‘The jewelry business is a people business’

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SCOTT PFEIFFER | CONTRIBUTOR
Photography by Carol B. Stewart 

Hale’s Jewelers has been on the cutting edge of the gem trade for 160 years

 

Lucian Lee, owner of Hale’s Jewelers, is a man who loves his job. You can see it in his eyes when he talks about falling in love with the beauty of the gemstones he sells. You can hear it in his voice when he describes his visit to London and the De Beers sorting house. Most of all, though, you can feel it when he describes his customers, and the privilege of being a part of their celebrations.

“The jewelry business is a people business,” Lee says. “Here, we get to participate in our customer’s joy.”

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Early days

 

Hale’s Jewelers wasn’t Hale’s yet when James Hunter Randolph opened a small shop on Main Street in Greenville in 1856. Greenville itself was only 25 years old that year, having been renamed Greenville (after Revolutionary War General Nathaniel Greene) in 1831. Vardry McBee, the “Father of Greenville,” was still alive, and was in the process of creating the city. The town’s first railroad, the Greenville and Columbia, had just been funded. Randolph opened his watch and jewelry shop in a Greenville that was brand new.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the jewelry shop changed its name to Hale’s. Randolph’s grandson, William Randolph Hale, took over the business in 1887 and renamed it after himself. The business prospered as Greenville prospered. Greenville had been spared most of the devastation of the war, and grew rapidly in the years that followed.

In 1910, William Randolph Hale Jr. installed the famous Hale’s Clock – a Greenville landmark for the new century. The new clock was on the cutting edge, like the new Greenville. The clock was so accurate even the railroads were said to set their watches by it. The clock, which now runs on electricity instead of hand-winding, sits in front of Hale’s store on Haywood Road.

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Surviving tough times

 

World War I and the1920s roared in Greenville. The Army came to town for training and the Poinsett Hotel opened. Hale’s grew as well. In 1923, the Hales sold the thriving store on Main Street to Hewlett Sullivan Jr., who moved it to a new, larger location on Main Street. In the early 1940s, Hales began importing watches from an as-yet-unknown Swiss watchmaker, Rolex. Not only did Sullivan’s leadership allow Hale’s to survive the market crash and the Great Depression, the business grew and thrived in the postwar economy.

Sullivan’s sons Heyward and Hewlett took over the business in the 1960s, and Hale’s continued to grow along with Greenville. Cities in America were becoming more suburban, and Hale’s followed Greenville’s growth, first to McAlister Square Mall in 1969 and later to Haywood Road, near Haywood Mall, in 1982, where it remains today.

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In 1973, a young Clemson graduate named Lucian Lee came into Hale’s to buy an engagement ring. As he puts it, he left with a ring and a job, which became a career.

“The Sullivans were great teachers,” Lee remembers. “They taught me that integrity is everything. You have to build trust with your customers, and that takes time.”

Lee understood that lesson and in 2000, the Sullivans trusted Lee enough to sell him the business.

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Changes with a conscience

 

The 2000s brought a new kind of customer to the jewelry business. The Internet and the 24-hour news cycle created informed, socially conscious customers. The new customer demands not only low prices, but to know that their money isn’t going to fund war, exploitation or environmental damage.

In 1999, a UN investigation revealed that Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA movement were using uncut diamonds to purchase weapons. Further investigations revealed the use of “conflict diamonds” to fund revolutions and civil unrest throughout Africa. In response, the diamond industry worked with the UN to make changes in how it bought and sourced diamonds.

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Consumer concerns over fair trade with local businesses, reinvestment in diamond-producing third-world nations and environmental concerns over diamond and gemstone mining practices to changes in industry practice.

In response to these pressures, De Beers created the Forevermark program, which provides costumers with assurances that the diamonds they select are not only conflict-free, but also that they come from mines that benefit the people, community and country where they are located.

When Lee learned about the Forevermark program, he jumped at the opportunity to become the exclusive dealer in Greenville.

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“When you make a promise to your customers that you follow ethical business practices, you have to take the time to back that up.” Lee says. “Our customers trust us, so we look for partners we can trust.”

Lee says the Forevermark program is just a step on the way to a future where each customer will be able to track their diamond’s history from the mine to the cutter to the store, and see each step along the way. It’s the cutting edge of business, where Hale’s has been for 160 years. And where it is likely to stay.

“Hale’s became successful by being a part of the community,” Lee says, “and Greenville is a great community to be a part of”.

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Growing with Greenville: A Timeline

1856

James Hunter Randolph opens a store engraving and selling watches and fine jewelry in a wooden structure on Main Street.

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Randolph’s grandson, William Randolph Hale, takes over the family business, renaming it Hale’s Jewelers.

1910

William Randolph Hale Jr. installs the famous Hale’s Clock, a community timepiece and landmark which served as the standard time for the residents of Greenville.

1923

Hale sells the business to Hewlett Sullivan Sr., who later opens a new store at 12 S. Main St.

1940s

Sullivan begins importing watches from Europe, making Hale’s Jewelers one of the first businesses in the entire U.S. to offer the Swiss watches that would soon come to dominate the market.

1962

Hewlett’s sons, Heyward and Hewlett Jr., take over the business after their father’s death. Responding to increasing suburbanization in Greenville, they soon open a second location at the McAlister Square Mall.

1982

Hale’s moves to its present day location; a free-standing location on Haywood Road.

2000

Lucian Lee buys Hale’s from the Sullivan family. An employee of the business for 27 years, Lucian walked in to Hale’s in 1973 to buy a ring, walked out with a job to help pay for his purchase, and hasn’t left since.

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