SOMERS POINT — Now in its 50th year, Bernie Robbins Jewelers has a history as richly varied as it is long.
In the beginning, the business wasn’t a seller of quality, exclusive jewelry and watches — it wasn’t a jeweler at all, but a major appliance dealer in Philadelphia, said owner Harvey Rovinsky, who has been with Bernie Robbins since 1966 and headed it since 1996.
Then the family business became a lower-end jewelry store that still sold appliances, and then added a catalog showroom, he said.
Rovinsky, 65, is a third-generation jeweler, and when he married Maddy, his wife of 43 years and the daughter of founder Bernie Robbins, the trend toward retail jewelry probably become inevitable.
The watershed moment for the business came in 1992 when the family members realized the market was filled with mid-range jewelers, leaving an opportunity for a seller of famous name luxury jewelry.
“We were resourceful and insightful enough to realize that was the wave of the future, so early on we started acquiring the brands of the future,” said Rovinsky, who has homes in Longport and Huntington Valley, Pa., and spends “probably 250 days a year” at the company’s flagship store and headquarters on New Road here.
Those leading global brands included Rolex, Cartier and Chanel — famous firms that choose their exclusive dealers carefully.
“We’ve been a Rolex jeweler for 20 years, and before that it took me eight years of phone calls and letter writing to get them to allow me to sell their brand,” he said. “We have to continue to meet high standards to remain a Rolex jeweler.”
Rolex lists Bernie Robbins as one of its dozen Rolex dealers in New Jersey, and the only one in this region. Cartier says the company is one of 10 in the state, and likewise exclusive in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
The second pillar of the company’s business is diamonds.
Rovinsky said he’s been going to Antwerp, Belgium, for 25 years to purchase stones directly in “the diamond capital of the world. About 80 percent of polished and rough diamonds pass through Antwerp to the rest of the world.” Nowadays he brings an experienced buyer with the younger and better eyes needed to choose the most beautiful gems.
Bernie Robbins buys and offers larger diamonds than most jewelers, he said, occasionally larger than 20 carats. In stock currently are 3- and 5-carat diamonds. The starting price for “a beautiful 5-carat diamond is somewhere in the $50,000-plus category.”
The third pillar is fashion jewelry, especially the exclusive Bernie Robbins Collection, largely the work of Maddy Rovinsky.
Harvey Rovinsky said his wife has the best fashion sense of anyone he’s met. “We travel the world and she picks out the best jewelry I’ve ever seen.”
This three-part business was growing great until 2008 “and basically the world collapsed,” he said of the severe recession.
That was a learning experience, despite 40 years in the business, and required changes. “Some people have a Wharton School MBA. I have a recession MBA,” he said.
Among the changes:
n “Our buying is strategic and very focused, and our expenses are under control.”
n “We stopped hiring good people and only hire great people.”
n “Things we took for granted and let other people look at them, now Madeline and I watch every aspect of what goes on in our company.”
The retail jewelry sector in the area has shrunk as a result of the recession, with the 53 stores last year in Atlantic and Cape May counties down from a peak of 70 stores in 2008, federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows.
Rovinsky said his business has weathered the downturn and is preparing to expand again, with the planned opening of a Hearts on Fire diamond store next year in King of Prussia, Pa. — another top brand at Bernie Robbins Jewelers.
That long-ago decision to take the company in a new direction is looking as good as ever.
“I used to deliver refrigerators up three flights of stairs in South Philadelphia, and install air conditioners in August,” he said. “It took me a while to figure out I’d rather deliver a diamond ring than a 300-pound refrigerator.”
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