Michael Wright would concede it’s been a rough journey for his jewelry career and personal life.
He has designed jewelry since high school, but embarked on a career in law enforcement in California before deciding the hard work, injuries and paltry pay weren’t worth it.
It was in 1989 that the big one rumbled through the San Francisco area, with the earthquake destroying his jewelry shop and forcing he and wife, Irma, to make a decision on starting over. That landed them near friends in LaGrange, Ga., and with Wright working as a jeweler for someone else before deciding to open Jewelers Touch at Peachtree Mall in 1998 with Gary Cadoura, a native of Waycross, Ga.
The results were mixed at Peachtree, with sales solid early on, but mall rent rising and eating into profits. The clientele also changed, favoring cheaper products, he says. That prompted yet another move, with Jewelers Touch landing at Columbus Park Crossing nearly three years ago.
The tumultuous moments weren’t over, however. It was two years ago, just before Valentine’s Day, that Wright suddenly lost Irma, the love of his life, after two decades of marriage, leaving him to take care of their two children.
Wright, 52, continues to rebound emotionally while looking to grow the jewelry business with Cadoura.
The Ledger-Enquirer talked to Wright last week about his profession. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has the jewelry business changed through the years?
The big stores set the trend ... and the trend is to move away from service. They look at every square foot of their store space by so many dollars. If they can make more by putting a case where a jeweler’s bench is than they, forget the service. They don’t care about that. They want to sell the product. Their worst enemy is us. They don’t like mom and pop stores because we’re going to provide service.
You specialize in custom designs?
If a customer comes in and, let’s just say, they’re looking through a catalog or bridal magazine. They see a fancy designer’s piece there that would be tremendously cost prohibitive, but they would like to have something that looks like the movie star’s ring.
We don’t knock off people’s stuff, but we can do similar products. We put our own little flavor in it. I don’t have to worry about infringing on somebody’s design or copyright. I don’t like to have somebody knock off a piece that I’ve spent time on. And I’ve had that happen. I’ve designed some pieces in 3D renderings for customers only to have them take the designs somewhere else and have them done after I’ve spent hundreds of dollars and man hours working on it.
How do you design something original?
There’s a lot of little things you can do. The gallery work, all of the work up underneath it. The way that the shank attaches to the top plate; there are many, many designs and features that you can add or take away from that. The way the stones are set in it, whether it’s pave or prong set or tube set.
You’d be surprised at how much you can just tweak a little bit, make it a little different and put your customer’s personality into it. I don’t know if there’s ever been a piece done that all of it is completely somebody else’s idea. I don’t know if that’s possible.
Where do you get your stones, from China?
Nope. We get most all of our stones out of Israel direct. Most of the diamonds that we’ll see in our market in the States are mined in South Africa. A lot of them go to Israel for cutting. The Israelis have been in it forever. They used to do it in Antwerp. That used to be the diamond center of the world.
Today that’s kind of spread out a little bit. New York’s a great diamond center. Tel Aviv, where we get most of our stuff from, is a great diamond center. We have the stuff brought to us. We pick the diamonds that we like and we’re very particular about our stones. I don’t want any garbage. But, at the same time, I’m always looking for a good deal to save customers money. I have to be competitive.
What percentage of your work is custom design?
Our bridals is our biggest business by far. We do about 80 percent of our business in bridals. We manufacture most of our stuff, so you could consider it all custom. But the amount of customers that come in to request their own design to be done, I would say, is about 15 percent.
What’s the most elaborate piece you’ve ever made?
We did a very nice platinum piece for a local customer. It had a 9.5-carrot pear-shaped diamond in the center. It was a very nice expensive stone. We were tasked to make a ring for this lady who wears a size 7.5. How do you make this ring so it doesn’t look bulky on her hand? We decided to do a ring that looked like a crown, like the crown jewels.
She didn’t even know she was getting it. Her husband has had us do some nice pieces for her over the years and he really wanted this done for her. He loves his wife to death.
We actually looked for years for just the right diamond. We spent about four or five years looking. Once we got started on the process, though, it only took us a few weeks, after we (sketched) it on paper. Usually we ask people to give us three weeks. Just about anything we see we can make in about three weeks.
That sounds expensive. What is the typical bridal set?
Five years ago our average bridal set for the first-time guy would have been maybe in the $5,000 range. Today, it’s around half that, around $2,500.
What has caused that?
The economy. There’s a lot less money available for a guy to save. Things haven’t gotten less expensive. When they start looking at the costs of putting together a wedding and all of the things that go into that, all of (those costs) have gone up. But expendable income seems to have come down. These guys can’t save like they used to. They used to do some overtime or whatever. They could get pretty creative bringing money in.
The other thing is financing. We used to have three or four companies that we worked financing out with. Today we have one, and that one’s new. We didn’t have anybody for about two years. They don’t want to finance jewelry because it’s a high-risk item. If you don’t pay your car, you don’t pay your furniture, they come and get it. Rings always disappear. So everybody got out of the financing business after the economy took a dive.
So a slumping economy can have a major impact on you?
We’re the first to get bit and the last one to get it shook off of you. We’re a luxury item. Anybody will weigh out their gasoline bill this month, the food bill and everything else before they’ll decide whether they’re going to come in on Valentine’s and spend money on a $500 diamond pendant. Whereas five years ago it would have been nothing.
What’s the future for independents?
There’s some people that will never settle for a mass-produced item like everybody else has. And those are our customers. If we were out of business tomorrow, they wouldn’t be at Zales shopping. They would be looking for another jeweler, another private individual out of town or wherever they had to go and get it. But they wouldn’t be at the chain stores. A lot of our customers are that way.