Bill Roberts, IJO founder, 83

William F. Roberts, Jr., the founder of the Independent Jewelers Organization, the world’s largest jewelers’ buying group, died Aug. 8 while vacationing in Highlands Falls, N.C. He was 83.

The Independent Jewelers Organization, located in Norwalk, Conn., praised its founder, in statement, saying, “For decades the recipient of extraordinary respect, Bill will be missed by many friends and former colleagues, but his legacy will continue with the on-going perpetuation of his business philosophy to IJO members.”

Roberts was an enthusiastic, energetic, gregarious man, known to all who knew him, but especially to IJO members, as “Bill.”

He was a World War II veteran, serving as a Marine in China, Okinawa, and other Pacific islands, and was awarded a Purple Heart.

Roberts, then a successful salesman with the Orange Blossom jewelry company, founded the IJO in 1972 in Westport, Conn., on what he called “a simple idea: ‘Jewelers together are smarter and can buy better than one jeweler alone.’ ”

Propelled by his salesmanship–when he talked, his earnest fervor made anything seem possible–IJO quickly attracted members and notice from the industry. From a modest beginning with 52 members, it grew over the next two decades into the largest buying group of independent jewelers in the world. Roberts closely and tirelessly oversaw that growth, worked with members, met with suppliers and industry leaders, traveled much, and only ever missed one biennial IJO meeting in 20 years—due to heart surgery.

But IJO became more than a buying group, thanks to Roberts’ commitment to those he called “my jewelers.” Under the direction of Roberts and his successors, it not only provides an effective and efficient buying group with savings for members, but also became a national association of grassroots jewelers, whose criteria for membership remain high ethical standards and superior professional integrity.

Over the years, it has added provides services and tools to make members more efficient businesspeople. Those  include diamond-buying trips to Antwerp, Belgium; practical training in how to run a profitable jewelry store; a forum for retail members where get together and share ideas and concerns; and fellowship. Its twice a year buying shows—usually held within traveling distance of most of its members—are more like class reunions or family get-togethers than trade conventions, providing ample opportunities for networking.

In the early 1990s Roberts and his staff made major changes in IJO. Hundreds of non-active members were dropped, more big-name suppliers were added, and the Master IJO Jeweler program was created. The result was a stronger IJO, in members and revenue. Today, IJO has 850 jeweler members and 175 vendor members, from whom they buy.

In early 1998, Roberts sold IJO to Richard Swetz, than an IJO consultant.

In 2007, when Swetz retired as chairman, Roberts’ son Jeff,  president and chief executive officer since 1998,  bought IJO.

Roberts’ influence personally and through IJO was—and continues to be—far-reaching, affecting the lives and businesses of thousands of U.S. jewelers who crossed his path for over 30 years.

Roberts was an avid sailor, passionate golfer and world traveler. In addition to his other interests, after retirement, he also found time to volunteer at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

Roberts is survived by wife Barbara; his five children, Cathy Terry, Green Valley, Ariz., Sue Roberts, Westport, Conn.; William F. Roberts III (also IJO’s treasurer); Jeff Roberts, Redding, Conn., and Greg Roberts, Black Rock, Conn.; two stepsons, Chris Withers, Denver, Col. and Bryon Withers of San Francisco, Cal.; seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

A funeral mass is scheduled for Aug. 27 at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Ponte Vedra, Fla.  A memorial service will be held 2pm on Sept. 12 at the Saugatuck Congregational Church, 245 Post Road East, Westport, Conn.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in Roberts memory may be made to his favorite charities, the Alzheimer’s Association or The Smile Train.

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