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Astrein’s Creative Jewelers

120 West Maple Road
Birmingham, Michigan 48009

Richard and Gary Astrein

How did you get started in the business?

Richard: Our brother Craig got the business started around 1973. He was traveling out West and bought a lot of turquoise jewelry, which was a hot craze at the time. Gary and I joined in a year or two later. We were in the same building we are in now, but upstairs. In fact, we called our business 'What's Upstairs.' We sold art, silver and turquoise at first. Business grew and the store downstairs became available, so we made the move in 1976.

Why the jewelry business?

Richard: Good question. Our father was in the building business. He used to say that builders would buy jewelry when they made money, and jewelers would buy land, so we figured it was a good investment.

How has the business changed over the years?

Richard: We got out of crafts around 1980 to focus on jewelry. It was getting hard to find artists. We started making custom jewelry. Back in the '80s, about 70 percent of our jewelry was custom-made. Today, about 35 percent of our work is custom.
Trends have changed. Now there's an emphasis on silver, pearl and colored stones. We've seen a shift to price-conscious shopping lately. Some are coming in looking to spend $100, but there are still some looking to spend $100,000.

What's it like to work with your brother?

Richard: It's wonderful. Gary and I have a great working partnership. I do a lot of the public relations and charity work. He handles the nuts and bolts of the business.

Gary: I do most of the diamond buying, the merchandising, a lot of the advertising; and I run the shop downstairs. We have a three-person shop that does the repairs and the custom work. That's my responsibility — new product, going to trade shows, picking out diamonds and colored stones, getting jobs ready and making sure we're on track from start to finish, in addition to selling.

Richard: We cover well. When I'm away, he's here, and vice versa. It's just a nice feeling. We're different personalities, but we work well together.

What are the keys to your success?

Richard: We feel that the customers are most important, so we see that they get treated right whether they buy or not. A lot of stores are driven by commissions, and that can be an uncomfortable feeling. Of our 12 employees, four are family. Some of our employees have been with us more than 30 years. It's a close-knit group. Nobody works on commission. We're on a first-name basis with 80 percent of the people who walk in the door.

If a customer is unhappy, we'll give a cash refund. Very few jewelers do that. Even when we do custom work — and we've done thousands of pieces — we can count on one hand the number of times the customer wasn't totally happy. I just think we just have a really good feel for the customer. We've got a great staff. They do quality work, and it shows. Most of our business is referral. That's exciting to us. We love coming to work. We have a great customer base.

In what ways do you get involved with the community?

Gary: We feel a strong connection to our community. I live in town and walk to work. We believe in giving back. We've tried to focus on children's needs during these times. Giving back is a big part of who we are.

Richard: Because there are two of us, we're able to be more involved. Some business owners can't afford to be away from the store too long.

I'm on the Beaumont Foundation board. We do a lot for the pediatrics department. We do a huge fundraiser called Stars' Guitars that's special to us. It provides scholarships to cancer survivors. This year, we're awarding 50 scholarships.
I also chair the Chocolate Jubilee for Alzheimer's. That's been near and dear to me. And I'm on the boards for Children's Leukemia and Common Ground Sanctuary.

What do you see for the future?

Richard: I think Michigan is going to make a comeback. This recession has lingered. We're losing a lot of population. And we're losing some of the best young people who are going elsewhere for opportunity. The most critical thing we need to do in this state is to believe in ourselves, to know that we're going to come out of it.

Gary: Kids today are very worldly and, with the current job market, Michigan has been a tough place to stay. We've lost a lot of good kids — and not just in the Jewish community. I think the first step in a rebound might be people coming back. We do have advantages — the cost of living, the sense of community. That could make a difference.

Richard: It's interesting to see a return of family-owned businesses to Birmingham. When we started here, just about all the businesses were family-owned. Then, we went through a period where we had the typical chain stores downtown, and we found that they really didn't connect to the community as well. Now we're seeing a whole new group of merchants and entrepreneurs coming in.
That's one of the nice things about Birmingham. It offers a different flavor. It's a vibrant community.

Interview by Allan Nahajewski
Detroit Jewish News

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