Albert S. Smyth started a family business in 1914 as a wholesale distributor. His sons Lester, Calvin and Bob joined the company in 1933. It wasn’t until 1960 that the Smyth name started to mean retail.
Now, more than 100 years after Smyth started selling jewelry, the third- and fourth generations of Smyths are working in the business, which includes three retail stores and a massive online catalog that serves all 50 states. The company does more than $30 million in sales annually, according to a spokeswoman.
“The biggest difference that I see around the country is that the successful owner-operated stores treat their customers like a friend, whereas the corporate stores treat you like a customer,” said Tom Smyth, president, who started working for the business in the 1970s. His office is now based in Timonium in a building off York Road with a giant diamond ring outside.
Things have, obviously, changed since Albert Smyth started wholesaling a century ago. Besides the Timonium operation, the growing business that started in Baltimore now includes locations in Ellicott City and Annapolis. In the ’70s, the shop began to carry more name brands to cater to a wider variety of customers, Smyth said.
One of the bigger changes, not specific to the store in Timonium, is that jewelry is not always a “go-to" gift anymore, he said.
“Now that choices are so abundant, that [custom jewelry] isn’t the default,” Smyth said. It’s easy in 2019 for shoppers to pick a piece of jewelry from an online retailer and get it delivered.
Less easy is to find custom jewelry online, Smyth said (though there are custom retailers, like Etsy), and that’s where his shop really leans in. The business “excels” at personalizing pieces and customer service, he said.
Smyth Jewelers is adapting to the online world. There’s an online chat on the website to help customers narrow their choices and a full online catalog. Items can be shipped or picked up at the store.
Ruthann Carroll, director of advertising for Smyth Jewelers, said the company is working on its online retail, but that currently online sales account for a “minimal” amount of the company’s business.
“[When you get into the nice diamonds, people want to see them, touch them, smell them, to taste them, and really understand them. And we help them do that more than anybody does,” Smyth said.
A girl’s best friend
There might not be an average day at Smyth Jewelers in Timonium. Staff there said they take countless orders and assist countless customers. The store has customer service counters, several private suites for consultation, a drop-off counter for repairs and a wall of diamonds that customers looking to customize a ring can peruse.
Bridal jewelry — from engagement rings to wedding bands — are Smyth’s best sellers, Carroll said. Next comes fashion jewelry, the pieces for everyday wear rather than special occasions.
Abbi Donnelly, a graduate gemologist at Smyth for more than a decade, said she had no way to guess how many diamonds and other stones she looks at per day, but it’s a lot.
While she sat at her desk one day in August, a colleague came in with a necklace laced with diamonds, saying a customer wanted it appraised. To the untrained eye, the necklace was pretty — and definitely a little old. But it didn’t look damaged or like it wasn’t of value.
The gemologist took the necklace and held it under her microscope, using a technique called dark field microscopy to examine the diamonds at 10X magnification. Donnelly was iquick to notice some chips and scratches. While pretty to look at, the diamond necklace wasn’t actually worth that much, she concluded.
“I just love learning about the stones,” she said. “It’s a cool job.”
Down the hall, other employees were at work in the jewelry shop, crafting and fixing custom pieces. Some days, the jewelry shop can fly through dozens of small repairs or re-sizings. Other times, jeweler Angelica Goodwin said, it can be a day or two dedicated to a single project.
That day she was working on a custom piece. It used to be a flower broach; now, the certified silversmith is separating the elements to create earrings and a separate piece that can be pinned on. Goodwin said she likes this kind of work that requires some creative thinking rather than more typical re-sizing or repair work.
“It’s fun to get projects like this,” she said.
During an average day, there are a handful of customers standing in line at the Timonium location to either drop off or pick up jewelry pieces for repair. Around the massive show floor, sales associates guide customers toward pieces of jewelry.
Opposite the customer service wall is a suite of cubicles arranged for shoppers looking to customize their jewelry. A small “wall of diamonds” displays different cuts and carats. And in the back of the store is a maze of offices, customer service and sales representatives and a safe, where almost all of the jewelry is packed away nightly.
Bob Yanega, the company’s CFO, married his way into the Smyth family. He represents the fourth generation to be working in the business.
“I started on the sales floor 16 years ago and never looked back,” he said.
Yanega said there’s a shift in jewelry sales, where more traditional pieces (think yellow gold, rather than rose gold or platinum) are making a comeback. For a while, he said, there’s been a “wave” of popularity in cheaper options for jewelry, like Pandora bracelets, that have sold well for Smyth.
But, “it is neat to see the return to, you know, what would traditionally be considered like fine jewelry and fashionable jewelry,” Yanega said.
Costs at Smyth Jewelers can run a customer anywhere from $55 for a pair of fashion earrings to an $84,700 platinum and rose gold engagement ring. There are, however, some exceptions.
Tom Smyth can’t help but show off a massive diamond ring that has been appraised at around $1.1 million. It’s 7.98 carats and internally flawless, he said, making it “one of the finest in the world.”
He initially bought it in Belgium in the late 1980s, he said. A woman bought it and wore the ring for “many, many years,” Smyth said. Recently, she brought it back to the store so it could be resold.
Smyth Jewelers recut the ring’s stone using more modern standards to make it “the brightest cut the most perfect cut that is possible.”
And the the ring is still in need of a buyer.