The sign just inside the door reads, “Browsers Welcome!” It’s not a sign retail customers expect to see inside a jewelry store, but then again, Joint Venture Estate Jewelers isn’t a typical jeweler. In fact, this bustling, full-service jewelry store, located on King Street in the heart of Charleston’s antique district, is one-of-a-kind in the industry.
According to co-owner and co-founder Ellen Rickenbaker, Joint Venture Estate Jewelers is a consignment jewelry store. “We’re unique in that we provide people with a safe, reliable way to sell their jewelry when they decide to part with it,” says Rickenbaker. “Before opening in 1990, there was no venue for people to sell their high-end jewelry other than the extremes of a pawn shop or an auction house such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s. I believe we are still the only jewelry store of this kind anywhere.”
Rickenbaker says the concept was the brainchild of her father, Mort Hankin, who retired along with his wife, Barb, to the area. “I was attending the College of Charleston at the time,” recalls Rickenbaker. “One day during my senior year, my father asked me what I was going to do when I grew up. I told him I loved retail and was thinking about going to work for one of the big national retailers. He told me his idea, and we decided then and there to give it a try.”
Less than 48 hours after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art history, Rickenbaker pushed open the doors to Joint Venture Estate Jewelers, its showcases filled with the consigned jewelry of friends and family. During those first hectic months working long hours to carve out their own niche in the jewelry industry, the father/ daughter team had no idea how big and how fast their business would grow or that it would eventually encompass Rickenbaker’s husband-to-be, Brad, her mother, Barb, a dedicated and knowledgeable staff, many of whom still work there today—and even the family dog.
Now celebrating their 25th anniversary, the little pop and daughter shop has grown into a trusted name in the jewelry industry nationally. “We specialize in the consignment of fine antique, vintage and modern estate jewelry, as well as preowned, high-end watches such as Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier and many other fine brands,” notes Rickenbaker, who is as passionate about the business today as the day it opened. “Our success is due, in large part, to the relationships we’ve built over the last two and a half decades with our consignors and with our customers.”
As its name suggests, Joint Venture Estate Jewelers is in a business partnership with each of its consignors. According to Rickenbaker, part of every day is spent working with those consignors/ business partners to get their jewelry and watches ready for sale. “We are discriminating about what we include in our showcases,” continues Rickenbaker. “Every piece that comes in must be evaluated to determine what it is—gold, silver or platinum—as well as the purity of the metal. We also identify and evaluate the gemstones and determine their value.”
The experienced staff at Joint Venture Estate Jewelers includes a GIA graduate gemologist and an award-winning jewelry designer and goldsmith. Rickenbaker, a graduate diamond grader, says it’s a huge process that requires a team effort to get the items ready for sale. “Of course, every piece of jewelry must be super clean, and any repairs needed must be made before it is placed in our showcase. Every piece we sell is backed by a 100 percent money-back guarantee, so we go to great lengths to ensure pieces are sound, durable and ready for their new owners.
“We are fortunate to have consignments from all over the country,” she continues. “At any given time, we have thousands of active consignors with anywhere from one item to hundreds of items in our showcase. Because jewelry is seasonless and timeless, we’ll showcase it until it sells.”
From its inception, Joint Venture Estate Jewelers has followed its original business model—selling consigned pieces. “We never go to an estate sale and purchase jewelry to sell here,” states Rickenbaker. “We don’t believe it’s our role to compete for sales with our jewelry consignors.”
Rickenbaker points to one exception: Charleston Watch Company. “My husband, Brad, who is the store manager, has a passion for watches and runs our watch department,” Rickenbaker explains. “He established the Charleston Watch Company, our house brand of timepieces. They have Swiss movements but are assembled here in the United States, which we think is cool.
“That said, we have a huge following of people, especially men, who love timepieces,” she continues. “This loyal and interesting watch clientele lives, breathes, eats and sleeps timepieces. As soon as they are consigned, they are up on our website as soon as possible especially for this select group of customers.”
Rickenbaker believes that looking out for their customers is the other major factor in Joint Venture Estate Jewelers’ incredible success. “From the beginning, our business philosophy has been for every customer to walk out the door happier than when he or she came in,” says Rickenbaker. “Every member of our staff is committed to this philosophy.
“If a customer walks out with a fabulous piece of jewelry, that’s great. If he walks out with a new watch battery, a new watchband, a piece of candy or an idea about where to enjoy a wonderful lunch somewhere along King Street, that’s great, too.”
At Joint Venture Estate Jewelers, the prices of items are always visible. “People love that they don’t have to ask for prices,” notes Rickenbaker. And our customers can have the jewelry they are wearing cleaned for free while they browse.
“The sign really is true,” concludes Rickenbaker. “We love browsers. We are thrilled to have people come in. We have an incredible, diverse collection, and we want to show it off.”
PATRA TAYLOR writes about homes, culture and lifestyle from Charleston.