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Entrepreneurs

Jeweled Heritage

By Johanna Cano, posted Jan 18, 2019
Michael Kingoff and his mother, Janice, will celebrate their jewelry store's 100-year anniversary in July. (Photo by Michael Cline Spencer)
Some family-owned Wilmington jewelry stores, such as Kingoff’s Jewelers, REEDS Jewelers and Snowden’s Jewelers, are more than retail spaces for wedding rings or elegant necklaces – they showcase local families who started a business they were knowledgeable about and continued to operate it for many years.
 
While the Great Depression caused many hardships for Wilmington residents and business owners, Kingoff’s Jewelers survived that period and continues functioning under the leadership of the family that founded it.
 
Kingoff’s will celebrate its 100-year anniversary in July thanks to sheer determination, hard work and good values, Michael Kingoff, owner of Kingoff’s Jewelers said. His grandfather, Ben, founded the store in 1919 after immigrating from Russia.
 
“At that time, immigrants needed a way to make money to bring family members over to this country,” Michael Kingoff said about what motivated his grandfather to open the store.
 
Michael Kingoff’s father, William, worked at the store for 60 years alongside his wife, Janice, until he passed away in 2006.
 
The business has remained in the family because of the knowledge and experience that was passed down from generation to generation.
 
“It’s all we know to do,” Michael Kingoff said. “The industry gets in your blood.”
 
It seems to be a thriving industry these days. The gross domestic product of jewelry and watches, which measures their production value in the U.S., has been steadily increasing since 2009, going from $59 billion to $76 billion in 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
 
Janice Kingoff said she has worked at the store for 60 years because she was making a living and she enjoyed what she was doing.
 
“We meet our customers,” she said. “They don’t just come in and pick something up and leave, and so there is a familiarity and an involvement in the sale.”
 
Something that differentiates Kingoff’s Jewelers from some others is its connection to locals, Michael Kingoff said.
 
“A mom-and-pop store like this allows you to be a part of your community, that is something the Amazons and the internets of the world don’t do,” Michael Kingoff said. “We dealt with generations of family members, and with generations of customer’s families, which is not something that happens these days.”
 
The Kingoff family has been involved in community charities, nonprofits and foundations. Some of the organizations they have been giving back to include Junior League of Wilmington, Lower Cape Fear Hospice, Good Shepherd Center and the Brigade Boys and Girls Club.
 
With the 100-year anniversary coming in July, Michael Kingoff remembers working at the store after studying to become a gemologist.
 
“When I first started the business [30 years ago], I was a young kid out of college who was just trying to live life, hang out at the beach, have a good time,” he said. “I was concerned that, if times got really tough, how are we going to make a living? People don’t need jewelry to survive, and my dad assured me as long as there is romance, I’ll have a job and that was comforting to hear, and it’s been true.”
 
While REEDS Jewelers has expanded to 58 stores in the U.S. it still has a presence in Wilmington, where its roots can be traced back to 1946.

Bill Zimmer learned about the jewelry business by working at his family’s retail jewelry stores. In 1946, he and his wife, Roberta, founded REEDS and opened the first location in downtown Wilmington.
 
They then opened stores in Whiteville and Jacksonville, and by 1979, the family had 24 retail stores.
 
Alan Zimmer, Bill and Roberta’s son, is the current president and CEO of REEDS with his two daughters also actively involved in the company.
 
One thing that motivated the Zimmer family to operate the company was the passion both Bill and his son cultivated growing up in the business, said Mitch Cahn, vice president of marketing at REEDS.
 
“They grew up in stores with their father and their mother and saw the joy that jewelry brings to the customers, and they’re very good at what they do,” Cahn said. “It’s a passion, so there’s really no reason to not operate it and own it at the same time.”
 
REEDS’ growth is partly because of the company’s goal to maintain principles that were instilled by Bill Zimmer, Cahn said.
 
“What has helped us stay financially healthy is always looking toward the future and also making sure that we’re carrying what the customer wants and that we have good quality,” Cahn said. “I think that’s led to our success and also living what Bill Zimmer brought to the company culture, which is treating everybody as they would want to be treated.”
 
The company is proud of being in Wilmington, with its headquarters located in the city, he said.
 
“Jewelry stores are very customer focused and you really have to have a relationship, and I think that when it’s a family-owned business there’s a lot of passion there and there’s a lot of drive to make sure that you’re successful,” Cahn said.
 
For Chris Snowden, the opportunity to open Snowden’s Jewelers with his dad, P.C. Snowden, came at the right time.
 
“I had been working in jewelry my whole life, and at the time I was traveling around the country with a chain fixing stores that weren’t performing properly, I was kind of tired of traveling and the opportunity to have my own store was just huge,” Chris Snowden said. “I turned in my notice and moved to Wilmington and helped him open up this store.”
 
Snowden’s Jewelers opened in 1990 at its current location at 352 S. College Road. P.C. Snowden has been in the jewelry business since before Chris Snowden was born, working for large chain jewelry stores for 30 years before deciding to open his own jewelry business.
 
“I grew up at jewelry stores. He worked for a major chain out of Augusta, Georgia,” Chris Snowden said. “He called me and asked me if I wanted to move up to Wilmington and open a jewelry store with him. So I did.”
 
P.C. Snowden retired in 2006, leaving his son as the current operator and owner of the jewelry store. Chris Snowden said they both enjoyed the experience of working with family, and it is an experience he will always cherish.
 
“It was great working with my dad,” Chris Snowden said. “I think very few people get the opportunity to work side-by-side with their parent for 20-something years and Dad and I have a great relationship.”
 
Snowden’s has remained a family-owned operation because selling it or bringing someone outside of the family in was never an option.
 
“As far as keeping it in the family I’ve never even considered anything else,” Chris Snowden said. “I don’t know why we would not keep it in the family.”
 
Jewelry stores were traditionally a family-owned operation, but much of that has changed, he said.
 
“People don’t really realize a lot of times when they walk into one of the chain stores, regardless of which one they go into, they’re buying from the same owner,” Chris Snowden said.
 
Jewelry stores such as Zales, Kay Jewelers and Gordon’s Jewelers are owned by the same company, Signet Jewelers. After staying open for almost three decades, Chris Snowden attributes much of the store’s success to its relationships with others and quality of customer service.
 
“We’ve been open for 28 years, and I think the key is that we are family-owned, it is a family business and we not only treat our employees like family, but we treat our customers like family,” Chris Snowden said.
 
Maintaining the tradition of being family-owned affects how the store is run.
 
“We are directly impacted by the success or failure of the store unlike a chain store operation where the employee is just going to go and get a job down the street,” Chris Snowden said. “This is what we do for a living. This is how we feed our families, so we put everything we have into the success or failure of the stores.”

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