The new Vandenbergs Jewellers features a backlit quartz wall, coffee bar, state-of-the-art workshop and immaculate showroom. A couple weeks before it opened, Ralph Vandenberg, president, stood in what would become the main room, watching masons build an indoor brick façade on one wall. He gestured to the points on the roof where hookups for big screen televisions would provide photos and information for browsing patrons. As he gave his guests a tour of the work in progress, it was easy to see how impressive the space would become. For Ralph, however, it was more than a growing business, more than a new home for his jewellery store, and more than a wonderful way to reward his loyal staff and long-term patrons. The newly designed Vandenbergs Jewellers was a dream come true – one more than 40 years in the making.
In the mid-1970s, Ralph’s parents owned a small Hallmark franchise in Capilano Mall. His mother decided to add a line of fashion costume jewellery to the store, and it immediately turned into a best seller. The Capilano Mall store manager took notice and offered the family a deal. “I’ve got 500 square feet of open space across from Safeway. You can have it free for six months. Put your costume jewellery in there and see what happens.”
Ralph, who was in university at this time, agreed to manage the new store.
“I discovered that you could buy something for A and sell it for B and keep the difference, and said, ‘what am I doing in school?’” he laughs as he looks back on what would become a lifelong career. Ralph took over the management full time and in 1976, the family jewellery business was born.
It was also at this time that Ralph realized that he “knew nothing.” University was one thing, gemology was quite another. He left the store in the care of his parents and relocated to Santa Monica to attend the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). He graduated in 1978 and came back to the store in Capilano Mall… only to discover that now he knew a great deal about gems but nothing about how to run a jewellery store.
The enterprising Ralph appealed to Dan Meier of Jason Goldsmiths, who was in need of a gemologist. The agreement was that he would run the lab for Jason Goldsmiths for a couple of years while learning how to run a jewellery store.
In 1980 Ralph had completed his training and left to open his own store. His father continued to run the Capilano store until 1986, when he joined his son downtown. In 1990 Vandenbergs moved to Manulife Place. The 2019 move is within Manulife Place. It’s steps away but metaphorically, a giant leap from where it all began.
But that’s not even half the story.
Ralph doesn’t do things in half measures, and learning about gems at the GIA? Well, that just wasn’t enough.
“I didn’t just want to buy and sell. I wanted to be involved.”
And involved he was! This is a man that has flown into Botswana, India, Egypt – anywhere raw, precious gems are found he’s been there looking at the mine sites, buying rough and polished goods, and negotiating deals with staggering dollar figures. He’s spelunked 300 metres down in the Naica Mine (aka Giant Crystal Cave in Mexico), been on harrowing flights in small planes to arrive at ultra remote destinations, stayed in the heart of dangerous cities in hotel rooms with holes in the walls, and also travelled in the lap of luxury. He’s shaken hands with princes and sipped coffee with the poorest people in the land, always adapting to the journey in his relentless pursuit of the gems that would become family heirlooms. His adventures could easily be an action-packed movie (move over Indiana Jones!).
Being so close to the gems from mining to the finished end-user product, Ralph gets to see the true story behind what goes on in the industry, and he is very frustrated by the misinformation that prevails.
As a facilitator for companies like DeBeers in Africa, Ralph has seen the passion giant gem retailers have for ethical practices in the supply chain. While he freely admits there were issues early on leading to the blood diamond scandals, he points out that people are not aware of the many, many steps taken to fix the problems.
“Botswana was one of the poorest countries in Africa,” he cites as an example, “but when a diamond mine was discovered there, De Beers went to the African government and offered to develop the mine in exchange for providing the country with a very robust half share of the profits as long as those profits were poured into infrastructure, healthcare, social programs, etc. De Beers hired locals to work in the mines and paid them well. They encouraged their labourers’ children to stay in school. Now, Botswana’s economy is booming and is a testament to what the ethical sourcing of diamonds can do.”
This is the only way Ralph works. Ethically, responsibility, and in a way that supports the countries where the gems come from, his hardworking staff, and the joy of the end user. It’s not about diamonds and pearls to Ralph. It’s about the experience.
“Everything we do is intended to make someone happy,” he smiles. “That is why it’s a joy to come to work everyday. We are a non-commission store so there is never any sales pressure. If you come in to Vandenbergs you deal with the whole team and hundreds of years of expertise with our goldsmiths and designers. You can talk to anyone on the team, from sales to design.”
He continues, “It sounds cliché but we go the extra mile. We do it all here and make it all here: we will design and hand sketch your piece right in front of you, then create a scaled watercolour painting of the piece on vellum so you can ‘put it on’ and see how it looks in size, colour, and scale. We do this with no obligation. If we make it and the client doesn’t like it, it goes into the showcase. However, I can count on one hand how many times that has happened. Even if it goes into the showcase, it sells quickly.”
The vellum sketches are in a league of their own. Although CAD technology for jewellery design is available, the practice of hand sketching, then creating a photo-realistic watercolour, perfectly scaled painting of the piece is still in fashion at Vandenbergs. With this method the client can hold the vellum over their finger or up to the neck to see exactly how the finished jewellery will look. Vandenbergs has albums of sketches that go back for decades, creating a mini museum of thousands of original designs.
Ralph notes, “Everyone here gets the same outstanding experience whether they are here for a $50 or a $5,000 piece. I don’t care about the price, I care about their experience with Vandenbergs and that they get an heirloom piece that will be in the family for generations. Loose stones, coloured stones, rare stones, common stones – we carry everything because what makes a stone precious is what makes it precious to you. That is why we carry everything at every price point.”
Vandenbergs Jewellers is feeling “very blessed” to take over Birks former location in Manulife Place and customize it to present an outstanding in-store experience that appeals to both long-term clients who prefer personal interaction and the newer generation of clients that tap into the store’s visual media to learn about the gems they will purchase. Despite the ups and downs of the city’s economy, customers still flock to Vandenbergs, and Ralph has no intention of relocating out of Edmonton.
“I love this city!” he smiles. “The advantage of seeing the world is great but coming home is always better. There have been some challenges and difficult years but downtown has always been the heart of the city. We’ve been blessed. I can’t complain. We started with a $2,000 investment in a costume jewellery store and look where we are now.”
Kevin Lapes, general manager, Pemco Construction Ltd., shared Ralph’s excitement as Vandenbergs new location took shape.
“This is our second time working with Ralph; we did some minor renovations 10 years ago and now we are working on the full new retail store,” Lapes informs. “With Pemco celebrating 30 years in 2020, both are great local companies working together.”
The new location is not the only big change for Vandenbergs. Chelsea Kovacs, Ralph’s daughter, has recently joined the company after enjoying her own adventures and studies abroad. A talented designer and sketch artist in her own right, Chelsea brings to the table a wealth of modern marketing and design experience along with her passion for the Vandenbergs brand and image.
The journey from Capilano Mall to the massive, modern jewellery store in downtown Edmonton was just across the city, but it took 43 years and thousands of miles. For Ralph, every single mile was an incredible adventure.
“Life should be lived in moments,” he says. “Memory fades; you need help. That is what we do. When you have a special occasion, you need to mark it and there are not many things that stay with us in our lifetime the way gems do. Some of my best customers have been coming here for decades. To be part of their stories is such a privilege. To work with the second and third generation of those clients is a blessing.”
Ralph is incredibly grateful for his supportive family and for his daughter that will continue the legacy. He can’t say enough good things about his talented staff, and he is grateful for every single customer.
“I went through six months of deciding if I should retire but have decided to just keep doing the same thing. My plan is to just eventually fade away.”
But he won’t fade away. The joy Vandenbergs Jewellers has brought to thousands of people for over 40 years will, like the gems they sell, be cherished forever.
Learn more at vandenbergsjewellers.com online and
@vandenbergsjewel on Facebook.