Kent Wood, chief executive officer of Fremeau Jewelers Inc. in Burlington, keeps jewelry in the family and on Church Street as he continues the traditions established by three generations of Fremeaus.

by Portland Helmich

"Diamonds and precious gems are millions of years old. They're not like cars or clothing, which go in and out of style. There isn't a 1999 diamond or a 2001 sapphire." Kent Wood

People have adorned themselves with precious gems throughout history because their beauty and enduring value engender an air of elegance, distinction and timeworn stability. The same could be said of Fremeau Jewelers Inc. in Burlington.

Started by Louis Fremeau I in the mid-19th century, the store has been a fixture on Church Street for 161 years. Three generations of Fremeaus have owned the establishment, which was originally located on upper Church Street, for over 100 years.

When Louis Fremeau III, a watchmaker, developed cataracts and could no longer do his job, he fell into depression. None of his four daughters was interested in continuing the family business, so his wife took over the store and ran it until 1959 when she and Louis sold it to Warren and Evelyn Wood. The new owners decided not to change the store's name because Fremeau Jewelers Inc. had a good reputation, and they didn't want it to appear as if Wood's Sporting Goods, another store on Church Street at the time, had taken over the long-standing jewelry business.

Forty-two years later, the generational continuity that marked Fremeau Jewelers Inc. is still alive. Kent Wood (son of Warren and Evelyn) sits at the helm of the downtown store today. The 45-year-old has been working in his family's business since grade school. "I would come in, especially at Christmas time," he remembers. "Dad would put me in a little blue blazer, and I'd go out and tell people, 'Everybody's tied up right now, but somebody will be with you in a minute.'" The simple task continued until a customer once asked more of the boy. "One day, there was a lady who said, 'No, you wait on me,' and so I
did. Dad just said, 'OK, go for it.' "

Since that time, Wood has been immersed in the world of fine jewelry. The younger of two children (his sister, Margo, was his business partner until she retired three years ago), Fremeau's chief executive officer says he was not pressured to take over the business, but "Dad certainly made it apparent that that was what he'd like."

Wood attended the University of Vermont, where he graduated with a business degree in 1978. A period of dabbling in odd jobs ensued. He worked as a bartender and a waiter at Cafe Shelburne, spent a season as a ski bum in Colorado, and painted houses on Martha's Vineyard.

In 1980 he got serious and applied to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in Santa Monica, Calif., for a graduate degree in gemology. Wood says there are only six certified gemologists in Vermont; Wood, his sister, and his father are three of them. "Dad said it was necessary if I was going to make this my business," he says. Twenty-one years later, Wood seems to have no regrets. "I'm not digging in the dirt. I spend every day working with the most beautiful things in the world," he notes. "There's something magical about gems."

Mike Archambault, store manager, making jewelry. Archambault says his relationship with his boss and coworkers feels more like a family than a business.

Fremeau Jewelers sells jewelry made of diamonds, precious colored gems, and metals like platinum and gold. There are no imitation gems in Fremeau's cases, and the pieces are classic in design. "We don't tend to go to the trendy styles," Wood explains. "The vast majority of what we sell was in style long ago and is still going to be in style 20 years from now."

The store specializes in "better-made" pieces, which Wood says cost more but last longer. "Our main business is repeat customers," he points out, "and you can't have repeat customers unless you sell them things that will last." Wood says his merchandise ranges from $25-sterling silver pendants to $150,000-diamond rings."

The store no longer sells watches, however. Wood's father, who retired nine years ago but works in the store every Christmas, started out as a watchmaker. "Dad noticed that watches accounted for about 10 percent of sales and about 90 percent of customer complaints," Wood says, "because they have so many little moving parts. People would bring them in for repairs, and then they'd go bang them on something or get water in them and have to bring them back. Dad didn't appreciate customers telling him it was his fault. Also, you have to be talented to work on something that small, and the computer industry has hired all the watchmakers away."

The store also no longer sells china or crystal. "You have to stock all kinds of patterns," Wood explains. "They also take up a lot of space, and it's become a more casual lifestyle. People don't really use fine china and crystal that much anymore."

What people still do, however, is graduate, get married and celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and holidays the main reasons customers purchase Fremeau Jewelers' sparkling merchandise. These joyous occasions fuel the pleasure Wood takes in his work. "We deal with people in their happiest times," he says. "When people are excited, you can't help but sort of thrive off that. It's neat to see couples who've been married 25, 30 or 50 years come in here and act like kids buying an anniversary present. It's just an enjoyable way to spend your time."

Selling takes up part of Wood's time(there are 10 people on staff); the rest is spent paying bills and buying gems. He travels to trade shows up to five times a year, mostly in the United States. "That way," he notes, "if there are any problems, you can deal with them easily." Wood says he does not "sit on the bench" and make jewelry anymore. "That's not my forte," he admits. "I don't have the patience."

Mike Archambault does. As manager of the store, Archambault's time is divided between making jewelry the staff jointly designs (customers can custom-design pieces, as well) and selling on the floor. "I love my job," he says. "It's a vacation. The people I work with are great, and the clientele is top-notch." As for his boss, Archambault has no complaints. "We're not micro-managed here," he says. "Kent gives me the ball. I feel like I'm part of the family it's sort of like brothers. If we need to discuss something, we can do that."

Wood says he doesn't know how to describe his business style. "I do delegate a lot," he says, adding that Archambault, assistant manager Simon Woodrup and Jimmy Adams, a former manager who has been at the store for 27 years, have the authority to get the job done. "It's the people that work here that make it successful," Wood says. "I can't take credit, except maybe that I was smart enough to hire them."

Simon Woodrup (left), JoAnn Wood and Jim Adams consult on a piece of jewelry. Not only is it difficult for Fremeau Jewelers to find qualified jewelers and salespeople, but they need to be extremely trustworthy because of the expensive and sentimental merchandise.

Wood, who's looking for another jeweler, says finding "good people" to hire is a challenge. Chittenden County's low unemployment rate is one reason. Another is that the store holds high standards for employees who are going to work with merchandise valued at thousands of dollars. "I've got to know the background of everybody working here," Wood says, "not only because of the economic value of the merchandise but because of the sentimental value, too. We might be repairing someone's grandmother's brooch. Because of jewelry's emotional significance, I need to know that I have people I can trust."

Likewise, when shopping for merchandise with price tags in the thousands of dollars, customers want to know they're turning to an establishment they can trust. This is the reason Montpelier attorney Gilbert Normand buys his wife's jewelry in Wood's store. "Fremeau's reputation for honesty and excellence is without question," he says. "I bought my wife's engagement ring there, and I've bought her a couple of bracelets there. The store's had a name in Burlington for generations. When people mention they've gotten something at Fremeau's, it kind of turns heads."

The attention Wood pays to his customers impresses Normand, whose wife was browsing in the store one summer day, looking at bracelets. "One of them caught her eye, and when I went in at Christmastime to buy her a gift," Normand recalls, "Kent remembered what she had been looking at and showed it to me. That's the type of guy he is. I bought that bracelet and gave it to my wife at a restaurant, and she could hardly eat. The glow on her face when I buy her something from Fremeau's is just worth every penny."

Wood says he and his salespeople intentionally create an unintimidating atmosphere in the store. "People are our best advertising," he says. "We try to make it fun for them to come in. We're happy to show them anything they want even if they don't plan to buy. We also try to tell them prices so that they don't have to ask."

One reason Fremeau's salespeople are able to create a relaxed environment is they do not work on commission. Instead, the store has a monthly sales goal. If the goal is reached, all of the employees receive a percentage based on the number of hours they worked during that period. This method supports teamwork, Wood says. "A lot of times customers come in to look at jewelry several times before they buy something," he says. "No body working here ever says, 'That's not my customer.' "

Furthermore, Wood says none of Fremeau's customers ever say, 'If only I'd waited to buy it on sale.' Warren Wood didn't believe in sales, and his son agrees. "Dad felt it was fairer," Wood explains. "It doesn't matter when you walk in here, the piece you were looking at is always the same price." Wood adds he is fortunate in the jewelry business because the product mix remains relatively unchanged year after year.

"Diamonds and precious gems are millions of years old," he says. "They're not like cars or clothing, which go in and out of style. There isn't a 1999 diamond or a 2001 sapphire. This isn't the clothing business where you have to figure out what next season's styles are and if you miss, you mark down. These gems are timeless."

Unconcerned about keeping up with fashion trends, Wood says he is unfazed by competition from other Church Street jewelry stores. "Actually, I think it's beneficial to have competition," he says. "When people are spending a lot of money on an item, they want to comparison-shop. They don't want just one option. If we were the only jewelry store on the street, I don't think we'd do as well." Wood says he loses more customers to travel agents than to other stores. "For the most part, we're dealing with discretionary income," he continues, "so it's more a question of, 'Am I going to take a trip or buy a piece of jewelry?'"

For those opting for the latter, Fremeau provides "diamond rooms" so customers have privacy when looking at and discussing jewelry with salespeople. "People don't always want everybody to know they're getting engaged or how much they're paying," Wood says. What they do want is to know they're talking to a knowledgeable salesperson; thus, Wood's employees are not allowed to sell the store's most precious gems diamonds until they have taken the GIA course, which is offered by correspondence. Archambault and Woodrup are working to become certified gemologists.

With 161 years of business behind his store, Wood doesn't see the need to make any major changes to Fremeau Jewelers "I see it continually as a single store as opposed to branching out," he says with certainty. What is less certain is whether either of his two daughters (who are 10 and 12 years old) will take over the business one day. Along with his wife, Patricia, who is president of Chittenden Securities Inc., Wood's children occasionally help at the store. "Who knows whether they'll really become interested in it?" he asks.

For now, that doesn't matter. Wood is content with his livelihood. "I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing," he says. That's fortunate for customers like Normand, who can't think of anywhere he'd rather be shopping. "In my mind, there are no jewelers other than Fremeau's."

Originally published in June 2001 Business People-Vermont