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Photo: Alicia Solsman

A Polished Gem

For more than 30 years, Drue Sanders has thrived in the Capital Region

By Chet Hardin

Thirty years ago, if you had told the young jeweler Drue Sanders that she would spend the rest of her life designing and manufacturing jewelry in the Capital Region, her reaction would have been: “Thank God.”

Sanders was born and raised in Albany, and after a brief stint away for college, she came back with the ambition of opening her own store. “I didn’t start this thinking that I wasn’t going to finish my life doing it,” she says. “I have always been very positive. Even in this horrible time I feel very positive about where we are and where we are going.”

Sanders started her first real store at Clifton Country Mall, after spending a few years in the flea-market-style MidCity Shopper’s Village in Menands, where she had a booth. “It was someplace to start. I was doing what I am doing now, just more in silver.”

In 1989, she moved from a store in Stuyvesant Plaza down the street to her current location at 1675 Western Ave.

Sanders has spent her career specializing in the luxury end of the business, working in platinum and gold and with precious gems, but the aggressive economic downturn has forced her business to adapt. During this past holiday season, the nationwide average for the jewelry business, she says, was down 50 percent from recent years.

She says she saw the economic malaise coming a little over a year ago when people started asking for lower-priced items. “As the economy worsened, people still wanted something nice but not to spend as much. Two years ago, had you come to me and asked for something in the $100 range, I would have swallowed and mentally started panicking, thinking, ‘What do I have in that price point?’ Not much. Hardly anything.”

But even her customers were beginning to expect less of an expense. “A year ago last Christmas, I was seeing the need for a lower price point. I had not done sterling in a very long time.” So she designed a set of silver jewelry with diamonds as an affordable option to sell this past holiday season. “The price point is from $50 to $300, and it is selling like crazy,” she says. “Our sterling is flying out the door.”

However, as Sanders points out, Albany has been somewhat lucky during the economic turmoil, as the region has a relatively stable economy. “We are very fortunate, with the state being here, with the universities. We have a pretty stable financial environment. And that has enabled me to be successful.”

Sanders was named as a Woman of Excellence by Gov. George Pataki in 2005, highlighting her business leadership and charitable efforts. “My first thought was, ‘Why me? In Smallbany?’ because it was in all of New York,” she says. “I was so awestruck by it. And I was so humbled by it. I was told that I won because I was talented, but was giving a good example for women today to strive to be like, and also a woman who has given back to the community. I have always thought that it was important to give back.”

In 1984, Sanders began producing her collections, a series of new designs that run in limited production for five years. Her first series was the Albany Collection. It was based on the architecture that makes Albany such a unique and exquisite place to live, she says. She has done a collection on the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and currently she is doing a collection called Evolutions, which explores designs of the past, the current trends, and where she thinks design is heading in the future.

Next year, for her 35th anniversary, she has a collection theme in mind, but she is reconsidering many aspects of that collection. “With the economic climate, I might change. It is so hard to know what the next year will bring, and if it makes sense to do it.”

These collections feature limited-run pieces. Some pieces are one-of-a-kind, and the prices can run into the tens of thousands. “When you do those limited editions, it increases the price. So I don’t know if I am going to do that. I think we are going to do something lighter in price, more affordable.”

“People, when they come and really look, they realize the difference,” she says, between her custom-designed and manufactured jewelry and the jewelry that is offered at the chain stores in the mall. “Especially when they feel and touch. Our things are solid; they aren’t hollow. The gems, even if they are tiny, they are the best cuts so they sparkle. There are a lot of little nuances to this business that the manufacturing jeweler won’t spend the money on. It’s all about price. To me, it’s all about longevity and beauty.”  

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