from the others and they hand-pick every piece. He and Mapes are selective. They are looking for true artists who share their aesthetic.

When considering a line, Mapes says, they ask themselves, “Is it beautiful and is it well made?”

“All of our artists are true to their craft,” Iler adds.

Being in Oregon presents special challenges to retail jewelers, Mapes says. People don’t want to be too flashy, but on the other hand, the wealthy are in the habit of shopping for jewelry when they travel to flashier locales.

But because Portland residents are interested in art, making a connection through art-oriented community events, usually helps Iler and Mapes to connect with new customers.

Their jewelry is high-end, usually rendered in high-karat gold and platinum. There’s nothing in the case with a $50 price tag. But Iler thinks customers tend to bring up the issue of price too soon.

“When they ask ‘how much?’ I find that question is a deal killer or it can be a deal maker, but oftentimes it’s asked prematurely before a customer has an idea of what they are looking for or shopping for, or becoming involved in. So that’s a question that drives me crazy.

“We offer alternative metals when it’s part of the artist’s look,” Iler says. “I used to scoff at jewelry as an investment, but I was quite wrong. It is an investment, but it’s an investment you get to wear and enjoy.”

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

T Lee: Super sexy space! Who wouldn’t want to hang out here? I love that the workshop has art on the walls — master goldsmiths need beauty too! Alchemy owns old-school master craftsmanship and moves it into the present day with current technology on every bench. David’s attitudes of giving props to the old timers’ wisdom while seeing himself as responsible for passing it on is what makes his store the coolest of the cool.

Danielle Miele: Every aspect about this store is forward-thinking and breaking barriers! I love the individuality and concept behind the store. Their online presence was by far the best, with constant updates and interesting content that capture audiences’ attention. I also love the brands and designers represented in the store, I think it is a fun mixture of eclectic people — perfect for the geographic area.

Leslie McGwire: The Alchemy logo says it all! The traditional style letter A mixed with the contempory other letters is the perfect mix of the overall feeling of the entire space. The open space plan is excellent. The 15-foot ceilings give the space an open, high-end feel. The bubble wall windows are unique and placed perfectly for clients to view the work area.

Andrew McQuilken: The contrast between the black metal walls and warm wood soffits creates a dramatic but welcoming customer experience.

1. IT’S PARROT-FRIENDLY. If you’ve seen the show Portlandia, you may wonder what kind of characters pass through Alchemy’s doors. One visitor came in with a huge bandage on his wrist, along with the parrot that inflicted the bite. Ordinarily, he said reassuringly, the parrot, “wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Yes, the store is animal-friendly and doesn’t discriminate against parrots.Not everyone who stops by is so animal-friendly: Another customer asked Iler to fashion a cuff from a monkey’s paw, preserved by a taxidermist. That project is still in the works.

2. THE LAYOUT IS FLEXIBLE. Because Iler often wants to move cases around, the track lighting is strung from the ceiling rather than mounted to it, allowing the lights to be more easily moved.

3. IT FLIES JUST UNDER THE RADAR. Alchemy’s customers hear about the store through 1. Internet search. 2. Just walking by. 3. Referrals. Iler spends his marketing budget on Google Ad Words and print ads in local travel and bridal magazines. Mapes says the younger crowd wants to discover cool stores on their own. If stores are too pervasive with their advertising, Portland’s youth would consider that to be uncool. So it’s a fine line between obscurity and overexposure. They need to be discoverable but not ubiquitous. That’s OK with Iler: “I don’t want everyone in Portland to come through the door. That’s not who we are.”

4. IT’S GREEN. Alchemy, as well as the designers with whom Iler does business, are environmentally responsible and ethical and work with earth-friendly metals recycler Hoover & Strong. They also acquire their stones through distributors with a history and reputation for using high-quality, fair-trade gemstones.

5. THEY SHARE THEIR KNOWLEDGE. Iler, who learned jewelry making as an unpaid apprentice, has in turn hosted apprentices from as far away as Denmark and as near as Oregon College of Art and Craft in Portland. “We place a high value on sharing knowledge and history to ensure a solid foundation for our industry’s next generations,” he says.

ONLINE Q&A with David Iler

One Newspaper: The OREGONIAN. Still a good newspaper.
One Website: Kitco.com; It’s for metal pricing, but I can see what’s going on with all types of commodities and currency rates globally. Very useful site.
One gadget: GPS.
One plane ticket: London
Mentor: George Von Brandt. “He was the person that I apprenticed under, he had a store in Oregon city, and I worked for him for a two year unpaid apprenticeship. I’m so grateful for the service that he provided me. He was a third generation jeweler.”
Favorite business book: “The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life,” a book about a gentleman who started a business in the diamond industry. He brought a lot of his daily practice of Buddhism into his business, which helped the business flourish.
Favorite book: Jonathon Livingston Seagull.
Best advice ever given: Trust your intuition. Be creative. You can be responsive and you’ll be behind the curve. If you’re creative you’ll be ahead of the curve.
Pitfalls to watch out for? Dishonesty. I’ve experienced multiple levels of dishonesty from employees and vendors and In some ways it’s always around.
I’f I’d known that gold was going to hit $1,800 an ounce, life would have been a lot easier. I would have liquidated everything I owned and bought gold.
Favorite designer: Arun Bohra of Arunashi.
I do drive a pickup truck, and if I could drive any car, I would still drive a pickup truck.
Superpower? Invincibility trumps everything.
What question do you wish customers would not ask you? How much?I find that question is a deal killer or a deal maker but oftentimes it’s asked prematurely before the customer has an idea of what they are looking for or shopping for or becoming involved in. So that’s the question that drives me crazy.
What’s your sign? Taurus
What is your perfect day? Today I’m having a pretty perfect day. I caught a salmon. I’m hanging out at my Coast house, laying on the carpet. LIfe’s good.
What have the last few years taught you? What have the last years not taught me. Business-wise, it’s definitely been a challenge. In some ways the fog is beginning to clear and some of those challenges are not obstacles any more. I’ve learned just to be patient, if anything. It’s hard to do. Being a jeweler, people believe we are full of patience. When I’m setting diamonds or stones, I am very patient. I treat the stones with the utmost respect. All those other things require patience as well.
How do you stay current? Trade magazines, online magazines, I’m well connected to people in the industry. Staying current is pretty simple.
What is the hardest thing you’ve had to do? Professionally? Be a boss. Hiring and firing.
If your store were on fire, what’s the one thing you’d save? My Marshall stack.
If money were no object, I would expand my store into the space next to me, which is a bank building.
What is the first thing you notice about people? Their body language. I try to pay attention to what their body language is telling me.
I would be a diamond if I were a precious stone because I’m intrigued with diamonds.
Favorite flick? The original Mad Max. It’s surprising how many movies do include jewelry. Mad Max finds his wife’s wedding ring at a pawn shop.
Favorite lunch? They make a turkey sandwich next door at Lovejoy Baker that is knockout.
Best vacation ever. My trip to Denmark. That was over-the-top fantastic.
Favorite job at work that doesn’t involve customers? Making jewelry.
If not a jeweler, I would be a professional fishing guide, a studio guitar player, a steel worker. Or I would become the mentor, teaching people how to make jewelry.
Current career goal? I’m pretty much living my current career goal. I’m pretty content the way things are currently. But I’d like to free up time for myself personally so that I could enjoy more things in life.
Who are your heroes? It might sound sappy, but Laura (Mapes) is one of my heroes in life. Every time I think she’s one thing, she’s another thing. She ends up impressing me on a regular basis.
Favorite gemstone: Opal.
I’m most frustrated when I don’t get enough sleep.
When are you happiest? I’m usually happy.
Weekend activity: Fishing. Hanging out with the family. Playing guitar.
Favorite art period: The Masters. 1300s to 1800s in paintings and architecture.
What do I worry about that I know I shouldn’t? The money portion of the business. Everything ends up being fine.

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