If you were the wife or girlfriend of a Confederate soldier in the 1860s, and your significant other was about to leave Greenville to go fight the Yankees, there was a ceremony for you to follow.
First, you would shampoo your hair. Once all the dirt and grime had been scrubbed away, once your hair was gleaming, well-combed and perfumed, you would carefully cut off a lock of hair and take it down to the local jewelry store.
The jewelry store’s owner, James Hunter Randolph, would take your lock of hair and guide you through the process of selecting a gold piece. All the gold in the store was local, sourced from a nearby gold mine in Spartanburg County. The gold could be threaded and wired and braided in with the hair, or the gold could be a solid piece upon which words would be engraved, the hair threaded in bows atop it.
Jewelry made with hair was by far the store’s most popular item, so there were plenty of options to choose from. The ultimate goal, Mr. Randolph would tell you, was to create a piece of you for your love to carry with him, a token to accompany him on those long marches, during those cold nights.
A full century and a half later, Lucian Lee, the current owner of that same jewelry store, got the chance to hold some of those original pieces in his hands. Hale’s Jewelers had just celebrated its 150th anniversary, and Lee said the experience of seeing those pieces, which had lasted through the years, was revelatory.
“To put it simply, it was just really cool, but more than anything, it was humbling,” Lee said. “It feels like holding a part of history.”
As the longest-running business in Greenville and the oldest jeweler in the state of South Carolina, Hale’s Jewelers has survived numerous wars, presidential administrations, cultural upheavals, technological and digital revolutions and major demographic shifts.
While the store may have switched owners and locations during that time — and while its original specialty, jewelry made with hair, has gone decidedly out of fashion, the core of the business has remained unchanged, Lee said.
Now with a new location planned for the coming year, it will soon be the end of an era at Hale’s Jewelers — and the start of another.
‘A blessing and a coincidence’
Construction is already underway on the new location for Hale’s Jewelers. The longtime store has announced plans to move from its current spot on Haywood Road to a new 8,000-square-foot store at 761 Verdae Blvd.
With an opening date scheduled for the first quarter of 2021, the new location will be a free-standing, two-level building featuring a Rolex corner, a Forevermark area and a private space for vendors and community partners.
Lee said they also have plans to move the Hale’s Clock, a local landmark that has stood on Haywood Road for more than a century, to “a place of honor on the new property.”
“[Our] strong roots, illustrious history and community partnerships will be featured heavily in the new location,” Lee said.
Founded in the 1850s by Randolph, the store originally specialized in those popular “mourning jewel items” — typically lockets, brooches or other necklaces with locks of hair woven into the design, which women gave to their boyfriends or husbands as they left for war.
Randolph’s grandson, William Randolph Hale, named the business Hale’s Jewelers after he took over operations in 1887. Hale installed the iconic Hale’s Clock in 1910.
From its roots during civil unrest and war to the present day, the store has swapped ownership twice. Hale sold the business to Hewlett Sullivan Sr. in 1923, and the store remained in the Sullivan family for nearly 80 years until it was brought in 2000 by its current owner, Lee, who had been a longtime employee.
“I actually started out as a customer,” he said. “I was shopping for an engagement ring back in 1973, and the Sullivan family ended up offering me a job.”
Lee said it was a “blessing and a coincidence” that his life’s longest-running relationships — his marriage to his wife of 47 years and his commitment to Hale’s — happen to perfectly overlap with one another.
But for him, the greatest blessing has nothing at all to do with his own story. Instead, he says, it’s seeing the big moments in the lives of his customers, getting to take part in those celebrations.
“What makes me feel especially blessed is I get those people coming in who want to introduce their son, their grandson,” Lee said. “The opportunity for me to help some young man who’s ready to take the next step of his life, like I did 47 years ago — that’s what motivates me. That’s what keeps me showing up every day. With the new location, we’re going to carry that tradition on for the generation.”