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In the Rough

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Doubts over the end of the recession have persisted for a few years, but jewelry entrepreneur Michael Chokr has solid, albeit anecdotal, proof the spenders are back.

One ostentatious piece of evidence: a customer recently ordered a custom-made bookmark out of gold. It cost $3,000. “The truly affluent,” says Chokr, “have started to buy again.”

Chokr and his family hope to parlay that return to luxury into increased business at the Diamond Vault. The 12-employee, Sarasota-based business is one of a few large-scale full-service jewelry businesses on the Gulf Coast. It has a retail side, from a vintage jewelry line to antique cut diamonds; an extensive design, manufacturing and repair side; and an estate-buying side. The firm will buy coins, bullion, diamonds and precious gemstones.

“It's like the W hotel,” Chokr says. “We will do anything for anyone.”

The strategy to capture more business centers on a move into a new building, a nearly $2 million project high on both luxury and intricate details. The project includes a 13-foot diamond wall, museum-style display cases and a posh customer lounge. The diamond wall showcases 140 loose diamonds, so customers can compare choices.

Another key detail of the new store is a subtle transformation of the ubiquitous jewelry case found in many stores. Diamond Vault's cases are taller than its previous ones. That means less bending over for customers, says Chokr.

Michael Chokr's parents, Lebanese immigrants Ali and LaRue Chokr, founded the business in 1978 out of a Bradenton flea market booth. A chemist, Ali Chokr sold silver there.

Ali Chokr soon added gold and semi-precious stones to the flea market booth. Business then got so good, he opened a store on Siesta Key, across the street from the 7-Eleven. Several more locations followed, through 2001, when the Chokrs opened a store in the Landings Shopping Center on U.S. 41, a few miles south of downtown Sarasota.

The number of family members involved with the business grew along the way, too. An uncle, a car mechanic good with welding, was the jeweler in the early days. And now all three Chokr sons work for the business. Says Ali Chokr. “I'm excited to give them this opportunity to shine.”

The new Diamond Vault is a few miles north of the Landings store, near the Bee Ridge Road-U.S. 41 intersection. The Chokrs paid $1.1 million for the 6,400-square-foot building early last year. The building had been a West Marine boat accessories store for a decade. Before that it was a Peaches Records & Tapes store.

The building is a little more than double the size of the Landings location. The jewelry display area is now three times bigger, says Michael Chokr, and the amount of cases will increase from 28 to 92.

Sarasota-based Balaity Property Enhancement and local architect Patrick M. Pillot designed the new Diamond Vault location. “We chose some slick materials that complement the glamour of the products, like the glass walls, mirrored tiles, and polished granite,” says Jesse Balaity. “Then we brought that glamour down to earth with warm colors, reclaimed cypress ceilings, and stacked stone walls.”

While the Chokrs are optimistic and excited about the new store, an expansion is nonetheless counterintuitive, given the recession that crushed the industry. “It's a big step,” Michael Chokr says. “It's an Old World business that we are trying to put a new spin on.”



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