In the late 1880s, two Swiss brothers—Alphonse and Leon de la Reussille, both trained watchmakers—opened jewelry stores in New Jersey. Forty years later, Alphonse sold his business, Reussille’s Jewelry in Freehold, N.J., to the Ballew family, while Leon continued to operate his business in Red Bank, N.J.
According to Jim Ballew (now semi-retired), son of the original ower, his father was a watchmaker. In the early 1920s, the grandmother and grandfather of present-day president and owner John Ballew renamed the store Ballew’s Jewelers.
But when Jim was just two years old and an older sister was five, their father vanished … and so did the watchmaking tools. So their mother quit her job as a high-school principal—”not a high-end job at that time, even though she had a master’s degree from Columbia,” John Ballew notes—to run the store.
John recalls stories about the competition between Reussille’s Jewelers and Ballew’s Jewelers. “They were like Tiffany’s to us, and we were a smaller jeweler,” he says. During World War II, for example, John’s grandmother special-ordered a silver tea set—a large order for her—but it didn’t arrive in time for Christmas. She called Reussille’s, which had a dozen sets in stock, and asked to borrow one until hers arrived. Reussille’s made her pay full retail for the tea set, telling her, “Sorry, it’s business,” and she found herself stuck with the extra set when hers finally arrived in January. There were hard feelings against the Reussilles for some time, and some 60 years later, the incident still has not been forgotten.
In the 1980s, the Ballews bought out Reussille’s Jewelers in Red Bank—the store founded by Leon—leaving the name intact “because so many people knew it,” says Michael Knoll, manager of Ballew’s stores. In 1997, the Ballews opened their third store in Sea Girt, N.J.
Sadly, the watchmaking tradition has not been carried on by any of the Ballews. “No one else learned watchmaking, only gemology,” says John Ballew, who is a registered jeweler. Jim Ballew holds the title of Certified Gemologist Appraiser (CGA). Today, the three Ballew’s stores employ about 30 people, three of whom are family members, including John’s daughter Catherine Ballew, a recent graduate of Seton Hall University.