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@Work: Gem Casa

Nov. 13, 2005 –– While spending many years working for others in the jewelry business, Brandon Kuhnert was always nurturing his own concept of how the business should be run. Now, he has his own shop, a jewel in itself. In fact, he has two of them.
Kuhnert and his wife Hannah run Gem Casa's two shops in Royal Dane Mall. The shops are small, carefully appointed, cheery and elegant. Blond wood, mirrors, subtly colored carpeting, and soft music contribute to the ambience as they put Kuhnert's concept in practice.
Kuhnert fits right into the surroundings he has created. He is dressed in a crisp, cotton shirt, well-pressed trousers and a handsome tie. He has the winning manner of the true salesman who knows his wares.
Kuhnert has studied his market well. Originally from North Carolina, he moved to St. Thomas about 14 years ago. "I've worked for several retailers on St. Thomas, " he says, "and I have slowly worked my way up from a greeter to general manager."
In the more elegant of the two shops, which features quality gems, the atmosphere is like being in a fairyland. Precious stones and metals sparkle from all sides. The counter cases glitter with precious gems, bracelets handmade in Brazil from golden citrine, a blue chalcedony necklace, quartz, jade, in a variety of settings –– platinum, white gold, sterling.
"This is the shop where we show our finest inventory," Kuhnert says. The other shop, also brightly lighted and filled with color, is "more casual jewelry." On the wall there is an assortment of deep orange coral necklaces. They are faux coconut wood and coral. In fact, a sign in the shop states "faux fab" jewelry.
The two shops complement each other. Kuhnert says, "I've always had a concept of where customers could be treated as it they were buying something very expensive, when, in fact, they are not."
What also complements Kuhnert is his wife, Hannah, a slender young woman with a slow, wide smile and a gentle manner. Hannah is the creative part of the relationship. Kuhnert is the salesman, and he is very good at it.
As we are talking, two couples come in looking for Kuhnert. He greets them like old friends, and, in a way, they are. Alice and Dave Turk and Karen and Chris Klay are from Lima, Ohio. They exchange greetings. All four are interested in looking at some of Kuhnert's gem collection, and he responds professionally.
First, he asks, "Would you like something to drink?" He brings drinks from Glady's Café next door, and temporarily closes the doors of the elegant shop. Kuhnert brings out some of his inventory, explaining each piece. "This black coral from Hawaii," he says showing a couple pieces, and, picking up a delicate light pink necklace, he says, This is made from freshwater pearls, the best you can get here."
Kuhnert handles his treasure gently, displaying them in his hands like the precious gems they are. He explains the stones' backgrounds at length. Displaying some alexandrite, he says, "We have one of the largest selections of alexandrite on the island." He holds one to the light, showing how it changes from color from green to a deep red.
He asks, "Am I too long-winded for you?"
"Oh, no," Karen Klay says, "you were so good to us last year. That's why we're back."
Kuhnert shows sapphires in all colors, 10 in all. And he shows emerald-cut diamonds.
A 18- carat pink sapphire ring set in white gold holds the attention of one of the group. "Here, try it on," Kuhnert says. The woman is obviously entranced. "This is so lovely." Kuhnert smiles.
Hannah stands in the background watching the little sales drama. "And, here in this case," Kuhnert says, bringing out a singular bead necklace, "we have Hannah's collection."
"It's called Designs by Adina," Hannah says. "That's my middle name." The collection comprises bead necklaces. "I take a stone, and find beads to compliment it," she explains.
Hannah and Kuhnert opened their business about two-and-a-half years ago. It's basically a mom-and-pop operation, with one employee. And one baby. Hannah gave birth to their daughter, River, almost a year ago.
Hannah's parents watch River a lot of the time, she says, so she can help at the shops. She is a Tortola native, but she was raised on St. Thomas, where she attended Charlotte Amalie High School and the University of the Virgin Islands.
She comes by her interest in jewelry design naturally. She is an artist –– a writer of short stories, a poet and a musician. She sings and plays the guitar. Or, at least she did before motherhood and a jewelry career.
About her design collection, she says, "Designing sort of came to me when we were at trade shows, and I saw all these beautiful stones and began thinking of ways to make them into jewelry. I start with a big stone, and build around that."
Kuhnert remarks on his business theory, his mantra actually. "High quality is available at low prices if you are selective in the inventory process. This is a Cartier-like setting," he says, looking about the shop, "but you can buy something for $199 dollars."
Kuhnert says he travels a lot. "I have lots of unique sources," he says. "I travel about every eight weeks, everywhere high quality and something unique is offered. And, he says, "I have couriers who bring me stones from Brazil and other countries. We have one of the largest collections of uncut gems on the island."
Kuhnert says, "About 10 percent of our business is local, and lots of it is repeat –– for example those people this morning –– or word of mouth."
As though he had overheard Kuhnert, a customer walks in the store, "Are you Brandon?" he asks, "I heard about you from somebody at Woody's on St. John." Kuhnert gets back to work.

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