An independent jeweler’s bread and butter is making custom engagement rings. All that quality craftsmanship comes at a price, and Mark Urban of Urban Jewelers says he has always priced his rings fairly.
“Some of my customers asked when I was going to have a sale,” Mark said, “and I told them I’d have one sale and one sale only. And that’s when I retire.”
Now, after forty-three years at the jeweler’s bench, he is hanging up his blue smock and holding that final sale. He brought in a friend and retired jeweler to handle the sale.
“I started helping my dad at the store when I was in the eighth grade,” Urban recalls. “He’d bring me downtown on Saturday. He’d have me sweep the floor, but he also taught me how to do invoices and price gems.”
His father, Stanley Urban, founded the store in 1968 on the 300 block of N. Main. The store did wholesale work for other jewelers as well as custom designs. Mark bought his father out in 1988 and concentrated more on custom design. He moved the store to 215 S. Main in 1997. “Downtown was sluggish in those days, not like now,” he says. “People asked: why do you want to be downtown?”
But he thought downtown was the place to be, and he was right. He owns the building on Main, which includes Footprints shoes next door and tenants in offices upstairs. He is in negotiations with downtown landlord Reza Rahmani, but the sale, if it goes through, will not immediately affect existing tenants.
Urban is sixty-two, and says he decided to stop working while he was still fit enough to enjoy exploring the world. Last year, his wife and business partner, Cheryl, convinced him to take a three-week European cruise.
“I’d never taken a three-week vacation in my life,” he says. “I spend nine, ten hours on the bench, six days a week.”
For now, Mark is concentrating on emptying out cases full of jewelry he has created. In addition to engagement rings, he likes to create one-of-a-kind pendants with modern lines and colored gemstones.
Once the retail business is closed, Mark still has plenty of custom orders to complete.
“We hope to close out the front of the store in November,” he says, “and finish the custom orders in December.”
Having caught the travel bug, he and Cheryl had planned another three-week trip to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands after the store closed, but that is postponed due to Hurricane Irma.
Urban says downtown’s future depends on refurbishing and reusing old buildings like the one he owns.
“This place was built in 1901. It needs a significant upgrade, someone who can spend a lot of money bringing it into the twenty-first century and still keep its character.”
All the residential buildings going up around downtown will drive a need for retail, he says. But after helping revitalize downtown twenty years ago, he’s ready to hit the beach.
Craig and Brenda Warburton of Austin & Warburton are not ready to retire. But over the years, they have moved their business farther and farther away from downtown.
“It suits our business model,” Craig says.
Their original store on W. Washington had belonged to jeweler Jack Austin. After fifty years, Jack was ready to retire, so in 1987 the Warburtons bought him out. Like Cheryl Urban, Craig was lured into the business by a jeweler spouse.
“I ran some [metal] plating plants in Ypsilanti,” Craig says. But the businessman in him saw a sensational opportunity when Jack retired.
Focusing on custom designing and building engagement rings, the Warburtons launched an ad campaign, “She Said Yes.” The success of the campaign encouraged the couple to move the store to Main St. in 1998.
Once a couple buys an engagement ring at Austin & Warburton, they come back for future jewelry purchases.
“When the babies start arriving or special birthdays or anniversaries,” Craig says, “that’s where we come in.”
“We’re the ultimate recyclers, too,” Brenda adds. “When someone inherits grandma’s ring but doesn’t like the style, they bring it to us, and we reimagine it for them.”
Austin & Warburton was on S. Main for ten years. They closed that store in 2009 and moved to 214 W. Kingsley. They built their online presence and limited showroom hours to appointment only.
“It wasn’t so much the economy,” Craig says. “It was the Internet.”
He says couples would come into the store with pictures of rings they’d found online for half the price of custom rings.
“That’s a picture, I’d tell them. This is a ring,” and show them the real thing.
They had two more years on their lease when construction began on a new condo next to their parking lot in June. Craig says the work blocked access to the first floor and the handicapped entrance.
“It was frustrating,” he says. “We felt we had no option but to leave.”
“Just the beep, beep, beep all the time,” Brenda adds. “It was enough to drive you crazy.”
Their new storefront is tucked behind Stadium Opticians, in the space formerly occupied by Eyemedia. Optician Brian Pierce bought the business and building earlier this year from founder Chuck Meldrum.
“Dr. Pierce is a great landlord,” Craig says. “He’s helped us get settled in here.”
The Warburtons hope to get the storefront and workshop open before the holiday season.
Austin & Warburton, 2335 W. Stadium Blvd, 663-7151. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., appointments helpful. austinandwarburton.com
Another jewelry shop quietly changed its business model this summer. In June 2017, Estate Jewelry by Michael on Jackson Ave. changed its name to Michael’s Jewelers. Gone are the “We Buy Gold” banners flying outside. The inside has received a makeover, with one wall eliminated to bring in more natural light, old furniture removed, and new cases added to display custom jewelry.
According to store manager and jeweler Peter-John Parisis, longtime employee Tom Macek suggested the change to the store’s owner, Stephen Michael Hanchon.
“People were coming in looking to buy jewelry, and we had three empty cases,” Parisis says.
Hanchon lives most of the year in Thailand, finding gemstones and designing jewelry for his stores in Monroe and Ann Arbor. But prior to June, the bulk of the business was resale from estate pieces and gold.
Hanchon hired Parisis to manage the Monroe store in 2015; he transferred to Ann Arbor this year to oversee its renovation. Now, almost all the items are custom made on site, though one case is still devoted to high-end estate pieces.
The custom design work focuses primarily on engagement and wedding rings, though they also do repairs and redesign for customers who bought their pieces elsewhere.
Michael’s Jewelers, 2736 Jackson Rd., 213-2900. Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed Sunday. michaelsjewelersmi.com