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Welcome to Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.
It's hard to keep a store open in New York for a decade, let alone a generation. But the city is dotted with family businesses that have figured out how to survive and adapt to changing times, often because of the modernizing efforts of the younger generation.
Greenwich Jewelers is a classic example. Sisters Jennifer Gandia and Christina Gandia Gambale say they "were groomed not to take over" the Financial District store from their parents, but after detours in fashion and finance (respectively), they both realized that retail was in their blood. Below, they explain how they turned a classic lower Manhattan jewelery boutique into an outpost of hip accessories on the tip of the island.
Let's talk a little bit about how you got started. Your parents founded the business, right?
Jennifer: The store was started by our parents 37 years ago. Christina and I came into the business at separate times. I came in about eight years ago, and Christina came in five years ago. We took over the business fully—it became our baby and we changed the merchandising and the product—about three and a half years ago.
So did you grow up with the store? Did you hang out there?
Christina: I think I did my fair share of summer vacations there, but we were never groomed to take over the business.
Jennifer: We were groomed not to take over the business.
Christina: They knew how hard it was, and I think they wanted us to explore more traditional routes. But like birds sometimes fly home, Jennifer and I came back at different points. It just felt natural and right, and we both were glad to do it together.
Jennifer, what were you doing before and what made you come back?
Jennifer: Directly before this I was on a self-imposed sabbatical, but before that I was doing PR and marketing for fashion and beauty companies. I worked at Nars, and several agencies and in-house.
Our store is really far downtown, and after 9/11, it was in a holding pattern. We had to close for 11 months. Our parents were waiting and seeing what they were going to do. I was going through a time when I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial, but I wasn't sure what. So I left my job at Nars and went abroad for a year to figure out what sort of business to open. I had lots of ideas: maybe I'd open a clothing/vintage store, maybe I'd sell antiques.
I wanted to see what happened when I got the hell out of Dodge, so I went to Spain. As I walked around, I would find myself in jewelery stores constantly. My parents had just opened in a new location, and I knew things were kind of tough for them. The neighborhood was still really desolate. I would see all these amazing things that stores in Europe were doing, different ways of displaying jewelery, very different from what we did in the US at that time, and I'd call home and say, "We could do this, we could do that."
After about six months of this, I realized I could go and help them. So I came back after a year, full of ideas, with a very different eye for jewelry than I'd had before, and I started working with them. Little by little I helped them bring their business into a more modern perspective, since they'd still been running the business they way they had for almost 30 years. So it became more about the products we were selling. They were willing to change because their business had been shaken up. It took some time. We had to start with one little change, one designer, and then we sort of added on from there, and that's how it happened. I just never left.
I got so excited about jewelery, and I found that I loved retail. Once Christina came on, it really kicked off.
Christina, how did you get involved?
Christina: I graduated college and went into finance initially. I was in college during 9/11, and then I started in finance. I'd thought about joining the business but never thought I would go down that road. But I could tell immediately that working in the business world wasn't for me. Once I saw Jennifer getting involved in the business, I took time off from work and went to GIA and got my gemologist degree while working at the store. After that, I went to work for jewelery companies on the wholesale side to learn that end of the business. And then I came right in.
Were you guys close growing up? Would you have predicted that you would be working together?
Both in unison: Nope.
Jennifer: Obviously, because we're sisters, we're similar, but we dress differently, we have different things we like. Even when it comes to picking jewelery for the store, we each have a very different eye, and it makes our selection broad in a good way. It's classic enough that it can really appeal to someone who is not looking to take an edgy step, and then edgy enough for someone who is really fashionable and wants the latest look. We've got that all covered, and that's because of the way that we buy. Plus, we're like right brain and left brain. She handles all the finance and the operations and she's so good at it, and I handle the marketing and the visual thing.
So how would you describe your individual styles?
Christina: I'm more classic. I tend, from a style standpoint, to go with more solids, I tend to accessorize with jewelery, while Jennifer is edgier and feels more comfortable with colors and prints.
Jennifer: With me it's more statement pieces. I always say, god forbid something should happen, Christina has the better jewelry wardrobe to sell because she has all those classic diamond pieces.
Do you have a mental image of your customer? Is there a girl who you picture when you're buying?
Jennifer: There's usually more than one. The store is so varied that we have, I would say, three girls: one for fashion jewelry, one for fine jewelery, and then one for bridal. And your customer could be a girl buying for themselves, or it's a guy coming in to buy a gift. That's also why we have some more classic styles—because they're easier for men to buy. They understand them better than some crazy Alexis Bittar cougar cuff. So we do have a profile. We have this customer Sharon who's a great customer, she loves jewelry, so she's become a model, and we ask "Would Sharon like this?"
Are you in the store interacting with customers every day?
Christina: Yeah, we're very much present, and you'll always see us on the floor coming down.
How have the products evolved since you started?
Jennifer: We started added independent designers slowly. It's really important to us to support American independent designers, and people who have a sustainable outlook on their business. The first two we added were Jamie Joseph and Melissa Joy Manning. Those were a big test for us because they were so different from what we'd been selling.
And those became a success, so they were the start to building the store that Christina and I had in our mind's eye—a place where fashion jewelery and fine jewelery lived side by side. There's a range of price points, but every piece has the same quality, and every designer has their own aesthetic. You wouldn't confuse the pieces. We want them to be represented in a place where their design philosophy really gets honored. And little by little we built this roster of designers.
Christina: And we did the same with bridal, too. I mean, we really have classic, traditional bridal for the person who wants that, but it's also evolving into a selection that's more diverse. You can pick anything from a raw diamond ring to a black diamond, and then living next door to it will be a classic solitaire. We really pick designers that have a point of view. I can see when customers find something and they really fall in love with it.
Do you think bridal style has gotten a lot more individualistic recently?
Christina: Absolutely. I can see over the years that people are really pushing the boundaries. They're really looking for something that's not advertised, not what's in now, but something that's very personal to them. Whether it's a tourmaline or a raw diamond, it's a personal choice, and the rules have gone out the window.
Jennifer: It's been really fun since the marriage equality laws have changed, working with same-sex couples, since you see a ton of creativity. We had a couple who had waited 24 years for the law to change, and they had a design in mind for I don't know how many years. So that's been fun. It's also informed our buying choices because we want to have a broader selection—actually a better selection, since it's a really small store and everything has to be edited. How many square feet are we, Chris, like 500?
Christina: Maybe 800.
What do you find are your best sellers for 2012?
Jennifer: I think what's been selling incredibly well are cuff bracelets and bangles. With this arm party revolution that's happening, people are really expressing themselves by stacking different kinds of bracelets. We've been doing really well with Alexis Bittar, but also Kara Ross, who does animal skin bracelets, and Chan Luu with these downtown wrap bracelets. It's been interesting showing our clients how to create a stack of bracelets that are cool and fun but also representatives of their personalities.
Also, the statement necklace hasn't gone anywhere. It's still around, though maybe less bib-like. I don't want to call it a collar, exactly, but closer to the neck. And statement earrings. Earrings are so big for 2012. Across the board, all of our designers have really wowed us with big, beautiful, gem-studded earrings.
Is there any category that you'd like to stock, but you haven't found the right designer yet? Like a "holy grail" type of item?
Jennifer: That's a good question. We always say, "If we had a store three times this big..."
Christina: Classic diamond jewelery, white gold, white diamonds—I think there's room in the industry for a designer to come in and renovate those styles. I'd love for those boundaries to be pushed. Like if you want a diamond piece, maybe you don't want a solitaire.
Jennifer: For me, sometimes I almost wish that I had three different stores. I really do love jewelry, it's in our blood. I would love a store that was just fashion jewelry, and then a really amazing fine jewelery line, and then I think we could really push the boundaries of bridal. For me it's all about space.
Have you thought about opening elsewhere?
Christina: We're always thinking and talking about it, but we haven't gotten there yet. One thing we have in common is our type A personalities, and I think we're trying to perfect this place first.
Jennifer: To the "holy grail" question, let me add that one of our newest launches, which is Jenna Wynn, was definitely an exciting step for us. Because that's the kind of selection that we'd wanted to carry for several seasons. So being able to bring them into the fold was really exciting. we love their product, their aesthetic. I think it represents such a great line for New York, and we're carrying it exclusively.
But yeah, we think about another store all the time. I mostly think about knocking down the walls.
It sounds like you feel at home in the Financial District.
Jennifer: For me, yes. It feels like part of the Greenwich Jewelers DNA.
Christina: I think the story of downtown and the store of Greenwich Jewelers is very much in line, as well. It's evolved, and we're evolving right alongside with it.
Let's end with the Lighting Round. First up: Mountains or beach?
Jay-Z or Kanye?
Jennifer: Jay-Z. We grew up in Brooklyn.
Christina: Jay-Z's attitude, Kanye's music.
Tumblr, Pinterest, or Intsagram?
Jennifer: Intsagram. That's tough, though.
1960s, 1970s, or 1980s?
Jennifer: The '70s.
Christina: The '70s. The '80s were fun, but i don't know if we need to do it again.