Retiring — Maybe

Mary Barr, Certified Gemologist Appraiser, sits at the desk in her small back-room office. Bifocals and a loupe for appraising gems are slung on separate chains from her neck. It’s an hour from closing, El Niño has drenched the Los Angeles area all day, and there are still customers in the store.

You have to be buzzed into Charles H. Barr Jewelers in Newport Beach, Calif. That wasn’t always the case and wouldn’t be now if there were much choice in the matter. There isn’t.

A little more than a year ago, five men walked in waving guns. Without going into what happened, let’s just say there’s a security system in place and Mary Barr isn’t entirely thrilled about it. A jewelry store should “look like your living room.” She designed “every inch” of this one when she took the location in 1992. And it does look like a living room. Except for the door.

Mary Barr’s voice has a slightly willowy quality, but other than that you’d be hard pressed to guess her age. She announces it matter-of-factly, as if reading an outdoor thermometer. At 78, she has the energy and concentration of someone much younger.

“I have people say: ‘Well, you’re an appraiser.’ And they wave their hand at me,” she waves her hand, “and they say, ‘How much is it worth?’ What’m I going to say about some dirty old brown diamond? I say: ‘I can’t see a thing without my loupe.’ ”

Mary Barr met the man who became her husband at church in Los Angeles. She was an art major who’d landed a job as assistant buyer at I. Magnin. He worked for a German watchmaker. They opened a store on Balboa Island in 1959, a second one in Newport Beach five years later. In those days, Newport Beach, about 20 miles south of Los Angeles, swarmed with “summer tenants.”

The stores prospered. A jewelry store is “a wonderful career for a couple.” And they were very much a couple.

“Charles was the expert on watches and diamonds,” she recalls, nodding to a large frame on the wall crowded with photographs. “My role was to buy the colored stones and the other merchandise.”

Her husband had a charismatic quality evident even in his pictures – a quality she professes to lack.

“People trusted him. They wanted to do as much business as they could with him.”

In 1972, Charles Barr developed a brain tumor. Three days after the first symptoms appeared, surgeons operated. But it was too late.

“He lasted eight months. I was fortunate. I had a wonderful nurse.”

She spent the years after his death studying gemology. At one point she rented an apartment in Brentwood, attending Gemological Institute of America classes during the day, doing the books at night. She became a Graduate Gemologist in 1975 and an American Gem Society Certified Gemologist Appraiser in 1984.

After her husband died she hired a young GIA grad. “Our personalities clicked.” So much so that “when he came for an interview, I said: ‘I don’t have a place for you right now, but I think you’d fit, so I’m going to hire you.’ ”

Intuition proved accurate. The young man evolved into something like a partner. He held stock in her corporation, and eventually became its president.

“He had that quality my husband had. People liked him. They came in as much for him as for the store.”

There seemed no question about who the future owner of Charles H. Barr Jewelers would be. Until four years ago, when he told her he was leaving California for family reasons.

Since then her grandson Bill has come into the business and “learned an awful lot about watches” and managing a jewelry store. The robbery last June scared everyone, including Bill. But in two years, she says, he’ll “take over and manage.”

Mary Barr, who will be sworn in as the first woman president of the 24 Karat Club this month, plans to spend her retirement playing bridge and traveling. Maybe.

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than what I’m doing,” she says, glancing around the showroom where “low-pressure” salesmanship is the rule and style.

“It may be egotistical, but I think I have pretty good taste.”