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Exclusive Enterprise

John de Jong reveals some of the secrets of success in “second-floor” retailing.


By Carol Besler
P hotography By Davide Bagnarol

O
f all the business models for running a retail jewellery operation, the
“second-floor” formula is among the hardest to implement, but carries
potential rewards that are the envy of the industry: no tire kicker walk-
ins, just appointment-only clients, 90% of which purchase something; less
likelihood of smash-and-grabs and break-ins, so fewer security requirements
and a better break on insurance rates and terms; flexible hours; more exclusive
clientele; fewer staffers and less administrative and POP costs. John de Jong, a
successful practitioner of this model who divides his time between Toronto and
Lausanne, Switzerland, agreed to give us a glimpse into the rarefied world of the
non-storefront retail enterprise, and the first thing you learn from him is that
networking is the key.

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“Initially it was purely social,” says de Jong when asked how he but the cost of a Bloor Street space was not feasible.” Still, the customers
procures clients. “I was very fortunate to have family friends who liked who visit de Jong’s office/showroom by appointment tend to be more
what I did and wanted to buy from me. The business was launched at qualified customers. “I would say 90% of people who come in to my
an event in the Muskokas. My parents held an exhibit/cocktail party showroom buy and 90% of those become or are repeat clientele,” says de
at our cottage on Lake Joseph, and I showed my first collection to Jong. “One-time purchasers are rare for us. We develop a relationship
about 120 people. It all started at that party really – I sold most of the with our clients.”
collection that day. Word got out, and a few of my first clients became
collectors and still are today. They in turn introduce their friends to De Jong founded his business in Lausanne, where his family, a close knit
my work.” group, has a home. He met with clients in his home office. A year later, he
established a showroom in an office building at the corner of Bloor and
Most retailers rely on walk-ins, an advantage de Jong doesn’t enjoy, Bay streets in Toronto, which functions like a salon, decorated to evoke
hence the need to solicit clients by other means. He admits, “I am sure the quiet, welcoming ambience of a private home. De Jong’s showroom
we would have more business [if we had walk-ins], but there is a peace manager of 10 years, Nathalie Castillo, holds the fort when de Jong is in
of mind and ease in working the way we do. I like the privacy, and to be Lausanne, which is, depending on the year, about half the time. Three
honest, it was the only option when I started out. I wanted a key location part-time staff also help out.

Cocholong and pink opal cuff and cocholong


and turquoise cuff. Turquoise, pink ceramic
gold and diamond rings.

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The salon is decorated to evoke the quiet,


welcoming ambience of a private home.

The mainstay of de Jong’s marketing efforts, aside from a spectacular designing jewellery, first sketching the designs of others that he admired,
annual calendar and a tantalizing web site, take the form of events. There and then, later, developing his own style. “When my family moved to
is an annual open house at the grand Palace Hotel & Spa in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1981, I was suddenly surrounded by the great jewellery
where de Jong presents his latest collection, and an event in the Toronto houses in Geneva and Gstaad, where we spent a lot of time – I could see
showroom every November. This year, de Jong is doing a show at a all their work walking through town. Switzerland is a jewellery centre,
private club in the Bahamas, hosted by a friend, and, in Toronto, he’ll and that really inspired me. I was an avid designer, and kept up on all the
host a spectactular party to celebrate his 15th anniversary. He’ll make news in the industry and went to all the exhibitions.”
15 one-of-a-kind pieces to celebrate each year in business; each will be
exhibited in its own showcase. For de Jong, it’s all about connections. His first step into the field on a practical level was when, at the age of
“Each event brings business, and we always find this is the best way to 21, he spent a summer in Florence, taking a jewellery-making course.
introduce my work to new clients. It can be intimidating to go to the “I already had a keen interest in design and had been designing for
fourth floor [at Bloor Street] and ring a bell to see jewels,” he says. “This some time, but this was the first hands-on experience. I loved the
way, a new visitor gets to meet me and my staff and see my work and the course and was really influenced by the architecture of the city – I still
space in a stress-free way. It’s an easy way to visit us for the first time.” am to some degree.”

Family has been an important influence on de Jong. His grandfather After graduating from Boston College in 1990 with a BA in Art History,
was an executive at Henry Birks & Sons for some 40 years, at one time de Jong started working on the sales floor for Tiffany and Co. in Toronto.
managing the flagship store in Montreal and also the store in Hamilton. He was one of the original staff that opened the store, alongside Andrea
“We [de Jong and his four sisters] visited the stores a lot,” he says. “There Hopson and Sharifa Chivers. “It was a great experience,” he says. [It
were a lot of Birks boxes in our house.” At the age of 13, he started was Hopson who recommended de Jong for this issue’s cover story].

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“Running your own business can be
insular,” says de Jong. “Especially if
you’re on the fourth floor.”

De Jong left Tiffany to go back to Europe in 1992, where he interviewed and Country. “Once, a woman from Connecticut saw my ad in Town
with both Piaget and Christie’s. “It was a hard time for the industry, and Country and bought a pair of rose-cut diamond earrings for her
and I did not land the job I wanted, so I decided to study gemmology wedding, sight unseen”. He cites the Internet as another great tool that
in California at the Gemological Institute of America.” Earning his has transformed his business. “I have made sales to clients who, rather
Graduate Gemologist degree was “a terrific experience and I loved the than come in to the showroom, will see a pic online and buy the piece
course,” he says. “I even stayed on to do the jewellery design course too, on that basis.”
which was my main focus.”
Although JdJ serves an international clientele, the client list in Canada is
A few months later he took an Undertsanding Jewellery course with growing. Canadians, while they have high quality standards, have always
Amanda Triossi at Sotheby’s in London. “ She was great, and really gave been very conservative when it comes to design, but that, says de Jong, is
a hands-on and practical approach to looking at estate and modern changing. “Canadians’ taste in jewellery has changed dramatically over
jewellery. We had access to some of the most interesting workshops in the past 10 years, partly because of the Internet I think, and the growing
London and met with all the big names on Bond Street. We are still in number of jewellery web sites, such as firstwaternews.com, which have
touch after all this time, and chat about jewellery business quite often encouraged people to become more committed to trends.” This is good
when I see her. She is now the curator of the Bulgari collection in Rome.” for de Jong, whose design aesthetic is based on two pillars that make
his pieces anything but conservative: colour and scale. “I have always
Although word-of-mouth business is essential to de Jong’s business, done a lot of colour on colour, and people would say ‘where are the
he has also advertised, especially at the beginning, including to broad diamonds?’ Scale and colour are very acceptable in Europe, and now
markets in The Globe and Mail and to a more focused audience in Town that has come to Canada,” he says.

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Cufflinks from the Seville collection in magnesite, white


agate, lapis, onyx, gold and silver

De Jong reflects on the rewards of working in his own, non-storefront


business – “Freedom! Quality time with family and friends, travel, and
the satisfaction of building the business on my own” – but admits there
are also drawbacks. “I’m responsible for running the business, and I
wear a lot of hats, so any mistakes have been mine and mine alone. Also,
because of the nature of my business, clients like to see me when they
visit us, so sometimes I can feel stretched.”
Sevilla hardstone, wood,
blackjade, cocholong, turquoise
If he were starting a new business today, de Jong says he would have
and diamond bangles
chosen a mentor. “I would have a lunch with maybe 10 people in the
industry and choose someone who is the best fit and ask them to mentor
me through my first three years of business,” he says. “It’s good to have a
second pair of eyes, someone else who can have a pulse on the business
without being a financial partner. Running your own business can be
insular, especially if you’re on the fourth floor.”

Will he sell the business at some point? “I think the business will die with
me,” says de Jong. “I am not a global brand that is carried in retail stores.
It’s just me.” Not surprisingly, however, he thinks of it in terms of family
enterprise. Maybe I would sell it to my niece for a dollar,” he laughs. She
is 14 going on 35; she has a lot of style and she loves jewellery.” [CJ]

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