Tan Tran has always been the man behind the curtain.
While his custom pieces sat in showrooms waiting to be discovered, the dutiful jeweler was already busy with the next task.
That all changed last year when Tran opened his own store, Shannon’s Jewelry, where he now traces his work from idea to sale, witnessing the reward of a grateful customer, of a job well done.
“When a client comes in and I’m able to express my skill — ‘I made this one, and this is how I made it’ — to me, it’s surreal,” Tran said.
He’s had little time to take it all in. He and his wife, Shannon, just welcomed another baby girl into the family, their third under age 5. Most mornings he’s in well before 7 a.m. He’s lucky to leave at least 12 hours later. And some nights, after the children are settled, he returns to the shop for some extra work, though the long days don’t appear to have lessened his energy.
“You have to put your heart and soul into it if you want it to work,” Tran said.
A lamp spat light onto Tan’s calloused hands as he peered at a giant diamond through a tiny magnifying glass. He can spend up to two days working on a custom piece like this, he said, tweaking and prodding until it’s perfect. Or, when creating replicas of jewelry sometimes over a century old, not so perfect but just right.
And even though hand-crafting can take longer than using a computer to design the pieces, the process is more meaningful to him.
Shannon Tran, who’s currently on maternity leave, hopes to one day leave her full-time job and join her husband in the store. For now, she helps when she can, filing vendor orders or pitching in on customized designs.
The two say their first year in business has featured tremendous community support, from new clients and longtime customers of Steve Saunders, the Essex jeweler who owned the storefront until his death in May 2016.
Before that, Saunders discussed a succession plan with Tran, his go-to repair and custom jewelry technician, yet the Trans were still juggling their new family and weren’t ready to become business owners.
After Saunders’ death, the Trans worked with the longtime owner’s family and reached a deal to take over the storefront. They also hired one of Saunders’ former employees, who now helps translate certain customer relationships for the new owners.
The Trans hope to become the “mom and pop” of jewelry stores.
They want to be a place where people can find whatever they need and aim to capitalize on authenticity of a shopping experience that allows clients to walk in and chat with both the owner and jeweler at the same time.
It’s an important relationship, especially when people are considering what could be one of their most expensive purchases.
Shannon Tran said that’s where they can beat out larger outfits and survive in an age of online shopping.
“You need to be able to see and feel and touch and have that experience with someone you know in 10 years is going to be there,” she said.
They’ve also relied on some of the more traditional work — repairing jewelry and watch batteries, answering the little questions — to keep them afloat during their first year. And even though some of the smallest sales, like a teenager buying a gift for his or her beau, can require the most work, the Trans say they treat each customer the same.
“Everything in life has a value to it,” Tran said. “It doesn’t matter how much you spend.”
The store is entering its busiest time of the year, with holiday shoppers wandering in for last-minute gifts both small and large.
Tran said he’s gradually learned the full range of duties for a small business owner. One minute he could be helping a client pick out jewelry worth as much as a car. The next minute he’s vacuuming.
One of the biggest lessons came last year, when an older man entered in search of a gift for his wife of 50 years. He set his sight on a pair of earrings, and though his budget wouldn’t cover what it cost Tran to make them, the jeweler accepted the deal, bringing tears to the man’s eyes.
In that moment and so many more, Tran said he’s felt just as his client does.
“Business is business,” Tran said. “Sometimes you have to set it aside. It’s about how you treat a person. That’s part of our passion. That keeps us in this.”