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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Quarter century later, Northern Light still shines

    Tony Suarez stocks the display cases at his Northern Light Gems on State St. in New London Tuesday, Oct. 25 , 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    New London — Tony Suarez never dreamed he would get into the jewelry business, but here he is now, ready to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Northern Light Gems.

    Suarez had worked early on at Mallove's Jewelers, which was practically next door to the 2,200-square-foot State Street store where he now spends most of his time. But, after learning everything from packaging to watch repair to engraving starting out of high school in 1975, he eventually went off on his own to became a certified jewelry appraiser, working with insurance companies after the theft or loss of a valuable.

    Then an old friend acquired Whaler's Inn in Mystic and in 1991 suggested he start a jewelry store on the other side of the street near Bravo Bravo restaurant that opened about the same time. Starting with about $600 in inventory, Suarez built the store on the fly and found business slow until one day a wealthy client with an insurance claim called him up.

    "The first call was for about $32,000, and I thought at that point the jewelry business was a pretty good place to be," Suarez laughed.

    He has since built a base of more than 6,000 customers, he said, and after two decades in Mystic finally made the decision to move his store back to where his career all began in New London. His State Street storefront, which opened five years ago, may not get the traffic he once saw in Mystic, he acknowledged, but customers who do show up are serious about buying.

    "There's more of a business community here," he said. "People come in here with intent. Tourists love to shop, but they're not necessarily here to buy. The numbers are better here."

    Suarez said there is more synergy as well between his New London store and another he opened 11 years ago in Niantic. Now, if something is not available in one shop, customers are more willing to travel to the other storefront to conduct business.

    He added that the shop's convenient location within walking distance of Cross Sound Ferry means he is picking up a fair amount of business from customers living on Fishers Island. And bigger clients enjoy the ability to do business in a back office of the New London store compared with the "fishbowl" that allowed little privacy in Mystic.

    Northern Light stocks a wide array of rings, necklaces and other jewelry, catering to a clientele that ranges largely in their mid 30s on up, and it offers a 25 percent markdown for military personnel. While jewelry sales for special occasions such as weddings and anniversaries are still big, the store does increasing work in alterations, repairs and custom designs, Suarez said.

    "Unfortunately, there's nothing I can't do," Suarez joked.

    In a pinch, Suarez said he could turn around a custom design in two days, and wedding bands can be created from scratch inside of a week. But Northern Lights also prides itself on offering affordable items in the $25 to $50 range, Suarez said, including popular New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox watches.

    Suarez acknowledges that the jewelry business has changed significantly in the past few years with the advent of the Internet. While he remembers downtown New London once having five quality jewelry stores, Northern Light is now the sole survivor as Mallove's left the city for new locations in Mystic and Waterford and Kientzy Jewelers moved toward the south end of town on Ocean Avenue.

    But Suarez said he believes there will always be a need for jewelry stores because what might be shown on the Internet isn't always what is delivered. It's better, he said, to be able to touch and feel and try on a piece of jewelry than to buy it sight unseen.

    "We have less than a 1 percent return rate," he said.

    Part of the reason for that, he said, is that couples are often coming in together to pick out jewelry rather than going for the big surprise.

    "Women are in better places financially," he added. "They can buy what they want."

    Suarez said he buys a lot of estate jewelry as well as silver and gold. He has a watchmaker, design shop, color-analysis lab and two jewelers available at the New London store.

    But the best thing about New London, he said, is that people in business help each other out. He plans to hold a 25th anniversary celebration from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday to say thanks to the community and his customers for their loyalty and trust.

    "It feels good being back in New London," Suarez said. "It feels like things are happening in a good way. There's a lot of positive energy going forward."

    l.howard@theday.com

    Northern Light Gems on State Street in New London Tuesday, Oct. 25 , 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Merchandise on display at Northern Light Gems on State Street in New London Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    What: Northern Light Gems

    Where: 60 State St., New London, and 36 Pennsylvania Ave., Niantic

    Who: Tony Suarez, owner

    Years in Business: 25

    Website: www.nlgems.com

    Phone: 860-443-7766; 691-2020

    Email: AMSuarez500@gmail.com

    Hours: Mon-Sat, 11-5; Friday, 11-6

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