When custom jeweler Alex Gulko closed his shop on Main St. more than two years ago, he thought that he’d reopen in Traver Village in about three months. Moving didn’t bother him. He’d emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in 1993 in search of greater creative opportunities and had already relocated several times since opening on Ashley in 1999.
This time was different. First came Covid and the retail restrictions it triggered. Then, Gulko changed contractors, meaning that he had to wait in line for permits and construction work.
He used the time to redesign his approach to business. He shifted from designing jewelry in wax forms to three- dimensional computer animation. He added more listings to his website, and set up initial appointments via Zoom, which he found to be surprisingly productive: he was able to display and adapt renderings of his designs on screen and get immediate input from clients.
Designing virtually also allowed him to smoothly serve people as far away as Australia. “We can communicate freely, and they can be in their pajamas,” he says.
When customers wanted to see him or their designs in person, he met them in coffee shops or at the downtown library, once both could admit patrons. Used to more privacy when showing his designs, “it wasn’t great,” Gulko admits, but the improvisations kept him going until he could finally open his long-awaited shop in Traver Village.
Previously the home of a hair salon, it is tucked in a corner near Kroger. The shop now has the ample parking that his customers have repeatedly requested, and he expects the atmosphere to be far quieter on football Saturdays.
The front carries several cases of Gulko’s designs. They gleam with multicolored and traditional diamonds and other gemstones, primarily set in eighteen-karat gold or platinum. But he considers his custom work to be the store’s real focus.
Much of that is engagement rings, often ordered by younger customers who are experiencing their first encounter with fine jewelry. “They have no idea what it is,” Gulko says. “I teach them and sometimes change their minds” about the size of a stone or its setting.
Gulko encourages customers to set a budget and to focus on the overall design, rather than choose an expensive center stone that looks impressive but might be out of their reach financially. A typical engagement ring costs $3,000 to $5,000, although he recently designed one for $45,000.
Conventional diamonds remain the most popular engagement stone; among colored diamonds, pink ranks highest, followed by pale blue and yellow. Gulko also offers “lab grown” diamonds, aka faux stones, which resemble the real thing but at a much lower price.
“I’m myself very picky about everything. I don’t want people to spend too much,” he says.
About half his customers are new to the shop, with the other half repeat clients. Gulko works alone, deflecting suggestions that he take on staff. “My customers ask if I want to get their kids to apprentice, and I say, ‘I don’t have time, I’m too busy, and I can’t let anyone do my work anyway.’ ”
He completes a couple of custom pieces weekly, and unlike other retailers, whose business swells during the December holidays, demand remains constant.
In January, he had such a backlog of orders that he had to work seven days a week. Things have since eased up, and he’s got some time to relax at home, where Gulko plays the piano, reviving a skill he learned as a student.
“About five or six years ago, I found myself forgetting my old pieces, and I felt I needed to retrain my hands,” he says. “So I started playing again, and it really helped”—not only with music, but with his nimbleness in designing jewelry.
While Gulko’s immediate family is all here, his homeland is evident in his collection. He shows me a richly colored green peridot ring (my birthstone) whose delicate carved setting echoes Ukrainian design.
He designed the ring after being named to a list of the world’s best Ukrainian jewelers. “Somehow they found me,” he says. “I was really surprised, and wanted to create something showing Ukrainian tradition.”
The violence at home is clearly front of mind. Told that many Americans are standing behind his native land, he replies quietly, “I hope so.”
Alex Gulko Custom Jewelry, 2651 Plymouth Rd. (Traver Village), (734) 741–0652. Tues. & Fri. 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Wed. & Thurs. by appointment. Closed Sun. & Mon.