Full Circle – Neal Elinoff, Elinoff Gallery

Neal Elinoff is owner of the Elinoff Gallery in Telluride, CO, a three-story retail store where they hand-pick a collection of fine art and jewelry. The gallery offers a great variety of designer jewelry—both diamond and colored gemstones—including collections from John Hardy, Roberto Coin, Leslie Greene, Anna Balkan and many more. But that’s not all–along with an impressive collection of fine jewelry, the gallery includes museum quality impressionist and contemporary art. The Elinoff Gallery is certainly the destination for anyone who appreciates or has a passion for art and design, whether it be in the form of jewelry, watches or fine paintings. Meet the man behind it as we discuss with him what he does to make customers’ visits memorable, his buying decisions for the gallery, his thoughts on the retail and jewelry industries and much more:

How would you describe your gallery using only three words?
Quality, Educational, Fascinating.

How did you get started in the jewelry industry?
I purchased a going concern called, “New West Gallery” and sold through their merchandise and expanded into higher-end goods. Native American jewelry and art weren’t going to pay the bills and indeed, the store was failing when we purchased it in 1994. It was losing money year after year and the owners were begging for someone to take over their lease. I saw the opportunity and knew I could make it work by upscaling the quality of the jewelry from native Silver to fine gold.

What does Elinoff Gallery do to make customers’ visits memorable? Do you do any special events?
Our customers generally don’t live in Telluride. They are either first-time visitors, return visitors or second homeowners. They show up unannounced and leave the following day, so we need quite a large inventory so that they have anything they may want. I feel we’re pretty capable at doing this. We also make our store look different from month to month and we carry inventory that isn’t traditional in a jewelry store such as fossils, African arts and fine art including linogravures and such from the modern period.

What made you incorporate both fine art and jewelry in your store?
We started as an art gallery selling works on paper from the 1860’s–1960’s, and then slowly added contemporary art and fine jewelry. The jewelry has been a fantastic accompaniment to our store and people know us primarily now as a fine jewelry store that has art, too.

Do the paintings and art throughout the gallery influence your buying decisions when deciding which jewelry to add to your collection?
Many times, art is more interesting to the men when their partners are looking at jewelry. Art accessorizes their homes. Jewelry accessorizes their person. Art and jewelry are complementary sales items in the most surprising ways. Sometimes one half of the couple wants a piece of art and the other half says, “if I can have this piece of jewelry.” Finally, our economy is both seasonal and rather small with only 5,000 people living within 50 miles and our visitor bed base is only 2,000, so we need to make every sale to visitors and second homeowners we can, so our jewelry inventory in our showcases and safe is vast and our fine art inventory on our walls and in our art vault is quite large, as well. Our success is that 24 years later, we’re the oldest continuously owned business in Telluride and because we own our building, we expect to be here always.

Are there any particular stones, colors, or styles that you are partial to and prefer to carry more of in the store?
We tend to do a good job with larger, center stone color and unusual stones. Color diamonds from about 1-5 carats and colored gemstones such as Paraiba, colored sapphires and other, center stones in the 3-7 carat range in rings, pendants and a little smaller in earrings & necklaces. We have full display cases of a variety of colored sapphires, of tourmalines, and of colored diamond jewelry as well as traditional white diamond bracelets, earrings and necks. We don’t sell much bridal. From zero to maybe two bridal rings a year!

How do you decide what to carry in your store?
It’s hit or miss. Sometimes we hit a home run and sell the piece a week after it arrives. Then we re-order and it sits for 8 years. Seriously. There is no way to know what people are going to pull the trigger on so we carry a vast inventory.

Do you think your collection would look any different if you were located somewhere else, such as New York?
Actually, I think if our store was in any large city we’d turn at least 5 times the volume. Perhaps much more. Most people when they come in who have visited jewelry stores all over the world say that ours is as fine a jewelry store they’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. These are guests who purchase regularly at the finest stores in London, Milan, Paris, NY and the Mediterranean coast, and not one store looks like ours or carries our inventory. Robb Report gave us a half page spread in April 2014 calling it “Rocky Mountain Rarities”.

Would you consider having other locations? If so, would the collection(s) be the same exact style or would you switch it up a bit depending on the area and demographic?
Before being in the jewelry business, I was in the ice cream, cookie, chocolate, coffee and cigars business. I had a chain of ice cream stores that I sold to a big public company. A chain of 122 cookie stores with retail shops in 7 states and factories and stores in Israel, Argentina, Spain and Japan. I invented a coffee roaster and opened coffee shops in the Chicago area and a chain of cigar shops, each being a production store in San Diego. So I’m pretty experienced in putting in place systems, refining and replicating the concepts but this jewelry thing, not having a labor pool to hire from has precluded us from expanding into other markets such as Santa Fe, Vail and Aspen. I wanted to, we just couldn’t make it happen. The off seasons are too difficult to maintain a store without working it yourself and the seasons are too short to get the right staff to expand with. So we don’t see being able to expand. Instead, we’ve expanded into other local businesses such as a frame shop, a restaurant (Alpinist & the Goat) rental condos and a vending route.

What are some of the biggest challenges of the jewelry and retail industries? How have you evolved with the emergence of e-commerce, social media, and different trends? Does that affect you?
Obviously, the 1,000 pound retail gorilla is the internet. It’s lowering the margins and accelerated the game like monopoly—in the end, there will only be a few big players and everyone one else will be broke and out of the game. Unless the US economy somehow gets regulated to even out the playing field, and in order to prolong the inevitable, we try and sell mostly one-of-a-kind pieces so that they can’t be shopped on the internet and the only retail items that we’ve been successful with on the internet are our copyrighted “Telluride” jewelry pieces. Remember, we’re in an isolated and remote village hundreds of miles from most everything. The nearest town with a Walmart is 70 miles away and those residents don’t shop for higher-end jewelry and art so social media hasn’t been part of our local marketing. I would definitely like to set up a better online presence and do the internet thing, but with few people in the area that can actually do the grunt work for us and those that can charge exorbitant rates, I don’t see it in the near future unless we relocate that part of our business somehow to Denver, which is 7 hours away.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your business?
After only 24 years, Elinoff is Telluride’s oldest, continuously owned business which speaks volumes about the difficulties of owning a business in a ski town. The lesson? Don’t move to a ski town to try and make a living unless you have deep pockets and are willing to sacrifice income potential for a mountain lifestyle.

What is one piece of advice you would give someone who is just starting out in the industry?
I have two. Always be kind and love what you do and do what you love.

What is one piece of jewelry you could never live without?
My Mark Hileman, opal wedding band.

How long have you been coming to JCK?
We’ve been coming to JCK since 1996. We started coming to Luxury when the Couture show moved from Phoenix to the Wynn.

What is/was your favorite part about the show?
Since our store is so isolated and remote, this is our chance to see some of the fashion trends first hand and to pick up some new ideas.

Did you meet anyone new and noteworthy at the show?
We always meet new people at the show. We’re doing business with some remarkable new color diamond and white diamond manufactures that have built some jewelry that is absolutely wearable and 100% unusual. Because our customers tend to have an existing relationship with their family jeweler back home, we carry fantastic jewelry that their family jewelry store won’t have in stock; such as large, extraordinary color in traditional settings that customers know they will be giving to their children when they pass.

How else do you discover up-and-coming brands and designers?
Only at the show. Seriously. We only find our upcoming brands and designers from salesmen referrals at the shows and from checking out the new designs at the shows.

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