What Does It Take to Keep a Shop Open in the Gables for 75 Years? Three Generations of Family, for Starters.
It was the end of World War II, and George Hornik had just come home from the Navy, studying watch making on the GI bill. He opened a watch repair stand in Downtown Miami, where his wife Helena also worked in a department store. At the time, Coral Gables had a good reputation as an upscale suburb to Miami, so Helena and George – whose nickname was Jae – decided it was the perfect place to start a small jewelry business.
That first store, on Ponce de Leon Boulevard, is where Giardino Gourmet Salads is now located. But Jae wanted to be on Miracle Mile, then being developed by George and Rebyl Zain into a high-end shopping boulevard. The location worked like magic. Flash forward seven decades and the place where George Hornik established Jae’s Jewelers is still standing, still thriving, and now run by his son Bruce and his granddaughter Jill. Together they tend to customers who are themselves the children and grandchildren of clients who bought jewelry from George, along with a new slew of customers that the shop now reaches via the internet. All told, estimates Bruce, Jae’s now has a customer base of about 10,000.
“They don’t buy every month or even every year – maybe for a 10th anniversary or a birthday – but they do return, and we have their buying history and what they like and who their husbands and children are,” he says.
That, in a nutshell, is what longevity is all about, says Bruce. “Our customers have the trust. They wouldn’t deal with anyone else,” he says. “Jill is working with the grandchildren of the people my father sold wedding bands to.” Over the years, Jae’s has also evolved, just as Miracle Mile has evolved, with Bruce Hornik in the perfect place to watch everything change. “When we first started out, there were higher-end stores [on the Mile] because there was no Dadeland, no Merrick Park,” he says. “This was where you went to go shopping. Then the well-funded shops went to the malls, while we continued to get the mom-and-pop store owners.”
Ironically, that personal touch of owner/operators has been an advantage for Jae’s. “It makes [shopping] charming, with individual owners, where they can bend the rules,” he says. “A customer says, ‘I want the cufflink that folds over.’ I say, ‘We can make it that way.’ We have the ability to make decisions, to make it happen. ‘When are you getting married? This afternoon by 5 p.m.?’ I say, ‘We can do it.’”
Bruce himself started working for his dad in 1972, freshly graduated from the University of Georgia, where he majored in business. It was there, he said, that he learned the lesson of retailing: It’s not the homeruns that count, but all the singles that add up. He also learned that inexpensive, entry-level sales are the way to acquire new customers who will later become high-end customers. “We want people to keep coming back for the rest of their lives,” he says.
While Bruce joined the family business almost immediately, his daughter Jill was a little more hesitant. “I was going into public health, with a fast track for a master’s and a pharmacology degree,” says Jill, who attended the University of Florida. “My parents said they would pay for my education if I got a gemology degree. They knew I had a scientific brain, and that it’s all lab work, sitting in front of a microscope.” And they were right. Jill was bitten by the gem bug and became a graduate of the Gemological Institute of America in 2007, and later a Certified Gemologist via the American Gem Society.
Even so, it took five years for her to join the family business; before then she moved to California and worked for high-end watch retailers and jewelers in Newport Beach. “I was a little worried about working with my dad,” she says. “I thought it was going to be more difficult. But my father and I get along great, and he lets me fail to prove a point.”
Even with her degrees, Jill started on the ground floor, so to speak, as the sales manager. It was there that she learned the family philosophy for bonding with new customers. “We have entry price points for younger people, so that we can create a relationship and become their trusted advisor for all things jewelry and watches,” she says.
Today Jill is in charge of far more than just selling to walk-in Millennial customers. “A majority of the time I am working on business development and marketing, also inventory management and buying,” she says. “Dad is in charge of anything in the repair shop, plus estate buying and finances.”
Jill has also taken the shop in new directions, especially during the pandemic. “We definitely took a huge hit [from the Covid shutdown],” and even after the store was allowed to reopen, foot traffic remained initially low, she says. “But we made up for it with digital sales and over the phone.”
As it turns out, Jill had already pushed Jae’s into developing a strong ecommerce site, “so we could direct clients there.” After the pandemic hit, Jill added software that allowed clients to text orders from cellphones, and software that allowed live chats on the website as well as offering financing options. Today they are selling to customers in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Italy, England and Spain. “We get orders every week from the internet,” says Bruce. “Most are new customers who find us there.”
That does not mean Jae’s walk-in business has vanished. Far from it, and it’s the reason why they remain on Miracle Mile rather than simply become an online business. “The walk-ins tend to be Miami locals or people with second homes here,” says Jill. “We have a lot of people coming from Latin America who want to go somewhere they can trust.”
It is also from locals and “walk-ins” that Jae’s purchases mostof its vintage jewelry. It is all part of the circle of life in the business, says Bruce. “When you are young you like everything, but can’t afford anything. In your middle years you buy and wear [the jewelry]. Then when you get older you don’t wear as much. So you give it to the children, or you sell it.” And, hopefully, you sell your old pieces to Jae’s. “I am the buyer, I buy every day, all day long, from the public,” he says, so much so that Jae’s has a wholesale division to market the “estate” pieces. Or they take the out-of-style pieces and repurpose the gems with a new design for the next generation.
That is a special pleasure for Jae’s, says Jill, and part of what attracted her to the jewelry business. “It’s funny. I am not a material person. Everyone thinks I must have the best jewelry in the world, but I am not a fashion person. I think there is meaning in jewelry. Flowers wilt, chocolates melt, but jewelry lasts forever, and there is meaning behind it,” she says. “I own a ring that my grandmother wore, and I think about her every time I put that piece on.” Another reason she was drawn to the business: “Gemstones are miracles of nature.”
“Jae’s is an amazing testament to small business owners that provide great service,” says Francesca Valdes, the city’s retail strategist. “To have that kind of staying power is a testament to Jill and her father to being resilient and working with the times. To invest in new venues of sales is very forward thinking. Jae’s is also a testimony to the community, that they are loyal to their businesses.”
That loyalty is a two-way street. After having served for several years as part of its marketing team, Jill was voted in as the president of the downtown Business Improvement District (BID) in October. “She has come to the board with great new ideas that reflect the times that we are in,” says Aura Reinhardt, the executive director of the BID. “Jill is such a community person and understands today’s customers in the Gables.”
She is also still mad about gems. Last month Jill offered a free one-hour class in gemology to local residents. It was capped at 15 – but more than 70 people signed up. So, Jill has volunteered to teach the class once a month for five months to accommodate all of the interested students. “You don’t get 70 people coming to a yoga class,” says Reinhardt. “That speaks a lot to the business, and to Jill.”