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Retailer Hall of Fame 2019: Cathy Calhoun
The Royersford, Pennsylvania jeweler known as “The Queen” opens her vault of incredible stories and expertly selected antique jewelry. Come inside with us.
But she became a success because of her intelligence, tenacity and passion.
Calhoun has been given opportunities, yes, but she has also made her own luck through dedication to continuing education. It has made her knowledgeable not just about jewelry—Calhoun is both a graduate gemologist and certified gemologist appraiser—but about what it takes to succeed in retail.
The jeweler is the kind of person who makes it a point to not just do things, but do them well, observes close friend and colleague Terry Chandler, president and CEO of Diamond Council of America.
She learns everything there is to possibly know about a subject, whether it is owning a jewelry store, driving a race car or flying a plane. (And, yes, Calhoun knows how to do the latter two as well.)
“She’s constantly re-educating herself and updating the information in her head to know the latest and the best practices,” Chandler says. “She’s never satisfied. It’s always a work in progress with her, and that’s why she’s so successful.”
Without being asked, Calhoun will tell you as much.
It's a sunny spring afternoon at her store, about an hour outside Philadelphia, and we are chatting at the bar.
She installed this countertop, where customers can relax and have something to eat or drink, in 2004, which is to say: Calhoun was on to the idea of making her store “an experience” before it became a common topic in every how-can-my-store-survive-the-retail-apocalypse story.
On this particular April afternoon, there are chocolate chip cookies (freshly baked in-store) and a bowl of jelly beans on the granite bar top. I ask if she swaps out the jelly beans for gumdrops come Christmas.
“Are you kidding?” she replies. “Christmas is a whole spread. I have hoagies that go out here, cheese, grapes, spreads. This is filled with food. Men will come in just to eat.”
At less-hectic times of the year, Calhoun will take her dinner at the bar, look out at her store as she eats and think about things she could change or improve.
She gets her ideas everywhere, from AGS Conclaves—she’s only missed one since the 1980s—from jewelry industry trade publications, from her customers and from paying attention to trends in industries other than jewelry, including fashion and travel.
The Four Cs: An Unusual Introduction
In the 1980s, Calhoun was working at a bank in Spring City, Pennsylvania (the same bank that, incidentally, would later become her home) and dating John Strasbaugh, the now-retired owner of Oletowne Jewelers in nearby Pottstown.
Though only in his mid-30s at the time, the jeweler suffered a massive heart attack on Thanksgiving and tapped his then-girlfriend, a bank teller who was good with money, to take over the business for him while he recovered.
“He said to me, you’re going to have to go in and run my store for me for Christmas,” Calhoun recalled. “So I thought, how hard could that be? That has to be easy, right?”
Her first customers strolled into the store on a Friday night in search of an engagement ring. The man pointed to one in the case, and she pulled it out and told them the price. He then asked to see another ring with a diamond that looked to be about the same size but in a different mounting, so Calhoun got that one out too.
Then came this question: They both look the same, so why is one $1,000 more than the other?
“I said, ‘Well gee, I don’t know, he must have it mismarked, so take whichever one you want at the lower price,’” she says, her voice breaking with laughter a bit at the memory. “I had no idea there was color, clarity, cut, nothing. I had no idea.”
After they left with, of course, the more expensive diamond in hand, Calhoun began poking around in the engagement ring case and noticed that all the prices were different and thought her boyfriend had screwed up royally.
So she proceeded to do what she thought was a favor for Strasbaugh, who, if you’ll remember, has already suffered a massive heart attack.
She “organized” his showcase, rewriting all the price tags to make all the half-carat diamonds the same price, all three-quarter-carat diamonds the same price, etc. Then she headed over to the hospital to visit her beau and let him know about her first sale and case reorganization.
The moment when she told him went like this, according to Calhoun.
“I swear to God, John grabbed his chest and screamed, ‘It’s the big one!’ meaning he’s having another heart attack, and he’s like, ‘You idiot, what is the matter with you? Are you nuts?’”
After he calmed down, having dodged another heart attack, Strasbaugh proceeded to explain color, cut and clarity to Calhoun.
And that was this now-well-known jeweler’s introduction to the four Cs.
From One Bank to Another
Calhoun realized right away that if she was going to run Strasbaugh’s store while he recovered, she was going to need some education.
Luckily, that next weekend she spotted a notice in one of the trade magazines on his desk that the Gemological Institute of America was coming to Philadelphia to do a weekend education program, with one day on diamonds and one on colored stones.
Bill Boyajian was the instructor for the colored stones course, and Calhoun credits his lecture with inspiring her to get her graduate gemologist (GG) diploma from GIA.
Calhoun says she earned her GG through home study while working at Oletowne Jewelers, where she remained for 10 years after that fateful pre-Christmas price tag misstep, working in partnership with Strasbaugh even after the two broke up.
“For a long time, I didn’t even know what [being an AGS store] meant. I just knew the stores that they mentioned were these very high-end stores.” —Cathy Calhoun
Eventually, she decided to go out on her own and had a specific goal in mind—not to just have a jewelry store but to have an American Gem Society jewelry store.
Calhoun had heard the initials “AGS” thrown around by salesmen that came into Oletowne and understood enough about the organization to know those letters were attached to the best of the best.
“For a long time,” she says, “I didn’t even know what [being an AGS store] meant. I just knew the stores that they mentioned were these very high-end stores.”
That is what she wanted to own, and so she did.
In early 1997, Calhoun purchased Zenker Jewelers from the retiring owners, Howard and Renee Zenker, and turned it into Calhoun Jewelers.
The store remained in what Calhoun refers to as the “old Zenker building” in Royersford for five years before Calhoun Jewelers relocated to its current site, a ‘60s-era bank building on the heavily trafficked corner of Fifth and Main. It became an AGS-designated store in late 1998.
How Calhoun negotiated to buy the bank building (as well as several other bank buildings in her area that she owns to this day) is a story in and of itself but, in the interest of space, it is a tale for another time.
For now, it’s time to move on to another, more fun topic—this legendary jeweler’s legendary parties.
Ruth Batson, another close Calhoun friend who recently retired as CEO of AGS, has to be impartial so she can’t say it.
But Doug Hucker will: The party Calhoun presided over in 2011, when she was president of AGS and Conclave took place in San Francisco, was the best AGS President’s Party of all time, the “stuff of legend.”
And he wasn’t the least bit surprised, having attended parties at Calhoun’s store prior to that while working on the supplier side, first in the colored gemstones division at Krementz & Co. and then at antique and estate jewelry company The Registry.
“She’s a genius at special events,” says Hucker, now CEO of the American Gem Trade Association. “There was never [an event where] you just show up at the store and show jewelry. There was always some kind of event or extravaganza around it.
“Many jewelers do promotions that are heavily dependent upon the product. I think one of Cathy’s strokes of genius is the event is the event.” — Doug Hucker
“You never know what she’s going to do, but it’s always the kind of thing where if I were a retail jeweler, I would say, ‘I wish I would have thought of that.’”
A couple examples of top Calhoun parties, in addition to the AGS fête in San Francisco, include the 2008 “Hippie Happening,” where local residents listened to live music while camped out on blankets in the store parking lot, and her locally famous Oscar party in the historic Colonial Theatre, which has been written up in the trade ad nauseum.
She was selling peace sign jewelry at the Hippie Happening, along with pictures taken by her friend, well-known rock ‘n’ roll photographer Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal (his credits include the cover for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 album “Déjà Vu”), but she wasn’t pushing it.
And she doesn’t push any jewelry at her annual Oscar party either. It’s just an excuse for people to get dressed up, come out and watch the Academy Awards with a crowd while, of course, keeping the Calhoun Jewelers name out there.
“Many jewelers do promotions that are heavily dependent upon the product. I think one of Cathy’s strokes of genius is the event is the event,” Hucker says.
As many smart marketers know, people can sense it when the opposite is true—that the event is just a thin veneer for getting them to buy jewelry.
But at Calhoun Jewelers, “Cathy’s customers really feel the events are important because they are cool events and they don’t feel that pressure. They don’t feel the threshold resistance,” he says. “They like to come and have an enjoyable time.”
Dream By the Sea
Calhoun is being inducted into National Jeweler’s Retailer Hall of Fame in the Single-Store Independent category, though, if all goes according to plan, she will have a second store by the time this magazine goes to press.
Shortly after the Las Vegas shows, the jeweler is set to open the doors on a store in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, about two-and-a-half hours south of San Francisco.
Batson says the opening of Calhoun Jewelers west is the product of that aforementioned tenacity.
Calhoun’s ability to battle through health issues, business challenges and relationship challenges makes it possible to realize a dream of hers—to open a second store in a beautiful and charming seaside town that is a definite change of pace from eastern Pennsylvania, observes Batson.
“She continues to grow, continues to do new things, continues to take over new territory—and I just think she’s amazing.”
Calhoun said her new store will carry antique and estate jewelry exclusively, something she sees a need for in the area.
Many of the pieces will be from a collection she first appraised at Oletowne Jewelers three decades ago, right after she became a GG, and had forgotten about completely until recently.
A few months ago, the son of the woman who had owned the jewelry tracked down the appraiser whose name was scribbled on the offer to buy—Cathy Calhoun—and came into Calhoun Jewelers wanting to sell the entire collection for the amount offered 31 years ago.
Devastated and overwhelmed by his mother’s death and limited socially by obsessive-compulsive disorder, he had been holding onto the jewelry, and the appraisal slip, all this time.
But recently, he told Calhoun, his late mother had come to him in a dream and told him to sell everything so he could free himself.
So she bought the collection, naturally, but paid the man more than the initial offer based on the rate of inflation for the materials.
Still, it was a good deal for Calhoun, particularly for jewelry that’s been sitting unworn in a bank vault for three decades, and now it will serve as the cornerstone collection for a second store.
This story of an appraisal resurfacing after 31 years is quintessential Cathy—it’s an interesting and remarkable tale that is the byproduct of luck and what can only be described as good karma.
“She has things happen to her that don’t happen to anyone else,” Hucker rightly observes.
Hucker didn’t (yet) know the latest appraisal story when I interviewed him, but he did recall how his friend Cathy Calhoun happened to hop into a cab with Paul David Hewson, a man better known by his stage name, Bono, on the way to the Gem Awards one year in New York.
“She’s got a karma about her,” he says. “I think it’s earned. She’s a beautiful person, she radiates interest and I think that kind of thing attracts [positive] things ... I don’t know, it’s magic.”
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