70 Years in Business: One Jeweler’s Saga

“I was in business 10 years before people bought a diamond from me without question,” Louis Castiglione Sr. remembers. He often repaired watches “all day,all night, and into the next day [to earn money] to build up my inventory.”

The jewelry industry has witnessed many changes throughout this century—the advent of gemological training and instruments, malls and jewelry chains, new gemstones—but one thing remains constant. It’s the bedrock on which the industry stands: the independent jeweler.

Louis Castiglione Sr., 93, couldn’t be a better example. In business since 1929 and aided by his wife and partner, Anita, and their son, Louis Jr., he built Castiglione Jewelers in Gloversville, N.Y., into one of the Empire State’s most successful jewelers. Though his son took over 20 years ago, Louis Sr. and Anita, who helps with bookkeeping and purchasing, still come to work daily. If you want to know how changes in the jewelry industry over most of the past century have affected independent jewelers, the Castigliones can tell you.

Early years. Louis Sr. is the child of Italian immigrants who moved with their infant son to Gloversville in upstate New York, then the glove-making capital of the world, at the dawn of the century. He went back to Italy in the late ’20s to do an apprenticeship at a Naples watch factory, then returned to Gloversville to work at a Main Street jewelry store. When it closed following the 1929 stock market crash, Castiglione leased the empty store, spending $50 of his $75 savings on several months’ rent. The rest he spent on what he calls “bulky things like plates or clocks to fill shelves” so he would look successful.

Being a new jeweler in an industrial town with a dozen other jewelers wasn’t easy. “It took 10 years before people bought a diamond from me without question,” he remembers. He often repaired watches “all day, all night, and into the next day [to earn money] to build up my inventory.”

Unlike today, when revolving credit and cash sales are the norm, most sales were on credit—50 cents down, 50 cents a week. There was even barter. “A worker might want a watch, but have no money, so we would trade for a chicken,” says Louis Sr. with a chuckle. “Once we even got a pig!”

By the late 1930s, business was looking up. A big boost came from a new partner: his wife, Anita, whom he met at a local dance and married within weeks. A former cosmetics buyer for Macy & Co., she put her business experience to use as bookkeeper, gem buyer, and salesperson. They became the quintessential “Mom & Pop” jewelers, whose complementary skills made the business a success.

Products. The merchandise they sold changed greatly in 70 years. In the first decades, watches were mechanical and usually made in the United States. Inventory included tabletop ware, electric clocks, refrigerators, razors, low-end giftware, and eyeglasses. Like many small-town jewelers earlier in this century, “we had an in-store optician who examined eyes and prescribed glasses, which we made, until the early 1950s,” recalls Louis Sr.

The diamonds that were sold in the old days were smaller than today’s stones. Most jewelry was gold-filled or “costume.” “It wasn’t until the late 1960s, as consumers became more affluent, that better-quality jewelry began to sell,” says Anita. Today, 95% of their inventory is solid gold and gems.

For decades, the store bought its inventory from salesmen who called regularly. “We bought everything through jobbers [wholesalers] who financed us, giving us four to six months’ dating and holding the paper,” she says. “Today, we buy directly from manufacturers and other sources, and at shows. We pay cash and look for discounts.”

Professionalism. The greatest change in their 70 years in the jewelry business, say the Castigliones, is in the growth of professionalism. “Jewelers’ knowledge of gems and jewelry is very different today,” says Anita. “We didn’t have the equipment and educational background needed now.” Many jewelers like Castiglione started as watchmakers and learned about gems and jewelry on the job. But if there was less gemological expertise, there also was less need for it. “A diamond was a diamond,” he says. “If a stone was red, it was a ruby, and if green, an emerald. You didn’t see exotic stones like tsavorite.” As for equipment, Castiglione’s basics for years were his loupe, tools, and bench. Only in the early 1970s did the store begin using gemological equipment like binocular microscopes.

Even so, jewelers of yesteryear were skilled in various tasks, including sight identification, says Louis Jr. “Show Dad a diamond then or now, and he’ll tell you right away its worth, color, and imperfections.” That knowledge came through experience and hard work. “Most jewelers didn’t share information with each other like they do now,” says the elder Castiglione.

Knowledge. Although the Gemological Institute of America and the American Gem Society began in the early 1930s, and the American National Retail Jewelers Association (predecessor of Jewelers of America) held annual conventions, the Castigliones, like many small jewelers, got professional information from sources closer to home. “We were just two people running a store,” says Anita. “We couldn’t afford to go to courses or shows in the early years. We learned from wholesalers and salesmen, and especially trade publications like Jewelers’ Circular Keystone, which were our educational tools.”

That began changing in the late 1960s as gemological nomenclature spread and consumers became better informed about what they bought. “Today, a jeweler has to be educated because customers are more educated and want to know what they’re getting,” says Louis Sr. “So you have to be a gemologist, especially with today’s synthetics and imitations. With all kinds of stones out there, you must recognize them or test if they are genuine.”

Castiglione Jewelers kept pace with these developments. Louis Jr. is one of only 11 AGS Certified Gemologist Appraisers in New York state, and the store is one of the few in the state with an AGS-accredited gem lab. The Castigliones also participate in Jewelers of America, the Independent Jewelers Organization, and New York State Jewelers, and in these organizations’ training programs.

A changing market. Gloversville, about 40 miles northwest of Albany, suffered through tough economic times in the 1950s and ’60s as local glove companies closed or moved overseas. Then shopping centers and discounters arrived, creating more woes by pulling business and customers from town. Even so, Castiglione Jewelers never left downtown Gloversville, though it moved several times to larger quarters. “We like being in town, and our customers like coming here,” says Louis Sr. “A mall is a rat race. Who needs it?”

Being a longtime family-operated business whose owners and staff are involved in civic functions, schools, and charities contributes to success. “Customers trust us as local people, and we know them by name,” says Anita. “In a mall, everyone is a stranger. Here, we’re your next-door neighbor.”

Over the years, the store worked hard to deal with competition and a changing market. “We became a destination store rather than a sales-oriented one,” says Louis Jr. “We create good value, offer unusual jewelry and gems, and cater to people interested in that.” To do so, they have traveled since the 1970s to the world’s gem centers to buy on-site and bring back the unique and rare.

Like better-known luxury jewelers, they use packaging to reinforce their image. “Good things come in small packages, especially those blue marbleized shopping bags with ‘Castiglione’ stamped in gold,” enthused the local newspaper recently.

The Castigliones also educated good customers about inflated jewelry discounts by going with them on comparison shopping trips.

The store’s business systems adapted, too. It began computerizing operations in the early 1980s, a task handled by Louis Jr. “It wasn’t without headaches,” he says, “but it gave us better inventory control and tells us what sells and moves.” The most recent addition is an attractive and user-friendly Web site (www.gemjewelers.com). Among other things, it features their unusual jewelry, such as a cat’s-eye alexandrite ring. “The Internet is a new frontier for us and the industry,” says Louis Jr. “Though now, it is an extension of our advertising, not a marketing tool.”

Gloversville, though smaller today (population 16,000), is thriving again. And Castiglione Jewelers, with a staff of nine, thrives with it. Its market now includes the state capital region around Albany, plus clients nationwide.

Change and stability. To the Castigliones, some of the century’s important changes have been small, receiving little notice at the time. In the 1930s, for example, cleaning jewelry was dangerous because cyanide was used, recalls Louis Sr. Today, safe ultrasonic machines do the job. Some changes have been frustrating. “There is much more government paperwork than 30 years ago,” says the elder Castiglione. The value of other changes, such as Internet retailing, remains uncertain.

But what hasn’t changed at the Castigliones’ store in 70 years is that, in the words of Louis Jr., “We’re jewelers, not jewelry merchandisers. We sell value and trust, not commodities.” Anita agrees, but she worries that the “trust factor” between jewelers and customers is disappearing throughout the industry. That won’t happen at Castiglione Jewelers, where a third generation now works and where the standards and ethics set by Louis Sr. 70 years ago will carry the business into the next century.

“Now, please excuse me,” says the energetic 93-year-old jeweler, at the end of the interview. “I’m repairing a watch for a long-time customer, and I want to give it my full attention.”