Geoff Bourdon of Woodland Jewellers may live in a small community, but he designs for the world.
by Sarah B. Hood
At first glance, Williams Lake might not seem a likely location for a fine jewellery business. Located in British Columbia’s Central Interior, it’s about seven hours north of Vancouver and two-and-a-half hours south of Prince George. But this is where Geoff Bourdon, scion of a four-generation jewellery dynasty, operates his high-end custom design business, sourcing gems and connecting with clients from around the world.
Woodland Jewellers was founded by watchmaker E. G. “Tony” Woodland, who arrived in Williams Lake in 1933. He was joined in the business by his son Ralph, who took it over from his father entirely in 1963. Through the 1970s, Ralph’s wife June and their daughters Cindy Watt and Brenda Bourdon also entered the company. Geoff Bourdon, 30, is Brenda’s son.
Bourdon didn’t always see himself entering the family business; in fact,
“I was running the other way for the first little bit,” he confesses. He decided to commit to the business at 23, when “the shop needed somebody to do jewellery repairs. My grandfather had retired 10 years earlier, so I took the bench program at GIA in Carlsbad, California. Growing up, I always wanted to do architecture, and as soon as I started doing work with jewellery, I saw the ability to design with it and just loved it,” he says.
Bourdon hand-draws his designs (“I’ve been fighting off CAD, because I like the old-school magic of hand drawing.”) Most of his coloured gemstones come from a small independent travelling gem dealer who will literally scour the world to supply Bourdon’s specific needs. All of his designs are one-off; about a third are hand-fabricated and the rest are wax-carved and cast. In the future, he may produce a line, he says, but “at the moment, what I sell to my customers is one-of-a-kind. It’s something that I relate with and get excited about, so it makes it easy for me to get them excited about it.”
He is very rooted in his community. “I get most of my diamonds from a Canadian diamond supplier in Vancouver,” says Bourdon. “We have a lot of gold mining around here, so I do a lot of nugget jewellery.” Like his predecessors in the business, Bourdon is a leader in his community. He has just finished his second term as a city councillor, and he designs special pieces to assist fundraising efforts for Cariboo Memorial Hospital Foundation and the local Child Development Centre and Women’s Contact Society.
Woodland Jewellers draws customers from a very wide catchment area. “Because we’re more rural, we have a bit of a monopoly in our town; I believe I’m the only one north of Vancouver who’s doing full-on custom work,” he says. However, much of his most lucrative work comes from an entirely different source. ”It’s been phenomenal; I’ve been getting so much work through Facebook,” he says. “Whenever I do a new job, I just take a picture and put it up. Sometimes, I’ll post a drawing as well.”
Showing off each job attracts new customers. “Most often, when I post a custom job, I’ll get an inquiry after. Probably a third of them [turn into orders]. I’ll do an engagement ring, and then I’ll get an inquiry to do a restyling on an heirloom piece of jewellery. I posted an opal ring, and then a customer got in touch with me asking for a Native art-inspired custom ring.”
These orders do not usually come in through the company’s corporate page, but through Bourdon’s personal feed, which boasts a little over 650 “friends.” Contrary to what a Facebook newcomer might expect, his posts do not focus on sales; instead, jewellery pictures are interspersed between pet and garden photos, YouTube videos, birthday greetings and family jokes.
“It’s fantastic for custom work, because custom work is so unique and personal to the person. It’s almost like referrals. It’s just a very wide network, and there’s much more trust when you know someone; so much of what we do as jewellers is trust-based,” says Bourdon.
“When the Internet came in, [the jewellery industry was] not evolving, and the Internet showed how much. If you really consider Walmart and Costco a competitor to you, then you’re not providing much of an experience. They’re too big to provide much of a personal experience, and that’s what jewellery is,” he says.
“Our saviour, especially for independent jewellers, is we know what quality is in a world of throwaway. We need to market more honestly and straightforwardly and give the public more credit about their ability to learn and understand.” When he has a chance to sit down and talk about the work one-on-one with his clients, “never again would they consider buying something on the Internet,” says Bourdon. “We need to be educators as much as we’re retailers.” CJ