by Max Marbut
Of all the categories of retail business Downtown, one of the most remarkable is the neighborhood’s jewelry stores.
Among the group you’ll find some of Jacksonville longest-standing firms that boast third- and fourth-generation jewelers behind the counter. Among the stores with shorter histories, the group includes some of Downtown’s most successful concerns when it comes to starting small and growing over the years.
The businesses also ignored retail’s flight to the suburbs and have weathered more than one recession over the years.
Jewelry stores will be just about the only businesses with the lights on and the doors open a week from today on Christmas Eve, which also puts them in a special category.
Jacob’s Jewelers has been at the corner of Laura and Adams streets since 1927, but the store’s history began long before then. The genesis of the business was when Damon Greenleaf moved to Jacksonville from New York City two years after the Civil War and opened a jewelry store on Bay Street. He was joined in 1880 by J.H. Crosby and the company became known as Greenleaf & Crosby.
After the Great Fire of 1901 destroyed the store, the partners moved two blocks down Bay Street, where the store remained until 1927, when their building at Laura and Adams streets opened.
In 1930, Greenleaf and Crosby sold the store’s fixtures to V.E. Jacobs. In 1968, Roy Thomas and his wife, Deloris, bought the store and they’ve been there since.
He said despite the sluggish economy, customers have been returning to their traditional shopping patterns.
“We’re already ahead of last year’s holiday sales. I think people are getting over the economic downturn and coming back to shop,” said Thomas.
He said the store will be open until 5 p.m. Christmas Eve, “or later as long as our customers are coming to see us.”
Hemming Plaza Jewelers is continuing its holiday tradition of being open seven days a week through Dec. 24.
“We’ve had many more customers this year than last, I think because we have a lot of new merchandise,” said owner Juan Gonzalez. He said the store is the exclusive dealer for the Bulova Accutron “Space View” wristwatch between Atlanta and Daytona Beach.
“We have a lot of styles you won’t find anywhere else,” said Gonzalez, who believes there’s a reason so many people buy jewelry as gifts.
“It’s the most elegant and personal gift and it can be treasured forever. This time of year is fun,” he said.
Barnett Jewelers has been at Independent Square since the Independent Life Building (now called the Modis Building) retail space opened in 1976. The family business started Downtown in 1916 and now Liam and Oscar Barnett, fourth-generation jewelers, work in the store every day alongside the third generation.
In terms of what the 2010 holiday retail season will mean for the store, “Next week will tell the tale,” said Liam Barnett. His father, Bill, said, “but so far our business is almost double what it was last year.”
Both attributed the increase over last year to people feeling more confident about the economy and the store’s selection from a string of pearls for $19.95 to a 5-carat, $96,000 diamond ring. Barnett’s will also be open Christmas Eve until the last customer has been served.
Across the street at the Landing, Michelle Rhoades and her mother, Pong Mattiace, own Hanna and Her Sister. Mattiace opened in a tiny space 22 years ago but has since moved into a corner location near Starbucks. Business is brisk.
“I think people are sick and tired of the recession. Jewelry makes you feel good,” said Mattiace.
Rhoades said a big seller this year is the store’s new line of “high-fashion, reasonably priced sterling silver jewelry” she’ll be selling until at least 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Knott and Company on Hogan Street has been a Downtown jewelry store since 1934. Epsie Erickson worked for the original owners and bought the business in 1975. She works in the store every day with her son, Eric, and daughter, Janet Erickson Nolan. “We’ve been here so long it just feels like home,” said Nolan.
Richard Lesnik at Fox Jewelry & Loan at 519 W. Bay St. is the third generation of jewelers who has owned the business. He said the season started off slowly but “we still have time to catch up.”
He said being in business Downtown makes sense. “We have customers who live all over North Florida, so it’s good to be in a central location,” said Lesnik.
The jewelers all agreed that with Christmas Eve on Friday this year, it will be easy to shop Downtown because most offices are closed, including the City’s Parking Enforcement Department. That means there will be plenty of free parking.
Also, said Kurt Gonzalez at Hemming Plaza Jewelers, “Downtown is Jacksonville’s original town center.”