By Alison James
When it comes to jewelry, Mark and Tammy Nelson have the experience to back up their claims of expertise – their business, Jewelry By Design, is celebrating 20 years of operation.
Mark, an Opelika High School graduate, has been a master jeweler for over 35 years, meaning he has the skills to design and create jewelry, to personally complete any part of the jewelry-making process. He used to do design and repair work for local jewelry stores, like Lorch’s and Zales, before he realized he wanted to go into business for himself.
“People started approaching us to purchase jewelry,” Mark said. “We wanted to do it right.” When someone followed him home one night, trying to get information about purchasing jewelry, he and Tammy, newlyweds at the time, decided to open their own store.
“It just felt like a normal thing for us to go into business together,” Tammy said.
She was an Auburn University student and went straight from school into running Jewelry By Design. Tammy said they put a high priority on keeping their marriage healthy against the stress of running a business together, but the partnership has worked out beautifully.
They opened in the Winn Dixie shopping center across from Duck-Samford Park in Auburn in 1995 in a building space about half their current size. In 2006 they purchased the property on North Dean Road in Auburn, designed the building themselves and moved in in 2007.
Through it all, Tammy said meeting the needs of the customers has been their focus.
“Without them, there would be no business,” she said. “(Our customers say,) Wow, thank you, you made me feel really comfortable. You really listened to what I was trying to ask for, and you gave me real help.”
Mark said at Jewelry By Design, they aim to earn the trust of the customer and never rest on their laurels. One way they do that is by using a one-of-a-kind imaging system to allow them to show someone their diamond in intricate detail – “no squinting required everytime a customer comes in.” The Nelsons also help customers sort through their own jewelry to determine what’s nice and what’s not – what’s costume jewelry and what’s a valuable piece. They also offer appraisals.
Business is split among people who are seeking new pieces and people who want repair work done.
“I had a lady who came in with a family bracelet that was given to someone in the family for christening a ship,” Mark said, remembering a particularly interesting job. “It was this gorgeous platinum filigree bracelet from which someone else in the family had liberated about a third of the diamonds. So we had to sit down and recreate this work from the turn of the century and go hunt down these stones that aren’t around anymore – the old-style cut diamonds.”
Mark said other jewelry stores wanted to just take the diamonds out and use them in a new piece of jewelry because they lacked the skills to do the repair work.
Mark has learned most of what he knows apprenticing under other jewelers and learning on the job. Using tools like a casting machine and a laser welder, he can bring different designs to life so that each customer gets exactly the piece of jewelry for which he or she is looking – a rare service.
“There was no one in Auburn who actually did beginning to end design completely in the store,” Mark said, explaining the mentality behind the store name. Because Mark’s talent was the unique foundation for their business model, it was necessary for him to quit doing work for all the other stores and focus on the customers coming through his own business.
“We were all in. We knew if we wanted to make this work we were willing to do whatever we needed to do,” Tammy said.
The Nelsons try to make sure the jewelry they sell fits the lifestyle of the person who will be wearing it. One big seller is their Auburn University licensed pieces and Auburn and Opelika High School-themed jewelry.
“A very small percentage (of applicants) are awarded the collegiate license because they want to make sure the people they give license will project the image they want to project,” Tammy explained. It took mounds of paperwork and a good reputation to begin producing the Auburn jewelry, which Mark said everyone loves.
Charity work is also important to the Nelsons, they said, whether it’s supporting local nonprofits like Storybook Farm or the Blue Jean Ball, or having their own charity efforts, like Give Back Month and Pay It Forward Month.
Jewelry By Design is located at 590 N. Dean Road in Auburn and open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call 821-9940.