Vertical integration is a way to increase business profits, but it rarely applies to a small family-owned business.
"We wanted to be unique," said Jose Rodriguez, proprietor of Queen Emerald, the American extension of a 40-year-old Colombian family enterprise.
The store sells only emeralds and jewelry made from emeralds. In Colombia it makes the jewelry, too, as well as cutting stones it buys directly from the mines in the Colombian Andes.
By having a hand in almost every phase from the ground to the final sale, Rodriguez said he is not at the mercy of wholesalers and other middlemen. But the business grew that way by accident.
Rodriguez's father, Miguel, learned to cut emeralds in Bogota decades ago. He and a brother decided they wanted their own business, so they started a display in tourist hotels showing passers-by how emeralds are hewn from rough rock. The tourists were entertained but wanted to then buy jewelry. The men expanded into settings and the business took off from there.
They developed a substantial Colombian retail business, but political unrest in the 1990s cut the tourist trade, Rodriguez said.
The family needed American customers and found some at jewelry shows, but decided they needed a permanent presence. Jose, with a fresh business degree, was sent to the United States to learn English and establish a store. With some extended family in St. Petersburg and a desire to avoid South Florida, he opened Queen Emerald six years ago across First Street from BayWalk.
"We built this up step by step," Jose Rodriguez, 32, said of what is now a $250,000-a-year U.S. operation. "But we didn't have another option."
Selling only emeralds was more a function of doing what the family knew, but their circumstance lends efficiency, said Eva Ananiewicz, who teaches gemology in the continuing-education program at the University of South Florida.
"Not many retail stores are directly related to the source of their products," said Ananiewicz, who teaches both the stone and business side of gems. "They have control over the quality."
Emeralds do not have the cachet of diamonds, Ananiewicz said, but are valuable because there are fewer of them on the global market. They are also susceptible to manipulation and "treatments" that temporarily improve their appearance, but buying straight from the mine means the business can know exactly what it's getting.
"A lot of jewelry stores are afraid to specialize in one stone if it's not diamonds," Rodriguez said. "A lot of people said I was crazy to open a store with only emeralds."
But niche marketing can also be effective, said Bruce Watters, who runs the self-named jewelry store around the block from Rodriguez. Watters, whose store is also family owned — for 103 years — said small businesses have to be creative to compete with chains, but it's still possible.
"You've got to stay alert," Watters said.
Rodriguez said there are chains that emphasize emeralds, like Colombian Emeralds in the Caribbean, but few businesses spend much time on what is a small slice of the gem business.
Ananiewicz said emeralds are hard to work with, so it's not a space likely to get very crowded.
"Emeralds are never flawless, so the cutter has to be very skilled," she said. "They're also more brittle."
The stones are crystal beryllium with chromium, lending them their green hue. Because gases and liquids can seep into them, Rodriguez said, they end up with "inclusions," or blemishes that not only detract from their appearance but can also shatter the stone if struck. An emerald cutter has to shave away extraneous rock and flawed emerald to leave the largest possible faceted surface from an original stone.
Rodriguez has dozens of pieces in his store, ranging in price from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars.
The gems vary in price according to several factors, from brightness to clarity to color.
He has samples of raw material to show where a fine pendant or sparkling earrings come from.
"Sometimes people are afraid to wear green, but really, it matches everything," he said. "At the end, it's all a matter of what you like."
Paul Swider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 892-2271.