July Cover Story: Smith Jewelry History

06 July 2018

July Cover Story: Smith Jewelry History

BY MIKAYLA KETELHUT, Conventions & Events Director, Huron Chamber & Visitors Bureau

Smith Jewelry is in downtown Huron at 361 Dakota Ave S. The store is owned by Leslie and Sue Christen. They really like to go above and beyond when it comes to customer service. When you go in the store you’re going to find the store much as it was when the store started by William Smith in 1909. All the original cases
are still in use. There are watch parts in the basement that predate WWI.

Smith won the contract with the railroad to regulate all the watches and needed watchmakers. Joseph Christen was hired to head up the watchmaking shop and arrived in the first year from Nebraska City, NE. In 1922, Mr. Smith decided to sell out to the two head watchmakers Joseph Christen and George Vanderstein. Now
it is the Christen family that owns the store.

At one time there were six watchmakers working in the store. Some of those went on to open their own jewelry stores in Huron. Grandpa Christen used to say, “Once they got good they went off on their own”.

Christen and Vanderstein considered changing the name to Christen and Vanderstein. Grandma Christen used to say the sign painter charged by the letter and Smith was a much better choice. So, the name has remained the same.

Joseph Christen passed the store on to his son Herb. Herb was born in Huron, graduate of Huron High where he was the very first Tiger King. He went on to college in Vermillion, where he graduated with high honors. He was in ROTC and went into the Army in WWII as an officer. He was also a graduate of the Gemological Institute of America and the Elgin Horological School of Watchmaking and Jewelry. When he returned from the war, he took over the store and bought a house on Illinois Ave. Herb’s wife, Lois Hartzer, was a graduate of Huron College, and as a young wife had a Cub Scout troop and raised champion Dachshunds. After she retired, she was active in quilting. She always had quilts in the fair competition.

The store was once located in a space north at 357 Dakota Ave S until 1969. In 1965, Herb died of cancer at the young age of 51. In 1968, his widow Lois used the life insurance building to buy the building next door at 361 Dakota Ave S where it is now, in the Newton and Maag building. She remodeled the upstairs into three apartments. She had a grand reopening of the store in that year.
Lois didn’t have business experience at all and found it a huge challenge to run a jewelry store, do all the bookwork, and raise three boys. Dave is the oldest, followed by Leslie and Jim. The boys were 16, 12, and eight when their father died. Lois remarried Earl Bates in 1971. She was well known and loved in Huron. Smith’s was the place to go for all the brides to register. There were many
brides that walked through these doors. We sold China, Sterling Silver, and Crystal. Lalique, Waterford, Lennox, Noritake, and more.

Leslie and Susan met at the Gemological Institute of America in California in 1971 and married in 1972. They came back to help Lois in the store in the winter of 1972. They stayed until Susan’s parents Ed and Maudie Danbom invited to join them in Sri Lanka to set up a precision gem stone cutting shop in 1978. Les and Sue were in California from 1981-2000. Les was the corporate gemologist for a chain of seven stores. Sue worked for a gem dealer and later opened a gem cutting shop, where she cut gems for retail jewelers and was the membership director for the San Diego County Women’s Jeweler’s Association and a member of the G.I.A. Alumni Association.

Dave Christen took Leslie’s place in 1978 and also graduated from the Gemological Institute of America. He is an excellent jeweler.

In 2000, Lois asked Les and Sue if they would like to move back home and take over for Dave who was having health issues. They were glad to come back to a slower pace. They love Huron and the people. They’ve been back for 18 years, and Dave retired in 2005. The store still offers the lowest prices on watch batteries in the area and they do all the jewelry repairs on the premises. They
also offer gem cutting and custom design work. The Christens are all graduates of the GIA going back two generations. Three generations have been in the store, and there is plenty of knowledge and experience.