Jewelry in Her Own Words

Hilda “Peggy” Kirby used to be known as “the red-headed computer” of Finlay Fine Jewelry. At age 93, her hair’s no longer red—and the former vice president has been retired for almost 30 years—but her eye on the jewelry industry is as sharp as ever. The daughter and granddaughter of jewelers, her views on what the industry needs to stay competitive today are often more contemporary than those of people 60 years her junior. Kirby muses about the way the jewelry industry used to be, the way it is, and the way it ought to be, as told to JCK editor-in-chief Hedda Schupak.

Hedda Schupak: What changes have you seen in the jewelry industry?

Peggy Kirby: The answer is not so easy. Jewelry has been around forever. It is a good indicator of culture and fashion, but seldom has it been an innovator in history. The jewelry industry reacts to change, it doesn’t create it. Right now, though, it seems to me the jewelry industry is in flux.

In the last 85 years, the world, and the United States, and the jewelry business have seen many changes. Take the matter of offshore manufacturing. For 17 years, I served on the Girl Scout Equipment Service Committee before they hired a professional staff to do it. By 1950, we were manufacturing all the scout uniforms in China or, rather, Hong Kong. Heavy industry was soon affected [by offshore manufacturing] and we saw the devastated cities of the Rust Belt. Jewelry came late to this table—we’re just now getting to the Rust Belt stage—and we’re now considering the solutions.

In the fall of 1921, I did my first day’s work in the jewelry business. My father had been in an auto accident in 1920, and was sued for $375,000. Massachusetts law called for a “keeper” of his business, an overseer who would make sure you didn’t waste the assets of your business so you could pay back the damages.

I was only 8 years old, but I loved to play chess, so one night I was playing chess with the man who was my father’s keeper and learning the colored stones in the safe. Abraham (A.S.) Hirshberg, a diamond wholesaler in Boston, came over to talk to Daddy. He was smoking a cigar, and the ash kept getting longer and longer, until I finally went and got him an ashtray. He said, “You’re the only person in the entire jewelry industry with enough sense to give me an ashtray,” and told my father, “Ed, someday I’m going to hire her!”

In 1924, A.S. Hirshberg would take over a debt-ridden store called Finlay in New York, which also ran a mail-order company called L.W. Sweet. Then he bought a store called M. Straus in Brooklyn, and he put the two together to form Finlay-Straus stores, the company that ultimately became Finlay Fine Jewelry.

But in 1921 the United States was coping with a depression brought on by the readjustments after World War I. New were Prohibition and women’s right to vote. Dad’s office in Boston was at 373 Washington St., [in] the Jewelers’ Building, opposite Filene’s. At that time, the retail jewelers were clustered around the Winter/Summer Street axis—Thomas Long, Stowells, Omars, and Shreve, Crump & Low at the Tremont Street corner. Shreve’s Winter Street windows always featured narrow bracelets, rather like tennis bracelets, in sapphire, ruby, emerald, and diamond. These were known in the trade as “service stripes.”

The Roaring ’20s were very special. Much of America was still rural and isolationist. Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck were the dominant retailers. Henry Ford introduced the $5 wage and the Model T. Most city streets were still cobblestone, and most rural roads were still dirt. Much of the country did not have electricity. We had radios and black-and-white movies; talkies came in 1927. Trains and Greyhound buses were the way to go. We had flappers, skirts to our knees, permanent waves on short hair, and cigarettes—and then we had the [stock market] crash in 1929.

New York was the preeminent jewelry city. Maiden Lane was the first “jewelry street” and in those days was still spoken of with reverence. Its place was taken over by Canal Street, and this gave way to 47th Street. Newark [N.J.] had developed into the manufacturing jewelry capitol of the United States, rather like Birmingham in England. There was Larter Bros., who did work for Cartier; Jones and Woodland; Jabel, the preeminent die-cut shop; and Krementz, who always advertised in National Geographic. I met all the salesmen.

HS: Did you always want to be in the jewelry business?

PK: I was supposed to go to M.I.T. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. I was certified in my junior year of high school to go in chemistry, without college boards. There were only 10 women at M.I.T. and I would have been the 11th, but my father had gone there to give a lecture on colored stones, and he saw they didn’t have a ladies’ room. Women had to go to the local drugstore to use the bathroom. He came home and said, “You’re not going there.”

I wanted to go away to school, but I didn’t want to go to any of the Seven Sisters [a group of elite women’s colleges]. I’d gone to the Harvard-Michigan game that day, and [University of] Michigan won, so I asked to go there. My father said OK, but that if I wanted to go to Michigan, I would have to major in pre-law, not science. I agreed.

After college, my father said, “You can’t go back to [live in] Michigan, we need you here at home.” There was this new graduate school opening, a joint venture with Harvard and Tufts, called The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. I got my master’s degree in international law and diplomacy, in Fletcher’s second graduating class.

It was the Depression era. Not one girl could get interviewed by any corporation in Boston. Nursing and home economics were fields for women. There were “women’s pages” in the newspapers and the women’s writers were savagely called “sob sisters.” Entry into most businesses was via stenography. Only men were interviewed for other jobs. Many women succeeded on their own, but there were no career patterns and no career courses.

Advertising was a burgeoning field and a new and good place for women. Magazines also became possibilities. The New Yorker started in 1924; Life and Time followed. The garment industry was huge and also a refuge for ambitious women.

I spent the summer and fall working for a professor at Harvard, but I knew I didn’t want to do that [long term]. On New Year’s Eve of 1937, I went to a party in New York. I was playing ping-pong, and Eugene Denton, president of The Tailored Woman [a high-end women’s clothing store] was watching me play and asked if he could play the next game. I wasn’t very good at ping-pong—I lost—but he offered me a job. I said, “If I’m still here Wednesday, I’ll be at your office and take your job. If not, I won’t.”

Now how crazy was I to say that? But I started that Wednesday, and I stayed there for three years. It was a jack-of-all-trades job, including running a farm of Angus cattle in New Jersey.

By November 1940, I was fed up with the garment industry and was about to go home to Boston. While I lived in New York, A.S. Hirshberg, the president of Finlay-Straus, always took me to dinner once a week to make sure I was eating properly, and he said, “No, you’re coming to work for me.”

Now, any city of any size had a leading department store. Large cities could stand more than one. Chain jewelry stores were developing in the cities, too. Finlay-Straus, a credit chain, had 14 stores in New York.

Every midsize town and up had a high-class jewelry store, too. During the 1930s, many towns lost their local jewelry stores. A lot got lost because of the Depression, a lot got lost because the sons didn’t want to take over the business.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so it was probably logical that department stores would get jewelry departments. For Finlay, it happened this way: A.S. Hirshberg was vice president of Temple Israel in Boston [he commuted back and forth from New York every week], and the president of Filene’s [a department store in Boston] was the president of the temple. In 1940, the government made restrictions on watches, and if you weren’t already in the watch business, you couldn’t get Swiss watches. The president of Filene’s asked A.S. if he could get some watches for him. A.S. said no, he wouldn’t, but that he would run a jewelry department for him. Jordan Marsh already had one, as did John Wanamaker in Philadelphia and Marshall Field in Chicago, so this seemed OK. And that was the start of Finlay as a leased department.

The trick of running a leased department in those days was to be seamless from store to store. This we seemed to be good at, and we opened departments in quick succession. Every piece of paper that came from the departments came to my desk first. From the paperwork, I was able to work out the merchandising statistics and eventually the advertising statistics, until I was nicknamed “the red-headed computer.”

To distinguish the Finlay leased departments from the Finlay-Straus credit stores, we created a new corporation, but it was still run by the same people. By 1954, we had enough department store [leases] to keep body and soul together, so we sold our 14 New York stores to Kay Jewelers.

In that reorganization, A.S. said, “There are three jobs. E.P. [his son] gets president, Bernie Robinson gets merchandising, and you get everything else. I don’t know what everything else is, just figure it out and do it.” I handled marketing, advertising, display, training, statistics—everything except accounting and shipping—and perhaps became the first “vice president” in the industry as a result.

Most [jewelry] stores had large wall cases filled with silver and silver plate. Usually, stores were darkly paneled and the displays were always in black velvet. Nowadays the color of choice is white. In the 1930s the color of choice became gray. Then after the WWII there was a color explosion. It seems I started a fashion for “new moss” [an antique green] when we [Finlay] opened Coral Gables for Burdines. It was a great color to display cultured pearls, but then the red scourge [a disease in the waters of Japan that wiped out much of the pearl oysters in the late 1950s] happened, and colored gemstone jewelry came in to replace cultured pearls. New moss wasn’t good for displaying color.

The median sale in my time was $100. We [Finlay] had the highest per-foot sale—our gross was about $900 per linear foot. Our best seller was a 1.00 ct. solitaire, and a 2.00 ct. princess ring.

In World War II, the average engagement ring had a 0.30 ct. center. Then it moved to 0.50 ct. After the war, a 1.00 ct. solitaire was the thing. In 1940, a “sworn perfect” 1.00 ct. diamond was $399. Later, the princess ring became popular because the GIs had become successful. It was known as the “success ring.”

The watch-repair department was essential. Most watches were jeweled movements and many a [jewelry] store was started by a watchmaker who succeeded and developed a full store. Swiss watches were top of the market, but we did have a native industry: Waltham, Hamilton, Gruen, and Elgin. Many stores imported directly from Switzerland, even Finlay, whose in-store brand was Kent. This would be important later. Early on, railroad watches, fob watches, and pocket watches were the thing. Remember, wristwatches were only invented during World War I by Cartier for the aviators. Arde Bulova was a notable merchandiser of wristwatches.

As for Finlay, E.P. eventually sold his interest in the business to his brother-in-law, Sidney Singer, who was married to his sister, Dorothy, and to their two sons, Steven and Sidney Jr.

They merged with Seligman and Latz, the beauty parlor lessees, in 1968, and later, after I left, the business was sold to David Cornstein. [It went public in 1995 and is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Finlay Enterprises, traded on the Nasdaq under FNLY.]

I retired in June 1978 and wrote for the trade papers, first for Pacific Jeweler, then for Executive Jeweler. They were mainly articles on jewelry for the traveler, like consumer jewelry in Tibet or the carvings in Persepolis. In 1983, I was one of the original 13 women who formed the Women’s Jewelry Association, and in 1985 got its first Hall of Fame award.

HS: What was it like being a woman in a man’s world?

PK: You got the men to fire your bullets. Margo Sherman Peet, a wonderful woman, was head of the creative department at McCann-Erickson [ad agency]. She had gone to the University of Michigan. I went to her and asked her how to handle this job. She said, “Always be a lady and never cry. You’re going to run into all types. Stand your ground.”

I listen to the little girls in the business today, and I think I had a much easier life than they do. I couldn’t be interviewed by the companies I wanted to, and, back then, even if you had a law degree, if you didn’t take shorthand and typing, you couldn’t get in the door. But today, stresses for woman are so much stronger because they’re in different positions than we were 50 years ago.

Back then, careers weren’t defined, they happened. Today people focus on what they want to be and train for it, and the whole corporate structure has been so much more refined and defined, and you know what going up the corporate ladder looks like and means today.

HS: How has jewelry retailing changed?

PK: Two things have happened that are very different: There’s almost 24-hour retailing, and there’s a proliferation of stores. You have three or four TV stations selling jewelry all day long. With malls, there’s no way you can inventory a branch as well as a downtown store. There are also so few salespeople in the retail business. They don’t sell, they ask the customer to buy. You have to go call someone to see a piece. It makes it very difficult to step them up. That was the big thing, to step up a customer, and not let them walk [without buying]. Today, you can go into a department store and you’re lucky to find a cashier, let alone a salesperson!

When I first got into retail in 1938, there was a whole echelon of people who set the stage of what you were supposed to look like. Paris was still the undisputed capital of fashion, and fashion flowed from the top down, not the street up. It was the accepted theory that a look took seven years to get from top to bottom.

Good suits were de rigueur and a spring coat a must. Every [department] store had an alteration department and many had a made-to-measure shop. We had cocktail dresses, Sunday evening dresses, and formal evening dresses. Nylon stockings appeared in 1939 and promptly went off to war, but lisle, cotton, wool, and silk hose bagged badly at the knees. Eventually we found suntan lotion for bare legs. It was a mess.

Hats, white gloves, and white handkerchiefs were standard equipment; Kleenex was yet to come. The millinery business was huge and was the pioneer for leased departments in department stores.

Today, elitism has gone out of it, but with it the image has gone out of it too. Even with men—how many own a tuxedo today? Unless there is a standard to dress, where does jewelry fit in?

Today women buy jewelry for themselves; it’s changed from jewelry being essentially a gift. He [her husband] may not even notice what she brings home. But still, look at big women making big money—Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric—they make millions but I don’t see [them wearing] jewelry to that degree.

Of course, look at the economy. There’s a tremendous gap between what the CEO makes and what the workers make. So upscale stores do very well, while the middle class gets squeezed. It wasn’t as noticeable in my time. You also have to realize in 70 years, the whole economy’s expanded tremendously, not to mention the whole Silicon Valley thing. [Back then] Finlay was one of the biggest businesses in the jewelry industry, and three people could run it!

HS: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the jewelry industry?

PK: Getting an image that makes people want to buy jewelry. I think we had it. What blew it, I don’t know. Did you see the [New York] Times [Nov. 26]? It showed a woman with a $1,000 black Chanel bag that looks like what you take the garbage down in on Tuesdays! The question becomes, What makes a woman want a $1,000 bag that looks like a trash bag, and not a piece of jewelry?

The jewelry industry’s never gotten together with itself and paid enough money to put an image out there. The Jewelry Information Center’s budget doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s not gotten any support from the industry to go public. We have to do like the fashion industry, which got together and made the Fashion Group.

Now, De Beers back in the ’50s used to run a beautiful campaign. Paintings and [the slogan] “A Diamond Is Forever.” But then they went out of it and out of so much consumer advertising. David Yurman had a huge ad above the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. It’s the most innovative thing I’ve seen from this industry.

In my time, the government and New York City had very strong consumer protection laws. Your descriptions in ads were every carefully monitored. We had a rule in the office: Don’t change copy in Miss Kirby’s ads, because I wasn’t going to go to jail for someone else’s changes!

The greatest percent off I ever advertised was 20 percent. And you were supposed to have sold the item at original price [first]. Seventy percent off is ridiculous! All that does is put it in the mind of the consumer that whatever they’re paying should be something less. In research, jewelers came up next to car dealers in trustworthiness. That’s unfortunate.

HS: What hasn’t changed about the industry?

PK: In 1931 at the University of Michigan, I did my economics paper on the jewelry industry. I said the credit was terrible. Jewelers took 18 months to pay. They still do. A lot of how business is done hasn’t changed.

From the sidelines I’ve watched diamonds around the world, offshore manufacturing, the rise of China and India, battery watches, and in horror, discounts of 70 percent. But I still love this crazy business of jewelry.