History

K E Butler Jewelry:
The Legacy of a Family Business

By Teri R. Williams

Earl Butler unfolded the small white package and carefully lifted the diamond with jewelry tweezers. The pyramidal-shaped stone was exquisite.

“What color would you say this is?” he asked.

I can hardly tell the difference between a diamond and a cubic zirconia.

“Color?” I asked. “Aren’t all diamonds colorless?”

He laid another diamond beside the first. I leaned in closer to the two diamonds that lay against the stark white wrapping. Side by side I could see that one was slightly more yellow than the other.

“Which one is more valuable?” I asked.

“The color of a diamond is your personal taste,” said Jessica Aaron, store manager at K E Butler from 2014 through early 2019.

While it is true that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” it is also true that you wouldn’t want to pay for a Lamborghini and drive away in a Volkswagen.

“Let me show you how diamonds are rated,” said Jessica as she pulled out a chart with a color grade scale rating diamonds by letters from D to Z. In 1953, I learned, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) established a standard by which all diamonds should be judged called the 4Cs: Cut, Color, Clarity, and Carat weight.

“Of the four, cut is the most important,” said Earl.

“We often think of a diamond’s cut as shape,” said Jessica, “but a diamond’s cut grade is really about how the diamond’s facets interact with light.”

According to the GIA website, “Precise artistry and workmanship are required to fashion a stone so its proportions, symmetry and polish deliver the magnificent return of light only possible in a diamond.”

As a history enthusiast, I subscribe to “This Day in History” from history.com. Ironically, as I was working on this article, the headline that day read: “1905: World’s largest diamond found.” The 3,106-carat diamond, christened the “Cullinan,” was found in a mine in Pretoria, South Africa, according to the article. The stone was presented to Britain’s King Edward VII as a birthday present, and in turn, he “entrusted the cutting of the Cullinan to Joseph Asscher, head of the Asscher Diamond Company of Amsterdam…. [Asscher] studied the stone for six months before attempting the cut. On his first attempt, the steel blade broke, with no effect on the diamond. On the second attempt, the diamond shattered exactly as planned; Asscher then fainted from nervous exhaustion.”

The importance of the perfect cut is one of the main reasons for traveling to Antwerp, Belgium.

“We’re a part of a buying group called Retail Jewelers Organization [RJO],” said Earl, “which allows us access to purchase from diamond houses in Antwerp. There are about 800 retail stores in this buying group.”

Unlike jewelry chain stores, Kathy and Earl purchase each piece that comes into their store often with specific customers in mind.

“[Antwerp] is one of the oldest diamond centers, and has a rich history that in many ways tells the story of the changes in the global economy over the last five centuries,” writes diamond industrialist Ehud Arye Laniado, in his article, “Antwerp and Diamonds: A Rocky Love Story.”

Since their last trip to Antwerp in 2004, cellphones have opened up a whole new world of buying and selling.

“Jessica took pictures of finished and rough diamonds, and as soon as she posted them on Facebook, people at home were texting saying, ‘I want that one!” said Earl.

“When I asked how long it takes to polish a diamond,” said Jessica, “I was told it could take two days or two years. The time it took was according to the diamond.”

“Diamonds have a grain just like wood,” said Kathy. “They have to study it, which could take months for a larger diamond to decide the best way to cleave it and then polish the facets.”

Determining a diamond’s color, the second most important characteristic in the 4Cs, is actually about determining its lack of color. The less color the higher the grade. According to the color grade scale, D-F diamonds are colorless and extremely rare.

“Once you get past Z, you get into your ‘fancy’ colors and the rarity and value picks up again. In Antwerp, we have to determine color by sight alone,” said Earl. “Kathy is great at it. When you get there, choosing a diamond is all about experience and knowledge.”

Diamonds purchased on this particular trip ranged in size from a half to five carats. In addition to Antwerp, “RJO holds two shows each year at different locations in the United States that is exclusive to members of the RJO buying group. In January, the owners of K E Butler Jewelers
attended the show in Nashville, Tennessee, to select spring/summer merchandise and will purchase for their fall/winter selections in Schaumburg, Illinois, this summer.

Gay Jewelers, Inc. “DBA” K E Butler & Company Jewelers

As fascinating as I found the history of Belgium’s five centuries of diamond trade, the nearly six and a half decades of K E Butler Jewelers interested me even more. As a three-generation business in our community, their story is deeply rooted in the history of our community. The remarkable narrative begins with Kathy’s father, Alby Gay.

Kebutlerhistory1

Born in 1921, Alby was the fourth of Henry and Ruby Gay’s nine children. Born in Kibbee, Georgia, a small unincorporated community to this day, his family moved around the area following fieldwork as sharecroppers. When WWII broke out, eighteen-year-old Alby enlisted and was appointed to the Army Air Corps. (The Air Force was not formed as a separate branch of the United States Armed Forces until 1947 after the war was over). Stationed in Great Britain, he worked on instrument panels in planes. When Alby contracted tuberculosis, he was sent home for treatment.

“During both World War I and World War II in the US Army, tuberculosis was the leading cause of discharge,” according to the online Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health. Alby was given a choice: He could either go to Charleston, South Carolina, or Denver, Colorado, for  treatment. He chose Denver for one reason only: “He said if he’d gone to Charleston, he knew his family would try to come and care for him, and he didn’t want to be a burden to them,” said Earl.

The “history” section of the store’s webpage gives more detail: “For treatment, the doctors cut out two of his ribs and collapsed his lung by laying a brick on it.”

It is certain Alby would not have chosen the events that led him to Denver, but it is just as certain if given a choice, he would not have chosen a different path. If he had not gone to Denver for treatment for TB, he might never have met his wonderful wife, Glenrose Mumm.

The two married in August 1946 at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Kibbee, Georgia. While Alby continued to recover, Glenrose found work at the paper mill in Savannah. When Alby came down with TB a second time, they returned to Denver once again for treatment. Following his discharge, Alby enrolled in the Joseph Bulova School for Watchmaking in Denver.

“Bulova was a well-known watch company in America at that time,” said Earl.

According to the veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org, “The Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking was started as a non-profit institution to provide training and rehabilitation for disabled World War II veterans…."Its purpose was “to repay, in some small measure, the sacrifice and service of returning disabled veterans after the Second World War.” According to a 1947 newsreel footage of the Bulova School of Watchmaking, “1,400 jewelers promise[d] employment for graduates.”

After graduating from the Bulova School of Watchmaking, Alby and Glenrose moved to her hometown of Yuma, Colorado, where he found work at Fenster’s Jewelers. In addition to using his skills in watchmaking, Alby also learned how to run a business. Not long after the birth of their Kathleen (Kathy), the small jewelry store could not support two families.

“Mr. Fenster was an older gentleman, and Alby offered to buy him out. But he wasn’t ready to retire,” said Earl.

In 1955, Alby moved his family back to Georgia with plans to open his own jewelry and watch repair store. But times were tough, and banks had little money to loan. Luckily, Alby’s Uncle, Teddy Allmond, agreed to give his nephew a loan, and Gay Jewelers was open for business that August specializing in watch repair and repair of electric shavers.

A month or two later, “Mr. Alby had a cousin, Dick Bailey, who was getting married and wanted to buy a diamond. The store had very little revenue, but Alby went to Ewing Brothers Co., a diamond and jewelry wholesaler in Atlanta, from whom he purchased watch parts hoping to purchase a diamond for his cousin. The company agreed to sell him a ½ carat diamond (to be paid for within 30 days) based on his good standing as a Standard Oil Charge Card holder. They changed the name from Ewing Brothers Co., but we’re still doing business with that company today,” said Earl.

Kathy was four years old when her family moved from Denver to Vidalia. During those early years, she said, “Of course, I was expected to work in the store after school and during the summer. It was our family business. But I had no interest in it.” When she was older, Kathy’s father pulled her aside and explained that as his only child, she would one day inherit the family business. But her dream was to become a teacher and so she followed her own path.

On November 6, 1976, Kathy married Earl Butler. Both had education degrees and began their careers as teachers. Earl’s teaching career was short-lived. Earl had only just begun his career as a teacher at Vidalia High School when Kathy’s father made him an offer: If his daughter didn’t want to learn the business, perhaps he could teach his new son-in-law and still keep it in the family. And that one year of teaching was enough to make the jewelry and watch repair business sound too good to pass up.

In June 1977, Earl’s education began with watch repair. “Mr. Alby gave me a screwdriver, tweezers, and an old pocket watch. I would take one screw out, put that screw back, take it out, put it back again. I did that for about a week to get used to the feel of the tools and small parts. The next week I took out two screws. About a month later, I could take out the whole plate and the wheels, and I could sometimes even
reassemble it. Sometimes it would even run again.” He smiled.

By 1977, Gay Jewelers had moved to what is now the B B & T Bank shopping center. In the years that followed, Earl continued to learn from Mr. Alby and also took classes from Holland School for Jewelers, courses from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), as well as other classes to increase his proficiency and skill. Following Gay Jewelers acceptance into the American Gem Society in 1986, Earl completed all the required coursework and study to become a Registered Jeweler.

As Earl devoted his life to the family business, Kathy returned to the store to help out from time to time. “I was free labor,” she said with a smile. As she helped her husband, it surprised her that the marketing side of the business was something she really enjoyed. Kathy left teaching and went back to school to take a marketing and visual merchandising diploma program at Southeastern Technical College in Vidalia. With both Kathy and Earl at the helm, Alby and Glenrose retired in 1994. In October 1995, the Butlers moved the store to its current location in the Palmer Place Shopping Center and changed the name to K E Butler and Company Jewelers to make the transition complete. They continue to serve our community with the same values and commitment to service that established Gay Jewelers as a bedrock in this community.

In October 2015, the Butler’s son Mark returned home to join the family business. “[Mark’s] future goal is to become owner and continue the staff practice of offering exemplary customer service and quality diamonds and fine jewelry to our community for another 60 years and beyond.” (The Butler’s daughter, Joni Ford, lives in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband Russ).

**Update to Story: Joni and Russ have since become parents to Elias David Ford, who is a possible future 4th generation jeweler in the family!**

Isaiah Gibson, a 2017 graduate of VHS, came to K E Butler Jewelry in 2017. Much like Earl’s apprenticeship with Mr. Gay all those many years ago, Isaiah hones his skills in jewelry and watch repair and with the laser welder, gas torch, and designing in CAD under Earl’s tutelage. Isaiah plans to attend school in Texas to work toward a degree in jewelry design in the fall.

Many speak of legacy as something only the famous leave behind. But a legacy is more than someone’s fortune or even a person’s influence on a certain period of time. From the beginning, we were commissioned with a particular task–a job, if you will. When we demonstrate commitment and enjoyment in our work, whether as garden tenders, jewelers, or homemakers, we leave a legacy more valuable than money or fame. Such were my thoughts as I read the caption for a picture on the store’s website of Earl and Kathy’s son Mark as a young child with a magnifier headset strapped to his forehead, a steel ring mandrel in his right hand, and mallet in his left. The caption read: “In the shop with dad.”

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There are few family businesses anymore. But the legacy passed on by Alby Gay and his wife Glenrose is about more than passing on a jewelry store. The legacy Earl and Kathy uphold is a legacy of honor and trust. While I still may not know a diamond from a cubic zirconia, I know Earl and Kathy Butler. And that’s enough to be sure that whether I like my diamonds canary yellow or with a richer red hue (a.k.a. a fancy), the price I pay will always match my idea of beauty.

Sources:
- https://4cs.gia.edu
- www.naturallycolored.com/diamond-education/diamond-grading/4cs-of-diamonds
- www.history.com/this-day-in-history/worlds-largest-diamond-found
- www.ehudlaniado.com/home/index.php/news/entry/antwerp-and-diamonds-a-rocky-love-story
- www.kebuter.com
- http://veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org/history/
- https://jmvh.org/article/history-of-tuberculosis-part-1-phthisis-consumption-and-the-white-plague/


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