If Alana Fornoni needed proof she was scared the day her Northgate Mall shop opened, she had only to look at the bright-red blotches on...

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If Alana Fornoni needed proof she was scared the day her Northgate Mall shop opened, she had only to look at the bright-red blotches on her body.

“For the first time in my life, I had hives,” Fornoni recalled of that time in 1993. “I was terrified because rent was $3,000 a month, and that was daunting to a woman who basically was just a housewife.”

But Fornoni was a housewife with an exquisite passion, one a growing number of other women share.

It has led her to be one of those rarer rarities: a retailer who built her love of garage and estate sales into a viable business selling used goods — in a major mall built on selling all that’s new.

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Fornoni is the owner of Alana: Antique & Estate Jewelry. It has 15 employees and this year expects to hit $2 million in sales.

Inside her custom-made cases glimmer century-old diamond-and-platinum engagement rings, exquisitely carved old cameos, dangly earrings custom-crafted when Victoria was Britain’s queen, and many vintage rings set with semiprecious stones that can be had for a few hundred dollars each. And that’s just the start of her extensive inventory.

Unlike the merchandise in the mall’s other jewelry stores, rarely are any two of Alana’s items alike.

Almost immediately after her Northgate shop opened, Fornoni made her rent. The hives vanished.

Her store has been building a growing clientele of new and repeat customers ever since, riding the wave of interest in antique jewelry.

It took off with the 1997 movie “Titanic” and continues to build as marquee-name actors, including Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman and Sarah Jessica Parker, walk the red carpet in vintage gems promoted by jewelers-to-the-stars Fred Leighton and Neil Lane.

Cathy Mathes of Camano Island caught the bug years ago.

“I’ve always loved old jewelry,” said Mathes, who bought the Victorian pearl earrings she wore at her wedding at Alana. “How it left a family is always interesting to me.

“I’ve never quite found another place like [Alana]. They have a great way of separating their pieces so people who don’t have a great interest in the historical can still find things they like.”

Belying her trademark vintage rhinestone glasses, Fornoni is a reserved woman who admits selling isn’t her forte. That’s where daughter Heather Jensen comes in. She’s the store manager and her mother’s co-conspirator in the passion and hard work behind their business.

Miami roots

Their story actually begins in Miami, where, as a youngster, Fornoni became hooked on thrift shops and junk stores. This was in the 1960s, before garage sales, and the lure of “the find, the bargain, the coup,” sucked her in, she recalled.

Without realizing it, she was training her eye for what was good, rare and, most of all, salable.

By 1980, the year she moved to Seattle, Fornoni had married and divorced. To support herself and her two young children, she began selling vintage jewelry and other items at traveling antique shows, the kind that inhabit a mall for a weekend then move on.

Her daughter was Fornoni’s assistant from the time she was 8 or so. “I loved it,” Jensen said. “I never had to have my arm twisted.”

After a decade of working traveling shows, Fornoni successfully approached Northgate about renting a vacant space for the Christmas season. Sales were so good, she did it again the next Christmas.

Encouraged, she inquired about becoming a permanent tenant. Told that the 1993 rent would be $3,000 a month for a 450-square-foot space, Fornoni’s response was, “You have me mixed up with somebody else. I can’t sustain that for 12 months.”

But a mentor persuaded her the worst things that could happen — long days and no customers — weren’t fatal. When the store was instantly successful, she and her daughter knew their days of nomad retailing were over.

“It’s unusual to start out as a temporary tenant,” said Angela Hardy, Northgate’s area director of mall marketing. “It doesn’t happen very often.”

Also unusual is selling used jewelry in competition with mainline mall jewelry stores (although Fornoni doesn’t think of her merchandise as used; rather, it’s lovingly recycled).

“We really appreciate the diversity her products bring to the mall,” Hardy said. “Her store brings that to our customers. They’re obviously a very successful operation.”

A second store, in downtown Seattle’s Westlake Center, was less successful and closed.

For many years, the mother-daughter team were sticklers about selling only antique and vintage, which they’re both passionate about. They still get very excited over a new piece like the 1860-vintage gold bracelet in rare perfect condition that Fornoni recently scored.

Patient hunting

Her job has always been to find the merchandise, which can mean standing outside in the rain, awaiting her turn to enter an estate sale.

“It can be the mother lode or a bust,” she said.

She also buys from local antique dealers and directly from the public.

More recently, Fornoni has added a selection of lacy, antique-reproduction platinum and diamond rings. Her daughter was reluctant at first, but three things changed her mind: Competition for older rings was making them harder to find; modern manufacturers have successfully copied the intricate Edwardian styles; and perhaps most important, the demand was very strong.

“Many times, we’ve been told by customers that they’ve shopped at 15 other jewelry stories and returned here,” Fornoni said. “Our prices are very competitive.”

Old and new engagement rings priced between $5,000 and $7,000 are the store’s biggest sellers, and not always for young brides.

Many are getting married for the second time, “and the woman wants a nice ring this time,” Fornoni said.

Ring of mystery

“Or they’re couples who didn’t have much money when they got married and want a ring now,” she said. “The allure of antique to them is the romance, intrigue and wondering what life the ring was in before.”

Lake Forest Park resident Betsy Piano is typical of many Alana customers.

“With so many of the newer rings, it’s just a setting and a stone,” said Piano, “but with the older ones, the settings are beautiful with or without the stone. They’re just works of art.”

A gardener, Piano was thrilled when her husband, George, recently gave her a delicate Edwardian diamond ring with leaves and flowers carved into its platinum setting. The Pianos have been married 32 years, but Betsy wears the new ring as her wedding ring.

“We married when we were in college, and we each had a gold band and that was it,” she explained. “Later in life, you’re at a time when you can afford more. I enjoy it every day because it’s so gorgeous.”

That ring came from Alana, and now whenever George Piano needs a present for his wife, he knows exactly where to shop.

“Alana has beautiful things,” Betsy Piano said.

Elizabeth Rhodes: erhodes@seattletimes.com