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Designing Drama

John Atencio shakes up his retail environment to create an interactive experience.


Jewelry designer John Atencio built his Boulder, CO, store by following his heart.When Atencio opened his first store in 1976 in Fort Collins, he looked to other jewelry stores as his model. This time, although he did research market trends, he also had the confidence to tap into his own creativity. He was determined it would be radically different from his other six locations.

John Atencio
Boulder, CO

URL: johnatencio.com
OWNER: John Atencio
AREA: 1,325 square feet
ONLINE PRESENCE: E-commerce enabled website 

“When I met with the design team, the first thing I said to them is, ‘If you have any inclination to do things the way we’ve done things in the past, you’re fired. If you’re following the same path, I’m out of here. I’ll have to find someone else. I don’t want to have anything that I’ve had before.’”

Once that was made clear, his plans took shape. The store was conceived to create a unique, open studio experience. The designer’s signature jewelry is showcased with lights hidden from view by a drop-grid made of Colorado hardwood. The walls also display carefully lighted, oversize giclee prints of Atencio’s original paintings. Showcases are modular.

The result? “When you walk in, the space glows and the jewelry stands out,” he says. “The passion of what I do comes through because of the art on the wall and the way the cases are laid out and the way the jewelry is displayed.” It’s much more interactive than past stores and there’s more drama, too, he says. “It feels more like an artist’s gallery than a jewelry store.”

Details made a difference. In areas where they would’ve used wood before, they used steel. Where colors were called for, they opted for more dramatic colors.

When local visitors say, “Wow, this is different!” he knows he’s achieved his goal, because Boulder residents themselves are different. “People in Boulder are actually a different country. They really are culturally different in terms of how they live and how they control their world, their exercise, their food. They see themselves as their own island in Colorado. I feel like if the store is different enough for Boulder, it’s really different.”

In this setup, customers aren’t separated from sales associates; shopping is approached as teamwork. Cases don’t act as barriers; in fact, they are multifunctional. They can be reconfigured to make more room for events and to serve as bars and countertops. Hard surfaces, such as granite counters, throw rugs and those movable cases also make setup and cleanup easier for events. “I wanted to be able to just hose it down,” Atencio says. “Not so pristine or perfect that people couldn’t feel free to spill or drop or eat. We have a neat catering-type kitchen, which you can’t see. It’s behind a curved wall.”

So it’s become a hot spot for community events.

“People come out of the woodwork and want to have events in our store,” he says. Empowering other people to have their events there is breaking down the line between the jewelry and the cases. “The focus is the venue and we’re attracting new relationships. We don’t have to do business at the event. We don’t usually talk about the jewelry. But eventually it’s leading toward a relationship and a new customer.”

He’s pleased enough with the outcome to want to remake his other stores in its image. “I’m in the process right now of seeing how important that kind of experience really is. If I could, I would change all of the stores to be more unique.”

A Safe Place to Experiment 

Atencio began designing jewelry when he wanted to give his girlfriend a ring while at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO.  “I searched for the perfect ring, but unable to find one, I designed the ring myself. I got the girl and the rest is history.” In the early ‘70s, before he opened his first store in Fort Collins, he would sell his jewelry on a blanket next to his van in Aspen, CO. About 15 years later, he opened a retail store in Aspen, directly across the street from where he had sold his jewelry on a blanket. 

When the company started, he called it Creative Designs. “A friend advised me to use my full name as it added more credibility and personality. I saw an immediate increase in business when I changed the name to John Atencio.”

Atencio turned to retail initially because it seemed like the smartest thing to do as a fledgling designer. 

“It was a safe place to experiment and to grow my abilities to make and design jewelry while I was creating a business,” he says. As a retailer, he can be closer to the ultimate reason he is designing jewelry. 

“To have customers talk to you and try your creations on is a wonderful benefit. If you’re always selling to a jeweler, you’re not as in tune to the market as if you have a jewelry store.”

Although Atencio doesn’t stand in front of a counter all day, he says he’s often pulled into conversations with a wide variety of shoppers. “I work mostly with my associates and they are encouraged to bring me into sales or experiences with customers,” he says. “Most of my experiences are just passing through.”

It’s helped him stay in touch with market changes.

“It’s always changing,” he says. “I think it’s exciting. Each generation has a different idea of what jewelry means or should look like. There’s a lot more flexibility to use things other than silver or gold or platinum as materials, like rougher surfaces and rougher stones. This generation is throwing everybody a bit of a curve, but ultimately it will be the same — giving jewelry to express their love. It’s definitely challenging to come up with something different, to follow different veins of creativity.”

Change is critical, after all.

“There are a few aspects of the industry that remain constant, but overall, the puzzle of design, marketing and market conditions are all constantly changing. Change has become a source of inspiration and is essential for growth.”


Is there a secret to managing multiple stores? 
I think it’s about relationships. I’m challenged to have better relationships. If you are trying to manage it you are probably upside down. If you are partnering with people and have good relationships it goes more smoothly.

What do you do to encourage collectors? 
That’s the hope of any designer. We have a customer list of several thousand people. We build collections, which is a road map or footprint for people to come back and add to their collections. It’s incredible how many people we’ve started a relationship with in selling them a diamond ring.

What kind of training program do you have?
We first of all give them a broad range of skill sets that would encourage them to build a tool chest to feel comfortable. If they know about the history and how and why I created this that helps them to open up conversations and they’re not just trying to sell. Every customer is different. Build a relationship and make a sale at the same time.

How do you merchandise multiple stores? 
We have different inventory in every store. We’re constantly analyzing the data of what we’re selling and merchandising the store in a way that fits that market. Two stores are about 200 yards from each other. One is in a hotel at J.W. Marriott and the other is in an urban mall in Denver. Mall traffic is different from the hotel trade. In the Boulder store, people have the wherewithal to buy whatever they want. We build it for younger people and people who are traveling, too. We have more one of a kind pieces and also products for university students and younger people.”

What about e-commerce? 
It’s a small percentage overall. It’s not growing as rapidly as we thought it would grow. Attracting people to the website and having them spend more time there is critical today. More and more we are telling stories and trying to create an experience that’s parallel to what we are creating in the store. Creating an experience, not just a shopping spot. It’s about understanding the dynamics of having a good website.

What sets your stores apart from competitors? 
Everything we have is an expression of my art or my experience. That is our unique selling experience. Our jewelry doesn’t look like others. It’s non traditional, hip, new age or different jewelry. We don’t have the proposition that it fits everybody. Some things look more traditional but there’s always a twist or turn to make our jewelry unique.




5 Cool Things About John Atencio 

1. EXTRA DISPLAY POWER. Five shadow boxes in the front windows feature lazy Susans with a divider, so different jewelry faces the interior and exterior of the store, providing a total of 10 displays. At mid-day, sales staff rotate them so that people walking around the very active Pearl Street Mall will see different jewelry throughout the day.

2. DESIGN ACUMEN. Atencio launched his own luxury watch collection, Pantheon, inspired by ancient Roman architecture, at the store’s opening event. “It was exciting to pair a store opening in a new market with a new product introduction,” he says. His collections have grown from simple sterling silver designs to a collection of silver fashion, gold fashion, bridal and Signature Couture, one-of-a-kind designs featuring rare, responsibly sourced gemstones.

3. DOG-FRIENDLY INITIATIVES. For the Boulder store opening, Atencio designed a silver dog tag pendant featuring the Flatiron Mountains on the front and a dog paw on the back. The new Boulder boutique is located at the foothills of the Flatiron Mountains, so this design was unique to the Boulder market. A significant percentage of the sales of this piece was donated to three important dog charities.

4. INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY. John Atencio has responded to market conditions by changing his approach to merchandising and marketing, approaching each store as its own operation. “We carefully analyze and merchandise each of our seven stores individually,” says Atencio. “We are now recognizing and reflecting differences in demand, demographics and location.”

5. A LOCAL FOCUS. Marketing efforts are tied to local experiences. For example, the store sponsored the Boulder International Film Festival. It created signage, local newspaper ads saluting artistry and the art of film, and created in-store events themed around the festival.



Make sure some cases are movable to create space for events. And choose multi-functional pieces, like granite-topped surfaces that can double as a bar.”


This article originally appeared in the January 2018 edition of INSTORE.


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