For Classic Creations in Diamonds and Gold’s Evan Duke, 46, it was a combination of family loyalty, deep love for the Venice community and an abiding sense of responsibility that finally saw him take the helm of the business his parents started. But running Classic Creations wasn’t always his plan. Having grown up in his parents’ various jewelry businesses, by the time he went away to college, Evan was eyeing the exits.
“I'm not ashamed to say it,” the affable Evan explains. “As I left for Jacksonville University, I told my parents, ‘After I graduate, I will never, ever live in Venice, Florida, and I will definitely not work in that store.’”
Choosing a different path than jewelry was no easy decision. After all, Evan was a kid who had to hustle in the jewelry business since age 6. Evan’s father, Charles, had owned a dental lab in their native Randallstown, Maryland, handcrafting false teeth for dentists. Needing a change, Charles chased the rising price of gold in 1979, becoming one of the pioneers of the "Cash For Gold" business model. Evan was often in tow as Charles closed deals. Discovering a love for the jewelry he was buying, Charles went to jewelry school and took to the art with ease since the tools were the same as he’d used to make false teeth. At the urging of his own parents, who had moved to Port Charlotte to speculate on the Florida land boom with the General Development Company, in 1981 Charles and his wife, Sylvia, moved Evan and his younger sister, Cindy, to Venice, where they fell in love with the waterfront and lifestyle.
“My parents started the Venice Coin and Jewelry Exchange that year, right on Venice Avenue,” Evan explains. “Then in 1985 when the Venetian Plaza was built, they became one of the first tenants as Venice Jewelry. My parents worked so hard and kept moving us up. When the Venice Village Shoppes opened at the corner of Jacaranda and US 41 in 1992, they signed a lease. That’s when it became Classic Creations in Diamonds and Gold, and it’s been Classic Creations ever since.”
A graduate of Venice High, Evan attended Jacksonville University determined to have a career in something other than jewelry. He joined the social fraternity Sigma Chi, studied business management and accounting, and eyed a career in finance that would take him away from Venice, and the family business, forever.
“I had three different job offers in Jacksonville with Merrill Lynch,” Evan says of those days.
But a fateful spring break his senior year put his headstrong plans into perspective.
“It was 1995. I came home with a couple of my fraternity brothers, and we took the boat out on the water,” Evan says and grins. “While we were out there, my frat brother Mike Bambino from Connecticut said to me, ‘You guys do this every weekend down here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I guess we do.’ And he said, ‘This is heaven. I can’t imagine ever leaving if I had the chance to live here.’”
It was then that Evan realized the true treasure he had in living in Venice.
“I haven’t talked to Mike properly since we graduated,” Evan says and laughs, adding, “He’s the guy who ruined my life!”
Evan stayed on in Jacksonville a few months after graduation, selling magazine advertising. Then his father called.
“My dad’s words to me were basically, ‘Stop messing around and come to work on Monday,'” Evan says. “So I did. And that's all she wrote for me leaving the family business. Right away, I saw how busy my parents were, how hard they were working, and how much they needed me. That’s when the responsibility part settled in.”
Evan dedicated himself to Classic Creations and began to see how loyal Classic Creations customers were to him and his parents in return. He earned his certificates in diamonds and colored stones from GIA, and in 2006 married his wife Pam, later adopting her three children, Timothy, now 29, Zachary, 27, and Rachel, 21. Pam eventually joined Classic Creations and designs her own jewelry line, Nau-T-Girl, featured in the store, and in the February issue of Venice Lifestyle.
In April 2010, Classic Creations finished constructing its current location, with the family owning the site of their business for the first time. It was during this transition that Charles turned over the leadership position at Classic Creations to his son.
“Yes, I drive the ship now,” says Evan. “But it’s the people around us that make this business a success. We are truly a team. Part of the great satisfaction of this business for me is creating employment opportunities for good people. When we opened here, we had seven people total, including my parents. Now, mom stays home, and we encourage my dad not to come to work, but he still shows up a couple days a week. The staff has doubled over the past nine years, and now we have 14. Some of them, like my repair shop manager Galen Chatham, have been with me for over a decade.”
A collector of Victorian and estate jewelry and French enamel, Evan develops relationships with his customers, learns their tastes, keeps an eye out for pieces they’ll like, and designs jewelry with them in mind.
“I really enjoy doing custom design,” he says. “The memories we help create. People by nature collect stuff. Some people love collecting jewelry. We work to give that satisfaction to those folks. And in the important moments in life, wedding rings, engagement rings, our job is to create lifelong priceless heirlooms. We pride ourselves on never being aggressive. Our culture at Classic Creations is never any pressure. Our creations speak for themselves.”
This Thanksgiving, Evan is thankful for much, especially his parents.
“I am so grateful for their hard work,” he says. “For giving me a tradition to carry on. I’m thankful for Venice and how supported we feel. This is a difficult business. There's good competition in town and it keeps us on our toes. But the community recognizes us with ‘best business’ awards every year and keeps allowing us to grow. Classic Creations loves Venice. That’s the reason we always give back.”
Since 1995, Evan has been on the board of the South County United Way. He’s sponsored Little League teams like his parents did, funds dozens of local nonprofits, helps guide nonprofit capital campaigns and has organized United Way golf tournament fundraisers and bass fishing tournament fundraisers. The bass fishing fundraisers have raised more than $250,000 for the United Way. One of his favorite causes is the Child Protection Center.
“Pam and I are team captains for the CPC’s 40th anniversary fundraiser,” Evan says. (Donate at CPCSarasota.org/40-Anniversary/40th-Anniversary-1. This donation goes directly to children within CPC’s system. Please be sure to select Evan and Pam Duke as the Team Captain team for your donation.)
“As long as we are here, Classic Creations will always give back. While I may have wanted to leave Venice for other things once, I have long since understood just how lucky I am to be here.”
2389 Tamiami Trail S., Venice