Story and photos by Maria Christoforidis
As the sound of the door buzzer travels to the back of the store, Christos Rizos gently puts down the gold Byzantine cross he has been working on for the past week.
From his workbench, he gazes at the front of the store through the two-way mirror he installed in 1973 when he opened the Designs By Rizos jewelry store on 162nd Street in Flushing, Queens.
He buzzes in a customer and heads to the front of his shop, where his creations shine through the glassy displays.
“Designing and creating jewelry is the only thing I have ever known in my life. It makes me happy, my customers happy,” he said with a chuckle, in his thick Greek accent. ”And it makes me some money.”
Rizos calls himself a “master of jewelry metamorphosis” and has worked at justifying the claim for years. His designs are intricate, and at least two-thirds of what he sells he designs himself.
Amid the difficult economy, sales at Designs By Rizos have slipped in the past several years. The price of gold – which has soared amid the financial turmoil of the last few years – has also hurt his business.
“I understand and accept the fact that people don’t make the money they used to,” said Rizos. “But I look at this as a challenge, and I love challenges. It makes me think, how can I increase the amount of sales?”
One way Rizos has done so is by re-creating old pieces of jewelry with less gold. The style remains exactly the same, but the density and dimensions of the item are slightly altered to reduce the price. For Rizos, this process is nothing out of the ordinary, because his customers frequently request customization or specially made products, another way in which Designs By Rizos differentiates itself from other jewelry stores in the neighborhood.
“Once you meet Chris, you know you’re in good hands; he’s very smart at what he does, and it shows through his jewelry,” said Huda Ajib, a satisfied purchaser of a half- dozen items. “If you tell him you want it this way, that way, another way, he’ll do it.”
Besides an occasional ad in a community newspaper or a radio commercial, Rizos depends mostly on word of mouth; the majority of his customers reside in the surrounding neighborhoods.
“Personally, I’m a little bit old school. I believe that new technology will always help, but I think the old-fashioned way is the best way for me,” said Rizos. “My store is a local store, and a local business.”
That doesn’t stop Rizos from adapting marketing techniques like using the Web, especially social networking sites. At RizosJewelry.com, consumers can browse through hundreds of selections, make purchases or read about the store. Rizos also has a Facebook page with updates on new items, sales and holiday discounts.
One thing the Web sites does not address is the store’s policies on buying gold, which many people are curious about these days.
“Gold is so high, and I have so many people who come in selling old pieces, broken bracelets, and half a pair of earrings,” Rizos says. “It’s a good time to get some money out of it and use it to pay bills.”
After he buys the gold, he melts it and then refines it, so it is clean and ready to be used for either 14- , 18- or 24-karat, handmade pieces. When he finishes a piece, it goes on display in the front of the shop.
As the sun sets, its rays shine on Rizos’s creations. The gold, diamonds, and gemstones sparkle, as if the lid of an old, rusty treasure chest has been opened after hundreds of years. Rizos heads to the back of the store, where the Byzantine cross he had been working on awaits him.