COVER STORY: Giving Memories, Touching Hearts

By on October 30, 2012
Olivia Cornell
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“These gems have life in them.
Their colors speak, say what words fail of.”
- George Eliot

Since the dawn of civilization, it would seem that the exchange of precious gems and metals in order to demonstrate favor, to express emotion of the most sacred kind, has been observed with great reverence. If we could possibly allude to a tangible object in order to show how much we love, how deeply we care for someone else, the precious gem would be said object. To receive a jewel as an endowment is a profound veneration.

The ancient Egyptians used amulets carved of stone and adorned with precious gems to honor the dead, or to represent a deity. In Greek mythology, the “Necklace of Harmonia” was thought to grant its wearer eternal youth; it led to Queen Jocasta’s eventual demise. In the Bible, gold was among the array of gifts presented by the magi to the Christ Child. Shakespeare often alluded to gems in his writings, and 17th century pirates devoted their lives to the pursuit of treasure.

Marilyn Monroe sang the praises of the highly-coveted carbon allotrope, proclaiming, “A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Audrey Hepburn sought sanctuary every morning in having breakfast outside of Tiffany’s window display. Elizabeth Taylor’s love of sparkling things led to her becoming the envied recipient of the ‘Taylor-Burton’ 69.42 carat diamond (a love token from then-husband Richard Burton), and inspired her longevous fragrance lines-White Diamonds, Black Pearls, etc.

I asked Cornell’s Jeweler’s President Olivia Cornell, who graces this month’s cover of RWM, to what she ascribes the mystique. “Why jewelry? Why do we aspire to give jewels to those we care most about?”
“It’s the only thing that lasts,” she replied.

It’s In My Blood…
Olivia Cornell is no stranger to the world of retail.

Cornell’s parents had owned a furniture store in Troy, New York, just north of Albany, where she originally hails from. She credits her father and mother today as having a major impact on her life, instilling in her an undeviating work ethic, a passion for customer service, and a flair for business.

“I think retailing is in my blood,” she claimed.

Cornell attended Rochester Institute of Technology, graduating from The College of Business, The School of Retailing with a major interior design.

“It was my love. I need this variety in retail.” she laughed. “It works for someone who is creative, who likes doing something different every day. I certainly wear many hats. Working with people, with vendors-being involved with wholesale and marketing—it’s all my DNA.”

As a buyer for Snow Country, a luxury ski retailer no longer in existence, Cornell was under the mentorship of store owners Dick and Joan Osur, whom she worked with for fourteen years. The Osurs guided Cornell in the retail and wholesale realm in a manner which she applies to co-operating Cornell’s Jewelers today; she explained that they fueled her sense of business ethics, taught her the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships, and encouraged her finesse for keenly appealing to customer needs.
A Blind Date…
“Three of our friends tried to get us together,” said Cornell. She is speaking of her husband David, whom she was introduced to on a blind date in 1991.

At the time, David Cornell was working as a dealer at the business his father Harry started in 1923: Cornell’s Diamond Importers. Interestingly, the business was located on the eleventh floor of the Temple Building downtown.

When David and Olivia were married, Olivia knew very little about the jewelry industry, but her extensive retailing background was enough to provoke her interest, and eventually, allow her to contribute her expertise to her husband’s business. In 1997, she left her job and officially joined Cornell’s, bringing a fresh perspective and savvy eye in tow.

“David’s support, understanding, and commitment to trust me meant everything,” said Cornell.

What she lacked in jewelry experience, she made up for in determination.
“It was very intimidating at first,” admitted Cornell. “I began to study by reading magazines, talking with vendors, and going to trade shows.”

Cornell also used her retail and wholesale knowledge to appeal to a wider range of clientele. Equipped with a plethora of information and a dash of instinct, Cornell was able to convince her husband, who had been at the time “strictly a diamond dealer,” to broaden the collection. Olivia understood what the masses wanted.

“I would read trade journals, talk to vendors, see what friends were wearing. I kept watching advertisements. When I first started working here, I brought David to John Hardy. We agreed to buy the line, and he was one of our first designers. I was able to find certain things that worked in our community,” said Cornell. “David began to believe in me, to trust me, which was so important. I’m so lucky to be a part of such a dynamic, exciting business. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Cornell explained that the fact that women are becoming self-purchasers in terms of jewelry, an entire world has opened up for the industry. Jewelry is no longer purchased only at celebratory life marks. Women are coming in to buy a pair of earrings… “just because.” A longtime fashion enthusiast, Cornell is excited about the increasing influence of women in making decisions about their accessories. It allows her to consult with a diverse group of designers and vendors in order to provide more unique and affordable collections.

Talking to Olivia Cornell today, one would never suspect that she hadn’t grown up in the industry…

Changing And Growing…
Eventually, Cornell understood that reaching a broader population would mean relocating. The city was no longer a convenient destination for clientele. A suburban locale seemed more ideal, something like…3100 Monroe Avenue would suffice.

“Originally, we had not been looking in Pittsford; we were thinking of perhaps Park Avenue. The Pittsford building was brought to us by a friend. It had been a series of office buildings. David and I decided to negotiate a price and purchase. We gutted it and started in brand new,” said Cornell.

A new, freshly renovated building was not the only change that would take place as the company expanded…

“I could see that the business was growing,” said Cornell. “We could either be wholesale or retail; we couldn’t be both. So we dropped the ‘Wholesale Diamond Importers’ and became a full retail store. David’s energy and excitement was diamonds, while I was interested in fashion jewelry. We work well together.”

Today, David Cornell oversees the diamond purchasing, while Olivia is invested in designers, manufacturers, and advertising, and David’s son Michael does buying for the bridal department, as well as running the sales floor.

In 2007, Cornell’s Jewelers underwent major renovation. In the midst of a national economic crisis (the Dow was at an all-time high in 2007), construction began. Amazingly, in the two years of reconstruction, the store was only closed to the public for one day.

“We added two more three-story additions,” said Cornell. “My husband was on the technical end of things, oversaw security, while I was concerned with lighting, fixtures, cases. We all worked together on the layout. In 2008, things got really bad economically…and we were in the middle of construction. We had to ask ourselves, “Do we stop what we’re doing or do we move ahead?” And we went forward and I think it was good that we did. We had relationships to maintain.”

As Cornell led me through a tour of the facility, I was amazed by the great length she went to in overseeing every detail, with the best interests of the customers and staff in mind. Not one iota of construction excludes her influence. From the ultra-chic artwork (produced by local artists), to the children’s play area located in the front of the building to ease the anxieties of parents, to the candy/cookie and coffee bar available to guests working up a fierce appetite in their conquests, Cornell has thought of everything.

Cornell carefully oversaw the construction of the display cases-a most important facet of the presentation. Lighting is everything. Even room vibration has to be accounted for as diamond cutting is considered! Cornell also added a spacious kitchen in the basement for employees to relax and enjoy their meals during breaks; in this same area, employees are welcome to watch television on the raised flat-screen, or surf the internet on the community laptop.

Upstairs, guests will find themselves on the “bridal floor” where they can feast their eyes on the “Hearts on Fire” collection-which consists exclusively of the world’s best-cut diamonds. There is a cozy sitting area, complete with library, for guests to lounge upon while making their final purchasing decisions. On the same floor, clients have the opportunity to meet with jewelry advisors in specially-designed cubicles to prevent outside distractions.

Cornell’s is not only trend-setting in the fashion and jewelry realm, but also on the cutting edge of technology with full-scale security. There are cameras stationed in every room of the building. Guests are also buzzed in upon entering, granting them a peace of mind.

I was also led to the staff offices, on the adjoining side of the third floor, where I was greeted by several employees, all with warm and welcoming faces. In the offices and on the sales floor, the staff members exceeded my expectations in terms of friendliness and eagerness to assist. I was also introduced to staff member Tricia Baum, certified gemologist appraiser. There are only four hundred in the nation that share Baum’s title-and four of them are employed at Cornell’s (including David Cornell!).

Olivia Cornell has expanded the office space of her employees, again, in efforts to make the work place as comfortable as possible. Cornell says of the staff, “Our team is a family, we truly are. We get together socially, we host many events; everyone is wonderful.”

We Give Memories…
I asked Cornell what she finds to be most rewarding about her current role.

“We give memories,” she said. “Sometimes, they’re good memories. Sometimes, they’re sad memories. We want to give lasting memories; we have things that you’ll pass on to another generation. We touch a lot of hearts that way. There’s no other business, I think, that can equate to that.”

Providing outstanding customer service takes priority in Cornell’s heart, a quality instilled in her by her family, fueled by the Osurs, and maintained by her husband David who coined the phrase, “Our customers are as precious as the gems we lock up at night.”

She is gratified when witnessing customers celebrate the milestones of their lives.

Among several other touching experiences, Olivia shared one particular story of a father coming in with his daughter; she picked out a pendant for her sixteenth birthday.

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