Todd Denaburg and Jared Nadler, managers of Levy’s Fine Jewelry, share the history of the legendary jeweler and why they love heirloom jewelry.
Written by Rosalind Fournier
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Neil Lane is considered such a celebrity in the world of fine jewelry, he has designed pieces for the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Portia de Rossi, Renee Zellweger, Penelope Cruz, and Johnny Depp (think Pirates of the Caribbean) and is the engagement-ring designer of record for The Bachelor.
Perhaps less known is the fact that Lane is also an admirer and collector of vintage and antique jewelry, making regular appearances on the jewelry-show circuit. But Todd Denaburg and Jared Nadler, managers of Levy’s Fine Jewelry, did not recognize Lane when they first encountered him several years ago at a big show. “It was only the second show we ever did,” explains Denaburg. “Someone came over and started looking at an art deco platinum, diamond, and sapphire bracelet we had on display. Finally, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll take it—do you mind taking a check?’”
Denaburg almost balked; he didn’t know whom he was talking to. “So I asked his name, and he told us he was Neil Lane. I said, ‘Never mind—your check’s good.’” Selling a piece to such a celebrated jeweler was a sign that “the nice boys from Alabama,” as the pair is known among the national and international dealers who now consider them colleagues, had reached a new plateau—even for a family business that was already a Birmingham establishment back when Denaburg and Nadler were kids.
The story of Levy’s Fine Jewelry began in 1922, when Denaburg and Nadler’s grandfather, Joe Denaburg, returned home from World War I and borrowed $2,500 from his mother-in-law, Esther Levy, to open a jewelry store. He named it Levy’s in her honor, locating the store squarely downtown on Second Avenue North, where it has remained ever since. In just a few years, the business will celebrate its centennial anniversary.
The greater part of the Levy’s inventory—and what the store is best known for—consists of antique, vintage, and estate jewelry. They also feature a sizable collection of new jewelry, much of it custom made by one of Levy’s three full-time jewelry designers. “We used to have customers refer to us as ‘Birmingham’s best kept secret,’” Jared says. “You don’t know what’s inside the store from the outside. You have no idea. But once walk in, you realize it’s a wearable, buyable museum.”
When Denaburg and Nadler’s grandfather, affectionately known to his customers as “Cousin Joe,” passed away in 1972, two of his children—Rhoda and Charles—took over, growing the business through the introduction of antique jewelry as well as on-site repairs. But eventually—although Rhoda still works full time in the store and Charles, an attorney, comes by every day at lunchtime and again on weekends—the time came when they needed the next generation to step forward.
Yet it was far from a foregone conclusion that Denaburg (Charles’ son) and Nadler (Rhoda’s son) were even interested. Nadler, who grew up in Chicago, had attended the University of Alabama and then entered Macy’s executive training program. He was later recruited by the Gap and Banana Republic in Atlanta, eventually coming to Birmingham to work in the buying offices of Parisian. Meanwhile, Denaburg, who also graduated from Alabama, was keeping his own options wide open. Though he grew up in the family business, after college he worked in radio advertising sales, hoping to save up enough money to move out west and work on a dude ranch.
But then Charles and Rhoda began actively recruiting Nadler, who decided to give it a try. Denaburg, willing at least to put off the dude ranch a while longer, joined him about a year later. “When he and I started working together,” Denaburg remembers, “it just kind of clicked. We enjoyed ourselves. Most importantly, we started growing the business.”
When they started selling at big jewelry shows, it represented a sea change. Specifically, it opened up new markets in order to deal in larger volumes. “We’re so well-known for buying estate jewelry from the public,” Denaburg explains, “that for every three rings I buy, I’ll sell one here in retail; I’ll probably end up scrapping one, because the styles have changed and it’s not sellable; and then I’ve got a got a third ring, and what am I going to do with it? That’s when we started to get serious about selling at these shows. We also built relationships with five or six jewelry stores in Alabama that don’t have an estate-jewelry section of their own. And there is a substantially large cable TV outfit that also sells our jewelry.”
Nadler adds that so far, growth opportunities seem limitless. “Everyone’s looking for product,” he notes. “And at these big international shows we see we may have a product that doesn’t work in the Birmingham or Southeast market—but it’s perfect for Los Angeles or Paris, for example. So we have dealers buying our pieces, taking them back to put in their stores in Europe or wherever and selling them there.”
Though they can dress the part when needed, Denaburg and Nadler do not give off the air of jewelry dealers so much as jewelry historians—which is fitting, given the research and knowledge that is required to deal in antique and vintage jewelry. They can date an individual piece by the level of workmanship, the type of stones used, or even the clasp. “We have a tremendous amount, for example, of Edwardian or art deco antique engagement rings,” Denaburg says. “Nobody has them, nobody can find them, but we can verify that they’re real and not reproductions. The most important key to some of the vintage and antique jewelry is that back then the workmanship is better. It’s extremely precise.”
To be able to establish the provenance of the pieces they work with, it helps to have trained under their grandfather and parents. But sheer passion goes a long way, too. “It’s a lot to know,” says Denaburg, “but it’s not that hard because of the fact that we love it so much. Nadler and I have been doing this together full time now for 26 years. It’s always easy to learn about and sell something if you like it, and we do.
“We don’t want to be in the business of selling widgets,” he continues. “A lot of modern jewelry is like that—you have this ring, and then you go somewhere else and find the same exact ring. It somewhat takes the romance out of the business. For me, there’s just no life to it.”
Denaburg adds that their customers share their enthusiasm. “You have to understand that Birmingham is actually quite an artsy community,” he says, “as well as the fact that there is a lot of old money here. Both of those groups of people have a tendency to lean toward things that are unique and interesting.” He also notes that selling vintage, antique, and estate jewelry has the advantage of giving customers a greater value. “The fact that it’s antique or estate doesn’t mean it’s more expensive. Usually it’s the opposite,” he says. “The reason is that while you might still have a three-carat diamond and x amount of platinum or gold, the labor that originally went into making that piece has been taken care of 75 years ago. As a result, you’re able to get these phenomenal antique pieces for the same price or less than a comparable modern piece.”
Adds Nadler: “We have pieces that look like they’re worth 10 times what we’re selling them for. And we love that. We love that with a passion.”
As Levy’s primary buyers, Denaburg and Nadler spend a lot of time with the customers who come in looking to sell a great-aunt’s vintage engagement ring or other family heirloom. Meeting the customers, evaluating the pieces, and making offers is part of the business they love. But they acknowledge that it sometimes means disappointing those who believe what they have is worth more than it really is. “Sometimes we’re the bad guys,” Nadler explains, “because we’re going to tell them exactly what it is. There’s no fluff. But 99 percent of the time, if we have to tell them that jewelry they want to sell is nowhere near desirable anymore, they already know. They’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s why I’m selling it.’”
And the pair may very well still buy it. That’s because another, favorite aspect of the business for them is to find a piece that would never sell in its current incarnation but has stones or other features that might look stunning in a different setting. “Say a customer has their mom’s ring that is absolutely 1970s hideous, but it’s got a big ruby in the middle, and they want to keep the ruby for sentimental reasons. So we take it and make them something to their design, or we retrofit a different antique piece to hold it and make it unique and interesting.” Even if the customer just wants to sell the piece outright, Denaburg and Nadler often seize the opportunity to transform it into something new and stunning for someone else. To demonstrate, Denaburg pulls out a drawer full of old jewelry they plan to mine for the best stones and other elements, including a lady’s watch from the 1930s or ’40s that probably wouldn’t sell now—but it contains beautiful design features on the band that he plans to turn into a pair of earrings. “You could call it being green,” Nadler says. “We’re just recycling. That’s the beauty of the antique and estate business. And we’re really, really big into that.”
Finally, there are the “Goldilocks” pieces—extremely valuable jewelry brought in by customers that either Denaburg or Nadler loves but isn’t likely to turnover quickly. Noting that not many jewelers can afford to invest in jewelry that might sit for a while, the volume Levy’s deals in makes it possible for them to take more chances. “I have a beautiful art deco brooch right now with one three-carat and one two-carat diamond in it,” Denaburg notes. “I have it out there to sell for somewhere close to $50,000. How often are you going to sell a $50,000 brooch? But it’s a piece I’m willing to wait on until we get the right person for it…Goldilocks. Just the right fit.”
Though the pressures of the job can be intense—during an hour-long interview, Denaburg and Nadler are interrupted a half-dozen times—they agree they wouldn’t trade this business for anything. “We have the best job in the world,” Denaburg says. “For us, this is like being kids in a candy store.”