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Originally published Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 12:03 AM

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Blue Nile rival combines ‘clicks and bricks’

Ritani, a New York-based designer of diamond engagement rings, has opened a technology office in Seattle to launch a new “see in store” service.

Seattle Times business reporter

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I think this is a good idea. Also returns / adjustments in store would be a huge... MORE
Brian - if you are reading this, we missed you at the Bain alumni gathering last week. MORE
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Former Blue Nile executive Brian Watkins, who once worked to make people feel comfortable buying a diamond engagement ring online, now believes they should be able to see it up close before making such a major purchase.

Watkins, president of the Ritani jewelry brand, and a small team of e-commerce experts in Seattle have developed a website that lets customers select an engagement ring online — then buy it from a bricks-and-mortar partner.

The move could give New York-based Ritani, which has no stores of its own, an edge against Internet-only players such as Blue Nile, the largest online seller of diamond engagement rings.

On Thursday, the Ritani website will introduce a “see in store” option at no extra cost to customers in seven markets, testing Watkins’ belief that while most engaged couples begin their search for a ring online, many still prefer buying in person.

“There’s a real desire to shop online but then use their local retailer as a trusted adviser,” said Watkins, who worked from 2000 to 2008 at Seattle-based Blue Nile, where he headed up business development, merchandising and corporate planning.

In some ways, Ritani offers a counter punch to “showrooming,” which occurs when shoppers buy a product for less online after checking it out in a store. By joining with local jewelers, Watkins said, Ritani aims to drive Internet traffic to offline retailers, rather than the other way around.

Customers will be able to choose two loose diamonds or two engagement rings for delivery to the nearest affiliate store for a close-up view. Ritani and its retail partners will split a portion of the proceeds from any resulting sales, regardless of whether customers complete their purchases online or in the store.

Founded in 1999, Ritani supplies engagement rings and loose diamonds to nearly 400 jewelry stores in the U.S. and Canada. Last January, it established an e-commerce office across from Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, where some 20 employees have been working under the name ECX to avoid attention.

Until now, Ritani used the Internet merely as a marketing tool to support its jewelry wholesale business. It has received $15 million in new funding led by Cantor Vee venture capital arm of New York-based Cantor Fitzgerald.

Watkins’ own business background, which includes two years at digital media startup Wet Paint, suggests a bias for e-commerce, but his outlook widened after a recent stint at Seattle-based Nordstrom, where he worked on ways to better integrate online and offline retail.

“What they’re trying to solve is what made me realize what we’re lacking in the jewelry business,” Watkins said of Nordstrom.

“You can only go so far as a pure-play online retailer. The data shows that this is where we’re all going to land — with a seamless, omni-channel shopping approach.”

Indeed, Seattle-based Amazon.com, the world’s largest Internet retailer, is crossing over to the bricks-and-mortar world, testing same-day delivery in 10 major markets and self-serve pickup stations at 7-Eleven stores.

Ritani will launch “see in store” with six retail partners representing 30 locations in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Among them is San Francisco jeweler Steve Padis, who owns three stores in the Bay Area. Many jewelers lack the money and expertise to do e-commerce well, Padis said, but the consequences are undeniable.

“We’re starting to lose a lot of 20-somethings. They’re buying online and coming to us for the mounting,” he said. “You need to embrace the Internet or it will run you over.”

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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