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How it all began…..

I am often asked how I got into the Jewellery business in the first place and the real story is a bit unexpected. I like it. It shows where passion can take you.

The Capilano store in 1979

The blame almost entirely belongs with my mother. Not being someone who was content to just stay home and raise kids, she was always looking for something else to do to help out with the bills. We weren’t poor by any means, but like most of us in that day, there wasn’t always enough money to get new shoes or clothes for school. So she would do odd jobs, or sell Avon, whatever she could do. Her dream, though, was to own a Gift store. As a young girl, she had worked at a store just off Jasper Avenue called Bowring & Co., an old established and highly esteemed fine gift store, and she dreamed of having her own.

In 1972, she was finally ready to follow that dream. My brother and I were in high school and able to look after ourselves, so she was free to start. I remember well when they sat at the table and decided to cash in my father’s life insurance for the $1500.00 they needed to buy the materials to build the first store in St. Albert’s Grandin Mall. She had contacted Hallmark Cards and they had agreed to supply the fixtures and the cards which would be the basis for the shop, and Dad and I got to work building the store. I have vivid memories of fighting with the thick black and white floral paisley print vinyl wallpaper that we glued to the walls. (It was the 70’s after all.) They were long pieces,  15 by 4 foot sheets, and you had to roll glue on the walls and on the paper and then get them on the walls before the glue dried. Let’s just say that there were very few times in my life that I saw my father angry and that was perhaps the most memorable. But we got it done and the store opened. The Candlelight Card Shoppe was born.

Mom was in her glory, finding great gifts in the weirdest of places. I even remember hippies pulling up to the house in tie die shirts and bell bottom pants in their spray painted Volkswagen vans to deliver their crazy candles that she bought from them. Anyone still living in St. Albert from that time will remember her store well. It was very successful. So much so, that we went on to open another one in Capilano Mall in east Edmonton, then one in Leduc. It was a hectic time, especially for my father as he kept his job as an Old Dutch Potato Chip salesman. He worked his full time job from 5:00am to 3:00pm, and then in the shops until night fall.

But, back to the jewellery store. It was 1975 and Mom decided to carry some costume jewellery in her Capilano Mall store. Bright red rose pins, silver coloured chains and pendants and the like. Much to our surprise, it sold very well at Christmas and caught the attention of the mall manager. Early in 1976, he came to us with a proposition. There was a small 500 square foot space that had had a jewellery store in it that went out of business a year earlier and he was having trouble finding someone to take it. He offered it to us for 6 months rent free if we would put our costume jewellery in it. ‘Why not?’ we thought. I was in university and had the time to manage it.  So away we went… and the rest is history.

The only problem was that the decor of the store was maybe a bit too nice for the costume jewellery we were selling in it. People were coming in looking for ‘real’ jewellery, so we started carrying 10Kt. gold and silver chains, and then ‘genuine’ gemstone jewellery, and then some inexpensive “Orient” watches. Then one year later came the biggest thing we had ever done to that date. I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting on the organ bench at home while a salesman tried to convince us to carry diamonds. After much angst and worry, we decided to take the plunge and we spent $7,000.00!!!! on diamond engagement rings and wedding bands. A huge amount for us and for that time.  We knew nothing about diamonds; sheesh, we were still just learning about gold! It was a big step.

Ralph Vandenberg Sr. working in our first downtown store. 1989

All our fears were laid to rest, however, the very first weekend we put the jewellery in our cases.  The most expensive ring in the group ($1,200.00 retail) sold. We were almost giddy with excitement. But we still didn’t know anything about diamonds or really even how to run a jewellery store. We asked around among our new suppliers and learned about the Gemological Institute of America where I could learn everything there was to learn about gems and jewellery. I was not excited about university any more and this school just happened to be in Santa Monica California, close to Beverly hills and the beach. It didn’t take much convincing for me to decide to drop out of school and head south. Did I mention it was the 70’s?

The course was excellent. I soaked it up and loved every minute of it. The people I met, the things I saw, all cemented my passion for gems. I graduated in June of 1978 and came home.

So now we knew everything there was to know about stones and jewellery but still had no idea of how to run a jewellery store. There was a store in town those days called Jason Goldsmiths. It really was the premier independent jewelers in town at the time. They were looking for a Gemologist, so I thought I would have a talk with the owner, Dan Meier. I told him who I was and what I wanted and he was great. He agreed to teach me what he knew if I would work in his lab with his other Gemologist, Barry Blower.

I worked with Dan for close to two years before he sold the store and I left to open my own store downtown. From then on, I have had (and I might be a bit biased here) what I think has been one of the most rewarding careers that I could have ever had. My love for stones has taken me all over the world. From Arkhangelsk in Northern Russia, through Hong Kong, Bangkok, to the Rio Grande de Sol of Southern Brazil, South Africa, India, the Middle East and everywhere in between. I’ve negotiated mining contracts in the high offices of DeBeers in London and Johannesburg, haggled over Imperial Topaz and Tourmalines in Ouro Preto in Brazil. I’ve trudged through jungles, and down deep mines, examined geological maps in Archangelsk, Russia, and too many other experiences to mention.

Along the way, I’ve had the privilege of serving the most amazing clients. I’m now even dealing with some of the grandchildren of those early clients. Where has the time gone??

And I’m not ready to call it quits yet. It’s only been 42 years after all. And what other job could I have done where everything I do is intended to make someone happy.

Our first Manulife Place store in 1990

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to create Vandenberg’s Jewellers….