Untarnished by the Times: Local family jewelers still serving Richmond
Boomer Magazine | June 2019
The presence of the internet and social media, along with changing demographics and trends, have all changed the way Richmond residents do business in the past fifty years. But despite the changes and challenges, several Richmond jewelers have managed to thrive, despite a changing retail landscape.
One notable example is Waller & Company Jewelers, which is regarded as one of the country’s premier African-American family-owned, full-service, retail jewelry businesses. In 1900, Marcellus Carrington (M.C.) Walker began the company as a watch repair business in the Carver district of Richmond to serve the pocket-watch-carrying conductors and businessmen brought in to the city by the trains of the day.
In the year 1969, the company had just experienced a major change. The year prior, after growing up in the business, M.C.’s only grandson, Richard Waller Jr., had taken over management of the family business and relocated the store to Broad Street in downtown Richmond. David Waller, M.C.’s great-grandson, and a current owner and manager of Waller & Company spoke to me regarding the business’s history. “It was a different time,” David tells me. “Back in those days, downtown Richmond was a hub – you could conduct all of your business there, whether it was a grocery store, a dentist, a bank, or a jewelry store. Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhodes were the main department stores, then there were smaller retail stores. Now, people live downtown and there are more galleries and restaurants, but there is no longer the same level of diversity in retail.” One other change David points out – many children are now choosing not to continue family businesses, but instead are moving into corporate jobs, or pursuing careers that are more financially lucrative or less labor-intensive.
For Waller & Company, the changes in the landscape of downtown Richmond have largely affected their business, but changes in technology have also rendered some of their craft almost obsolete. David’s father grew up repairing mechanical watches – in fact, it was his job to wind up a box of watches every morning while his father and uncles worked on repairing the watches and clocks. Watchmakers are now a dwindling breed, given today’s watches’ ability to run until the battery dies. Most of Waller & Company’s business now relies on jewelry sales and design.
Bill Carreras began Carreras Jewelers in 1967, selling diamond rings to fellow college students in yet another testament to the way things have changed, since most men in the late 1960s were engaged and married by the time they graduated from college. Rejena Carreras first landed in the jewelry business “by default”, she tells me, because of her husband’s vocation when they married. Rejena’s educational background was in the teaching realm, but her passion for the jewelry business grew, and Carreras Jewelry was a legacy that she has maintained well since Bill’s passing in 2006.
Carreras has survived the last 50 years, despite the advent of big box stores and online jewelry retailers, in large part due to a wonderful team, Rejena reports. That team includes a dedicated marketing director, and a highly trained staff whose emphasis on continuing education guarantees that they are knowledgeable purveyors of their product. Rejena also focuses strongly on community and charitable involvement, and she is considered a pillar of the arts community. “The best thing about living in Richmond is the access to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia Opera, the Richmond Symphony, theaters – and a number of talented actors, musicians, and even architects,” Rejena tells me.
Despite the forward movement, there is certainly the current trend towards vintage and antique jewelry. In fact, Rejena tells me that approximately 1/3 of their sales are comprised of their specialty: custom vintage and estate jewelry pieces. They also carry diamonds, gold, sterling silver, gemstones and pearls. Carreras also provides appraisals, jewelry design and repair, and jewelry buying at their Libbie Avenue location.
Schwarzschild Jewelers began as a watch company in the 1890’s, and still exists today, with four locations in easy driving distance from metro Richmond.
“Our business in the ‘60s and ‘70s was uniquely different than it was today,” current owners Arnold, Vance, and Lane Schiffman report. “We conducted most of our business communication and correspondence with good, old-fashioned pen and paper. Most of our merchandise offerings were generic or house brands versus today, many of our offerings have a national brand story attached.”
The jewelry industry has gone through a tremendous change, but the fundamentals of Schwarzschild’s business have not changed, as evidenced by their saying “Our Future is our Past”, meaning that the fundamentals of their business have not changed. They remain committed to their clients’ best interest, and treat their clients with the utmost respect and care.
Over the years, the Schiffman brothers have faced their share of challenges, including the financial crisis of 2008, which is the year they acquired Schwarzschild’s. Despite being the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression of 1929, conservative family financial management allowed them to withstand the economic challenges immediately presented to them. As several of our jewelers report, many family jewelers have been forced out of business, but the Schiffmans continue to reinvest in their company. Despite the changes of growth of Richmond over the years, operating as a wholly-owned family business with very little debt is something they describe as key to their success.
And there are others - Kambourian Jewelers, which has been operated by family since 1966 and boasts six generations of Kambourians making custom, one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces. Five generations of the Cowardin family have served the Richmond area since 1865 at Cowardin’s Jewelers, focusing more on designer lines and find timepieces.
Despite the changes brought about by the instant gratification of online purchases, and large “big-box” retailers earning jewelry customers, these Richmond jewelers have kept pace with the changing times, and show the promise of serving many generations of Richmond customers to come.