Second Generation, Family-Owned Jewelers Celebrate 60th Anniversary
By Deborah Clark
Feature Writer
Vidalia Advance     September 29, 2015

A serendipitous turn of events led Kathy and Earl Butler into a life neither of them could have predicted. Now, after several decades as jewelers, they can’t imagine any profession more exciting or rewarding.

Even though she grew up in the business, at first Kathy had no plans to become a jeweler. She wanted to teach rather than follow in the footsteps of her parents, Alby and Glenrose Gay, who opened Gay Jewelers on McIntosh Street in Vidalia in August 1955.

Alby was born in Kibbee in 1921, the fourth of nine children of sharecropper Henry Gay and his wife Ruby. Alby enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was sent to Great Britain to work on aircraft instruments. While overseas, Alby contracted tuberculosis and was sent back to the United States for treatment. It was during a hospital stay in Denver that he met Glenrose Mumm, and the two returned to Kibbee to marry at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church.
Alby Gay with Harry Fenster in Yuma, CO
Alby with Harry Fenster in the Yuma, CO store about 1947.
When Alby had a recurrence of TB and the couple moved to Denver for his treatment, Alby attended the Joseph Bulova School for Watchmaking. After finishing school, Alby and Glenrose moved to her hometown in Yuma, CO, where he worked at Harry Fenster’s Jewelers. It was at this time that the couple welcomed their daughter, Kathleen Marie (Kathy). After an unsuccessful attempt to buy the elderly Mr. Fenster’s store, the Gay family returned to Toombs County. With a loan from his uncle, Alby established his own jewelry store “right next to Erastus Palmer’s café,” Earl shared.

A year later, business began to pick up at Gay Jewelers and Alby was able to buy out his uncle’s interest in the store. In the early 1960s, the Gays also started a printing company, A&M Printing, which helped to support the family. In 1967, the Gays sold the printing company and in 1970, sold half interest in their jewelry store to local watchmaker Aaron Lynn. With Lynn as an equal partner, the business thrived. In the mid-1970s, Alby attended the Homer Holland School for Jewelers and later bought back his partner’s interest in the store.
Kathy and Earl married in 1976, and by that time, Alby and Glenrose had moved their jewelry store to the BB&T shopping center on U.S. Highway 280. Kathy had become a teacher, just as she had planned. One day, Alby took his only child aside and told her that she would inherit the business. Kathy told her father that she was dedicated to a career in education and wasn’t really interested in becoming a jeweler. Alby didn’t give up. He suggested that he coach Kathy’s new husband in watch repairs to see if he had an interest in the business. As they say, the rest is history.

Earl, a physical education major who had earned his degree at Georgia Southern College, was teaching at Vidalia High School when Alby made his offer, and after school, he came to the jewelry store to work with Alby. Under Alby’s tutelage Earl learned how to work on watches. In a few months, Earl discovered he had found his niche in the jeweler’s trade and left his career in education to work full-time at Gay Jewelers.
Alby and Glenrose Gay with Earl and Kathy Butler
Alby, Glenrose, Kathy and Earl in the BB&T Shopping Center store about 1992.
Earl was welcomed into the family business in 1977. In the late 1970s and 1980s Earl studied beginning jewelry repair, advanced repair, casting and gemology at Holland School for Jewelers. He continued his education with the Gemological Institute of America’s Diamond Course, Diamond Grading Course, and Colored Stone Course. He also took stone setting classes.

In 1986, Gay Jewelers was accepted into the American Gem Society whereby Earl, enrolled in classes testing his jewelry industry knowledge and skills, was able to acquire the title of registered jeweler. Eventually Kathy, after at Lyons Elementary School and J.R. Trippe Junior High School, came on board as a full-time employee at the jewelry store. Soon after, she completed an 18-month marketing and visual merchandising diploma program at Southeastern Technical College in Vidalia.

Alby and Glenrose retired from the company in 1994, and soon Gay Jewelers became computerized with ARMS (Advanced Retail Management System) to better control inventory. In October 1995 the store was moved to its current location at Palmer Place in the shopping center at 1303-B East First Street and was renamed KE Butler and Company Jewelers in honor of its new owners.
In 1998, KE Butler joined the buying group RJO (Retail Jewelers Organization), paving the way for diamond buying trips offered by the organization to Antwerp, Belgium, the “Diamond Capital of the World.” From the late 1990s to 2004, Earl made eleven trips to Antwerp, while Kathy made nine trips.

The Antwerp diamond district, known as the “Diamond Square Mile,” is where diamond workers, jewelers, and merchants can be found in the grinding shops, showrooms and exhibitions.  This is where the Butlers went to select pre-purchased stones for their clients. “We were shopping specifically for our customers,” Kathy explained.
“Most diamonds pass through Antwerp, but the majority of the cutting for the worldwide market is done in Israel, China and India,” Earl noted, adding that one of the memorable moments in his trips abroad was getting to hold a 30-carat diamond in Antwerp.
A highlight of the Butlers’ career in the jewelry business came in 2013, when they traveled with the RJO to Tel Aviv, Israel, the worldwide hub of the diamond trade. They enjoyed three days of touring the area and three days of visiting the Israel World Diamond Center (WDC) offices where diamonds are cut, faceted and sold. The WDC is located within the Israel Diamond Exchange District (IDE).
One of the largest and most sophisticated diamond centers in the world, the IDE was established in 1937 and counts approximately 3,000 members engaged in manufacturing, importing and exporting and marketing of rough and polished diamonds.

The Israel Diamond Exchange operates under the unique concept of "all under one roof.” It consists of four high-rise buildings that form a virtually impenetrable fortress. Connected internally by pedestrian bridges, it is protected by an advanced security system. In addition to the largest diamond trading floor in the world, IDE houses more than 1,200 private offices, with about 15,000 people each day passing through the complex. Every type of diamond in every size, shape and quality can be purchased in Israel.
“The diamonds were ready to go when we bought them, but sometimes we got to see rough (uncut and unpolished) stones,” Kathy said. Diamond cutters undergo a 10-year apprenticeship, preparing for this exacting work. Diamonds are studied carefully before they are cut, and expert cutters can predict exactly where the stone will fracture.

When buying a diamond, the characteristics to consider are shape, precision of cut, clarity (size and placements of imperfections or inclusions, which give a diamond its grade), color (complete absence of color is most desirable), and carat weight. 

“Diamonds come in all the colors of the rainbow. The rarest is red. Color starts with letter D, which is a complete absence of color, and progresses to Z, followed by the fancies,” Earl explained.

The Butlers are not currently traveling abroad to the big diamond marketing centers because they are able to get the same pricing in the states.
“Diamonds have never gone out of style. They are still the stone most preferred for engagement rings and natural stones are preferred over synthetic stones,” Earl said. “Synthetic is 30 percent less expensive and will test as a genuine stone but it is not found in nature. It does not have the intrinsic value of a diamond. The natural stone will hold its value because of its rarity; we are not making any more. What is in the ground is all there is.”

What’s on the horizon for the Butlers and their hometown business? One major development has been the addition of Jessica Aaron as store manager. The Butlers aren’t ready to retire, but they are interested in building a “bridge” to the next generation for their business.

Jessica, who joined the Butlers in 2014, brought with her 10 years of experience in retail sales and seven years of experience in retail management. She is enrolled in online courses in the International School of Gemology and her current studies include courses on diamonds, colored gemstones and personal property appraisal. She has recently completed courses on watches and pearls.

One of Jessica’s responsibilities will be to oversee the CounterSketch custom design technology which is being implemented at the store.
“Our industry is evolving and nothing is driving that evolution as significantly as new computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacturing (CAM),” Earl enthused. CounterSketch is CAD software that offers a library of prototypes and interface with the designer.

“Designs are built to order. Customers will work one on one with us via a computer screen. They will immediately see their designs come to life,” Jessica illustrated, adding, “Changes can be made and viewed right before their eyes and in most cases they can be wearing their dream piece of jewelry in three weeks or less.”

Recently, the Butlers and Jessica attended an educational conference held at the global headquarters of North America’s largest jewelry manufacturer and wholesale distributor, Stuller, Inc., in Lafayette, Louisiana, Titled “Bridge.” The conference focused on ways to improve the customer’s shopping experience. These included retail store layout and design, tips on getting to know the customer, and cutting-edge jewelry design and technology.
In spring, 2016, a round table discussion on colored stones is planned for KE Butler customers, and the store will get a new look following an interior remodel. In the future, customers won’t see as much inventory in display cases, but will see more custom-designed, original jewelry. “Customers can bring their heirloom stones or choose new ones to set in original designs. Walk-ins are welcome, we will still offer gifts for special occasions, and we work in all price ranges,” Kathy said.

The Butlers expect an exciting future as they transition into new surroundings and specialized services. As a hometown jeweler, the company which started with Alby and Glenrose and continued with their daughter and son-in-law has been an integral part of the community for six decades. “We are so grateful for 60 years. Without our customers, we wouldn’t be here,” Kathy said.

Kathy didn’t plan to become a jeweler, but she has no regrets. “It is a happy industry for the most part.” Customers come in to celebrate special occasions like engagements, birthdays, and anniversaries.  Kathy laughingly observed, “Earl says you can easily spot the young couples who come to buy an engagement ring because they are usually nervous.”

Kathy said she has learned about the jewelry trade by listening to Earl, who enjoys his work as much as ever. “He does not have hobbies. He just enjoys doing this. He is the glue that has held us together,” she said with admiration. Since they have been a team for a long time, no doubt Earl would readily return the compliment.