Rapaport Magazine

The Designer Touch

An upscale location and a branded designer jewelry assortment helped the Morganstern family build a jewelry business in St. Louis, Missouri.

By Nancy Pier Sindt

Of course, one has to begin with the
name. More than three decades ago,
a European entrepreneur opened a number
of fashion jewelry stores in the U.S.
under the name Ylang-Ylang. Lois and
Ray Morganstern happened upon one of
the shops in Bal Harbour, Florida, and
decided to transport its European fashion jewelry concept to their native St. Louis.
They bought the franchise for Ylang-Ylang
in April 1986. The name, which refers to a budding Philippine orchid tree, is pronounced ee-long, eee-long. Over the years, the store moved away from fashion jewelry and into fine designer jewelry of gold, diamond and gemstones because this is what Lois knew
and loved.

   Lois, who previously owned an estate jewelry business with her mother, is president
and owner. Ray is an attorney and not directly involved with the day-to-day business. However, their daughter Julie Ettinger, who did odd jobs in the store while still in high school, joined the business after college in 1990. She is currently the store’s sales manager. “I grew up in the business,” she says.

Branded Designers
   The store occupies 1,100 square feet on the main floor of a high-end shopping mall anchored by Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. “It’s a sweet little boutique,” says Ettinger, “with tall ceilings and crystal chandeliers and showcases that are each devoted
to the collection of a particular designer.” It’s light and airy with large, floor-to-ceiling windows, contemporary showcases and artwork on the walls.

   The focus of this retailer, like its neighboring specialty shops, is branded designer merchandise. However, designers are selected with care and include not the biggest brands with the widest distribution, but rather a selection of smaller, top-quality artisans. “We try to remain exclusive in style; we don’t duplicate what other stores have,” says the sales manager. “Some of these designers have been with us for more than ten years; their lines continuously do well.” Among the featured designers are Todd Reed, Erica Courtney, JudeFrances, Pomellato, Heather Moore and Michael Beaudry.
   It’s important for the inventory to be fresh and current, according to Ettinger. “We try
to introduce two to three new lines per year,” she says, “and for holiday, we include a
few lower-priced lines.” The bulk of the business is in the $2,500 to $5,000 price range.

   Diamonds and diamond jewelry are playing an increasing role in this retailer’s overall sales. In fact, Ettinger estimates about 70 percent to 80 percent of total sales come from diamond jewelry. So far, much of this has been designer fashion jewelry, as well as
the occasional trade-up to a larger diamond to commemorate an anniversary or
special occasion.

Building Bridal
   Currently, bridal is a targeted growth area. “We want to build our bridal business,”
says Ettinger. Plans for 2013 include a new bridal section, perhaps a shop-within-a-shop concept with a boutique look. “We don’t stock loose diamonds; we have a local wholesaler who supplies us. And we sometimes use dealers from out of state.” Most engagement
rings are custom made by the store’s regular designers. Ettinger says that while she’s not
an artist, she possesses a “great eye” and can successfully match clients with designers to create special pieces. But this retailer also has a creative side: She designed the 1313 puzzle and paw collection of charms for the store’s product lines. Proceeds of the sales go to an autism chapter and an animal rescue organization.

   Ettinger confesses she’s “extremely picky” when it comes to diamonds. “I have a passion for diamonds and I spend a lot of time looking for a perfect stone,” she says. In the future, she hopes to obtain a diamond certificate from Gemological Institute of America (GIA), then to become certified for colored gemstones. Her preference in color is G or above,
and rarely below H, but it depends on the stone. Typical clarities range from VS2 to SI1.

   Ylang-Ylang has the advantage of being located in a wealthy area and the majority of its clientele are self-purchasing women, aged 35 to 50. A “handful of husbands” do come in to shop, often sent by their wives. In addition to new jewelry, the store offers a restyling service, in which they “rip apart old jewelry and create new pieces,” says Ettinger.

In the Community
   To spur holiday traffic, the retailer sponsored a number of trunk shows from
October through December, usually two-day events built around a particular designer.
For 2013, Ettinger says the planning is still at the “wish list” phase, but the schedule will include personal appearances and social/charitable events. For the past two years, the store conducted an event in partnership with a neighboring Bentley dealership. An in-store cocktail party featured the diamond jewelry of Michael Beaudry and while the women were trying on his jewelry, the men were invited outside to test-drive the Bentleys, the theory being that “women prefer to wear their ‘cars’ on their fingers.” Another popular event was a tea held in conjunction with Neiman Marcus, featuring a personal appearance by designer Heather Moore. After the tea in Neiman’s tearoom, participants were escorted to Ylang-Ylang.

   Among the retailer’s most popular charitable activities are those benefiting Cardinal Glennon Hospital, a local children’s facility. In addition to giving donations to the hospital for its fund-raising events, the store participates in a 20-percent-off shopping card issued
by the hospital. The cost of the card is $50, and it can be used for a ten-day period at any of the approximately 275 participating local retailers. All
of the proceeds from the sale of the cards go to the hospital. In 2012, in addition to acting as a sponsor, Ylang-Ylang created special necklaces for the children and ran a local television ad featuring kids
from the hospital.

   Ettinger says after almost 20 years on the job, she still retains a passion for jewelry
and retailing. Asked if her two children might carry on the family business, she says her
nine-year-old son already loves the business and appears to have an aptitude for sales. Summing up her son and herself, she says, “I think you have to be born with a
retail personality.”  

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2013. To subscribe click here.

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