Fourtané Jewelers is one of the foremost purveyors of vintage and contemporary Rolex and Tudor watches in the country. Also renowned for its fine estate and antique jewelry, it not only succeeds but thrives as a family business.
It all began in 1965 when, at the age of 13, John Bonifas started his career as an apprentice for a jeweler in Michigan. With an enduring passion for jewelry and timepieces, he became one of the industry’s most distinguished and reputable jewelers.
At the aged of 20, he opened his first store and later grew the business into several stores across Michigan, Kansas City, and Colorado. After managing the geographically dispersed stores, Mr. Bonifas felt there was a need to consolidate and distinguish their focus.
While on a family vacation in Carmel he discovered Fourtané with its unique history and the charm of its surroundings, Mr. Bonifas couldn’t resist. Fourtané acquired its history from the original owner, the French graphic designer Loyola Fourtané who had a passion for creating and hand making her own jewelry. She opened the store circa 1950. Back in the 40s and 50s, Carmel was an artists’ haven and, to date, has kept its village and small town feel – accentuating the store’s classic ambiance.
Bringing his enduring passion with him, Mr. Bonifas acquired Fourtané Estate Jewelers in 1985 and has run the small 300 square-foot store with his wife Sandy ever since. They lived humbly, taking only what they needed to subsist and reinvesting the rest back into the business. This has allowed them not only to grow their business substantially, but to build an amazing clientele around the world.
With the help of his sons Josh and Kris, the store has grown into two stores with over 15 employees.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s to enjoy your job and like what you do. You’re never going to be rich per se, and if you do something that you like to do and you can make a living, what more could you ask for?” said Mr. Bonifas.
“Our business motto is: ‘there’s room for bulls and bears, and no pigs.’ You do the best you can do every day. With all said and done, you’re going to get your share. That’s the philosophy that we take, we sell things based on what they’re worth, not by what they cost!”
Mr. Bonifas’ background is in estate jewelry. “We felt that, especially in Carmel, there were thirty other places to buy jewelry and so you had to distinguish yourself. There wasn’t anyone doing estate, fine estate, or fine antique jewelry. We thought that there was a void.”
According to Mr. Bonifas, there is a constant need to search for the best examples of jewelry that are hundreds of years old with estate jewelry. “That’s what we built our business on, to buy and find fine estate and antique jewelry.”
At Fourtané, advertising has always been in the acquisition of jewelry and rather than the selling of it. With years of expertise, Mr. Bonifas understands the behavior of those who buy and sell these precious pieces. “We’ve found that when you advertise to buy jewelry the person interested in selling will respond and also the person who is interested in buying sees that you’re constantly looking to acquire jewelry so it speaks their interest – it sort of works both ways.”
Even though fine estate and antique jewelry offer the best value and are the prettiest, they are also the most difficult to find. “I’ve found that people that bought fine estate and antique jewelry would always be interested in buying more jewelry because no two pieces were ever alike and they become collectors or passionate about the jewelry…They understand the beauty and uniqueness of it and ultimately the value and enjoyment that you get from owning or wearing that jewelry and clearly jewelry is meant to be worn and enjoyed.”
His exquisite one–of-a-kind collection consists of pieces from around the world that are dated back to the 1800s. From private collections, estate dealers, and bank vaults worldwide, Mr. Bonifas personally hand selects each piece. His collection was nominated in consecutive years for the JCK Jewelers Choice Awards in 2011-2013, and in 2013 he became a Finalist.
K.I.S.S. Rule with Integrity
“My dad says, we operate by the K.I.S.S. Rule – Keep It Simple, Student. In life, there’s always a right and wrong thing. It’s actually that you operate with integrity,” said Kris Bonifas who is in charge of marketing and public relations.
If you ask Kris how it is to work with family, he’ll tell you, “It’s tough to work with family, but the benefit of a family business is that it offers flexibility. When I came here, I started to focus on watches, thinking I’d work side by side with my brother. But we started to butt heads and it became very difficult. So what we figured out is that, we’re all family, we grew up together, we know each other incredibly well and we have a lot of respect for each other. But we all need our own thing here and so we divide and conquer well.”
Communication is the key to the entire staff. “It’s not just in family, it’s the entire store. I have ten other mothers here that treat me like a son. I get love advice and all these things, it’s great.” In a tight space with a whole bunch of A-type personalities. “There’s never a dull day here for sure.”
The casual family business works well in Carmel even though it is luxury commerce. “People aren’t decked up, all dressed up in their best clothes every day. It’s the guy who walks in here in sweatpants and a t-shirt from the beach that pulls out his wallet and pays $100,000 for a watch without question, and that happens a lot.”
Kris reveals that they’ve taken their experience and what they can use from the corporate sector. They continue to reinvest in their business from what they make to continue growing. “Obviously, you know how much you sell, you know the forecasting which helps us buy, but again it’s very hard to do a corporate business plan for this business. Especially, in jewelry because you never know what you’ll find in front of you.”
Family Does the Job
The eldest of three boys, Mr. John Bonifas was brought up in a humble yet strict family environment. His father had fought in World War II and was in the military for a while; afterward, he went to work in a paper mill for the remaining part of his life in Michigan. He didn’t make much money and a strict budget was adhered to for groceries every week.
In the jewelry business, it is known that jewelers are very secretive. They don’t teach other jewelers their secrets and watchmakers don’t share tips – it is very important to have several mentors teach a lot of different areas. The best jewelers are the ones who can understand all the different sectors.
“[Mr. Bonifas] started in Michigan. It would get really cold, below zero degrees and he would go out and start customers’ cars for them and scrape the ice off for them,” says his son Kris. “He used to go around cleaning up ash trays because everyone used to smoke in stores. He was always keeping things nice.”
Moved by his passion, dedication and hard work, the jewelers and watchmakers eventually adopted the young apprentice and taught him the tricks of the trade.
“He’s worked his whole life. He’s in here six days a week. We have to force him to take a day off at 65. He loves it! He’s not a sit-back, run-it-from-home, owner. He’s still the main buyer of all our jewelry, and it’s his taste that people seek out. There’s a lot of jewelry in the world, but it’s his eye that makes our collection here special.”
Explaining how a family business differs from the corporate world, Kris states: “We feel it very important to make the most of our time that we have here at the store and at home because being a family business, it is much more difficult. We don’t check out, it’s not a corporate job. It spills over in our dinner conversations. The whole family embraces it, is very supportive, but it really takes that understanding.”
The employees all adore Mr. Bonifas. “My dad, he knows his goals, he doesn’t give the feeling that he is the boss and everyone comes in and makes their own decisions…My father does not micromanage. We spend a lot of time hiring people that have to be a very good fit. They live it just as we live it, they take business home with them. They have no incentives. They’re paid a great salary and do not work based on commission. That’s because we want everyone here together. We don’t want them to focus on numbers.”
Excellence in Rolex Collection
As one of the top sellers of antique one-of-a-kind Rolex watches, Fourtané is also one of the top authorized new Rolex accounts in the country. They stock the most Rolex in the country, and are the only Rolex dealer in the country that has been authorized to sell vintage Rolex side by side with new Rolex. “We represent their entire line , particularly focussing on their high end timepieces” said Kris. “We hear every day ‘I’ve never seen so many Rolex watches in one place!’”
Josh Bonifas, as one of the most revered experts in the field, demonstrates his passion and intensity alongside his father at Fourtané. He is responsible for tirelessly seeking out special vintage Rolex watches. He has appeared as an appraiser on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. His quests of buying and selling take him to New York, Asia and Europe constantly networking and forecasting industry trends.
“My brother has the eye for the little details that tells him this is actually a watch made from a year that is far more rare…his passion being Rolex, has focused on that and built our Rolex collection,” Kris said.
“Some of these other watch dealers, they buy watches and they find other parts and they piece them together and they say it is Rolex. My brother finds the watches and he makes sure that all these components are from the original factory. There are certain standards that all these things have to initially meet before we even consider purchasing it and offering it to our customers. It’s that type of filtering process and understanding of what makes the stuff that we buy for our customers special that is very difficult.”
Tudor, which is really popular in Asia, was recently re-introduced in the United States. Fourtané was chosen by Tudor (owned by Rolex) for the initial launch. “It was a testament to our store that Tudor chose us.”
Tudor makes watches that don’t compete with Rolex but they are assembled by hand in the Rolex factory. Tudor prices range between $1000 and $8000.
“We have every single Tudor, and we have all the ones that aren’t available in Asia.”
A Choice of Tradition
Kris joined the corporate world after attaining his degrees from Stanford University, but chose to return home to help the family business grow. Speaking of both himself and his brother Josh, Kris states: “We both stepped away and it wasn’t automatic that we’d come here. My parents didn’t force us to come here. They did their thing and saw what we gravitated to. My brother and I saw that they were living a great life that was of great value-the relationships they were making, the interesting situations and people they get to meet. We’re very fortunate to have certain doors open for us via this business that wouldn’t happen in another profession.”
Josh was a history major. “My brother figured out in college that he wanted to come back. He started to immerse himself in jewelry. He honed his knowledge there. When he left college, he immediately came back and started working here with a plan…”
Working as a sales rep for an orthopedic company, Kris instructed doctors on how to install joint replacement implants into a person. He learned much about the medical industry and loved the business, while at the same time making a substantial amount of money. “I loved that business, I had a lot of fun, it was a great business helping people with mobility and making their life better.” After 3½ years, Kris returned to Fourtané. “I missed my family. I missed Carmel, a lot.” At a time of recession and during the transition, “My first thought was: I’m selling jewelry, is this what people need? People need food and water, they don’t need jewelry.”
During his tenure at Fourtané, Kris discovered the real importance of the business. “I think why people treat jewelry so special – it’s the sentiment. These things that have been passed down through generations, quality watches or jewelry that their grandmother or great-grandmother owned, are just as wearable and beautiful today as they were 100 years ago. I think that’s beautiful and that’s what makes this stuff invaluable.”
“We love this stuff! We see the value, we live it, we breathe it!”