Local Business

Graham’s Jewellers

A precious gem in Downtown Courtenay, celebrating 105 years of success

Graham’s Jewellers owners Wendy and James Graham. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Erected in 1951, with a steel lamp post transported up from Victoria, the Graham’s Jewellers’ electric clock with the neon top that stands on Fifth Street in Downtown Courtenay has become a local landmark. While the inner mechanics of the clock have been upgraded over the years, and the lamp post has been moved to accommodate changes in sidewalk patterns, the clock is unchanged and has been diligently keeping shoppers on time for decades.

While the infamous clock celebrates its 66th birthday this year, the history of the business enterprise that graces the clock face goes back more than a century, explains Graham’s Jewellers owner James Graham.

According to James Graham, owner of Graham’s Jewellers, there has been a jewelry store at 261 Fifth Street since 1912. The building that housed the first store was torn down in 1951, during which time the businesses’ glass showcases, vaults and all inventory, were temporarily relocated to the old EW Theatre Building at Fifth and England. (That building has since burned down.) When the new building was ready for occupancy, the jeweler moved back and the clock was proudly placed out front.

“The original store was owned by my great uncle Charles Simms and it was called Simms & Sons,” recalls Graham. “The Simms family owned the store up until 1945, and then it was sold to Walter Crosby and the name changed to Crosby’s. My father, Richard Graham, started working at Crosby’s as a watchmaker in 1951. When Walter retired in 1970, dad welcomed the opportunity to buy the store where he had worked for 20 years. Of course, he too changed the name of the store—and the clock face—to reflect the new ownership. In 1976, he took over the adjacent retail space (where Jean Burns Ladies Wear used to be) to accommodate an expanded china and giftware department that my mother Valerie managed. This increased the floor space to its current 2,200 square feet.”

Graham grew up hanging out in the store, and he began working there part time in 1974, when he was in Grade 10. His sisters Catherine and Jackie both worked in the store as well, helping out during Christmas and summers. When his father retired in 1988, James purchased the business and has been running it ever since. His wife, Wendy, had worked at the local credit union before leaving work to raise a family. She started working at the store around 1990 and has been managing the giftware department since Valerie retired in 1997. Their daughter, Amy, has also worked in the store since 2004.

“Owning a jewelry store wasn’t something I thought that I would end up doing my entire life,” says Graham. “But here I am! I did leave the business in the late 1970s. I worked in the mill in Campbell River for a few years, but I realized that I loved the jewelry business and I came back in 1979.”

Graham says that one thing he loves about the jewelry business is that you are generally dealing with happy occasions like birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. People tend to be in great spirits when picking out gemstones and gold! He loves the fact that he is now selling engagement rings to the children (and some grandchildren) of the men and women who bought rings from Graham’s when they got married decades ago.

When asked if he had any special memories, Graham says there are many. One in particular brings a smile to his face.

“You have to understand that when you have been in this business for as long as I have, you tend to notice the jewelry that people are wearing—and if it is unique, you remember,” he says. “Many years ago, I had this young kid and his mom come in with a man’s wedding ring that they had found buried in the sand at Comox Lake… and it happened to be a ring that I recognized! I had not sold it to the person who had lost it, but I knew whose ring it was right away. I asked the finders to wait while I called this fellow to ask if he has lost anything important to him. He laughed and said, ‘Wow! Word sure travels fast in this town!’ Needless to say, I made sure that he got his wedding ring back. Just think, if those two had taken the ring anywhere else it might have been pawned and he would never have seen it again.”

Today, in addition to more than a century of great memories, Graham’s Jewellers stocks a wide variety of gold and gemstones, as well as popular new brand-name products like Pandora bracelets, Victorinox and Tissot watches, and Simon G Jewellery from Los Angeles. They carry a delightful line of hand-blown glass birds from Finland called ‘iittala’, as well as Maxwell Williams dishes and flatware, and much more.

“The basic rule that guides our purchasing is to look for products that are high quality and unique,” says Graham. “The merchants on Fifth Street are pretty good about keeping our product lines unique from the each other, so that each of us has been able to create our own market niche.”

As far as trends in jewelry purchasing over a lifetime, Graham has seen the popularity of yellow versus white gold come and go—and come and go again. Gold prices have also dramatically changed, considering that the same ounce of gold that used to sell for $30 now sells for $1,700! Another significant shift is that most diamond buyers want to know that they are purchasing Canadian diamonds that are ethically mined, and he is vigilant to ensure that everything in his store is ethically sourced.

“Today’s consumers are simply more knowledgeable and conscientious regarding quality, because there is more information available,” he says. So, what does the future hold for Graham’s? “I don’t really have a family member looking to take it over,” he says. “I would like to see it sell some day… but we will see what happens. For now, it is business as usual.”

Graham’s Jewellers is the longest running advertiser with InFocus. “I have advertised in every issue of InFocus since day one,” says Graham. “Nancy and Tyra have always been great to deal with and have treated us well. I am sorry to see it go.”