Diamonds are forever and, if Stephanie Appotive has anything to say about it, Howard Fine Jewellers and Custom Designers will be around forever, too.
Appotive is co-owner and director of operations of the Ottawa jewelry store, which was started 52 years ago by her father, Howard, with the support of his wife Sharron and his brother David. The business has moved a couple of times before settling into its current landmark location at the downtown corner of Sparks and Bank streets.
Appotive grew up in the bling biz. Some little girls play with plastic beads; she played with precious pearls. She helped to sort them for her parents, starting when she was about five.
“My father always made me feel welcomed in the store, and I loved being around the activity of a busy retail environment,” says Appotive. “It allowed me to learn through osmosis from a young age.”
While it seemed Appotive’s future in the family business was carved in sparkly stone, she initially set her sights on becoming a labour lawyer. It wasn’t until her last year in undergrad at McGill University that she decided she missed the beauty, collaboration and relationships that the fine jewelry world offered.
“Sometimes, the very thing in front of you is so obvious to others but not necessarily to you. It’s all about timing, and I am grateful that my parents did not push me into the business. They let me choose it for myself.”
Appotive earned her graduate gemologist credentials from the New York City-based Gemological Institute of America. She apprenticed with two trade wholesale dealers in New York to learn that part of the business before working her way up at Howard Jewellers. Today, she owns the business with her sister Lindsay, who runs their other store, True Bijoux Fabulous Jewellery Finds.
Appotive was recognized this year for her entrepreneurial accomplishments when she received a Forty Under 40 award from OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade.
Even in these rocky retail times, Howard Jewellers has enjoyed record-breaking sales for the past eight years. Now at 26 employees, the store operates a full-service, on-site custom design factory, a watch and jewelry repair and restoration centre and a gemological lab.
It remains the go-to destination in Ottawa for engagement rings, gifts for special occasions such as birthdays and anniversaries, and Rolex watches. Howard employees get a Rolex of their choice after 25 years.
“We work really hard,” Appotive says of their success. “I know everyone probably says that, but we really do work very hard. We do not take anything for granted. We have an amazing team, and we’re very client focused.”
Appotive says she’s learned from the best: her father. He’s a self-made man with an unrelenting drive and an attitude that nothing is ever too small or too big to help a client. He’s taught Appotive that the jewelry business is about establishing trust and being true to one’s word with clients and suppliers. Diamond deals all over the world are clinched with nothing but a handshake and the phrase “mazal u’ bracha,” a traditional Hebrew saying that means “with fortune and blessings.”
The business’s ability to adapt to changing markets and consumer tastes has helped it thrive. Some of the competition has not fared as well, adds Appotive, who uses a combination of old-school values, grassroots marketing and technology.
Need to adapt
“Connecting with clients on social media platforms is an example of how quickly our business has had to adapt,” she says.
“My dad has always said: ‘You never want to be like a big cruise ship. A big cruise ship takes a very long time to be able to turn around or switch directions. No matter how big your business gets, you really want to be a speed boat.’
“When you are a speed boat, you can change quickly with the times, because things really do happen so fast,” says Appotive, who most enjoys collaborating with her clients and master jewellers to create unique new pieces, whether from scratch or using clients’ existing jewelry that holds sentimental value.
One of the biggest challenges to working in luxury retail, says Appotive, is to motivate and take care of one’s team so that they can consistently deliver their best.
“It’s like we are inviting our clients into our home,” she explains. “We want them to feel special. It’s all about putting the customer first.
“When you come to work, you have to be able to park your personal life at the door. Luxury shopping is not about us; it’s about the client.”
Remember the snooty sales clerk scene from Pretty Woman? That would never happen at Howard Jewellers, Appotive says so emphatically that she repeats the word “never” three times.
“You treat everyone equally,” she says, adding that she knows better than to judge by appearances.
Five things to know about Stephanie Appotive
1. Appotive is married to Gowling WLG partner James Miller, with whom she has three kids. She had a crush on Miller when she was eight at the OAC tennis camp.
2. Her favourite stone is a gem-quality rhodochrosite. A rhod-o-what? She simplifies her answer by adding that she also really likes emeralds.
3. She can be found buying a three-shot Americano each workday morning at the nearby Bridgehead and seen grabbing lunch from gourmet food truck Bap by Raon Kitchen.
4. Appotive is a regular fixture at charity galas and donates thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry each year for prizes and auction items.
5. Appotive doesn’t wear a ton of jewelry at work because she doesn’t want to impose her tastes on others. The rock in her engagement ring is quite something, though. Her father quietly bought it when she was very young. When Miller asked him for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Howard consented and told the young man: “Have I got the diamond for you.”