Jeweler helps troops abroad pop the question

Brad Gross and Christina Dellaccio behind the counter

Brad Gross and Christina Dellaccio behind the counter at HL Gross Jewelers. (Nov. 29, 2012.) (Credit: Agaton Strom)

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By the time he reaches marriageable age, every guy knows the engagement-ring drill: Head to a jeweler. Pick out the stone. Swoon over a setting. Wrap the dazzler in a tiny box. Then pop The Question in a ridiculously romantic, utterly memorable display.

But what if the only rocks you're surrounded by are the rubble of Afghanistan?

For a growing number of U.S. troops in the middle of war, the road to happily-ever-after passes through Franklin Avenue in Garden City. That's the home of H.L. Gross & Bro., the 102-year-old jewelry business whose Internet arm -- since1910.com -- has become a significant ring-buying tool for soldiers with more passion for than access to diamonds.

"We first started selling online about six years ago," says Brad Gross, 33, who oversees the diamond business with sales manager Christina Dellaccio, 29. "It started slowly, but we soon realized a decent amount was coming from soldiers. We could tell from the addresses, since a lot would have the rings shipped to their APO addresses."

Clearly, it's a far cry from 1910, when Gross launched in a sparsely filled space in downtown Brooklyn that family lore remembers mostly for its sales counter -- two sugar barrels and a plank set up on the sidewalk. And because the brothers -- Harry, 19, and Abraham, 15 -- were too young to get credit, whenever a customer asked to see a high-end bauble, one of the boys would have to run the eight blocks to their uncle's jewelry shop to fetch a respectable specimen.

These days, the Gross Internet site boasts 25,000 diamonds, and its online customers account for half the store's engagement ring sales. But that's not to say they've given up on brick-and-mortar brides -- next month, the fifth-generation is moving across Franklin Avenue to a new 5,400-square-foot space. Recently, Gross and Dellaccio sat down to talk bombs and bling:

 

How did the soldier business take off?

BG:It started slow, but word spread, and we had lots of customers calling and emailing, saying that so-and-so from my platoon recommended you. So we reached out to [them] and started offering a discount -- it's 5 percent, the only regular discount we ever offered. There wasn't a glut of people doing this, but by word-of-mouth more than anything, it's gotten bigger. One of the reasons we're popular with soldiers is they're only home on leave for a short time, and they want to have it all ready. For some, we ship the ring to their house. Others, we ship directly to the base. And others won't be coming home at all, so we ship the ring directly to their girlfriend and include a note from him.

 

How big has the military business gotten?

BG:We had maybe one or two a month at the start. Now? Let's just say it's a few dozen per month. It's a decent amount of our engagement ring business.

 

Why doesn't a soldier just wait until he gets home to buy?

CD:They realize that you don't just walk into a jewelry store and walk out with an engagement ring. They have a lot of down time [on the base], so they have the opportunity to look online. And since they're already away from their girlfriends, they don't have to sneak off on the weekend to go looking for a ring.

 

So he's all ready to propose when he gets home?

CD: We even have some guys who, during that month when they're home, they're getting married, too. The ceremony might be planned, but what she doesn't know is that she's getting this gorgeous Tacori or Simon G ring when he arrives.

 

What's the size and price range soldiers are buying? And is that different from your brick-and-mortar customer?

BG: Some soldiers have made purchases of over $20,000 or $30,000 -- for the diamond and setting. But the average stone is between 1 and 11/4 carats for the center stone. It's not much different than on Long Island, though the average stone here , but that's because of this specific area.

 

Where are the troops stationed?

BG: The most common areas are Iraq and Afghanistan, but we have a lot on bases in Texas and North Carolina and a few in California and some in Japan.

 

I can see these rings landing in the desert sand . . .

CD: I had a guy in his camp in Afghanistan, and we were on the phone discussing diamonds -- it was probably one of my early large purchases from the military -- and I was like, "Oh my God, there's a big boom!" And he was like, "Oh, it's probably just another suicide bomber." Throughout our time planning the ring, I probably heard explosions two or three times. Every time, I was just in shock. I couldn't even think about this diamond ring, and he didn't even skip a breath.

 

How does the process work?

CD: Sometimes, they know what they're looking for and will just need help choosing the right diamond. Others know she wants a halo setting or a three-stone ring, or she's in love with a cushion cut, or she wants an antique vintage-looking ring, and we're there to help guide them.

 

BG: They can play around on our website, then click on our military page to contact us. We ask what they're looking for, and sometimes they have a picture they can upload, and we'll send them a link to the setting. Everything is build-your-own, so when we pick the setting, we discuss center diamonds, and we can narrow it down to three or four. If necessary, we'll take high-resolution pictures and videos so they can see what it looks like under a microscope. Sometimes, we'll also show them what a ring looks like on a woman's hand.

 

Any favorite proposal stories?

BG: For one soldier, we shipped the ring to his home in Minnesota. His first kiss with his girlfriend was at their prom, and he was able to coordinate with his high school to let him use the gymnasium for the proposal. He had the florist make a big heart, and in the center was the ring. He had music playing and a videographer recording everything. It was pretty romantic. And then he goes back two weeks later. That's the sad part.

 

How do you deliver the ring into a war?

BG: Military mail. And though you ship it through the Post Office, it's fully insured and it goes to the APO [Army Post Office], which is extremely secure. The average transit time is just four or five business days.

 

Now, why would a civilian want to buy a ring online?

BG: Most people would prefer to buy in a store. But our average online nonmilitary customer lives in a small town that has maybe one or two stores they can shop at. And many of these small-town jewelry stores have much higher margins than we do -- we're 45 minutes from Manhattan, the majority of our customers work in Manhattan; the diamond district is there, so we have to be more competitive.

 

Where do civilian customers come from?

BG: The furthest we've had was a guy about a year ago who lived two hours north of Whistler, British Columbia. He ordered the ring online and drove across North America and picked it up.

 

And he wanted a traditional diamond?

CD: Yeah. He bought a $25,000 or $30,000 ring.

 

Do you think your great-great-grandfather could have ever imagined this?

BG: No, but the majority of our customers are in their 20s, and they do everything online. Many of them take their classes online . . . they buy all their gifts online, so why not an engagement ring?

 

So what will happen when the war ends?

CD: There will always be soldiers. There will always be people serving our country.

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