‘A great run in a great community’
By Michael Scott-Blair
With only a $500 wedding check in their pocket, a workbench, a set of tools and an office desk, Art and Mary Ellen McWhorter set up their small jewelry shop at Sixth and Main, though Mary Ellen had serious misgivings about the future.
Today, 30 years later, the McWhorters want to step back and say “thank you” to the Ramona community for helping McWhorter Jewelers, now at 1140 Main St., Suite 108, to become a successful and longstanding member of the local business scene.
“For three decades, families here have trusted us to fix, repair and often even create what have become treasured family heirlooms, and we appreciate that trust,” the couple agreed.
It is the fourth location for the jewelry store, not counting the first year when they operated a repair business out of their home.
“Art had been working with jewelry since he was 18 years old. He was apprenticed to Morris H. Peltz, the designer and jeweler for Tiffany’s, and became very skilled at creating new and restoring old pieces.
“We were getting married. I was 23. Art was 29,” recalled Mary Ellen.
“Unbeknownst to me, Art’s parents had given him $500 as a wedding gift, and he said to me ‘Let’s open a store.’ It didn’t seem reasonable to me, but we went ahead with $250 for the first month’s rent. We had some bars put on the side windows and a few dollars in the cash drawer.
“Art had his tools and workbench. I had a little office desk and we were off.”
They started at Sixth and Main in a building attached to the Century 21 offices. But a fire in 1989 caused the entire building to be torn down, so they moved to the Olde Ramona Hotel Gallery, where they operated until 1995. The business moved into premises next to Ramona Café until 2000, when they moved to the present location.
The McWhorters have just completed a beautiful remodel with a crisp, minimalist décor and a window that provides a glimpse of Art at work.
Born and raised in Ramona, Art lived in the large farm that faces state Route 67 just past Dye Road.
“Today,” Art recalls, “you will see more cars go by in less than 30 minutes than you would see back then in an entire weekend.”
In the community since 1980, Mary Ellen learned early on that in a town such as Ramona, you always speak respectfully of other people.
“You never know,” she said. “The person you are speaking with could easily be related to the person you are speaking about. That teaches us to respect each other and I like that.”
A big change is the growth of the Internet, especially the shopping channels where people do a lot of “impulse buying,” said Mary Ellen.
“We are expanding on to the Internet ourselves, but we urge people to be cautious,” the couple agreed.
“Be absolutely certain that you can get your money back if any item is not up to the quality advertised,” said Mary Ellen. “We have had people come in here with large diamonds they felt they had bought for a bargain and we have sometimes advised them to return the diamond as inferior and not worth the price.”
Though Art has worked on all kinds of metals and with precious and semi-precious stones (starting with Indian jewelry 40 years ago, which he still works on), he particularly enjoys creating works out of gold, featuring locally mined stones such as the Spessartite garnet, an orange-colored stone mined right here in Ramona, and the tourmalines of the San Diego area.
More so than in most other businesses, you get what you pay for in jewelry, said Mary Ellen.
“If you pay cheap, you get cheap,” she said. “We are not cheap, but I assure you, we are good and offer outstanding value,” she said.
Additionally all the work is done on the premises using a laser welder that removes the need to extract any stones.
“I have seen people bring in items that have been through a garbage disposal or a vacuum cleaner and seem to be beyond redemption, but Art has restored them to a condition that amazes their owners.”
Three things have conspired to make the jewelry business slow a little in recent years. First, the economy has left many people without the discretionary income they might otherwise use for jewelry. Second, the Witch fire of 2007, which took the McWhorters’ home, not only caused a significant number of people to leave the community, but many people were forced to use whatever discretionary money they had to replace the everyday necessities lost in the fire.
And third, Art was diagnosed with having leukemia.
“The leukemia is in remission, we are delighted to say, and there are signs of recovery in other areas. But we have offered a somewhat old-fashioned business for the past three decades and it is time for us to come into the 21st century and go online,” said Mary Ellen.
“We’re not trying to be your Beverly Hills type of jeweler,” the couple agreed.
When a customer comes in, that individual becomes the sole focus of attention, they said. The customer has an idea of what he or she wants and, because it is a custom jewelry establishment, the customer often plays an integral role in the final piece and how it appears. “It means that each piece has a much more personal feeling, and that gives it an enhanced value to the owner,” Art and Mary Ellen agreed.
Would they do anything different if they could go back 30 years?
“Not really,” they said.
“Maybe I could have learned to slow down a little sooner and spend more time with our two sons instead of working seven days a week and late into the night,” said Art. (They have two sons: John, 26, who is a chef at Sally’s in the Manchester Hyatt, and Kristopher, 21, who is working to become a professional poker player.)
“The only thing I would change,” reflected Mary Ellen, “is to have a little commercial jewelry available at the beginning. People had always known us to be in the repair business and it took a while before they realized that we could create jewelry as well.”
“Apart from that, it’s been a great run in a great community,” they said, “and we are not looking at retirement for some considerable time.”