90 years of all that glitters

By Rajitha Sivakumaran

J Vair Anderson

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In 1925, a young watchmaker by the name of J. Vair Anderson began a modest jewellery store in the heart of downtown Calgary. Little did he know that his name would be spoken on the streets of Alberta’s largest city (and beyond) 90 years later.

The post-First World War period was an exciting time – the gold rush of Oregon was still in progress. Having finished his watchmaking training in Ontario, young Anderson, following the commonly heard summons: “Go west, young man”, hopped aboard a westward train in search of a vocation. He found it in Calgary working under the notable jeweller D.E. Black. When Black’s jewellery store merged with Henry Birks & Sons, Anderson suddenly found himself under the employment of one of Canada’s largest national jewellers. It gave him the ample experience needed to start a venture of his own: J. Vair Anderson Jewellers.

The store’s legacy has propelled through time, serving a high-end clientele with designer collections, diamonds, gemstones, pearls, and Swiss watches. Now under the leadership of Ken Anderson, grandson of the founder, J. Vair is renowned for its coloured stone inventory and works alongside German manufacturers, specifically high-end platinum dealers. Accordingly, the company is home to exclusive European design collections such as Wellendorff and Henrich & Denzel. A noteworthy player in the international jewellery scene, J. Vair brings its customers luxury goods of classic sophistication and contemporary elegance.

When the company first emerged, young Anderson and his two sons ran the place with the help of a single employee. With a modest staff base of up to a dozen people now, J. Vair has the best folks for the job — knowledgeable, GIA and AGS certified and passionate about all that glitters. Additionally, in-store gemologists and designers are available for jewellery appraisals and design services.

Nine decades of being in business

Last fall, J. Vair celebrated its 90th anniversary in business and the secret behind the company’s success is none other than love for the job.

“A lot of us get up, go to work and it’s just a job,” Anderson said. At J. Vair, the story is quite the opposite. Anderson referred to his business as a “labour of love”. A dash of family ownership certainly adds flavour to this labour and helps a job become a vocation.

The jewellery store environment also aids this passion. The industry is an exciting one to be in — it is constantly changing. Novel designs and new materials emerge all the time alongside discoveries of new gemstones, which often send dealers and fashion-conscious consumers into the store to view the newest the industry has to offer.

“There’s such an exciting newness to our industry. We’re a really unique industry. We supply for the most part celebration of happy times. People don’t buy our kinds of goods when they’re sad,” Anderson joked.

Location is also key to success. Downtown Calgary is bordered on one side by the railway and the other side by the river, making its downtown core rather enclosed and J. Vair sits comfortably in this compact urban environment. The downtown core, bustling with people, is a superlative location to conduct business. Calgary also houses one of Canada’s busiest international airports, thus serving as a hub for an influx of people, which is something else that helps business thrive.

Catering to the customer is what J. Vair does best and it does so by careful observation of trends. For instance, based on the preferences of his clients, Anderson has noted a drop in yellow gold purchases during the past 20 years. Instead, a predilection towards “white” jewellery, specifically platinum and white gold, is seen.

“They don’t want their mother’s jewellery. They want something contemporary, something modern,” Anderson said.

Selling luxury goods in challenging times

Anderson was born into the industry of glittering gems and extravagant watches. As a third generation owner, who at one point ran the store alongside his father and grandfather, Anderson has accumulated 44 years of experience under his belt. Consequently, he’s sailed through the volatile waves of the business like an expert seaman.

“I’ve ridden the highs and the lows. We’ve seen the crazy times when the streets were paved with gold and we’ve also seen the times when the offices looked strangely empty,” Anderson said.

The store itself has endured for far longer that its present owner. It survived through the Great Depression, a time when people paid for a watch repair with chicken and vegetables. Though the present time is incomparable to the hardships of the 1930s, the modern era is not devoid of problems.

“If it was easy, there would be more people doing it,” Anderson said. “It’s challenging times. If you’re up for the challenge, then you’re going to be successful.”

The present challenge is the increasing tendency of consumers to shop online. Finding new clientele can sometimes be difficult even though J. Vair has now been serving four generations of Calgarians. Oftentimes, current clients are the descendants of those who purchased jewellery from the previous hands that ran the store.

“It’s a brave new world,” Anderson said in reference to the downpour of social media. Having a hand in that type of media and interacting with it while utilizing it for business is a challenge and a focus for Anderson.

Sometimes location can be a cause for woe. Despite the many advantages of operating in Calgary, the recent downfalls in oil prices have served as a reminder to Anderson that luxury goods are a tap that can be turned off very quickly when the going gets tough.

“We’re in Calgary, the hub and heart of the oil business, and right now that business is reeling a little and there’s a lot of downturned faces,” Anderson said.

But according to Anderson, Calgary is very resilient. People possess an entrepreneurial spirit — “they dust themselves off, they don’t want to move away, they re-invent themselves — that’s what makes this city exciting,” Anderson said.

The future and what it holds

Despite opportunities to open other branches, the company has stayed rooted to downtown Calgary for the past nine decades. “My dad used to say it’s hard to be in two places at the same time,” Anderson joked.

Bigger isn’t always better, but there is always opportunity to do better, Anderson said, and so his vision is to attribute a century to J. Vair’s existence — a milestone that he looks forward to experiencing. The J. Vair team is presently focused on taking it to the next level, and extending J. Vair far into the future.