For Smithworks Fine Jewelery owner Louis Smith, pursuing his passion has been all about education and connection. He knew it when he started a tiny one-man shop in 1988, and he knows it today.
“The first thing I wanted was the Graduate Gemologist credential from GIA, so people could say, ‘He’s a GG, he knows what he’s talking about’,” says Smith. “And I wanted to be part of an organization, so I joined the American Gem Society. It’s hard enough to start and run a business, and if you’re on an island by yourself it’s that much harder.”
Three decades in, buoyed by that ongoing commitment to education and connection, Smith is a former president of the AGS International board and owner of a store with a regional presence that earned honors as Best of the Best in Spartanburg, S.C., for the 14th consecutive year in 2020.
“We’re fortunate to keep moving ahead, always trying new things. I go to a lot of shows. I’m always interested in checking out the new technology section. When we started there was no internet. Now we have a great website, with chat for customers to ask questions, and the Edge POS system. You have to keep pushing forward.”
That forward-thinking mindset – and no small measure of determination – has served him well from the beginning.
While earning an accounting degree at Wofford College, the jewelry-loving Spartanburg native went to Santa Monica, Calif., to pursue an independent study program in jewelry, with classes in diamonds, colored-gem grading and bench work – and discovered the latter was a weakness: “I couldn’t sit still!” But that simply meant he would one day hire an excellent bench jeweler to do repairs while he focused on his favorite part, design. Even so, his passion waited another five years, with Smith working at his grandfather’s music store and pawn shop and gaining a hands-on education in buying, lending money, and determining if something was real.
Finally Smith opened a small storefront on Magnolia Street in Spartanburg’s downtown square, which he gradually expanded by using rearward storage space as needed. In 2004, an extended-stay hotel announced plans to build on a parking lot his customers used, so he bought a 6,000-square-foot former grocery store on Kennedy Street. He renovated and moved into the new space in 2007.
“We gutted it, redid everything. It had red brick, and we put up stucco… We put lots of metallic features, a curved glass showcase, bamboo floors – things that are pretty common now, but back then it was something to behold.”
Today, Smithworks can boast a robust signature design
component allowing customers to peek at the process through a shop window, a “great staff” of tenured professionals including an “old-school” jeweler trained in England, a customer base that stretches to Asheville, N.C., Atlanta, and Charleston, S.C. – and one of the best curated collections of estate and vintage jewelry.
“We started it maybe eight, ten years ago. I go to antique shows in Las Vegas, Miami Beach, and New York. We spend time on price points, categories, items that have provenance, a history, a story to tell. We buy pieces that are in good condition, not things that need repair. It’s a real fun part of the business, and customers love it. And it spills over into the bridal business.”
That 2020 Best of the Best honor coincided with a national pandemic ramp-up and the start of a statewide shutdown. The store closed for about nine days in spring, but bounced back to “buying a lot, selling a lot” since reopening some 10 days before Mother’s Day.
“What occurred to me is that travel is our competition. You’ve got wedding anniversaries, special birthdays, occasions when you want to take the whole family to Hawaii for a couple of weeks, or go to Europe; traveling for the football season is a big thing. And it’s not the same now. People have money to spend because they’re not doing all that traveling.”
Smith also thinks he inherited customers from stores that did not reopen, both nearby and in areas beyond his established region – one example is a man who drove from Washington, D.C., to shop for rings.
“I think if I started today it would be much harder to have a regional presence,” he says.
Despite the bounce, Smith had to cancel his 2020 spring in-store show, which helps promote Mother’s Day buying – a major sales focus for the store – and the fall in-store show in October.
In late November he anticipated the need to make deep reductions to the store’s Christmas party – normally an extravaganza with a nonprofit table, wine-tastings, artists painting and selling their works, and a spread of food. Whereas the seasonal shows are more about generating excitement, the Christmas party is about buying that day, a week before the holiday.
Smith said his store was observing the city mask ordinance, employing a weekly sanitation service using a BioPure vapor, and hoping the vaccines would help ease some safety measures.
“Jewelry is a close-contact retail environment,” Smith says. “With masks, you can’t get a feel for what a customer is thinking, you can’t see whether they’re smiling when they try something on.”
Smith credits much of his success to the ongoing education and abiding connections he has made within the industry. He became an accredited Registered Jeweler in 2001 and a Certified Gemologist in 2004. He joined the AGS board in 2007, was elected president of the AGS International board for the 2014-16 term, and chaired the annual Conclave committee in 2016. He was the first board president to have an extended term to oversee a search committee to replace the retiring AGS executive director. He serves now on the Jewelers Vigilance Committee.
“I call people in AGS all the time to ask, where can I get this, or what would you recommend. And I return the favor, and I’m happy to help… When I went to open my store, I met an AGS jeweler from California who drew out my new store design on a napkin for me and said, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ I took that drawing to an architect…
“When I think of all the people I’ve met that I now call friends – a lot has to do with AGS. You’ve got to be involved in something that gives you that experience.”