Family lessons more precious than diamonds
Customers (from Left to right) Margo Frost and Karen Chang say knowledge, good taste and quality keep them coming back to Rafael Jewelry. | Jackie Pilossoph~For Sun-Times Media
981 Waukegan Road
Hours: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesday. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday
Updated: November 13, 2012 10:38AM
GLENVIEW — Claudia Bongiovanni learned how to change a watch battery when she was a little girl.
Growing up with parents who owned a jewelry store, she also learned extensively about diamonds. The now 41-year-old co-owner of Raphael Jewelers said the most important thing her parents taught her was how to treat customers.
“My whole childhood and as an adult, I watched the way my mom and dad dealt with people,” said Bongiovanni, whose father, George passed away in 2006. She now runs the store with her mother, Donatella, and her brother, Joe.
“My dad was always so gentle and interested and focused on the customer. People were drawn to his kindness and I watched that and learned to be that way,” she said.
“He was savvy and astute, but so kind to everyone,” said Donatella, who began working at the store in 1962 after she and George were married. “People would come into the store cranky and in a bad mood, and in 10 or 15 minutes, they would be laughing. He had that gift.”
Raphael Jewelers, which was opened by Bongiovanni’s grandfather, Sam Rafael in 1922 was originally located in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood. George took over the business in the ’50s. In 2001, Bongiovanni talked her mom and dad into moving the business to Glenview.
“My parents had moved to Niles and the commute was just too hard for them,” she said, “My goal was to manage the store with my brother and let my parents semi retire.”
Raphael Jewelers carries fine jewelry, diamonds and fashion-forward, trendy jewelry, but everything is real. None of the merchandise is costume jewelry.
Karen Chang has been a customer for six years, and said the combination of Bongiovanni’s knowledge and good taste is the reason she keeps coming back.
“The jewelry is incredible, high quality, beautiful and unique,” said Chang, “You’re not going to see your neighbors wearing the same thing.”
“Quality, style and customer service are all a priority here,” said Margo Frost, who has been a customer for eight years.
Joe Raphael, Bongiovanni’s brother and co-owner, whose two daughters work part-time at the store said his sister has a true talent for buying and creating jewelry.
“Claudia finds things that are unique, things that you won’t find at other places.”
“She has an amazing eye for what you will truly enjoy,” said Chang, “She’s not trying to sell you the most expensive thing in the case. She wants to give you something you’ll love and wear forever.”
The Raphael family also believes in giving back, and is involved in a project that stemmed from a family tragedy.
In 2006, Bongiovanni’s 14-month-old son died of a brain tumor. Since then, the store holds an ongoing fundraiser, selling necklaces with unique pendants on them. One hundred percent of sales (including the cost of materials and labor) goes to the Midwest Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation at Lutheran General Hospital.
So far, they have donated close to $30,000 from the project.
“People hear our story and their first reaction is that they want to help. They want to do something, and this is a way of fulfilling that,” said Bongiovanni, who has two children, ages five and three. “Doing this is a way for me to turn something really crappy that happened into something good.”
When asked how it was to work so closely with her family, Bongiovanni said, “Maybe because we grew up with all of this, we’re used to it. We work really well together and we respect one another. We all have our roles. Joe is nice to everyone, I’m a little crazy, and grandma’s the sweet one.”
“This is a true family business, and every time I come in here I feel like I’m part of the family,” said Frost, “It’s warm and loving in here. I’m not just a customer.”