by Charles McGuigan
The Kambourians are to jewelry, as the James River is to Richmond. They define it. Their signature artistry is unparalleled, and you can spot one of their creations wherever you go, whether it dangles from a neck, encircles a wrist, or hugs a ring finger. It’s like spotting an Edward Hopper in among paintings by lesser artists. You might expect this of a family that springs from seven generations of jewelers. And like all great artists, the Kambourians are always on the cutting edge. Now, they’ve redefined the jewelry store, and there’s no other experience like it in Richmond, or anywhere else in the entire country.
Haig Kambourian sits behind an enormous desk in a space as opulent as it gets in Richmond. His offices are housed on the second floor of what many consider the city’s most desirable address—the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design at the corner of Robinson and Monument, a home built a hundred years ago, and designed by John Russell Pope, a prominent architect of that era.
I’m sitting in an anteroom that faces Haig’s desk. At the jeweler’s bench, in this small room, Haig’s nephew, Nathan, works on a white gold ring clustered with diamonds. From my vantage point, I watch Haig, framed by the arched doorway, interact with a customer who is selling a diamond ring. This is not your typical diamond ring, either. The stone’s the size of a throat lozenge and has a lemony cast to it. It’s a whopper, weighing in at a full eight carats.
The woman hands Haig a GIA (Gemologist Institute of America) report which describes in detail the pedigree of this large yellow diamond. Haig, in Sherlockian fashion, scours every facet of the stone, as he peers through a loupe held millimeters away from the diamond. His eyes are constantly moving from the gemstone to the GIA report, and back again. He nods to himself, his brow crinkles. Ten minutes later, Haig sits back in his chair. He offers the woman a princely sum for the diamond, and the woman seems genuinely amazed. She explains she had recently tried to sell the same stone to a corporate jewelry store. They‘d offered her $20,000 less than what Haig intends to pay her. “I am so glad I came in here,” the woman says.
At their location on Monument Avenue, Haig buys precious metals and gemstones, and Nathan, in his workshop, repairs jewelry and handcrafts Kambourian originals. “I will buy large diamonds and coin collections, bullion, gold, silver, platinum,” says Haig. Then, Nathan says, “We do the repair work here. This is a bench jeweler, and full custom shop. We make pieces, and finish them, right here.”
A couple days later I meet with Joey Kambourian, Nathan’s brother, who runs the other half of Kambourian Jewelers, an intimate showroom on Grove Avenue near Libbie. When I tell Joey about the woman and the giant stone, he smiles and cocks his head. He’s soft-spoken and precise in his enunciation. “We know all the diamond merchants, and all the color gemstone merchants everywhere,” he says. “They don’t even use websites. You have to know them, and you just call them from wherever they may be in the world at the time. That’s why we can get customers the best price for the gemstones they’re selling, and why we can get any gemstone for our custom work.”
This intimate showroom we’re standing in is the first jewelry store of its kind in Richmond. Shop hours are by appointment only, though walk-ins are always welcome. Appointments are typically made between ten and six on weekdays, but Joey will meet customers as early as eight in the morning, or as late as seven in the evening.
“We’re still a full-service jewelry shop, and we still have all our inventory,” says Joey. “It’s just now we have a much more open showroom, and with that set up we keep a lot less of our inventory out at any given moment. The flipside of that is that we get to tailor the showroom to exactly what each customer wants to see.”
For instance, if someone’s looking for an engagement ring, once they set up an appointment, Joey busies himself creating a personalized showroom for that particular customer. “We’ll set up a sixty to forty mix of modern and vintage pieces,” he says. “We’ll also have some of our handmade pieces mixed in.”
Although the client can purchase a ring then and there, Joey sees this initial showing as an opportunity to help the client create a custom design. “It’s often just a jumping off point for custom work,” he says. “I’d say custom design is about eighty percent of what we do now.”
Even though these pieces are custom-made, the prices are reasonable, and there’s a reason for that. “We don’t have massive amounts of overhead,” Joey explains. “It’s me, my brother and my uncle, and we have these cozy little tucked away offices where we can make these wonderful things, so we don’t have to charge ten times the mark up. And that makes everyone happy.”
The Kambourians gracefully merge new school with old school methods in creating one-of-a-kind jewelry.
“We do CAD design,” says Joey. “But we do a lot of hand-drawn traditional stuff, as well.”
After the design is finalized, Joey’s brother, Nathan, goes to work on handcrafting the piece. “The finishing of it is all done by Nathan in our little shop above the Branch Museum,” Joey says. “And that’s just a wonderful, inspiring place for our jeweler to sit down at his bench and focus on his art.”
With their cumulative years of experience, this team of jewelers can produce virtually anything from start to finish. Joey tells me about a diamond ring they made a few years back. The stone—a five-carat round—was larger than average, but the client wanted the ring to have a delicate look. “And that’s just something we’ve gotten really good at over the years,” says Joey. “We can make something that looks very dainty, but we make sure it’s stable enough and strong enough to hold a five-carat stone.” He remembers that particular ring. “It looked like something a princess would wear,” he says. “It was just amazing.”
For several years now, Joey has been thinking about creating this type of personalized jewelry boutique. He came up with the idea after years of watching customers looking through the showcases at their former shop in Carytown.
“The problem with having a big show room with a thousand rings is that people would come in five or six times and not see it all,” Joey says. “There’s not enough time in the world to go through all of our inventory in one setting. So my idea was to be able to tailor it to each person.”
This personalized showroom approach seemed like a good alternative to the conventional jewelry store. “Ours is the first store in Richmond that I’ve seen where there’s this level of attention to detail, and focus on the individual’s experience,” says Joey. “I had been reading about some smaller European showrooms that have a similar feel, but I really do think that we may be the first to do it on a person-by-person basis.”
And the Kambourians new shops benefit both the customer and the jeweler.
“I’ve been wanting to switch over to this setup for a long time now,” Joey Kambourian says. “I really do believe it’s better for everybody involved. The jeweler and the designer, like me and Nathan, don’t have to be in here forty to sixty hours a week. We come in when there’s something to do. It allows us to have that unmatchable personalization that you could not have in a normal store. In that setting, you’d always be worried that somebody else would walk in off the street and start taking attention away from the customer you were working with. And we never want anyone to feel even remotely rushed. We want people to be able to take their time.”
2501 Monument Avenue &
5706 Grove Avenue, Suite 203