Diamonds may be nearly everyone's best friend, but a new jewelry store in the Westgate Mall is just as sure about gold in those proverbial hills.
And black gold at that.
One of Riddle Jewelry's assets comes from ownership of a manufacturing facility in Rapid City, S.D. And the family-owned jewelry company owns the Mt. Rushmore Black Hills Gold Co., one of a short list of major players in Black Hills gold jewelry.
"You can identify Black Hills gold across the room," said Alvin Treadway, manager of the Riddle's Jewelry store in the Westgate Mall, noting the market for the distinctive jewelry has been steady for decades. "There is a lot of interest in it. We do well with Black Hills gold."
Riddle's Jewelry is following its own 10-year plan to open five stores a year for the past eight years. Large metro areas are generally avoided.
"They like staying in smaller communities that are showing signs of growth," Treadway said.
Alvin Treadway, Riddle's Jewelry store manager, said the Brainerd lakes area growth fits in well with the family-owned company's plan to open in smaller markets that are developing. He said the Westgate Mall store was 40 percent above projections for sales in its first month of business.Brainerd Dispatch/Renee Richardson
Other communities include Great Falls, Mont., which is one of the bigger cities where Riddle's Jewelry is located. The family-owned company's stores cut a swath through the country's Midwest and neighboring western and southern states. There are stores in Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
After just driving through the state previously, Treadway is acclimating to central Minnesota after a few weeks. People have been extremely nice, he said. But he has heard menacing stories about winter temperatures.
Settling into Minnesota after living in Montana for several years, Treadway said he understands the attraction that is spurring area growth.
"It looks like the secret's out -- Brainerd is a very nice area."
Treadway has been with Riddle's for four years of his 25-year career in the jewelry industry. Work has taken him to operations in Texas, as well as Montana. Along the way he has witnesses changes and trends.
Whether the economy is doing well or poorly does not seem to have as much of an effect as one might expect of a luxury purchase. Treadway said when gold prices spiked in the early 80s to $600 and $800 per ounce, demand was not greatly affected.
He said two strong areas in the last five years have been in the popularity of white metal -- white gold and platinum and the DeBeer's marketing strategy for the three-stone look now present in all types of jewelry.
Cultured gems, those born in labs versus other their cousins which are mined, are creating affordable jewelry pieces. Treadway said the cultured gems such as emeralds have the same chemical composition as those coming from mining operations.
However, he said the cultured stems can be created to be a little more perfect with deep colors. Cultured emeralds are more stable than their more brittle real counterparts, he said. Treadway said rubies are basically red sapphires. The naturally rare orange sapphire is expensive to match. Its cultured version, grown in a lab, is an affordable option.
Treadway said another popular stone is Alexandrite, a rare gemstone named for Russian Czar Alexander II and dating from the 1800s. The gemstone was discovered in the Emerald mines of the southern Ural Mountains.
The Russian gem changes color from purple to green depending on light. A natural Alexandrite stone may cost $3,000 to $4,000 for a medium carat gem of good quality. A cultured version is $50 to $100.
But diamonds, of the one carat size, remain an ultimate shopper's choice, Treadway said. And fashion trends are as involved as well as celebrities. The pink diamond gained famed when one was sparkling on singer/actress Jennifer Lopez's finger. Treadway said they receive inquiries about the pink diamond a couple of times a month. The demand was so evident, manufacturers started to culture a pink sapphire.
Treadway said different regions in the county have their own specific jewelry trends. Yellow gold is dominant in the southwest. White gold dominates in Montana.
Hot diamonds, sterling silver with a special finish to prevent tarnishing with small diamonds in it, is a new trend with a marketing focus on teenagers. Singer Brittany Spears wears them, which helps marketing and visibility.
The metal makes it affordable fashion. Metal prices can change several times a day, but sterling silver has been in the $4 an ounce range while gold is $400 per ounce and platinum is $900 an ounce.
In terms of doing well in the Brainerd area among existing stores, Treadway said Riddle's is not looking to take market share away but are looking to add to it. They expect to dominate the Black Hills gold market with their internal connections. Prices in the store range from $29 to $25,000. A gem club offers a customer benefit card and discounts. Customers birthdays and anniversaries are recognized with targeted discounts.
"It all boils down to customer service," he said.
Treadway said they expect it will take a years before the store is fully recognized in the area. So far he said the Westgate Mall store has exceeded projections -- by 40 percent for the first month. Treadway said the unique area with its seasonal resident component will be an interesting mix. Shoppers have been from Alaska and the Twin Cities. But residents in the region will be the mainstay, Treadway said.
The store employs six and is looking for a bench jeweler to add to the staff. Treadway has spoken with a school in Minneapolis for prospects.
With a manufacturing operation, the Riddle's store is able to carry a considerable variety of inventory.
"Our selection is broad especially in sapphires with the popularity of that stone," Treadway said.
Riddle's managers have hands-on experience in working with metals and stones. The company recently opened a second training center for its employees. Bench jewelers qualifications range from apprentice to master and tests are conducted to judge knowledge and hands-on skill.
"It takes years to reach a master level," Treadway said.
Historically jewelry will appreciate in time. However, Treadway said it is not a short-term investment.
"You should only buy a piece of jewelry because you want it and you like it," he said. "For the sentimental value -- that's where most of the value is."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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