Ali and LaRue Chokr started out selling silver, gold jewelry and colored gemstones at the Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton, FL, more than 30 years ago. Eventually, Chokr expanded into selling and buying diamond jewelry, which led him to start a diamond wholesale business in the 1990’s. As the retail business grew, the company moved to several locations in Florida before ending up in Sarasota, FL. The Diamond Vault opened a new 7,000 square foot store on US 41 in 2001 in December. And now, it appears, is a good time to be in the diamond business. Luxury goods in general have enjoyed resurgence, and jewelry, in particular, has rebounded significantly, reports the Sarasota Herald Tribune. A 2011 survey by National Jeweler magazine found 72 percent of those responding showed gains in same store sales in 2011 over 2010. Diamond Vault generates roughly $5 million a year in sales and handles transactions on more than 3,400 carats of diamonds.
Chokr got into the diamond business when he was 26. He and his wife, LaRue, had moved from Detroit, and Chokr began buying and selling things. Starting out, he sold items at the Red Barn Flea Market, in Bradenton. From there, he moved into commercial door-to-door work, selling pool cues to bars, then silver chains and charms to gift shops. One of the door-to-door forays took him to the Bradenton auction house where Chokr bought a four carat diamond for $6,000 and resold it one year later for $8,500.
By the end of the following year, the Chokrs had set up shop on Siesta Key. LaRue ran the shop, called Golden Treasures, while Ali focused on going door-to-door. He also squeezed in a correspondence course from the Gemological Institute of America, the world’s foremost authority in diamond grading, and began attending jewelry trade shows as well. Even now, his trading year is built around a trio of shows held annually in Las Vegas, which deal in antiques, watches and diamonds. In 2001, Chokr moved Golden Treasures to the Landings shopping center, and changed the business’s name to Diamond Vault. By then, Chokr’s three adult sons had gotten involved in the family business, which sells diamond jewelry and collectible watches, mounts diamonds in custom settings and buys jewelry from individuals and estates.
Diamond Vault weathered the economic slowdown by increasing the amount of jewelry purchases it made from individuals. At the same time, it increased its wholesale operation, adding tiny diamonds called melee to its roster. Melee are generally a fifth of a carat or smaller, and range wildly in quality. Mainly, they are used to add sparkle to gold pieces or to add emphasis to a larger central stone in a setting. Chokr says now that trading in melee is what kept a lot of people like him alive. As gold began a seven-year run up in price in 2004, from $400 per troy ounce to $1,900, many operators began converting finished jewelry into bouillon. The recycling created an oversupply of melee, which put a damper on jewelers cutting any new melee stones. Chokr had East Indian contacts in New York who told him they would take all the melee he could send them. Chokr says he ultimately was buying and selling as much as $400,000 monthly. Trading in recycled melee made economic sense because it had become cheaper to sort, clean and resell old melee stones than to cut and polish new stones into marketable gems, Chokr explains. Prices for the little stones, before being resorted in India, range from $300 to $500 per carat, according to Chokr.
The recession crimped Diamond Vault’s sales, but it also provided opportunity. In 2010, the family was able to acquire a vacant commercial building with U.S. 41 frontage in Sarasota formerly occupied by West Marine. The elder Chokrs bought the building for $1 million, records show, and spent more to refurbish it for the jewelry business. Three decades after he began, Chokr is still passionate about the diamond trade, as reflected in the details his new building incorporates. But he is careful not to become complacent. The market is always changing Chokr says, and that is why he wants his children to be involved in wholesale as well as in retail.
Source: Sarasota Herald Tribune