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The Yonkus family—Bill Jr., Betty and Audrey—have owned and operated Sundance Jewelry since 1973. (Photos by Raymond Holt)
What's the secret to success? The owners of Sundance Jewelers say it’s their personal touch and carefully cultivated client relationships that have enabled their downtown East Lansing business to flourish over the years.
The business was started in 1973 by East Lansing residents Betty Yonkus and William Yonkus Sr. and, according to their son Bill Jr., Sundance Jewelers will always be family-owned.
Three generations now co-manage the store: Betty, her son Bill, and his daughter Audrey. The business has five full-time employees and a few part-timers.
“When it comes to my mom, she just knows everyone that comes through the door,” Bill said.
Bill hopes to one day fully turn the business over to his daughter.
“I plan on being here for the long haul,” Audrey told ELi.
History on their side
According to Bill, Sundance is one of the oldest continuously owned and operated businesses in this city.
“We love it here. Any negatives from things like construction are outweighed by the positives,” Bill told ELi in a recent interview.
“We’re not trying to be the biggest jewelry store in the world but I think we’ve got the best, and good things come in small packages,” he said. “There's a level of sentiment of doing business in your hometown. You know a place that you feel good about, where you went to school.”
When the store first opened in 1973, it was located on Abbot Road and shared a space with White Monkey, a head shop, and Comes Naturally, a health food store. A fire forced the other two tenants out and Sundance expanded into their space.
Bill recalled that turquoise jewelry and Native American-themed pottery were popular in the ’70s and early ’80s, until the gold craze came along.
“Everyone was wearing those big gold chains" at that point.
Following their expansion on Abbot Road, a retail spot opened up at 201 E. Grand River Ave., and Betty and William Yonkus Sr. moved the store to that location in 1990. Being on the main street of East Lansing gave their operation better exposure.
Sundance moved into its current location, on Albert Ave. just east of CVS, because the Grand River Ave. building was set to be knocked down to make way for redevelopment. (The new Target store now stands where Sundance Jewelers used to be.) On Albert Ave., Sundance Jewelers signed a 20-year lease for retail space that is City-owned.
Bill said that he is happy with the move and thinks that Albert Ave. may have even more foot traffic than their location on Grand River Ave. did.
“The City was pretty accommodating with us. I think they had a real interest in keeping some of the long-term businesses,” Bill said.
Goldsmith Tom Awrey works on a piece of custom jewelry.
Sundance has several highly-trained gemologists on staff. Bill Yonkus and his parents were trained through the Gemological Institute of America’s Gemology program, which specializes in gemstone identification and appraisal work.
“My mom and dad were actually some of the first gemologists in the area,” Bill told ELi. “The majority of the people that come here are expecting a certain amount of knowledge and creativity.”
Audrey, who is also training to become a gemologist, manages the marketing and public relations side of the business. She also has expertise in CAD (computer-aided design), which is how much of today’s jewelry is designed.
Strong demand for custom work
“The majority of the transactions that come through the door are not necessarily someone coming in and picking something out of the showcase. We do a lot of repair, redesign and appraisal work,” Bill said.
Sundance will appraise jewelry even if it is not purchased from their store, and the store is different than a lot of big box chains because it does a lot of custom work. In fact, Yonkus said custom work and redesigns make up a signficant portion of the business.
“Oftentimes people will bring in images of four or five different rings and it will be up to Tom to customize a piece of jewelry to give our customers something unique and special.”
"Tom" is Tom Awrey, the goldsmith who has been with the company since the 1970s.
Bridal jewelry continues as Sundance’s biggest seller, and it also serves a means for new customers to get to know Sundance.
“Generally, what happens is, when someone makes that major purchase [for engagement and wedding rings], they're back for anniversaries, birthdays, the holidays. We have some customers who shopped in the store in the ’70s and now their grandkids are customers,” Bill said.
Diamond dilemma: synthetic vs. natural
Synthetic diamonds, which are comprised of the same material as natural diamonds but are grown in a lab, have been gaining in popularity lately, but have also caused some controversy among those in the industry. Some believe that these new diamonds will hurt the market for natural diamonds, but Bill doesn't think that will be the case.
“I’ve been around enough that I’ve seen a lot of things. I saw cubic zirconia come out and people thought that would hurt natural diamonds. Lab-grown diamonds are an aspirational purchase. I think what it really did was create demand for the real thing,” Bill said.
Bill Yonkus said he and his daughter plan to keep providing East Lansing and his customers with the same great service that his parents have for years.
“It's really about service," he explained, adding "we’re here to serve the community. We don't plan on having six stores someday. We plan on just continuing on doing what we’re doing.”
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