An Industry Veteran Looks Back on the History of JCK and the Jewelry Business

Since I started this blog, I’ve been knee-deep in the history of JCK magazine.

I’ve uncovered tips form the past that still find relevance today, compiled our best covers, and traced the evolution of jewelry advertising from the 1800s to today.

This week, I wanted to put a more human face to the yellowing pages I’ve been rifling through in our archives. I couldn’t have been more delighted when Peggy Jo Donahue, director of public affairs for MJSA, offered to answer some of my questions about her time at the magazine and the state of the jewelry industry.

How long have you been involved in the jewelry industry? How has it changed over the years?

I first worked for JCK in the 1980s. My main beats then were security and legal/legislative issues. Crime was rampant in that era because—not unlike today—gold and diamond prices were very high. I led a team of reporters who tracked down the 50+ jewelers who had been tragically killed during one of those years—to put a human face on such staggering loss. I also wrote a story about a jeweler who, in a moment of panic, shot and killed a sneak thief who the jeweler thought had a gun. I covered his trial—he was acquitted—and during testimony he revealed that he had been robbed at gunpoint at least 10 times over 10 years. And his store was in the middle of the shopping district in Philadelphia! These were tough times. My sense is that today, jewelers are safer; Jewelers’ Security Alliance figures corroborate that. That time instilled in me a lifelong respect for the challenges jewelers face in selling such an expensive and portable product.

You wrote a history of JCK magazine while you were special projects editor in 1994. What was that experience like and what were some of the more memorable things that you uncovered in the archives?

I came across a letter that author Mark Twain had written to The Jewelers’ Circular—that was pretty cool. I also loved the ads featuring artist Maxfield Parrish’s work! I also spent quite a bit of time in JCK’s archives when I wrote a book chronicling the history of the Twenty-Four Karat Club of the City of New York, which is having its annual dinner this weekend. That club has an amazing history—it hosted so many political and entertainment figures of the early 20th century, including a president (1912), the scantily clad Ziegfeld Follies girls (all through the 1920s), and comedian Will Rogers. The Roaring ’20s really did roar for jewelers and they did some hilarious stunts at the Club—including dressing up in drag at one event! I mention the club also because its history from 1902 until the early 1930s was loving reported by The Jeweler’s Circular’s then–editor in chief T. Edgar Willson, who wrote reams of copy about the events of that time.

What are your most memorable moments from your era at the magazine? What were some of the stories that you enjoyed covering the most?

The 1970s and 1980s at JCK were a golden era, mostly because of one man—George Holmes, the editor in chief from 1974 to 1996. George hired me, and later was responsible for my appointment as his successor at the magazine. George thought JCK should be every bit as good as The Wall Street Journal, where he had once worked, and he held us to that standard. He was responsible for the magazine winning a staggering number of national American Business Media awards during those years. George is by far the editor who had the most influence on my writing career—and he was also a terrific boss. Best I ever had. He really “got” what it took to nurture editors and writers.

One of the most amazing things about JCK’s history is how many longtime editors it had through most of the 20th century—and how they are all connected to one another. When I was at JCK in the 1980s, we had an editor emeritus, Don McNeil, who had been the JCK editor in chief throughout the 1950s and 1960s, during which he hired his successor, George Holmes. Don was a font of info on JCK’s history, because he had worked for it originally many years before his time as editor in chief. He actually remembered “poor dear old Mr. Willson” from his early years. So that means from T. Edgar Willson, to Don McNeil to George Holmes—I could connect myself to JCK editors back to 1900. Pretty cool, huh?

You started out writing about jewelry retailers, so how different is it now working for an association that represents manufacturers? How has your current job changed any of your views of the industry? (Feel free to mention any of the initiatives MJSA has coming up in 2012!)

Incredibly, because most large manufacturing has moved offshore, the bulk of MJSA’s current members are either smaller jewelry makers/designers or jewelry making retailers, because of the proliferation of custom jewelry. These jewelers need a place where they can share their incredibly complex and exacting work—and MJSA tries hard to be that place. We now have affordable memberships for custom jewelers and for artisans to recognize smaller jewelry-making businesses as well. Since I joined MJSA in 2009, I’ve also been building networks of jewelry makers and designers on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, where we have fun talking about the wonkish things that jewelry makers like to talk about—T-Splines or flex shafts, anyone?.

Where do you think the jewelry industry is headed?

I think, because of the explosion of consumer interest in customizing their jewelry—my buddies the independent jewelers are going to be just fine in the years to come. We are returning to a time when to be a “jeweler” means what it used to mean—that you can actually make jewelry. For too long, there has been an over-emphasis on “selling” jewelry—which every other outlet on earth has proven they can do. But only “jewelers” make jewelry—and that endlessly fascinating process has re-captured the imagination of buyers. I’m really, really happy about this.

Peggy Jo Donahue is director of public affairs at MJSA, the association for jewelry makers and designers. She works on legal, legislative, business, and regulatory issues impacting the jewelry making and design community. Donahue also manages social networking for the association on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and is involved in membership recruitment.