Rolling With the Changes

E.W. Parker Jewelers in Madison, Wis., has been in business since 1857. Founder Edward Worthington Parker initially built his business around the needs of local railroad workers, ensuring that their pocket watches were timed precisely to meet train schedules. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that jewelry was incorporated into the product mix.

The store has witnessed plenty of change during its 148 years, both within its walls as well as outside. Current store owner John Parker Worthington Jr. blew the dust off piles of old ledgers, photos, advertisements, and receipts to give JCK readers a glimpse into the early days of retail jewelry. The earliest accounting records from E.W. Parker Jewelers are dated 1916.

As the century turns. While the rest of the world was fighting World War I, Parker was selling diamond solitaires. Store records show he sold a .30-ct. cushion-cut flawless and colorless stone in a karat-gold setting with platinum prongs for $60. Today, the stone alone would retail for between $1,800-$2,400, according to David Atlas of The Guide, Philadelphia.

In 1919, the allied nations of Europe were busy collecting reparations from Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The United States kept out of the dispute, and U.S. jewelers enjoyed a healthy retail scene on the calmer continent. Parker was selling pieces by Krementz, a now-well-known business that opened in 1866. Parker’s sales included a fancy gold brooch with platinum prongs holding a single diamond ($36.50), a diamond set in a green gold ring ($30), and a green gold stickpin with platinum prongs holding a diamond ($35).

“And we didn’t even make keystone on some of those items,” says Worthington. The store’s cost for the green gold and diamond ring was $17; its cost for the stickpin was $21.

Jewelers also sold flatware, china, crystal, luggage, and billfolds. “There weren’t any gift shops back then,” says Worthington.

On the home front. While the U.S. government tried to collect $11.5 billion in war debts-loans to European nations from the United States to fund the war effort-U.S. jewelry sales remained steady. In 1922, Parker sold a pair of gold cufflinks with a single diamond set in one of them for $30. But when the Great Depression hit, jewelry sales dropped, and Parker and his staff made ends meet by supplementing lines with giftware and other items. Worthington turned up an ad from his store that heralded fine Gorham silverware.and bicycles. “If times were hard, you sold anything you could,” he says.

World War II brought problems of a different sort-finding enough merchandise. Worthington recalls his mother’s stories of “being on the phone all day for several days” trying to find enough Spode (a 200-year-old company) china to fill two bridal books full of orders. Soon-to-be soldiers were proposing to their sweethearts with only the promise of a ring. “Fellows would say, ‘I’m going off to war in seven days, but I want to get married now. The ring is on order.'” says Worthington. A piece Parker did have in stock at the time-a .17-ct. E-colored flawless diamond set in a white gold ring-sold for $50 in 1941.

Unlike today’s customers, clients during this era were almost exclusively locals. Now 50% of Worthington’s business comes from out-of-towners. In a single day several years ago, Worthington made $6,500 in sales to clients from two opposite coasts. “We get more travelers passing through, because the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center [designed by Frank Lloyd Wright], the University of Wisconsin, and Oscar Meyer headquarters are all right here in Madison,” he says.

Glory days. E.W. Parker’s Jewelers thrived in the ’50s and ’60s. Worthington’s mother and father ran the store, and the 8-year-old Worthington did his part, too: He was paid 25 cents for each shopping bag full of ribbons he prepared for gift-wrapping. “The square [Capitol Square in Madison, where his store is located] was alive in those days,” he recalls. “The store would be so packed that people bumped into each other as they shopped.” At one point during this period, Worthington’s parents had 22 full- and part-time staffers. Now it’s just two, Worthington and his mother.

In those days, he recalls, even robberies were handled differently. Today, law enforcement professionals advise that if someone walks into your store, swipes some jewelry, and runs-let them have it and call the police. It’s not worth the risk of injury or death to accost the individual. But in 1950, after seeing a man steal a tray of rings off a countertop and bolt out the door, Worthington’s father took off in pursuit. He ran the man down, tackled him, and sat on him until the police arrived on the scene. He even gave the man a stern rebuke: “Don’t you ever do that!”

During the ’50s, for the first time in nearly 10 years, jewelry was easier to come by. The decade also saw consumer prices, including diamond prices, rise for the first time in 20 years. In 1950, the Worthingtons sold a .35-ct. F-G flawless diamond for $235.

In 1966, a .34-ct., F-G VS2 diamond sold for $200; in 1973, a .48-ct. H-colored I1 round brilliant went for $275. Oil prices were on the rise as a result of the embargo instituted by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, and this had a domino effect on other industries, including jewelry. By the time the clock struck 1980, diamond prices had risen again, partly the result of a second U.S. “oil shock.” That year, Worthington sold a .54-ct. I-colored SI1 diamond in a gold setting for $1,700. In 1984 he sold a .45-ct. I-colored SI1 diamond, loose, for $850.

Back to the present. Perhaps one of the reasons Parker’s has survived for so long is the conservative outlook of its proprietors. The business still operates in the same 20-ft. by 110-ft. space Parker started with, and it still bears the same elegant brass, glass, and mahogany turn-of-the-century fixtures. “My father didn’t want to expand, for fear of not being able to give personal attention to customers,” says Worthington. These days, the store does outsource repairs because overall downtown business has dropped, but Worthington still hand-writes the name of customers when he records a sale, just as his great-grandfather Parker did.

“We’ve outlasted a lot of our suppliers,” says Worthington. So what’s the secret to longevity in retail?

“We used to run an ad saying ‘Reputation, Quality, and Value’,” says Worthington, who also notes that trust is a key factor in the store’s success. “People come in and say, ‘We know you’ve been around for a long time, so we trust you.'”