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Guiding the family business

With nine generations of jewelers behind her, Nancy Mann knew and welcomed her entrepreneurial destiny from a young age. She is proud of her family’s long history in the industry.

“We always say our tagline should be jeweler to Moses,” she says.

Today she is CEO of Mann’s Jewelers, and she has led the business in new directions while keeping the soul of the company intact.

“A lot of what we do in our world is no different than the way we did it years ago,” Mann says. “Selecting diamonds—there’s not a faster way to do it—a lot of what we do is still much imbued with old world techniques. That to me isn’t stifling; that’s very reassuring.”

She and her brother, Robert Mann, are partners in the business that has been the trade of the Mann line since 1836.

In the 19th century, Mann family members were silver craftsmen for Russian royalty before Louis Mann moved the family to North America in 1922, officials say. He opened Louis Mann & Sons, a jewelry store in Buffalo. Louis Mann is the great-grandfather of Nancy Mann.

Eventually Irving and Gertrude Mann—Nancy and Robert Mann’s parents—took over the business, moving it to 158 S. Clinton Ave. in Rochester in 1968. They ran the business until 1996 when Nancy and Robert took over. He serves as the firm’s president.

“Even as a kid there was no place I would rather be, and to this day, to me, there is still so much magic at Mann’s Jewelers,” she says.

Her parents shared the same passion for the business as their predecessors. They led the business with a focus on integrity.

“One thing I think that we learned from my parents, and I think this is something that is really innate for us, is I feel that we have a soul,” Mann says. “If we don’t feel good about what we’re doing, and if we don’t feel good within what we’re doing, I don’t want to do it.”

Staying here
Mann, 58, earned a bachelor’s degree in art history and business from St. John Fisher College in 1981. She went on to get her gemology certificate from the Gemology Institute of America three years later.

While today she travels internationally and domestically for the business, living in and staying in Rochester was a deliberate choice.

“In retrospect, if I had to do things differently, I would have probably been better suited to leave Rochester for a period of time, but as crazy as it sounds, the allure of missing anything here—even on school vacations—this is where I wanted to be,” Mann says.

The shop on Clinton Avenue was her playground as well as her educational incubator, she says.

“In many ways it’s where I grew up,” Mann says. “I would go downtown with my parents, and everything revolved around the store. To me it was always magical. The thing I think that is so magical about what we do is the level of intimacy that people share with us, and there’s a lot of that that is transferred across the counter.”

Part of Mann’s learning was initiated directly by her father. He valued his daughter’s thoughts about the business from an early age.

“Very often men or fathers will bring their sons into the business,” Mann says. “I am seven years older than my brother so I was always there first, and my father was always willing to hear my perspective. He watched me make a lot of mistakes (and) he encouraged me.”

As with any leaders in business, the father-daughter duo did not always agree. That was a great part of the business; the culture allowed for new ideas, she says.

“We had different perspectives—he knew what he knew and he was great at what he did—but I remember coming back with something like (designer)  David Yurman and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do now,’ and he didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no,” Mann says. “And he was really unusual in terms of allowing me to spearhead what we did from a merchandising standpoint.”

Living their values were ways Irving and Gertrude Mann did business. Years after their deaths, the couple and their legacy are still part of Rochester.

“The best thing that I learned from my parents more than anything else was customer service and integrity,” Mann says. “There isn’t a day that I’m not out on the sales floor, or out around town, and somebody won’t say something amazing about one or both of my parents.

“If I have eight items in the seven or less checkout at Wegmans, I don’t go because they said seven. My word is everything, and that’s an old-time model in the jewelry world. People make million-dollar diamond deals with a handshake and you don’t go back on your word, no matter what.”

Today Mann’s Jewelers is based at 2945 Monroe Ave. in Pittsford and employs roughly 30 people. The business’ success has been largely due to the strength of its staff, Mann says.

The store had a second location in Eastview Mall from 2013 until August. The closing of the location was to consolidate the business, Mann says.

Challenges arise for any business. When Mann’s Jewelers sees a challenge, the company faces it head on.

“There’s always the day-to-day that’s inherent in any business, which certainly isn’t unique to us,” Mann says. “I would say my biggest strength is also my biggest weakness. It’s that I’m eternally optimistic. I think in many cases challenges are a really good way to look at an opportunity.”

A new focus
Nancy Mann has changed the focus of the business to showcase top brands and designers such as Yurman and Stephen Webster, while adding personal collections designed in-house called MJ Collections. Today the company’s in-house collections include MJ Bridal, MJ Constellation, MJ Dew Drops, MJ Couture MJ Precious Petites and MJ Facets. The company also publishes MJ Accent magazine twice a year. The product gives local customers a look at global trends.

“Besides the passion, I think the other element that she brings, that I’m impressed by every day, is her ability to look into the future,” brother Robert Mann says. “She’s a fashion visionary. I think she’s incredibly gifted, the most gifted person I know in the entire industry.”

Over the years, business connections and friendships between Nancy Mann and designers have formed not only exclusive business deals for Mann’s Jewelers but also strong friendships. She often believed in the work of many designers when they were just starting. Stephen Webster—a world renowned British designer—began working with Mann in 1999 when he was just starting out. Webster has designed jewelry for high-end clients, including pop star Madonna’s wedding jewelry.

“Nancy is, of course, an ultimate professional,” Webster says. “(Nancy) and Robert have had to build on the business their father and grandfather started. Sometimes this can be more challenging than starting from scratch.”

Consumers have pushed the jewelry industry to think globally, Webster says. He knows that by working with Mann’s Jewelers he is working with a company that has a long-term vision of providing quality products whether in-store or online. Mann’s is a model for other jewelry companies, he says.

“Nancy is a delight to work with,” Webster says. “We have become great friends as well as business colleagues. You don’t gain the respect of an industry founded on such high-value materials and deep-rooted traditions without doing something right. I love doing business with Nancy.”

Such friendships have given Mann’s customers exclusive perks such as private collections of designers and in-person connections with the designers.

“We have become really good friends with a lot of designers whose names are now what I call household names but at the time we just liked what we saw,” Mann says. “We thought (they had) a point of difference. I would consider us in many cases professional editors. I have looked at so many pieces of jewelry in my life—millions at this point.”

Without Nancy’s input, Mann’s Jewelers would be a very different place, her brother says. He has seen his sister take the business from a modest jewelry store to a store that embodies the top brands and designers of the industry.

“(She) really put us on the map because otherwise we would have wallowed in obscurity and would have been just another of the 10,000 jewelry stores out there with no point of differentiation,” he says.

Jewelry has an ability to commemorate significant moments in ways that other items just cannot do, Nancy Mann says.

“For the most part, people think the jewelry business is a very happy business, and in fairness it is. But more than that it’s really monumental, sentimental occasions that are really emotional—good and bad,” Mann says. “People come to us with certain vulnerability. Whether it’s happy times or sad, they want to express some sort of sentiment, and it’s a big responsibility that we take really seriously.”

Mann’s Jewelers is a reseller of jewelry and also makes and customizes jewelry in-house.

“We are manufacturers of jewelry, which is a very big difference, because with a lot of stores, chain stores or otherwise, you can be waited on by somebody who was selling shoes last week,” Mann says. “I think there’s a very different experience all the way around if you’re helped by somebody who really is invested, who has made this a lifelong career.”

Integrity key
Dennis Kessler, clinical professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School, has been a longtime customer and supporter of the business. He witnessed the transition across generations and sees why the business continues to succeed.

“Integrity matters because very often buying jewelry is a blind item to the consumer,” he says. “I’m not a gemologist, so one of the things we need to do is to have confidence and trust in the person who is selling this material to me. And one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that the Mann family has always been upstanding and with a great deal of integrity. They deserve the success they have.”

Having the technical background in gemology has helped Mann.

“I think that the technical aspect of what we do is really very important, although it’s not something that I lead with day to day,” Mann says. “Because I have sat at a jeweler’s bench and actually made jewelry, because I have graded gemstones … it really informs every decision that I make. It takes me at this point seconds to understand how something is manufactured and understand whether or not it’s going to stand the test of time. We’re good editors.”

Jewelry has a way of marking a life and has its own story to tell about a person’s journey, she says.

“I can tell you that there are not too many things that somebody could receive in a lifetime that they will be, whether they’re still wearing it or not … important markers of milestones,” Mann says.

As a leader, Mann understands what the business can do successfully when it comes to launching collections or meeting customer needs. She trusts her intuition to know where to move next.

“With a lot of the decisions that we make here, I want to make sure that we don’t come up with an idea and push forward an idea that we can’t fully follow through on,” Mann says. “A lot of what I do, for better or for worse, is intuitive. One of my biggest responsibilities as CEO of our company is being the visionary for our company.

“There are a lot of things that we do that we feel as though will enhance the quality of people’s lives, and in many cases, it’s not based on ROI.”

Carrying on the family business has been both an honor and a dream for Mann. She loves to constantly reinvent the business and try new things.

“I am a bit of a one-trick pony,” Mann says. “I know what I know. As kids, we would sit at dinner and talk about rubies, diamonds and whatever, and I just thought that’s how everybody lived. It was only later in life when I saw what other people were doing that I realized exactly how fortunate I was that that’s what I got to do.

“I’m as passionate today as I was on day one. I absolutely, positively love what I do.”

Nancy Mann
Title: CEO and co-owner of Mann’s Jewelers
Age: 58
Education: B.S. in art history and business, St. John Fisher College, 1981; gemologist certification, Gemological Institute of America, 1984
Family: daughters Allison Appelbaum, 27, and Victoria Appelbaum, 24
Residence: Rochester
Activities: boxing, practicing yoga, reading, cooking and listening to Spotify
Quote: “As kids we would sit at dinner and talk about rubies, diamonds and whatever, and I just thought that’s how everybody lived. It was only later in life when I saw what other people were doing that I realized exactly how fortunate I was that that’s what I got to do. I’m as passionate today as I was on day one. I absolutely, positively, love what I do.”

11/18/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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