Industry / Retail

Noted Jeweler Bill Underwood Dies


William “Bill” Underwood, who turned a local Arkansas jewelry store into an award-winning, nationally recognized independent, died on April 2 of cancer. He was 90.

Underwood was born on Sept. 22, 1932, in Mountain View, Okla., and grew up during the Great Depression.

“These were Dust Bowl–era days,” he said in a 2018 interview with the University of Arkansas. “Nobody had much money for anything, everyone worked really hard. So early on, it instilled a practice in me of working hard. Because both of my parents had done that, [and] taught me that.”

Underwood received a degree in horology from Southwestern State College in Weatherford, Okla. “I went there as a 17-year-old kid out of high school,” he said. “I came out of that as a very accomplished watchmaker and jeweler.”

He served in the Navy from 1952 to 1956. After that, he moved to Fayetteville, Ark., to attend the University of Arkansas on the GI Bill, and earned a bachelor of science in business.

While still in school, he began managing a store for a class ring company. Within six months he was given the option to buy the store. But there was a problem: He didn’t have any money. The class ring company had to lend him the funds to buy it.

“The deal was, for every class ring I sold, I would pay them five dollars, and I would operate the store and pay it out over a period of time. But of course I had no money for inventory, I had no money for advertising. It was just kind of a shell business. I had great ability early on, but I had no financing. I made my living on my ability to do watch repair.”

Cash was so tight, he lived in the back of the store. “I created a little tiny apartment, just barely big enough to turn  around in,” he recalled. “It was a real meager thing. But, you know, I didn’t even feel poor back then. [I felt] there’s a real opportunity here.”

He said he still had the letter where he bought the store for $1,200. It eventually grew into Underwoods Jewelers.


Underwood was heavily involved in the American Gem Society (AGS) and served as its president from 1988 to 1990. In 1993, he won AGS’ Robert M. Shipley award, its highest honor. Last year, he attended the AGS Conclave to see his son, Craig, win the same award.

He also volunteered for the Fayetteville Civil Service Commission, the Dickson Street Improvement District, and the Rotary Club. In 2004, he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business, and he received the Citation of Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2019. In his spare time, he was an avid flyer.

Bill Underwood is survived by LeAnn, his wife of over 60 years, daughters Michelle and Vicki, son Craig, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Walton College of Business or the Walton Arts Center.

(Photo courtesy of Underwoods Jewelers)

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By: Rob Bates

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