Generation 6's accidental jeweler
Kris Cornwell planned to be a teacher, not a jeweler. Cornwell Jewelers, her family’s Athens, Ohio, jewelry store—founded in 1832—was always in the background of her life, but it wasn’t until her parents begged her to take over that she became the sixth generation to run Cornwell Jewelers.
“Just try it for six months,” suggested her mother, Connie. That was in 1994.
Kris’s father, Les, didn’t want to be a jeweler, either. He preferred buying and managing student rental housing, always in demand in a college town like Athens. He did take a stab at the family business—where he kept a desk to run his housing business—but it wasn’t for him and he didn’t see eye-to-eye with his father, Walter Cornwell.
“Grandpa was not a risk-taker,” Kris says. “All the years the store was in the [original] building, he paid rent. He had an opportunity to buy [the building] in the 1960s, but thought it was too risky.” She credits her grandfather’s frugality and caution for much of the store’s success, but acknowledges it also held the business back.
In 1966, Les opened a second branch, called Cornwell & Son, a few blocks from the original location.
“Dad’s store was new, fresh, more upscale, more professional,” Kris says. “Pa’s [Walter’s] was very old school. You’d find a hodgepodge of stuff in there, including old eyeglasses from when jewelers were opticians.”
Kris says she spent far more time in her grandfather’s store than in her father’s. “Pa’s was the hangout store,” she explains. “It was more comfortable. I spent very little time at Dad’s store because Dad wasn’t there.” Her father had hired manager Eric Coon to run the store while he focused on the rental housing.
In 1987, Kris’s father closed the “corner store” and moved the fixtures back to the original store. Moving day lives on in family legend. “Grandpa’s store looked very dated, but he didn’t want to change it,” Kris says. Les began moving in the cases while his parents left town—but was interrupted by Walter, who returned to pick up something he’d forgotten. “He just threw up his hands, walked out and left for the weekend,” Kris recounts.
Kris entered the family business after earning a graduate degree in education. She soon bought the limping business from her father and, in her first month as owner, found she didn’t have enough money to make payroll. The manager and another employee quit, but the rest of the staff—including Eric Coon, who still works in the store and the rental business—gave her a chance.
In time, after many arguments with her father and juggling finances to pay vendors and employees, she turned the store around. Today it’s thriving in a new, freestanding location, with five employees.
“People still buy jewelry based on emotion, but there are so many places to fill that need,” Kris says. “They have some loyalty to their family jeweler, but not as much … so we have to prove ourselves all over every day. Now it’s all about the experience.”
The Cornwell Jewelers experience includes coffee and freshly baked cookies in the store. On rainy days, customers are escorted to their cars under a purple Cornwell umbrella. And of course, there’s all the beautiful merchandise, plus memorabilia from the store’s 181-year history.
Will a seventh-generation Cornwell stand behind the counter someday? Kris has two daughters, ages nine and 11, and three stepchildren, ages ten, 11 and 16. She notes that her older daughter already asked if she’d sell the store for the same price she paid.
“No way!” Kris responded with a laugh.
If her own children don’t want to be jewelers, perhaps one of her four nieces and nephews might.
“My sister and brother feel the legacy even if they aren’t in the store,” Kris says. “It’s part of how we were raised, who we are, something that binds us together.”
Hedda T. Schupak is an editor and analyst specializing in fine jewelry and luxury retailing.
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