Creating a custom jewelry design has its share of challenges. But when the customer is roughly 6,800 miles away from the store, located in an active war zone in Afghanistan where Internet blackouts are frequent and lengthy, e-mail is the only method of communicating and the customer also wants help planning a surprise marriage proposal, a custom job can become a major undertaking.
This was the task George Fritz, owner of Mills Jewelers in Lockport, NY, took on in August when an e-mail was forwarded to him from the contact form on his store’s main website. A simple response to the e-mail was the first of many challenges for George in the six months it took to coordinate a custom engagement ring for Derek Bessey, an Army reservist from Lockport who went to Afghanistan with other combat engineers in his unit early last year.
“Two friends and fellow reservists told Derek about their good experiences at our store, so Derek contacted me from our website telling me about an engagement ring he wanted to present to his girlfriend when he returned from Afghanistan in late January,” says George. “Unfortunately, he typed in his e-mail address incorrectly when he hit the submit button.”
Known for being a big supporter of community projects as well as the men and women serving in the military – especially those from Lockport – George immediately got to work to track down Derek’s correct e-mail address. When George received the information from a friend of Derek’s it was the first of 157 e-mails sent to the reservist over six months.
The young solider had a couple design ideas. He wanted the infinity symbol in the ring design and was leaning toward a princess cut diamond. Derek’s initial requests were for a custom design. But given the soldier’s $2,000 to $3,000 budget George wanted to begin the discussion with more affordable finished jewelry options in inventory featuring the desired design element.
“After looking at what we had [in inventory] it was clear that Derek was not seeing exactly what he wanted,” says George. “That’s when I suggested using Matrix to create a totally custom ring for him.”
With the infinity symbol the central design element, George and Derek quickly arrived at the basic design and then started tweaking it. As the store owner and the solider exchanged e-mails with images of rendered rings, ideas came to the fore such as setting each person’s birthstone at the base of the center stone setting.
“It was a small design tweak, but Derek really liked the idea,” says George.
As George would soon discover, designing the custom ring was the easy part. The biggest challenge was finding the right diamond center stone and selling it to a customer sight-unseen. Using a microscopic video imaging system that could generate single image files, George sent several diamond images to Derek.
But the best George could do was to convince Derek to go from a princess cut to a round brilliant diamond, and effectively communicate clarity. But accurately conveying the other Cs were another matter entirely.
Much like a soldier in a difficult combat situation, George improvised. He found six round brilliant diamonds within Derek’s price range and set them on a tray. He asked staff members and several customers to vote on the diamond that “had the most sparkle.” Twelve people offered their input, and the top-two picks were selected.
“I then produced two videos that would show off each diamonds’ sparkle, and Derek was able to make his center stone decision,” says George.
With the ring design finalized, and the center stone selected, George’s next big task was helping Derek with the surprise marriage proposal without any family members’ knowledge. This proved to be quite a task. Derek’s credit card information was compromised before the ring was purchased.
With mail being forwarded to his parents’ home, Derek’s mother was monitoring monthly credit card statements to guard against fraudulent charges. When a sizeable amount was charged to Derek’s credit card from George’s store the soldier’s mother immediately placed the call.
“There wasn’t much I could do to keep the ring a secret after that point,” says George.
Tactically, the incident ended up working favorably for George in planning the surprise marriage proposal. After a lengthy deployment, Derek made it clear to George that he wanted to propose to his girlfriend at the airport gate waiting area where loved ones would be waiting to welcome home their soldiers.
Derek’s mother stopped by the store to see the ring in person. Later, several calls were made between George and Derek’s mother about the ring and Derek’s arrival day. When it came time to actually hatch the surprise engagement plan she ended up playing a key role.
“The plan was for Derek to hug his parents and other family members first and save his final embrace for Amanda Wart, his then girlfriend,” says George. “Derek’s mother was first in line for a hug. She was given the ring before arriving at the airport and secretly placed it in Derek’s front jacket pocket.”
As Derek made the rounds of welcome-home hugs he saved the best for last. Amanda received a hearty embrace, a long kiss, a few words, and then the bended-knee proposal. George and his mother also alerted the media about the proposal. Many media outlets were already there to report on the local reservists’ arrival home, but the surprise marriage proposal took a routine feel-good story from good to great.
“The whole room just erupted when Derek got down on one knee,” says George.
When family and news crews asked Derek how he pulled it off, George got the best word-of-mouth endorsement of his career, with cameras rolling and a crowded room in rapt attention.
“Derek shouted ‘that’s the man,’ pointing at me,” says George. “And suddenly I became the center of attention.”
The downside to an otherwise flawless surprise marriage proposal was George didn’t have much one-on-one time with Derek. All of their exchanges in creating the ring and even the payment were done electronically. On the big day, both Derek and George were surrounded by people and didn’t really have much time to converse with each other.
Weeks later, Derek called the store informing George that the ring was a quarter-size too large. The ring was brought in and sized. But on the day the couple picked up the ring George took them out for lunch. He got to know the couple better, and gave Amanda a pair of pearl earrings to wear on their wedding day.
“If a bride wears pearls she won’t cry on her wedding day,” says George.
The lunch and the conversations were the textbook finish to a perfectly designed ring and a flawlessly executed surprise marriage proposal. But for George, the satisfaction with this custom ring went way above good craftsmanship and superlative customer service.
“It was my humble honor to help a serviceman with these special requests,” says George. “Given everything Derek and other soldiers risk to protect our way of life, it was the least I could do.”
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