“West Vancouver is the most affluent municipality in Canada, and although there were some challenging times in our early years, we always had faith that we could make the business work,” she says.
At Stittgen, which is named for the late German-Canadian jewellery designer Karl Stittgen, the majority of jewellery pieces are hand-forged by an on-site master goldsmith who is constantly coming up with new designs.
“It’s become a really rare scenario in jewellery acquisition to talk to the designer that will handcraft your unique piece of jewellery,” says Selina, noting that most jewellery stores sell pieces that are made in mass quantities using a CAD/CAM manufacturing process, or churned out in thousands from molds in overseas factories.
“We create jewelry the traditional way, forging it by hand and using time-honoured techniques. And our on-site goldsmith is a master goldsmith, which means she’s had seven years of specialized training, followed by years of experience.”
As a young adult, Selina studied psychology, education and criminology at Simon Fraser University, working part-time for a downtown Vancouver jewellery retailer to earn extra money. It was the 1980s, and she knew nothing about the industry when she first began.
“I worked at a store in Pacific Centre and we weren’t trained to understand stone quality or cut—we just regurgitated the information that was on the tag,” she recalls.
A natural sales specialist with an ability to gain the trust of her customers, Selina found herself intrigued by the jewellery industry. After graduating, she accepted a position at Swedish Jewellers in West Vancouver and began working full-time, eventually moving into a management position.
“I found I enjoyed the relationships I built with customers as I worked with them to come up with the right piece, and search for the right stone,” she said. “It’s such a happy moment, especially when you’ve exceeded their expectations.”
When that store closed in the late 1990s, Selina began exploring the idea of launching her own store.
“The idea of opening my own business excited me, and everything just fell into place,” she recalls.
The 1,200-square-foot store on West Vancouver’s Bellevue Avenue is spacious, bright and classy, with carefully curated pieces of jewellery displayed in gallery-like cases.
“I always told Selina, you have no idea how lucky you are to be in this environment, with cruise ships going by in the summer and wonderful clients who are like friends,” says Mobeen Ladak, Selina’s spouse and business partner.
He spent most of his career in the software industry and helped with the business after hours.
“Selina has built a very collaborative work environment where everyone truly works as a team. And once customers have walked through the door, she and her staff are amazing at handling the sales.”
Unlike her early years in the mall, Selina was determined that her staff be educated on colour, carat, cut and clarity of a stone, and that they understand how best to showcase a stone in a setting. Many of the jewellery pieces have a story behind them—like the blue lagoon pendant, named for the colour of an Icelandic lagoon the goldsmith visited while on vacation.
“Our tagline is ‘Let a Stittgen piece tell your unique story,’” says Selina. “We find that this resonates with a lot of our customers.”
For one customer’s 40th wedding anniversary, the goldsmith created a centre-of-life pendant with a ruby surrounded by 40 diamonds. For another, who wanted a piece that reflected the tree farm they owned, Stittgen’s goldsmith designed a ring with a tree and a forest.
“It’s miniature art, and there is so much thought, love and attention that goes into each piece, you almost don’t want to give it up when it’s completed,” she says. “But when you see a customer wear and enjoy a piece designed at Stittgen, it’s such a proud moment.”
Earning the trust of a client is a responsibility she and her team take seriously, especially because the jewellery industry can be beset with mistrust.
“We hear stories all the time from customers who come to us with jewellery they bought elsewhere. They thought it was one thing, but it turned out to be another,” says Selina. “Even appraisals and certificates can misrepresent a product when done by unscrupulous people. In the diamond business, customers are sometimes told that their diamond is two grades higher than what it actually is, but that they’re getting it for a special price. Usually, in this industry, you’re getting what you pay for.”
Many of Selina’s clients are repeat buyers who come to her because of a trusted relationship, and because they appreciate Stittgen’s designs.
“We’re fashion-forward but we’re not trendy,” she explains. “Our pieces are built to last and tend to be passed on from one generation to the next.”
She recalls one couple who came into the store to determine a ring size. They had already selected a ring that they were going to purchase online, sight unseen, for $35,000, and Selina knew that spending so much money on a diamond they’d never even seen was a bad idea.
“I was able to sell them a much bigger diamond for half the price of what they were going to spend online,” she said. “For $17,000 we created the exact ring that the bride wanted, but with a bigger and better stone.”
Engendering trust with clients is Selina’s strength, Mobeen adds.
“Selina has the ability to engage with a client, immediately build trust and rapport, understand precisely what they want, and guide them towards the pieces that will satisfy them,” he says. “They love working with her because of her integrity, her honesty and her ability to help identify what they are looking for.”