50 Jewelers/50 States: California

SurveysMay 08, 2017

50 Jewelers/50 States: California

Two sisters, two stores and 36 years in business; here’s how 23rd Street Jewelers made it at a time when female-owned businesses were few and far between.

Mary Kelley and Diane Allen are sisters and co-owners of 23rd Street Jewelers, which has two locations.

Santa Monica, Calif.-- Amid the changing and challenging retail environment, the editorial team at National Jeweler wondered how macro trends--from online shopping to serving new generations of consumers--have affected jewelers in disparate parts of the country.

In order to find out, we launched a series called 50 Jewelers/50 States, in which we interview one retailer in each of the 50 U.S. states.

Representing California, 23rd Street Jewelers brings an unusual narrative to the mix.

Sisters Mary Kelley and Diane Allen were only in their 20s when they opened 23rd Street Jewelers in Santa Monica in 1981. They each had a few years of experience in the jewelry industry--Allen, the elder of the sisters by five years, as a designer, and Kelley as a gemologist and gemstone and diamond wholesaler--but the Los Angeles natives didn’t come from a jewelry family.

Yet, that didn’t deter them from going after a future in the industry.

“My sister found our business location when she was driving home one day,” Kelley said. “She saw that it was a very small store but in a very good location. She pulled over and signed the lease with the landlord, who happened to be there. Then she called me and told me, ‘You have the weekend to quit your job--we’re starting a jewelry store.’”

Their parents gave them a $10,000 loan and 36 years, a second store in Manhattan Beach and four kids between the sisters later, they’re still in business.

“There wasn’t anybody like us in the jewelry industry,” Kelley emphasized. “Women were few and far between.”

National Jeweler chatted with Kelley, who runs the Manhattan Beach location, on how she and her sister became fine jewelry trailblazers.

This is 23rd Street Jewelers’ original store, purchased in 1981; it’s less than 1,000 square feet. Since the addition of another store, Allen runs this location with the help of three full-time employees and one part-time employee. It’s undergone a conservative remodel since the original purchase.

National Jeweler:
What’s the biggest challenge your store is facing?

Mary Kelley: Staying relevant in the fine jewelry market and having the right balance of trendy, designer pieces and classic items that are more handmade and one-of-a-kind.

Being located in two somewhat-affluent areas I think it’s important that we have new things all the time, but the challenge is trying to find that fashion piece that is still fine jewelry that someone wants to invest money in.

NJ: What’s the top-selling item or brand at your store?

MK: Our own brand is our top-selling brand.

Most of the pieces we have are made by us and produced in downtown Los Angeles. We teach our staff to design as well--it’s really important to us that they know how to communicate.

We do carry other designers and appreciate other designers and we’ve carried a lot of them over the years, literally depending on what was going on in our personal lives.

For example, we stepped away from carrying many other designers 25 years ago to have our kids. We couldn’t travel as much for trade shows and buying. My sister and I were actually pregnant with our first children at the same time. It was right when female designers were just coming up like Cathy Waterman, Lori Rodkin, Penny Preville, Leslie Gold and Erica Courtney. We’ve carried many of these designers, and so many others, at different points throughout the years.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve gone back to that focus of creating our own pieces because it’s such a competitive world now, and between the internet and everything else we had to have something that set us apart.

As for the other designers we do carry--we love Margery Hirschey. She’s a designer who uses beautiful color and gorgeous combinations. I love it. That’s a direction we enjoy showing to our clients. Also Adel Chefridi, I’ve carried him for a while.

As for the most popular item, we do very well with any stacking band, from any designer, in 18-karat white, yellow or rose gold, with diamonds.

In 2003, Kelley and Allen purchased their second store in Manhattan Beach, California. Kelley, who lives in the area, manages the location. Despite being only 17 miles from the Santa Monica store, it’s 45 minutes away with Los Angeles traffic. Kelley has one full-time employee and two part-time employees. The store is less than 1,000 square feet.

NJ: Describe your regional customer.

KM: Santa Monica is a beach community and the original heart of our business. The woman there has evolved. She’s in an entertainment industry city and there are a lot of parties and events going on, but we always knew that our woman wanted a piece of jewelry for every day, that could go from daytime to nighttime, the antithesis of the Academy Awards (though we occasionally help people for that).

Our store was never about the big stars. Our customer is a professional. She’s got children. Maybe she’s a soccer mom on the weekend but she has a really good job and goes to work and dresses up every day. She’s probably 35 to 65 or 70.

I really feel there’s a collecting age happening in fine jewelry. A woman comes in in her late 20s or early 30s and gets her engagement ring and wedding band and then there’s a first anniversary and a first baby gift. If we’re doing everything right, we’re going to be with those families for a long, long time.

That what’s our company is about. It’s very much being the local jeweler in their lives and the person they think of when their daughter gets her ears pierced when she’s 12 years old.

Mary Kelley (left) was inspired to enter the jewelry industry by her sister Diane Allen’s example. “My experience was always kind of looking up to what she did,” said Kelley.

NJ: What’s the most popular style of engagement ring with your clientele?

KM: Bridal is our specialty at 23rd Street Jewelers. We’re still selling the halo--I hate calling it a halo because I never called it a halo but that’s what the trade calls it; I call it a border.

In the three decades we’ve been doing bridal we’ve been one of the stores in Los Angeles that is first to do many trends.

We’ve been doing halos for 10 years and, honestly, it’s getting a little overdone. We rode that trend very well, very successfully and we make a gorgeous product. My bridal rings are all over Los Angeles on people’s fingers and they will wear them for a long time, but as people are coming in now I’m trying to show them different things; for example, going back to a solitaire with a beautiful band, having all of your design in your band.

Our bridal line usually features a center stone with side stones. I’ve got two or three yellow gold rings in my inventory right now but probably 20 in platinum.

Cushions, round brilliants and ovals are probably the three most popular diamond cuts.

Here, custom bridal designs by 23rd Street Jewelers.

NJ: What’s your internet and social media presence like? What accounts do you have or actively use?

MK: We have our website,, which is really important to us. We originally built it with e-commerce and it was a mistake for us because so many of our pieces are one-of-a-kind and handmade.

It is really successful as far as being a tool to tell people who we are and what we do and to give us credibility by sharing our 37-year history. People do their research on the website at home, but they will still come in and make the purchase in the store or ask us to ship it. We do send things out of state, but all transactions involve the physical store to some extent.

For social media, we have an account with Instagram and Facebook and we use those both pretty actively. I think we could be more active.

Based on maybe our ages, we have been a little shy to embrace new platforms.

I used to hear that you shouldn’t post on social media every day. Now I’m hearing you should post every single day. So I think we have a lot to learn, but we do have a presence.

NJ: What’s the best piece of advice you’d offer to other independent jewelry stores?

MK: Have amazing customer service. That means going above and beyond what another jewelry store is going to do. You run an item out to a customer, you deliver it to them at a restaurant if that’s the night they’re proposing. That doesn’t happen on a daily basis, but on a daily basis you just greet the people who come in the door and turn them into your friends. And if you’re turning them into your friends, then that’s a relationship that can potentially last a long time.

NJ: What’s a fun fact about you we can share with our readers?

MK: Besides being sisters and business partners, the third thing Diane and I share is that we both play tennis.

We were raised by parents who played competitive tennis. At one point our father gave up his career in advertising sales at CBS radio to teach tennis as a profession. Everybody in our family plays and it’s a lifelong gift. Some families are golfers; we’re tennis players.

One time Diane and I were playing together in a competitive club-level doubles tournament. We were playing these two women and beating them and it was a fun match and everyone was very pleasant about it.

I remember this one woman jokingly called us the evil jewelry sisters. I probably just hit her a drop shot that she ran for and couldn’t get to. It was a nickname in this little tennis league that hung around for a while.

Some of our best sales and clients have come from the tennis world, frankly.
Ashley Davisis the senior editor, fashion at National Jeweler, covering all things related to design, style and trends.

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