Clayton Bromberg has been making lives sparkle in Jacksonville for almost 35 years.
Bromberg’s family business, Bromberg & Co., was founded almost 180 years ago in Alabama and is the oldest business in the state. It bought Jacksonville-based Underwood Jewelers 40 years ago in 1974.
Clayton Bromberg arrived in 1980 and became president in 1988. He’s based in Jacksonville at the San Marco Underwood Jewelers store, one of four in the area. The others are in Avondale, The Avenues mall and Ponte Vedra Beach. They collectively employ about 50 people.
Bromberg, 58, also has a prominent name on jewelry industry boards. He was the two-year president of the American Gem Society and chaired the society’s Laboratory Board for three years.
In 2003, he and Underwood Jewelers were inducted into the National Jewelers Hall of Fame and in 2004, he received the Robert M. Shipley Award for outstanding service to the American Gem Society.
A former rodeo rider, he also can sing a solid rendition of Johnny Cash. Listen here:
You were born into the jewelry business. What is your earliest memory of working in the industry? How did you rise in the industry?
My earliest memory would be as a child, being in the old downtown (Birmingham, Ala.) store and getting a chance to operate the elevator while we waited on my grandfather and father to close up for the day so we could go home.
From there, I didn’t work in the jewelry business much when I was growing up. I worked more around horses and cattle and took jobs on farms and didn’t really think I’d be in the jewelry business, but I ended up in it.
What brought you in to the store? What triggered that decision?
I actually thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I had gone to Auburn and was riding on their college rodeo team. I decided to move out west to try to pursue rodeo as a way to make a living, got hurt at the end of that season in ’77 and made up my mind that maybe this wasn’t the best way to pursue a career. Auburn had lost its business accreditation in their school, so I transferred to Alabama and got into business school. That’s what got me into the jewelry store.
Why did your family business decide to come to Jacksonville and buy Underwood Jewelers?
Herb Underwood had a store very similar to Bromberg’s up in Alabama. It was a fine, high-end jewelry store. Underwood founded it, but he didn’t have the heirs that could move into the business. He had decided that he was going to sell it before he passed away and he didn’t want to leave his descendants with an estate problem.
He decided that he wanted to sell it to another business that was like his, so he invited several jewelry stores that he felt were qualified to buy his business. He allowed them to come in and look at the inventory and make a bid on the business, and we ended up being the high bidder.
How did it come about that you came to Jacksonville?
When I got out of college, I went to gemology school, this would be in 1980, and the family didn’t have any room for me as a graduate gemologist and a recent graduate of the University of Alabama coming to their business. I’m not so sure they really wanted me in the business up there at the time — here’s a guy getting out of college, he’s a gemologist and he used to be a cowboy.
They needed a gemologist in Jacksonville, so I came down here. I actually moved here in September of 1980, 10 days after I got married. I’m still here.
Was there any thought given to changing the name of Underwood Jewelers to Bromberg?
No, never. Underwood was a trusted name in North Florida. Bromberg would mean nothing and it made no sense then nor does it make any sense today to change the name to something that would be different than what people in Jacksonville have known for a long time.
Mr. Underwood was with the company for a while after he sold it?
He was. He was probably the person who had the greatest hand in training me, because when I moved here in 1980, he was working two days a week and really, he had nothing better to do than to make himself available to me so that I could ask questions because I still had a whole lot of them even though I was a gemologist.
Talk about Jacksonville as a market for jewelry, specifically diamonds. Is this a strong market?
Jacksonville is a very consistent market because of the industries that compose the business in North Florida, the Navy being one of them. That brings you a consistent flow of younger people who are getting engaged, so you’ve always got a group of people that you can sell to in the engagement ring and the wedding business.
The rest of Jacksonville has always been an interesting business. It’s a challenging market because it’s so spread out. It’s got an ocean, an Intracoastal Waterway, a St. Johns River that’s really wide and the bridges. It lays out as a single city, but because of the rivers and streams and the ocean, it lays out as separate communities. Those communities have a tendency for their wealth to live around the river, so it divides your wealth up into a lot of smaller populations and pockets and areas.
If you want to try to serve the higher end of the market, like we do, you can’t really do it with one store. You have to have multiple stores and when you do that, you’re probably going to have to carry too much inventory, so there’s a balancing act. We’ve chosen to go to the high end, so we’ve got more stores in the market than a store like us would normally have.
How do you determine those markets and do you see any other changes, like adding stores or moving others?
Identifying the market in which we wanted to operate was probably my greatest controversial first decision. I went to my family in the mid to late ‘80s and said, when you bought Underwood’s, you had great locations. You were in Roosevelt Mall, you were in Regency Square, you were in Gateway Mall, you had a store in San Marco and you had a store Downtown.
I said potentially your strongest store is going to be San Marco, that’s where all the growth is occurring. All you really have to do is close every store and move into all new ones.
I’ll never forget. My father said well, that sounds like a whole lot of work. Who’s going to do it? I said I’ll do it as long as you’ll never come back down here and question how I’m going to do this again, and he agreed to that and we made all those moves.
Do you see the markets changing?
Where we chose to operate, we went with what we thought would be the most solid places to operate for wealthy people. We chose Avondale to replace our Roosevelt Mall store, we enlarged San Marco and we made those two stores much bigger than what we had because we closed Downtown and moved the inventories into those locations kind of surrounding Downtown.
Then we shut our Regency Square store down and went to the Shoppes of Ponte Vedra. We felt like those three locations would always be consistent with a wealthy clientele because of where they were situated in position to the river and the ocean.
Your question about do I see Jacksonville’s demographics changing, the answer to that question is yes.
There’s been enormous movement into St Johns County and you see the same thing going into Clay County. We have a store at The Avenues mall.
Most of the brands that we carry aren’t going to allow us to have another door in the Jacksonville area, so if we were going to have another, we’d probably have to close one.
But we’re very happy with where we are right now. If we were to add any other stores, it’d be in a different market and would probably come through acquisition. We wouldn’t try to move in and establish ourselves.
It’s a very competitive industry and a lot of stores focus on diamonds. How have you differentiated Underwood Jewelers?
We differentiated ourselves most by carrying a higher quality diamond. The American Gem Society opened its diamond-grading laboratory about 1996. I was president of the American Gem Society at the time. I’ve been involved in the implementation and the science behind that for a number of years. We use that system.
If you own a diamond, and it’s cut the right way and it handles light, it performs the way it should. There’s a joy of ownership that you don’t get with a diamond that only looks good in the jewelry store, but when you get outside of those bright, shiny lights overhead, it doesn’t look as good. We wanted the diamonds outside of the store in a comparison from one lady to another, the person would say, wow, that diamond is beautiful, where did it come from?
When people buy diamonds, it’s often one of the largest investments that they’ll make especially when it comes to engagement rings. Summarize what a buyer should be asking about when he or she buys a diamond.
What happens in today’s world, people who are shopping for an engagement ring go on the Internet. They gather lots of information. The first thing the person has to do is be brave enough to come forward and say, “I have questions; some of this doesn’t make sense to me.”
They need to find somebody in the diamond business that they trust enough to ask those questions because if you leave it to yourself, you will be misguided.
There are so many different things a cutter can do to get you to buy something where you think you’re buying something different than what’s being delivered to you. You need to find somebody you trust that can help you.
You’ve survived at least three recessions during your time in Jacksonville. Do you have any suggestions for businesses and entrepreneurs?
Each of the recessions has been different. Actually, the hardest one was probably in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when all of our servicemen went over to the Mideast and we had Desert Shield and we had Desert Storm.
A lot of the money and the checks that were cashed in Jacksonville disappeared from the market. When that happened, we were in the process of closing stores and building new ones and it made things a little more difficult.
The one thing that we didn’t do is we never stopped advertising.
The other thing that we did was we always continued to pay our bills and while there’s a lot of belt-tightening that went on, I learned that the best way for our company to get through that recession was for me to lead the company and lead by example.
I was going to have to give some things up because business wasn’t good, but our people saw that I was doing the right things and so we didn’t lose a lot of our people, we didn’t have to lay a lot of people off and when the business came back, because we never quit advertising, we moved to a different position in Jacksonville.
We came out of each one of those recessions in a stronger position as far as our market share in Jacksonville than what we were in before the recession.
You’ve been in Jacksonville a long time and you raised your family here. Can you talk about your family, what it was like bringing them up in the area?
Both my children were born here and they went to school here.
I’d always been raised in a community where I had cousins and brothers and sisters and parents and grandparents and they didn’t have any of that. The friends they had were the ones that they made and the friends that I made were their friends’ parents. So, I think Jacksonville is a great environment to raise children in.
Both my children came up through the private school system. They went to Riverside Presbyterian then on to Bolles.
My son went to North Carolina and then he went to law school in Alabama. He still lives in Birmingham. My daughter went to school at Alabama and graduated right after the tornado, and was killed in an accident in Spain and she was coming into the business.
The only thing I wish that was better here is our school systems. That’s where improvement needs to be made.
Can you share your thoughts about Jacksonville and its future? Where would you like to see the city go?
The city has been moving positively in the right direction ever since Ed Austin was the mayor. He was a visionary mayor.
He only served one term and when he went in, he said I don’t care if I only serve one term, but there are some things that need to happen.
He was the person who came in with a long-range plan. He had a vision of how Downtown would develop and I think he was right in his vision. He also laid the groundwork for future mayors to have a roadmap to success for the city.
I think that because of the lifestyle that you can live here in North Florida, there are so many pastimes.
Many of the people who have lived in Jacksonville, when they have to move away because their business takes them to another market, it’s always interesting how when they get a chance to move back, here’s where they want to come.
Did you ever think about living in Birmingham or do you prefer Jacksonville?
I never thought about living in Birmingham, but you’d have to drag me out of here, now, I can tell you that.
Where do you invest your community time?
We’ve been involved with so many different charities over the years. A lot of times, how I invest my time is dictated to us by how we’re partnered with a charity and doing something within the store.
If you’ve got customers that are not bashful about coming to the stores that they support, and we happen to be one that’s local in nature, you really can’t say no to those loyal customers that have a project that they need some help with.
As a well-entrenched company in Jacksonville, how do you compete when you have a lot of chains and department stores that also sell fine jewelry?
I don’t think the chains sell the same things we have in the store, and department stores don’t either. We align ourselves with some recognized brands. We use a combination of the brands we carry and our own Underwood brand to try to market to the people we are going to try to sell to.
Somebody in advertising asked me what Underwood’s targets and my answer is very simple. We target disposable income and that’s what we go after.
It is our choice that we want to be in the high end of the market because that’s what we understand and serve the best. We say to our staff, we don’t want this to be the first place you work — we want this to be the last place you work, and so we have people that are experienced.
We put the money into training and education to make sure that they know what they’re talking about and know the truth and can tell the truth. That’s how we choose to compete.
You’re also known for your ability to channel country singer Johnny Cash, and I know that early this year you serenaded the retiring Rotary Club of Jacksonville Executive Director Miriam Funchess with your talent. Do you take that show on the road? How do you share this talent?
Generally, with a beer in my hand.
About First Coast Success: The Daily Record interviewed Bromberg for “First Coast Success,” a regular segment on the award-winning 89.9 FM flagship First Coast Connect program, hosted by Melissa Ross. The interview was scheduled for broadcast this morning and will replay at 8 p.m. on the WJCT Arts Channel or online at wjctondemand.org.