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A cut above: 140-year-old Sonoma County retailer E.R. Sawyer Jewelers thrives via relationship retail

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T he track record of E.R. Sawyer Jewelers as the longest-running retail business in Sonoma County almost always triggers a question for co-owners Doug and Ame Van Dyke.

How has the business stuck around for 140 years? Since it’s a question they get asked a lot, Doug has a simple answer: relationships.

Ame Van Dyke, 50, and Doug Van Dyke, 57, take care to build relationships with the customers that come through their doors, as well as members of the community that they meet through charitable giving.

For decades, the Van Dykes and members of E.R. Sawyer Jewelers’ team have volunteered time and donated pieces to over 75 North Bay nonprofits. Recipients of the Van Dykes’ generosity include The Living Room, a day center for homeless women and children; the Sonoma County Farm Bureau; the Sonoma County Fair; Meals on Wheels; and United Way of the Wine Country.

When the 2017 Tubbs Fire devastated Santa Rosa, the couple took on a commitment to clean and restore all the damaged jewelry residents brought to them.

“We have just about finished working through a two-year backlog to repair local residents’ pieces damaged in the Tubbs Fire,” said Ame Van Dyke.

At a recent Business Journal marketing conference, Doug Van Dyke shared that the business ended up with almost 6,000 pieces of jewelry that residents recovered from burned lots and homes.

“E.R. Sawyer Jewelers saved and restored over 60% of them. Two years after the fire… (we are) just now moving on to the final 600 pieces,” said Van Dyke.

“(My jewelry was in) one of those buckets,” said a man in the audience, fighting back tears. He thanked Van Dyke for taking care of items that meant so much to his family.

Gaye LeBaron, columnist for The Press Democrat, said family is a primary factor in the longevity of older businesses, including E.R. Sawyer Jewelers.

“Businesses that are over 100 years old, like Corrick’s, Exchange Bank, and Mead Clark Lumber have been passed down. The patterns are established,” said LeBaron.

LeBaron said long-standing businesses are determined to keep going.

“Blessed (with)a long-standing clientele, they have customers who tell their daughters, and, more important, their sons, to buy from their jewelry (from) E.R. Sawyer Jewelers. Also, they have good advertising and put in the hard work necessary to succeed,” said LeBaron.

LeBaron added E.R. Sawyer Jewelers’ success is also due to its ability to “keep on top of old Santa Rosa.”

“Every city’s downtown is difficult to navigate. We (Santa Rosa) have grown out hugely in every direction. But at many community events and fundraisers, E.R. Sawyer Jewelers is there, offering a piece of jewelry as a means of raising funds for good causes. That’s being super community-oriented,” said LeBaron.

The history of two families

The store was founded in 1879 by John Sawyer as a watch and clock shop. In 1884, Sawyer’s son and successor, Elbert Ransom Sawyer, changed the name to E.R. Sawyer Jewelers. Elbert Sawyer ran the shop until he passed away in 1947. In 1949, Elbert’s widow Pearl Sawyer sold the shop to Allan and Virginia Flood and Allan’s uncle, Orrin Magoon.

Robert Van Dyke, Allan’s son-in-law, joined the store in 1962. Robert and the Floods’ daughter, Kathleen, took over the shop in 1978. Doug Van Dyke joined the company in the early 1980s. He trained for 15 years, assuming the role of president in 2002. Doug’s wife, Ame Van Dyke, became co-owner with Doug in the mid 2000s.

Before coming to co-own the shop, Doug Van Dyke sold technology such as two-way radios and mobile telephones. Ame Van Dyke was in the hospitality field, working in the private dining club business. The two learned to work together partly by raising their children.

Today, two of the Van Dykes’ daughters, Paris and Alivia, are learning how to serve customers on the sales floor.

The store has a total team of 10. This number includes three in-house goldsmiths at the Santa Rosa location and one in the store’s Napa Valley location in downtown St. Helena.

Doug and Ame Van Dyke said it is a continued effort by all businesses and city organizations to make downtown Santa Rosa more interesting and appealing to the local community and visitors.

The work behind the scenes

The Van Dykes split the workload to run the store. Ame interacts with nonprofits and vendors and maintains the look and feel of the retail locations. Doug does the inventory management, accounting, and shop management.

The shop has a number of goldsmiths who do custom work and repairs.

“We’ve had six goldsmiths in the North Bay who’ve gone on from our shop to open their own stores. Working with professionals helps us get to know the quality of their work,” said Doug Van Dyke.

The Van Dykes select pieces from designers all over the world, including two northern California artists on the Central Coast. The Van Dykes also have many vendors that approach them through email and in-store visits. In addition, they scout for new jewelry at trade shows such as JCK Las Vegas.

“The vendors will take up two to three floors of a hotel. You’ve never seen so much security,” said Ame Van Dyke.

Doug Van Dyke said the jewelry business is very similar to other types of business.

“No matter what you offer, you have to be relevant. You have to provide a quality product and a quality service. You have to be meeting your customers’ needs,” said Doug Van Dyke.

Ame Van Dyke said one of the aspects of the business she likes is the shop’s work to design unique pieces.

“We create many pieces with the theme of winegrapes. We’ve created charms with the different grape leaves, like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, and chardonnay. Yet we’ll create a necklace with any material, such as a piece of driftwood, if the customer wants,” said Ame Van Dyke.

Doug Van Dyke said recently, E.R. Sawyer Jewelers made a diamond necklace for a grandmother. The piece is designed to later be divided into separate sets of earrings for the customer’s granddaughters.

“It’s a very original way to pass the piece down,” said Ame Van Dyke.

How technology factors in

Understanding technology is a critical part of the jewelry business. Equipment and software help the team do everything from utilize social media effectively to weld metal better.

Doug Van Dyke said everyone on the team hears amazing stories from clients. E.R. Sawyer Jewelers’ in-house marketing assistant then reformats the stories and shares them on Facebook and Instagram. The store is careful to share the work it did, but not the customers’ names.

One story, from September 2018, involved a couple seeking to have the diamond from the wife’s original engagement ring set into her new wedding ring.

Morgan Griswold, a sales associate for E.R. Sawyers Jewelers, shared that center stones for the rings were different sizes.

“The final product was not going to look very good, so we got a little creative. We opted to take the morganite off of the rose ring with its halo and turn it into a pendant. We then found a new rose halo the right size for her diamond and set it on top of the thin rose gold band that she loved. When she picked the pieces up, she burst into tears. She loved the necklace, but she told me that her dream ring turned out even better than she could have hoped,” said Griswold.

Doug Van Dyke said online reviews, local billboards, and word of mouth also put eyes on the shop.

“People remember the name so we have very high search rankings. People say, “They supported our son’s baseball team.” Then there will be a connection to the shop. Our reputation is also enhanced by the reviews we get,” said Doug Van Dyke.

The Van Dykes said the store also gains attention through window displays that fit the season. In addition, the Van Dykes keep the stores open for downtown events like Santa Rosa’s Rose Parade.

Doug Van Dyke said keeping purchase records on paper and in digital form has been key to helping customers restore burned and melted pieces.

The shop’s immense archive of photos and descriptions makes it easy for the team to recreate the look and feel of everything from a charred gold ring to a burnt diamond. The Van Dykes said it is their goal to serve every customer, from “sheet-white” grooms-to-be to same-sex couples, with a positive, optimistic attitude.

“We look for ways to say yes,” said Doug Van Dyke.

“Everyone is welcome at E.R. Sawyer Jewelers,” said Ame Van Dyke.

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