Independent Jewelers Have Reportedly Been Dying for 100 Years

As part of a story I’m writing on male engagement rings, I interviewed Vicki Howard, a historian at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., and author of Brides Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition. For her book, Howard spent a lot of time paging through vintage jewelry trade publications—including JCK’s predecessor, The Jewelers Circular. (Howard may have read more old JCKs than even Daniel Ford.) 

Howard unearthed a lot of material on male engagement rings—there was an ill-fated attempt to popularize them in the 1920s—but she also recorded the following trends:

During the 1890s, mail order catalogs started selling cheap wedding rings and diamond engagement rings as well. Jewelers also competed for the bridal market with department stores like Marshall Field’s in Chicago, which began handling diamonds and fine jewelry around 1890. Other department stores, such as Wanamaker’s and Gimbel Brothers in Philadelphia, followed in 1904 and 1905 respectively. The jewelry industry responded, urging its members not to allow themselves to “be driven from the field altogether.”

Retail jewelers knew they could not sell their goods at the discounted prices offered by department stores, so they countered with expertise and specialized service.…

Eventually, however, jewelers lost ground to department stores and chains.… By 1965 it was “Farewell to Mom and Pop” as family jewelry businesses lost out to chains.

Wow. It’s almost like you could swap out “department stores” for “the Internet,” and maybe drop in an allusion or two to Facebook, and the exact same story could be written today. People have been worrying about the demise of mom-and-pop jewelry stores for more than a century. And the big bugaboo back then was department stores, which are now themselves facing extinction. 

But there’s more: In 1929, Howard says, there were 19,998 jewelry stores in the United States. By 1933, during the worst of the Depression, that number declined to 14,313. Today, the Jewelers Board of Trade counts 21,545 jewelry retailers. Of course, America had a few less states and a lot fewer people back in the 1930s. But even so, these figures demonstrate that not only did specialty jewelers never go away, in the last 80 years, their numbers have grown.

This doesn’t mean that the Internet doesn’t present serious competition for jewelers—it does—or that mom-and-pops don’t need a strategy to deal with it (they do). And yes, the number of independent jewelers has shrunk in recent years. Still, it’s striking that independent jewelers have proven more resilient than anyone ever dreamed. Even in the Depression, there were more than 14,000 of them!

These are tough times, and jewelers face tougher competitors than ever before. But I still believe that good local businesses that bring something extra to the table—what trade journalists of yore called “service and expertise”—can still survive and even thrive, no matter what else is out there. That was true a century ago. And it’s true today.

JCK News Director