In 1990, Becker's Fine Jeweler had just opened its downtown Hartford store when a recession hit — and one that hit New England harder than anywhere else.
"I had to lay off 40 percent of my staff," said Paul Becker, who founded the West Hartford jewelry store in 1978, at age 28. "Besides my wife fighting cancer, it was the worst time in my life."
Risa Becker, who worked alongside Paul from the start, died of cancer last year at age 64.
So when this latest recession came, Becker was terrified he would have to cut staff again. If you lay people off in normal times, he said, "You know they can find another job."
Becker's has workers who have been with the company for more than 20 years, and Becker says he feels like they're part of his extended family.
As the financial panic began to send investors to gold, prices climbed rapidly in 2009. Becker's had bought and sold used jewelry — called estate jewelry — for years, but had never bought with an eye to melting it down.
"They thought I was nuts," Becker said, when he first told his staff. But he explained why he was doing it. During the recession, jewelry sales fell 30 percent, even with an increased budget for advertising. Buying precious metals could make up for that.
"I say with pride, we did not have to lay off any people during this recession."
The strategy was so successful that Becker began opening storefronts around the state — Avon, Torrington, Middletown, Windsor Locks, Clinton, Southington, Old Saybrook, Colchester, Newington, Manchester, Bristol, Norwich — to buy gold. Rents were cheap, with high vacancies in strip malls, and the revenue coming in from those operations not only made up for the decline in West Hartford, but was enough to expand the staff.
Becker's now has 65 employees, and all of the new hires for the gold-buying locations were unemployed, he said.
In 2012, the climb in gold prices moderated, and the amount of business at the gold buying centers started to taper off, he said. Then prices fell in 2013.
In October last year, Becker decided to start converting some of the storefronts into sales floors, not just buying centers. Newington, Manchester and Bristol were first; Old Saybrook and Colchester followed this spring, and Norwich is next.
At these Becker's outposts, most of the stock is estate jewelry, which sells for about half the price of new jewelry. In the cases, it's about 90 percent estate and 10 percent new, he said.
In the LaSalle Road store, 70 percent of the sales are new jewelry, and 30 percent are estate sales.
Danielle Mellion, 27, of Simsbury, was seated at one of the new jewelry cases recently, looking at a diamond solitaire on a band studded with diamonds. She and her boyfriend had ordered the ring back in March — she and her best friend were just visiting her future engagement ring.
"We went to at least five jewelers before here," Mellion said. At one national chain in the mall, she said, everything the sales associate showed the couple was five times their budget. "It was the worst experience," she said. "He felt like we couldn't ever afford anything we wanted."
At every store, she said, the prices were more than they'd planned for.
Then, on the recommendation of her boyfriend's family, they visited Becker's. The sales staff eased her boyfriend's nervousness.
"They found something perfect for us," Mellion said, with larger diamonds on the band, but still thousands less than the competition. This time was her third visit to the ring, and the staff greets her by name. "They know our story now," she said.
The mix at the new stores is less about appealing to the bargain-hunter in the anemic economic recovery and more about what Becker had in stock.
If Becker's had opened six stores with mostly new jewelry, he would have had to borrow to buy the inventory. This way, it can be lower risk.
"When I start things, I don't have expectations. It could lead to disappointments," he said.
Becker said he doesn't have a timeline in mind on when to decide if the experiment is succeeding.
"I'll watch my report card, how do the numbers look? And also time, how much time does it take of me personally."
So far, the conversions have not made him feel like he's spread too thin, because Michelle St. Hilaire, a 10-year-employee, has set up everything, he just walks in to see if he agrees on the location.
"I have great, great staff. I give them the credit," he said.
Becker's, across all its locations, did more than $3 million in sales in 2013, an increase from 2012.
Becker doesn't have a forecast for 2014 sales growth. "I really don't pick numbers, I never have," he said. "Picking numbers is just guessing to begin with."
Becker's has also recently begun selling on eBay. So far, high-end watches, vintage jewelry and less expensive necklaces have sold well there. Why did they go to eBay?
"Why not?" Becker replies. "It's too new for us to really know if it's worth our time yet."
Becker's Fine Jeweler's flagship store is at 65 LaSalle Road, West Hartford, and is open Monday-Saturday, and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. The other locations are open seven days a week, except Old Saybrook, which is closed Sundays and Mondays. The locations outside West Hartford can be reached at 860-561-8911.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun