Perspectives from ISB

Kris Cornwell spent her days on Court Street long before it was lined with a bevy of bars and chain restaurants. As the owner of Cornwell Jewelers, 77 N. Court St., Cornwell recalls catching a bus with her sister and riding from her grandparents’ home on Peach Ridge Road, north of Athens, to Court Street, where they’d wander from shop to shop.

Kris fondly recalls spending time in that narrow, worn space, in the same building where Cornwell Jewelers had existed since 1832, and playing with costume jewelry her grandfather had taken in on trade.

It’s much more about the jewelry now. Since purchasing the business from her parents in the early 2000s, Kris has transformed the store to meet the needs of modern shoppers. As a result, a long-standing piece of Athens’ history, Cornwell Jewelers, is rolling into the future with its sixth-generation — and first female — owner at the helm.

“I went in pretty naive, but it’s been a journey and I’ve learned so much,” she said. “When I started, I knew zero about business, zero about gemology, all of it — marketing, finances. I mean, I was an education major in English, and I could write a lesson plan.”

While tackling that learning curve, she had to deal with other obstacles: Customers and industry colleagues often assumed her male employees were calling the shots, and she wasn’t always taken seriously.

Now, after 25 years in the game, she’s established herself and picked up the knowledge needed to push the business forward.

The Cornwell family had been selling jewelry to Athens residents for more than 100 years before that purple Cadillac ever rolled off the line.

John Cornwell opened a jewelry shop on the second floor of 10 S. Court St. in 1832. At that time, Robert G. Wilson — the namesake of OU’s Wilson Hall — was serving as the school’s president, and the Civil War wouldn’t break out for another 40 years.

Unlike the gemstones sold at the store, it’s difficult to say what Cornwell Jewelers will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years.

Kris depends on her willingness to change in managing the store, and trends in jewelry could push Cornwell Jewelers to continue changing. A 2014 report from management consultants McKinsey and Company predicts the share of fine jewelry sales happening online could double to 10 percent of total sales by 2020, and Kris knows the nature of shopping — and Court Street — is changing.

“Most of our customers now, we’re a destination store,” she said. “A lot of people don’t work on Court Street like they used to, so to see us, they drive to us. So there could be a time when they don’t want to come to Court Street.”

“You never know. But to me, when I’m dead and gone, I think the store will still be there.” – Eric Coon, who worked in Cornwell Jewelers for more than 40 years. “When you get engaged, do you want to say to your wife, ‘I bought my ring on Amazon’ or ‘I bought it online?’ ” Coon said. “You know, it’s nice to come in (to the store). They find out about your history, where you’re going. And a lot of jewelry has been sold that way.”

What exactly will happen when Kris retires is unclear. She’s said she hopes one of her daughters will take the reins, but with her oldest is still in high school, it’s much too early to tell.

Source: Hill, Jeremy., April 18, 2018;

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