- Ben De Florio
- Luke Ward of Red Door Jewelers in Randolph
When Luke Ward was 5 years old, he would lay on his belly in parking lots searching the pebbles on the pavement for tiny bits of amethyst, a semiprecious stone common to his native New Hampshire. It took another 25 years before Ward fulfilled his dream of selling these and other gems for a living — a dream the pandemic nearly ended for him.
Ward is the owner of Red Door Jewelers in Randolph, a business he founded four years ago. He buys diamonds, coins, overstocked jewelry and scrap precious metals, then sorts through them to decide which ones should be recycled and which can be resold.
Ward purchases precious metals in nearly any form: old coins, jewelry, gold nuggets, watches, even dental fillings. He said he also enjoys discovering antique jewelry inscribed with dates, such as one "super-cool" item he sold just before Christmas: a wedding band engraved with the date December 25, 1890.
"It's like a treasure hunt," he said.
Before moving to Randolph Center, where his wife, Rebecca, is from, Ward cut his teeth in the jewelry industry after the Great Recession of the late 2000s, when he spent a year working in a retail jewelry store in Connecticut. But business there was lackluster, he recalled, and he didn't learn much "except for some basic sales skills and how to change watch batteries."
Much of what Ward knows today about the jewelry profession he either picked up from mentors or taught himself, he explained. Those skills include how to grade a diamond, or evaluate its market value based on its cut, clarity, color and weight in carats.
Until a few months ago, the bulk of Ward's income came from wholesale business he did online with retail jewelers around the country. He's always done a small amount of retail business himself, such as fixing broken clasps and changing watchbands and batteries. But because his former shop in Randolph was tiny and located on a one-way side street with low visibility and virtually no foot traffic, most people didn't even know he was there.
Then, in March, when the pandemic closed most businesses across the country, the bottom completely fell out for him.
"With COVID, everything shut down. I just sat on my butt for three months," Ward said with a laugh. "There was no one to buy from, and there was no one to sell to."
With no employees but Rebecca, Ward secured a modest federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and got through the lean months by doing a small amount of online and mail-order business. He continued paying the rent and utilities on his tiny, 250-square-foot shop, which amounted to only $500 a month.
"It wasn't a hardship," he said, noting that his family of seven is frugal with its funds. "We run a tight ship on our finances."
Ward reopened in mid-June, and business slowly picked up again.
"People have been cooped up in their houses, and they wanted to spend their money," he said. "They had to do something, and retail therapy was it."
Then, in October, shortly before the start of the holiday shopping season, Ward moved Red Door Jewelers into a new space on Main Street five times larger than his old shop. Though the rent is higher, he considers it an advertising expense.
"Being here has increased my visibility a hundredfold," he added. "I've seen more people in three months than I did in two years."
Indeed, on a recent weekday morning, a couple of walk-in customers visited the very Vermonty space. In addition to the requisite glass display cases, which are filled with necklaces, rings, brooches and earrings ranging in price from $25 to $2,500, the walls are covered with New England-themed paintings and photos sold on consignment by local artists. Shelves offer maple syrup made by Silloway Maple, a Randolph Center business owned by Rebecca's family. Even the coatrack at the door is Vermont-themed: a repurposed wooden cow stanchion salvaged from a nearby dairy barn.
Ironically, Ward, 34, wears no jewelry himself except for a wedding band made of stainless steel, and a tie tack Rebecca once bought him. But even wearing the latter is a rarity, he noted, as ties seem overly formal in the central Vermont town.
Recently, Ward found another way to buffer his business from future economic downturns. Last month he became a licensed pawnbroker which, under federal law, designates Red Door Jewelers as a "financial institution" and thus an essential service. This, he suggested, should permit the store to remain open even if other retailers are ordered to close due to COVID-19.
"That was my strategic move, if you will, to try to stay alive," he said.
And with many Vermonters out of work and strapped for cash, Ward sees the pawn business as a community service. As he pointed out, most banks won't write loans for less than $1,500. So if someone needs a few hundred dollars to get by, he explained, they can pawn an item and then have six months to pay back the cash they receive. Under Vermont law, if the person fails to pay it back, Ward can then resell the item. But he can only recoup the price of the original "loan" plus interest, which the state also caps.
By year's end, Ward realized that 2020 wasn't such a bad year after all. Though he estimates that he lost about a half a million dollars in gross sales, Red Door Jewelers still recorded one of its most profitable years ever, going from $1.5 million in gross sales in 2019 to $1.8 million in 2020.
"They're low margins," he clarified, "so don't think I'm rich."
Still, for Ward, it was a remarkable reversal of fortune.