Note Book

The way you know you’re getting near a town in eastern Arizona is that trees start showing up. One here, one there. Not big trees, but any tree counts as something of an anomaly among the barbed wire, stunted cactus and crusted dust some mistakenly call dirt. You notice them. Then, the way they multiply. And after the trees, a house or two. Basementless one-story places with everything that can’t fit inside spread out around them.

The sign on the outskirts of Safford dates the town to early in the last century. That far back? Hard to imagine. But it almost doesn’t matter. Time in Safford is not the same as time in New York. Or L.A. Even Tucson. It barely seems to exist on Main Street, where at 10 a.m. on a Saturday the sound of a slamming car door echoes jarringly into the silence and the only retail establishments with any life in them – not counting Clonts Fine Jewelry, of course – are two cafés, one favored by Mexicans, the other, by Anglos.

“I don’t know where East meets West, but it’s not here,” says Rocky Clonts, leaning on a case of earrings and chains.

Ding, ding! The door opens.

“Hey Rock, when are you going to fix my ring?”

“One of these days. I’m still cleaning it.”

“You sure there’s any gold left? It’s been in the cleaning solution four days.”

The customer, a middle-aged mom, turns to go.

“Don’t give up on me,” says Clonts.

“I can’t. You’ve got my ring!”

Ding, ding! The door closes.

“Repair is 10%-15% of your income and 95% of your time,” says Clonts, wearing a face serenely resigned to that fact. “If you’re gone a few days, they really stack up.”

The gin, owned by the local cotton farmers’ co-op, dwarfs almost everything in Safford. Only the Graham County courthouse rivals it. A lot of people in Safford work at one of two nearby prisons. Gun shops, turquoise outlets and evangelical storefronts dominate retail. A jeweler in blue jeans is not at all out of place in Safford, Ariz.

“In a small town, you never outdress your customers,” Clonts explains. “You don’t want someone to feel like a vagabond visiting the Ritz.”

Ding, ding!

“Hello, George. What’s happening?”

“Just you and me, right now.”

Ding, ding!

Clonts was born and grew up in Safford.

“My parents have always been in business. My sister’s a florist. So I kind of fell into it.”

His grandfather, 92, remembers dirt streets. The grandfather owned a store, too. He was quite successful.

“He could sell poison to a rat.”

Clonts went to a watch repair and jewelry school in Roswell, N.M. A few years at the Phelps-Dodge copper mine north of here earned him the money for a down payment on his first store. That was in Clifton. Later he sold it. Bought one in Morenci, “with jewelry older than I am. That I didn’t want.” Still has it. Opened another store in Show Low. Closed it after five years.

“Show Low’s three hours north of Safford. I have four kids and life isn’t all money. When you have a problem, that’s the longest three hours in the world.”

In Safford, the occasions for wearing jewelry are few.

“It’s not New York out here,” notes Clonts. “This is a meat-and-potatoes area. Well, beans and tortillas, actually.”

He sells a lot of wedding bands to students attending Eastern Arizona College. Hispanic customers – “they have a jewelry culture of their own” – buy gold crosses, gold earrings. His biggest competitor is “the city.”

“People go to Tucson. And I guess the Tucson people go to Phoenix. Had a barber in the other day said his daughter couldn’t get a prom dress anywhere but Phoenix.”

He has learned some “hard les-sons.” (“You can assume there are no rattlesnakes out there in the desert. ’Til all of a sudden you get bit.”) But Clonts has “a good business. Because I’m trusted. And known.

“My dad said, ‘If you want to make money, you have to go to the big city.’ That’s where the big money is.

“I make a real decent living in a small town. And that’s fine for me.”