Mea Culpa: E.B. Horn and America’s Oldest Jewelers

In JCK’s November issue, we published a cover story lauding “America’s 10 Oldest Retail Jewelers.” The multipart feature included brief profiles of each retailer, plenty of pithy quotes about how they’d managed to endure over the centuries, and thoughtful acknowledgments of “the lessons they’re still learning.”

Little did I know that I’d learn my own lesson about research in the process of publishing our ode to longevity in the retail jewelry trenches. When we assembled the list, we brainstormed stores we thought might be contenders and checked that list against a few key industry sources (for example, Jewelers of America’s JA 100 Club, “reserved exclusively for JA member companies that have been in continuous operation for at least 100 years”). But that, as it turned out, wasn’t enough.

We missed one key retailer (well, at least one—perhaps some of our readers know of others that belong on the list?). In an updated article, Boston’s 176-year-old E.B. Horn would claim the No. 6 spot, between Bromberg’s and Randolph Jewelers.

The oversight was mine, and I apologize. To make up for it, I interviewed E.B. Horn co-owner Richard Finn, who runs the business with his cousin, Michael Finn.

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Richard and Michael Finn (photo courtesy of E.B. Horn)

Here’s what I learned about the retailer and its secrets for surviving the ages:

1. Only two families—the Horns and the Finns—have managed the continuously operating business since clock and watchmaker Edwin B. Horn founded it in 1839.

The store has occupied the same location at 429 Washington St. in downtown Boston since the 1870s. “When the Finn family bought it from the Horn family in the 1940s, it was doing business, but it was not profitable,” said Richard, who started working at the store at age 12. “There were discussions about whether we would liquidate it, and my grandfather, Ben Finn, thought it was a viable business and brought his brothers, Harry and Sam, into it. And now we have another generation: my cousin Michael’s son, Doug.”

2. At first glance, the store looks much the same as it did decades ago—but looks can be deceiving.

A large grandfather clock built by Edwin Horn still stands in the store. “It’s worth a lot of money,” Richard said. “We’re told it’s close to a quarter of a million dollars. It’s the kind of clock that the gentry of Boston would come to set their watches by.”

Brass chandeliers and old wooden cabinets that were restored 30 years ago are additional testaments to E.B. Horn’s longevity. “We like the fact that customers can come in here after 30 years and say nothing has changed,” Richard said. “That’s the appearance, but the reality is that things have changed.”

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E.B. Horn circa 1900 (photo courtesy of E.B. Horn)

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E.B. Horn today (photo courtesy of E.B. Horn)

Take one look at the company’s elegant, mobile-enhanced website to understand that while there is a quaintness to E.B. Horn’s 2,000-square-foot showroom, the infrastructure and technology that support the business are anything but antiquated.

“I credit my partner, Michael, because he comes from an engineering background,” Richard said. “We don’t hold on to old technology. We spend a lot of money on computers and website design. We just redid the site again last year to make it mobile-friendly. I understand what they did; I have no idea why it cost so much!”

3. “We maintain the inventory of a six-store chain.”

“Because we’re in the center of the downtown area, foot traffic is extraordinary,” Richard said. “We have an open-door policy, of course. We have customers who are some of the wealthiest people in the world and customers trying to buy a $500 engagement ring. It’s an incredibly diverse clientele, and that’s probably one of the most challenging aspects of merchandising the store. It’s not just one segment.”

With so many people to please, the Finns take a “more is more” approach to inventory. “We have more inventory on display per square foot than any store in the country,” Richard said. “We can have a $10,000 to $20,000 piece sitting in a case with 50 pieces within 12 inches of it.”

E.B. Horn’s strong suits are bridal and estate jewelry, but the store also maintains a robust manufacturing program that allows the Finns to save money by putting together many of the basics themselves.

4. Longevity and loyalty go hand in hand.

Of E.B. Horn’s 25 employees, most are lifers. “We very much pride ourselves on the crew we have working for us,” Richard said. “They’re not clerks. Among the salespeople, there is only one person, one salesperson, that I can think of who has less than 10 years’ experience. And we have multiple people who have been with us more than 25 years.”

5. Good times come and good times go. The trick is maintaining a healthy perspective.

“We had a run of close to 30 years where we never had a year that wasn’t bigger than the previous year,” Richard said. “We had a big recession in the ’70s when we broke the run. But it spoils you when you have growth every single year for that many years. The financial collapse of 2008 impacted us also. Since then, it’s been getting better and better: There’s a lot of development in downtown Boston, and it’s starting to pay dividends.”

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E.B. Horn’s store at 429 Washington St. (photo courtesy of E.B. Horn)

As we finished up our conversation, Richard mentioned a lucrative sale he was working on—a pair of pink diamonds for a sweet six-figure sum. I couldn’t help but think of the monied members of Boston’s Brahmin class and how E.B. Horn has likely served generations of the same upper-crust families since Martin Van Buren was president. What a remarkable achievement!

“There is no substitution for hard work,” Richard concluded. “Hard work. Certainly there was talent. But hard work.”

And with that, he returned to the sales floor.