Raphael Jewellers is located just metres away from Australia’s busiest shopping precinct, but seems a world away from the steel and glass facades and crowds that define Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall.
Indeed visitors to the store, on the second level of 122-year-old Strand Arcade, could be forgiven for thinking they had magically stepped back into time.
The store is fitted out with an eclectic mix of antique furniture (including magnificent armchairs and an English timber chest displaying a copy of ‘The London News’ from 1855) and every spare space seems to be burgeoning with curios and artefacts from around the globe. And in between all these objets d’art are the store’s own treasures – its high-end jewellery designs.
A visual smorgasbord for shoppers and tourists alike, it is not surprising to learn that the store is sometimes even mistaken for a museum.
However, the large custom-designed jewellers bench that dominates the rear of the store quickly alerts even the most casual visitor to its true identity.
Raphael Jewellers was established by diamond setter Raphael Akelian in 1989. Eight years later, Raphael’s younger brother Joseph joined the business.
Today the store is owned and operated by the brothers who are equally proud of its heritage and uniqueness.
“Many people say Raphael Jewellers is not only one of the most unique jewellery stores in Sydney, but one of the most unique stores of any kind,” says Raphael.
“We spend as much time here as we do at home so we want to make it a warm, friendly and appealing environment for ourselves and our clientele – that’s why we’ve filled the store with such beautiful pieces of furniture and objets d’art.”
Joseph explains that being a “destination” is an added motivation to maintain the store’s uniqueness.
“We try and make the store look as interesting as possible so that when people do walk past, their curiosity makes them almost have to come in.
“Some people really do think the store is a museum and just come in and browse – some even look at everything in the store but the jewellery.”
Nonetheless, both brothers are adamant that such ‘browsers’ are not unwelcome.
“They may have not come into the door knowing we sell jewellery but some do nonetheless end up buying and becoming our clients,” smiles Raphael.
“Shoppers today really do want an experience,” says Joseph.
“In an increasingly mass market world, we’re trying to retain the old world charm of the traditional jewellery store.
“Shopping at Raphael’s is not designed to be a ‘come in, buy and leave’ purchase – it’s about
coming in, sitting down, relaxing and talking about what the client would like and what we can offer.
“The discerning jewellery collector doesn’t just want to walk into a store and buy a finished product as much these days.
“A lot of them appreciate fine workmanship and they want to see it.
“They want to see how the jewellery piece they’re buying is being made – that’s why, despite all the antiques on display, our store is very modern in its ‘open plan’ layout which has the jewellers bench as a focal point.”
Raphael readily acknowledges that it is not easy for many jewellers to offer a similar “experience”.
“If you’re in the mainstream market it can be very hard to offer such a level of service because people are coming in left, right and centre but for us, it is definitely worth it,” he says.
“A lot of clients love how much time we spend talking with them, discussing their needs and showing them how we work – it’s a part of the experience for them, and it’s part of the experience for us too.”
However, both men are also quick to acknowledge that it is not just the uniqueness of the store’s appearance or their old world charm and service that has helped the store develop a loyal clientele over the last 24 years.
Although the business has grown “steadily and organically” since its beginning, “there is no doubt” that winning the 1993 De Beers Diamonds Facets Awards competition for a pair of drop-earrings in the ‘Fancy That’ category had a huge impact on the store’s trajectory.
“Raphael was a young up-and-coming jewellery designer then, but the Award really sealed his presence within the industry,” says Joseph.
Since then, Raphael Jewellers has further cemented its designing credentials by being a finalist in the bi-annual De Beers Awards another five times (before the awards ceased in 1999), a Jewellers Association of Australia ‘Dare to Shine’ Award finalist in 2002, and the main winner at the Australian Opal Jewellery design Awards in 2003.
More recently, in 2005, Raphael Jewellers was a finalist in two categories in the inaugural Harpers Bazaar Diamond Guild Awards, and the winner of the Fancy Diamond Award.
Importantly though, the store has developed and continues to develop a strong and loyal client base by making “high-end designer jewellery” that is both appealing and highly wearable.
“We take the time to get to know our clients as much as possible so we understand them and their needs,” explains Raphael.
“We then design a high quality piece of jewellery that is just perfect for them.”
Joseph adds that the store always aims to design and manufacture jewellery that is “timelessly elegant”.
“We manufacture premium quality pieces so the client doesn’t have to remodel it in three years’ time,” he says.
“Therefore we design it so that it will survive the test of time and can potentially become an heirloom for the next generation.”
Joseph stresses that although this may make the store’s designs sound “very old school or old-fashioned”, this is not the reality as both brothers ensure all their designs have a “modern twist or edge”.
“Combining elegance with modern design is the inspiration behind our designs,” says Raphael.
“A lot of the thinking behind our designs is simply a combination of good taste and common sense.
“Creating unique designs is not difficult – the real skill is making unique designs that are attractive and wearable at a realistic price point.”
Both men believe it is this skill, accompanied with the ability to develop good trusting relationships with clients in an “old world” way that is indeed the key to its success.
“Although were not in the mainstream market clients who wear our jewellery are our ambassadors.”
Like everyone else in the jewellery industry, the Akelians don’t know what lies ahead for their business in these “uncertain times” but are determined to succeed.
“We are facing the same major challenges as everyone else in the industry – the high gold price, the Internet, the strong Australian dollar and the sluggish economy,” says Joseph, “but we both still love working in this very charming industry.”
The brothers will therefore continue to do what they have done for almost a quarter of a century.
“It is an absolute pleasure to meet and develop relationships with our clients and then create beautiful jewellery for them,” concludes Raphael.
* Pictured above are Joseph and Raphael Akelian