MRT Jewelers opened in 1918 as a wholesaler and repair shop, and it’s not only survived for almost 90 years, as its peers have closed – it’s growing so fast that this month, it opened what it says is the biggest independent jewelry store in Rhode Island.
The new location, at 927 Warren Ave. in East Providence, has more than 7,000 square feet of space, with a large jewelry showroom and separate “special occasions” showroom slated to open this fall for gifts, fine clocks, jewelry boxes and crystal.
“This was a move to provide a bigger showcase of our inventory,” said David Audette, vice president of the company. “This is my vision of what I thought MRT could be – a destination store.”
Nationally, the retail jewelry business has been growing slowly, with annual increases mostly in the low single digits – 3.9 percent last year, according to a Unity Marketing report. Large retail chains have come to dominate the market, crowding out independent stores.
But MRT Jewelers has beaten the trends, growing its sales by an average of about 17 percent per year in the last five years, Audette said.
How has the family-owned store done it?
Audette said that – although his father, Joseph, has spent nearly 35 years molding the store into a successful retail business – much of MRT’s ability to grow and provide high-quality customer service has come from holding on to the company’s roots as a wholesaler.
“The wholesaler mindset still continues,” he said. “We still have the largest inventory. It’s very rare that someone comes in here for something and we don’t have it. We have as much as two and a half times the amount of what would be considered a large jeweler in the state.”
For engagement rings alone, MRT’s inventory includes more than 1,000 bands – with a variety of stones, including antique stones, that can be chosen for each one.
In another throwback to MRT’s origins, the store does custom work in-house in a shop that boasts three craftsmen, two who learned the skill as boys and one, the son of one of the other men, who is now learning the craft.
“We can do anything from a $5 watch battery to soldering a gold bracelet to a one-of-a-kind engagement ring,” Audette said. “We’re a unique commodity.”
The custom designs can be taken from pictures or sketches brought in by customers or can be designed by the Audettes or their staff. One recent creation was based on an antique diamond brooch they bought at an estate sale. The brooch had been cut in half at some point, so David Audette redesigned the remainder into a necklace.
MRT also offers redesigns for customers who want to give their jewelry a facelift.
“If you inherit a clunky ring, you may not want to wear it,” Audette said. “But we can redesign it so you still have your grandmother’s stones, which have sentimental value, but now it’s something that fits your personality.”
And because the work is done in the store, and isn’t a designer name, it is often “a mere fraction of the cost,” he said. “We have a very eclectic array of inventory, from a price standpoint. We have $25,000 rings but we also have $2,000 rings. We cater to everyone.”
The new store is more than twice the size of the old one, on Boyd Avenue in East Providence, which had been MRT’s home for 15 years. And the staff is all full-time, to ensure a high level of professionalism, Audette said.
“Other jewelers in the state are downsizing,” he said. “But we find that we are getting bigger and bigger. People still want that personal service, and we do go out of our way to provide it.”
The Audettes also mandate that all customers be made to feel welcome.
I have customers who are very wealthy and have gone into stores in the mall after working on their boat and have been ignored. Here, it’s a very friendly environment.”
Audette said there is no reason that a store cannot succeed without giving up its history of service and quality products.
“We’ve taken a lot of the old traditions of our business, but also taken all of the modern things that we needed,” he said.