Owner, deJonghe Original Jewelry
You’ve had a colorful history since you opened your first shop in Saratoga in 1982. Tell us about how you got involved in the jewelry business.
I didn’t have family in the jewelry trade, and I didn’t really start on the normal path. I was an art major. I always drew as a young kid, and I loved working with my hands. So I was going to be an art teacher. I took all kinds of classes – photography, drawing, pottery. And then I took a jewelry course and it stuck. I really felt I had direction there. I saw it as a miniature sculpture. I was fortunate that I had a professor who took me under his wing and said, “You should start doing craft fairs and selling.” So even when I was in college, I was selling my work. Later, my wife Peggy and I started traveling and doing craft fairs, all while trying to get a teaching job, but nothing was available at the time. It’s funny – my parents said to get a degree to fall back on, but I fell back on my craft instead. I have a master’s in art with a concentration in jewelry from SUNY College at Buffalo. If I hadn’t been there earning my degree, I never would have discovered jewelry.
Eventually, we landed in Saratoga, and it was the right move to open a shop here. I’d like to say I was an astute businessperson and that I knew what I was doing, but it was a lot of luck and a little bit of talent.
We started on Caroline Street, which was mostly bars. We were the only retail shop. It kept my overhead low, and it was very bohemian with an artist’s feel to it. But I knew as we were growing that we were missing the visibility of Broadway. We moved up here in ’88.
What is it like to run a business in a tourist location?
The track season has expanded. When we first started, it was just four weeks in August and then it was like someone shut a light off. The town really closed down. But now, tourists come even in the winter.
I think it’s healthy that the increase in population and spending in Saratoga all comes back around. We have a lot of clients from New York and New Jersey because they come up for the summer and they end up being our customers. I wouldn’t want to be without it. So it’s great to have that added season, but we don’t rely on it. We have really loyal customers.
How do you maintain a relationship with customers who might live far away?
It’s a whole different world. My three kids have really upped the game with exposure and marketing, and we’ve worked hard on our website.
A few years ago, I won a national jewelry design award. This woman in California who was a real jewelry connoisseur saw the piece that I won the award for. It was a neckpiece. She called me out of the blue and said, “Your work looks really interesting.” And I ended up doing this big diamond ring for her.
We have some customers who come back every year, like horse trainers. We work with them when they come to Saratoga for the season.
How has the jewelry industry changed since you first began?
Technically it has changed a great deal. One major change was computers and CAD [computer-aided design], which my son does. He’ll design a lot in CAD and then we’ll combine our techniques and our talents. I still do so much by hand, but having the assistance of CAD is great. That’s changed the whole industry.
We also invested in a laser. Before, it was all done by torch. You have to heat with a torch and flame, which limits what you can do. Now we put a laser under a microscope. With the beam of light, we can melt 3,000-degree metal and do things we could never do before. That was a big investment for us. But we still use old-world techniques. I have great craftspeople who have been with me for years. I have diamond setters and fabricators, still polishing by hand. It’s a good combination.
You specialize in custom-made jewelry. What are the steps you take to turn a customer’s vision into reality?
The first thing I ask is what they’re looking for. What’s their style? Do they want something avant-garde or do they want something a little more conservative? From there, I take a pencil to paper, and I do a lot of sketching to get immediate feedback. I show them different pieces that have the elements I’m thinking about.
Once we narrow it down, a lot of our work is lost-wax casting, where we carve it in wax and then we cast it, or we design it in CAD and do a 3-D printing of it. We still hand-fabricate a lot of pieces, so they’re actually forged and hammered, and then we solder or laser pieces together and construct that way.
Some of the pieces, like engagement rings where you’re taking grandma’s diamond and resetting it, are all carved in wax. That’s how it evolves. The customer comes in and sees the wax version. At this stage, if we need to make changes, I can do that. Then we sand it, polish it and set the stones. It’s nice to have the customer be a part of that.
What are some of the most memorable or challenging pieces you’ve been asked to make?
It’s always great when I’m working on a sentimental family piece or a generational one. Sometimes I get customers who were on my kids’ swim team and now I’m making their engagement ring. I love that jewelry becomes that heirloom, that treasure. It lives on for years, which I love to see.
We have some clients who let us be very creative and give us a lot of leeway, which is the best compliment. One customer asked us to do a full necklace with multiple gemstones for a gala type of thing. We had to source the gemstones from so many places, like Germany. They were all aquamarines. The biggest challenge was finding all these gemstones that match perfectly. Absolutely everybody here at the shop worked on it. I did all the main settings, John did all the diamond settings, Sheila fit all the pieces together, and Evan designed the whole centerpiece on CAD. This necklace took well over a year. It was a fabulous necklace!
Part of shopping for jewelry is the experience. What sets you apart from the competition?
Yes, the experience is an important part of a lot of shopping. Another is the relationship with the customer. Sometimes you lose that at bigger, commercial places. Because we have such an intimate setting, I think we have an advantage. The experience comes naturally for us with our customers. I think it registers that we care about our work and that we have pride in what we’re creating. I think that rubs off. We love the experience so much that we share everything with them – like how it’s made or information about the gemstone.
When a customer is shopping for something extra special, such as an engagement ring, how do you help in the decision-making process?
I love working with couples on engagement rings. If they come in together, we’ll get ideas. We’ll pick her brain and see what she likes, and then he’ll come back on his own and run with it. Other times, when it’s a total surprise, I usually ask, “What does she like? What does she wear? Does she wear a lot of jewelry? What’s her style? Has she hinted at anything?” I don’t talk about budget yet. Everyone has a budget, and we work within that, but it’s not the key thing. Whether they’re spending $3,000 or $30,000, it’s about aesthetics – finding something of quality and directing them to something that they want. I always look at it as two parts. First is the artistic part, the design, the accents. And then there’s the science part. Is it a gemstone? Is it a diamond? What’s the quality? It’s about combining those two.
Shopping for diamonds or other precious gems can be confusing. What are the most important factors to consider, including for customers on a limited budget?
I advise my customers to go with quality – you never regret quality, even if you have to go with a little bit of a smaller stone or sacrifice something else. As gemologists, we go through all that with the customer and show them those different details.
In gemology, we’re always learning about new treatments. I take a class and a test every year to stay up with all the different techniques that are happening. Buying gems can be a tricky business. You have to build a trust with someone you know. My customers place trust in me, and I do the same with my gem dealers. It’s important that we know exactly what we’re buying, and that our customers do, too.
How much of your business is custom design? What else do you do?
About a third of our business is custom work, about a quarter is fine jewelry repair work, and the rest is work on the floor people can buy. We make almost everything right here in the shop, so we’re always trying to create inventory plus satisfy the custom orders. It’s a good mix for us.
My son and I are both gemologists, so we offer independent appraisal work. But our real forte is to create. That’s what our goal is, to be able to offer something different. We always strive to be different, even our displays. I always try to see our retail shop as a gallery. Even our jewelry cases are handmade by a wood craftsman. We think all those little details add up to the ambiance that people feel when they come in.
His favorite gemstone: Tourmaline
Celebrities who have worn deJonghe jewelry: Selma Blair and Regina King