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Thursday, June 17, 2004 07:03 am

Riding the tide

Mike Sigler says he's relied on word of mouth to build his business: "If I satisfy a customer, he or she will tell 10 of their friends. If you let them down, they will tell 100 people.
Job Conger

As a tide of great expectations, created by the splash of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, sweeps through downtown Springfield, Mike Sigler, owner of the Jewelry Service Center, is treading water. A part of downtown at 219 S. Sixth St. since opening his shop in 1996, the goldsmith hopes the influx of new traffic will be the key to his long-term success.

The 51-year-old Bloomington native was a successful jewelry designer and artisan before arriving in Springfield.

"I was on my way to becoming an elementary-school art teacher when I took a jewelry-making course. I knew then that I wanted to be in the jewelry business," he says. "They had turned the old Montgomery Ward building into a mall. My then-wife and I set up shop there and, later, on Oakland Avenue."

For several years, Sigler drove a truck for Steak 'n Shake and picked up jewelry-making commissions during his four days a week on the road. He worked at the store when he wasn't traveling.

"I wanted to get off the road," he says. "A secretary at Steak 'n Shake told me Stout & Lauer was advertising a vacancy for a jeweler. I applied and went to work for them." The timing was perfect. "I had just closed the store in Bloomington because just when I thought I was starting to get a financial foothold, they kept raising the rent. The first day Stout & Lauer opened their new store at the Yard, I was there."

After a divorce, Sigler moved to Lincoln so he could be close to his kids, who remained in Bloomington, and close to his new employer. Most hours were spent repairing jewelry rather than making it. He worked briefly for Wade Jewelers, returned to Lauer, and then established Jewelry Service Center.

"Brian Lauer helped me get established here," he recalls. The new business opened in July 1996. Initially he subleased the storefront from the owner of Big Apple Bagels; later he leased directly from property owner Rick Lawrence.

Despite the name, Sigler says the business is a full-service retailer: "We service and sell watches, repair jewelry, and custom-craft new jewelry. The only thing we won't do is copy a design. It's not ethical to copy a design from a picture, but we will incorporate what people like about a piece into something new."

"When we started here, we sold vintage watches, but the Internet has pretty much taken over that kind of sales, so we got out of it. Often people buy a watch on the Internet and come to us to get it fixed."

A growing number of customers bring in old jewelry to be melted down and used in new creations. The remounting of gemstones in new pieces is also popular.

"A woman came in today with her dead husband's jewelry. We're going to transform what she could not use into new jewelry she can wear, and since it's the same gold and stones her husband wore, the sentimental value is still there."

With its limited budget, Jewelry Service Center has never advertised. "Word of mouth has worked well for us in getting our name around," Sigler says. "I've learned that if I satisfy a customer, he or she will tell 10 of their friends. If you let them down, they will tell 100 people."

Custom creations are a special challenge. "Sometimes something gets lost in the translation. A custom piece is an idea in the customer's head, and even sketching it out before I make a piece doesn't guarantee success the first time" Sigler says. "We're always willing to modify or even remake a piece to make the customer happy."

The curbside drop-off parking spots have helped bring in customers, and Sigler likes the regular foot traffic by his store.

"People are reading too much into the Lincoln business," he says. "The tourist in Springfield for two or three days is not our long-term customer who wants custom jewelry. We do sell a lot of watch batteries, and that's good."

The Jewelry Service Center employs independent contractors who assist with repair and bookkeeping. The proprietor hopes to employ two of his sons this summer.

At his home in Lincoln, Sigler and his family operate a blacksmithing shop, fabricating tools, knives, swords, fencing, and railings. Sigler still takes commissions from local residents for custom jewelry creations.

Sigler likes the downtown location, but the delicate balance of matching rent with revenues is as much a challenge as it was in Bloomington: "Every month at this shop is another adventure."

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