Mother’s Day Contest Builds Business And Goodwill

Over the past three years, more than 3,500 students in Orange County, Cal., have written essays on “Why Mom Deserves a Diamond” for a contest sponsored by Gallery of Diamonds, a small jewelry store in Costa Mesa and its owner, Michael Watson. Some 600 of those students came into the store to claim a prize, all accompanied by their mothers and, often, by fathers, grandparents and siblings as well.

The promotion creates traffic, introduces the store to many new people and produces business, too. Last year, owner Michael Watson offered a quarter-carat diamond for the best essay, 50 emeralds for the runners-up and 350 African garnets for third-place winners. “Maybe about a third of them have the stones mounted,” he says. “It gets so busy in here during the two weeks after Mother’s Day that it’s just like a mini-Christmas.”

The contest began in 1993, after Watson read about a jeweler who gave away a gemstone to the student who wrote the best Mother’s Day essay. But the foundation for the idea was laid many years earlier, when Watson was chasing a dream and searching for his birth mother.

The search begins: Watson was born in Indianapolis. When he was three days old, his adoptive parents took him to a new home there, then later moved to New Albany, Ind., where he grew up. But at age 17 he, like many adopted youngsters, began to wonder about the woman who bore him.

“I had a hunger to know where I came from,” he says, adding that his adoptive parents were very supportive of his efforts. “Certain days, like Mother’s Day or my birthday or Christmas, triggered a drive to find her,” he says. “I thought that on those same days, my mother was thinking of me, too.”

As soon as he could drive, Watson returned to Indianapolis. He obtained a copy of the hospital bill, which showed his mother’s name (Betty Price) and age. Armed with that, he embarked on a search that lasted nearly 20 years, encountering many obstacles along the way.

Watson found the judge who had presided over the adoption only to learn that the records were sealed. He came back a second time and got the same response. But he persisted. “I don’t know whether he was in a better mood,” he recalls, “or was tired of seeing me, but he called his secretary and asked her to pull the file.” The judge looked it over, then handed the entire folder to Watson. “It had the report by the Department of Public Welfare, and it had a description of my mother. For the first time, I had an idea of what she looked like.”

Along the way, Watson learned that he had a brother named, coincidentally, Michael. The report said his mother was from Noblesville, Ind., but he exhausted every possible lead in that community. The report also listed names and a wedding date, so he contacted every county in Indiana to locate the wedding license. In mid-1994 he heard from the Coatesville court house; the names and date on the license matched. He found that his mother’s maiden name was Stewart; her parents were Otis and Hattie Stewart. He even had their address, although the information was nearly 35 years old. Still, he picked up the phone, called Coatesville information, asked for a number for Otis Stewart and was stunned when the operator said, “Hold for the number.”

“I knew then that there was someone at that number who was connected to me,” he says. “I stared at the number for 15 or 20 minutes. My heart was pounding. I asked myself, ‘What do I say?’ I made the call.” When he identified himself to the woman who answered and said that his mother was Betty Price, he recalls there was a long silence. Finally, she said that his biological family never knew he was alive because his mother told them he was still-born. Then he learned that his mother had died in 1981.

“I was stunned. I had been looking for someone all this time who was dead,” he says. “But I was afraid to hang up because I thought I’d lose the connection I just made. I kept on talking to her, and then I asked her if she could send me a photo of my mother. She agreed, and told me that I had other family, aunts, uncles, cousins.”

He received the photograph, and they stayed in touch. In September 1994, Watson and his wife traveled to Indiana to meet his “new” family. His long search was finally over.

Reaching out to the community: About the same time he started his quest, Watson entered the jewelry industry as an errand boy for a store in New Albany. He joined a chain and worked in stores in Indiana, Kentucky and Kansas City, then moved to California in 1989. He answered ads he saw in JCK, but his first job ended when the store was sold and the next one when the store went out of business. So he opened his own store in 1991.

“I opened in September that year and I waited for the fury of Christmas holiday shoppers,” he recalled. “I had a plan and I knew exactly how much I was going to make that year. But it never came.”

Soon business did come, however, and he’s shown an increase every year since. He enjoys talking about how the business has grown, but his face really brightens when he’s asked about the Mother’s Day essay contest.

He started the contest in 1993, a year before his own odyssey ended. “I wanted to create some community goodwill and open some visibility for the store.” The first year he limited the contest to grades 9 through 12. “I called a few schools and told them what I was doing, and we got 250 entries. The prize was a quarter-carat diamond.”

While he was reading the entries, he realized that to choose only one winner was going to be difficult, so he decided to award Mozambique garnets to 50 others who submitted outstanding entries.

In 1994, he expanded the competition to include students in grades 7 through 12, and received 1,425 entries. By 1995, grades 4 through 12 were eligible, and the number grew to 2,016. “I read every single one of them,” he laughs. The content was important, but he also weighed the grade level of the writer when judging each essay. “Obviously a senior can write a lot better than a sixth grader.” The first year, students had to respond in 100 words or less; in 1995 it was 75 words. “With as many entries as we have, that’s a lot of words to read.”

Getting the word out: The contest announcement gets considerable publicity in local newspapers and on local area television, and teachers and administrators in many Orange County schools encourage students to enter. “Teachers have come in and said, ‘Here are entries from my class. The best ones are on top,’ and they give me a big wink,” Watson says.

He announces the contest about six weeks before Mother’s Day, with a deadline of two weeks before. Entries can be mailed in (“They wait ’til the last minute, so the last four days or so, the mailman comes in with bundles under both arms and drops them on the counter”), but many are brought to the store in person. He telephones the top winners on Mother’s Day, and sends letters to all the others, indicating a time for them to come in to the store to pick up the prize. “I have to spread them out because we can’t have them all at once. We couldn’t handle it.”

Every winner must bring Mom, but many bring the entire family. “Parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters all come. I congratulate the winner and they take pictures,” he says. “It’s very heart-warming. Many [parents] never even saw what their child wrote; some never even knew that their kid had entered.”

The first year Watson never thought about trying to sell mountings until someone asked, “What can we put it in?” “Then I started asking if they’d be interested in seeing something. If they are, I show them mountings or pendants, whatever they’re interested in. If they aren’t receptive, I stop right there.” He shows mountings in a retail range of $49 to $499.

Only about 85% of winners come to pick up their prize; about a third make some kind of jewelry purchase. He recalls about a dozen or so who have come back to buy, and many others have returned for repairs or appraisals. “But this will be a long-term relationship as these kids grow up and look for their engagement rings,” he says.

Watson publishes the winning entries in a book, and gives credit not only to the students but to their teachers, as well. The back cover carries a tasteful ad for his store, with photos of 18 pieces of jewelry. The book sells for $13.95; about 85% of the parents who come in for prizes buy a copy, as do some teachers. All profits from book sales are donated to the Orange County public library system; last year’s contribution totaled $1,000.

Contest results also get publicity, with local papers shooting photos of the first prize presentation. Library publications also run a photo of Watson surrounded by books purchased with his contribution. “I ask that they buy books on creative expression and writing,” he says.

The Orange County Register named him one of 10 winners of the “Holiday Spirit Award,” given to people who display the holiday spirit throughout the year. The article announcing the awards included a nearly-full-page photo of Watson, and mentioned Gallery of Diamonds prominently.

Does the contest pay off? “People come in and say, ‘I didn’t even know you were here,’ and we get a lot of people who would never have come in otherwise,” he says. (The store is located in a commercial area, not a retail center or high traffic area.)

Getting the contest to this point wasn’t easy, Watson says. “It was very time consuming and there was trial-and-error. We had to face many sensitive issues dealing with the schools in order to develop the format we now have.”

But Watson is looking forward to the 1996 contest. “If past performance is any indication, we’ll get a lot more entries, and I’m excited about it.” He’s made one change, however. This year’s limit will be 55 words or less. He still has to run a business, too.

(Note: Jewelers wishing to talk with Watson about his essay contest can call him at (714) 668-1111.)

PRIZE-WINNING POEM

The winning entry in Michael Watson’s contest on “Why Mom Deserves a Diamond” was a poem written by sixth-grader Scott Kircher of Corona Del Mar, Cal.:

Whether I stand on land or shore,

I know I couldn’t love my mother more.

Driving me to the homes of friends

Her cheerfulness never ends.

Always caring, always there,

In times that are good, in times of despair.

Magical lands we like to explore

When she reads aloud from classical lore.

I thank you, Mom, at each day’s end,

You really are my best friend.