Neil Thomas was just nine years old when he started working in his father Bob’s jewellery shop, Thomas Jewellers, in Tokoroa, running errands.
The store, which Bob Thomas opened on Rosebery Street, Tokoroa in 1952 was an iconic retail store in the South Waikato town.
Later this year Thomas Jewellers, which has been operating for 66 years, will close its doors for the last time along with sister store, Neil Thomas Showcase Jewellers in Victoria Street, Hamilton.
Neil is retiring and it’s time for new things, which means shutting up shop. “It’s the end of an era, so it’s a happy-sad feeling,” says Neil. “I’m happy to move on to a new chapter, but I’m sad for nostalgic reasons.”
When Bob, now 91, opened Thomas Jewellers in 1952, Tokoroa was still “a pioneer town”, he recalls, with few shops. “The forestry mill [Kinleith Mill] was about to open, and a lot of shops in the main street were still under construction.”
In the years that followed, Tokoroa boomed. “It was vibrant,” says Bob. “The town of Tokoroa almost achieved ‘city status’, which was 20,000 people – we weren’t far off.”
Bob started in the jewellery trade as a 16-year-old in Christchurch, doing a six-year apprenticeship before later moving to Tokoroa.
He set up his business as a “one-man band” repairing watches, but quickly expanded. Thomas Jewellers had three watchmakers at one time, six staff, and turned out seven apprentices over the years.
Neil and Bob have had a good relationship. “We’ve always been very close,” says Bob. “It worked well with the business too, working together as father and son.”
Neil finished high school with an ambition to become a watch maker and began officially working there at 17. “He came home from St Paul’s [Collegiate] and said, ‘I know what I want to do, the same thing as you’,” recalls Bob.
The craft of watchmaking was a passion for Neil. After doing a five-year apprenticeship at Thomas Jewellers, he won a scholarship to Switzerland to train at the Omega group of companies. “For my 21st present my parents bought me a one-way ticket to Switzerland. I thought, ‘look out world, here I come’,” says Neil.
He learned from the master watchmakers, and brought his knowledge and skills back to New Zealand, where he gave seminars on quartz watches on behalf of the Watchmakers Guild of New Zealand. “People were hungry for information,” recalls Neil. “I really enjoyed sharing knowledge and I’ve got a passion for what I do, so it was lots of fun.”
In 1984 he went into business for himself, taking over the family business Thomas Jewellers from Bob.
As the main jeweller in Tokoroa, they did everything – engraving, jewellery, watches. “In Hamilton you had specialist jewellers but in a smaller town, we were it,” says Neil.
Four years later he began to expand, buying up a long-established jewellery business in Rotorua in 1988, and six years later in 1994, one in Takapuna, Auckland.
In 1997 Neil purchased the Victoria St store from Perry Frankham, a well-known Hamilton identity. The store had been operating since the mid-1960s and was part of the Centreplace shopping mall since its opening in 1986. During that period it was known as Frankham Jewellers, then Gemtime Jewellers.
From 2007 the shop became Neil Thomas Gemtime Jewellers, then evolved to its current name, Neil Thomas Showcase Jewellers in 2011.
The Tokoroa and Hamilton stores both stock a wide range of jewellery, from bangles and bracelets to rings, earrings, necklaces and chains in everything from rose gold to sterling silver. There are pearls, emeralds, sapphire, diamonds and rubies, alongside latest brand jewellery from Karen Walker, Meadowlark and Stolen Girlfriends Club. There are a huge number of quality watch brands, which is no surprise given Neil’s passion for watchmaking.
While trends in jewellery have come and gone, Neil says three parts of the business have been consistently strong: watches, gold and diamond jewellery.
One major change to the jewellery industry is the prominence of brand names, which “has become huge”, says Neil. “Fashions and concepts come and go very fast now. Something would be here for a couple of years, but now it’s in for a couple of months then out. That’s been influenced by the internet and social media, trends evolve much more quickly now.”
Personalisation is also a big trend in jewellery. “The ability to have something bespoke, created as a one-off, is popular especially when it comes to something like engagement rings,” says Neil.
To be a successful jeweller takes a lot of creative flair, says Neil. “And you have to be a good listener, so you spend time talking to people and really listening to what they want.”
“I’ve done a lot of hand-made, bespoke items over the years, and repaired or modified jewellery,” says Neil. “That can be very creative and rewarding.”
Both father and son agree that the best part of being in business is the connections formed with people.
“I love helping people and over the years I must have fixed up hundreds of things – watches, jewellery – for people. I will miss the one-on-one relationships with customers,” says Neil.
“Generations of the same family have been our customers,” says Bob, who was involved in the South Waikato community as a councillor, Rotary president, justice of the peace and St John Ambulance.
Adds Neil: “We are selling happiness and it’s been a happy business to be in. You are there for special moments in people’s lives – engagement and wedding rings are items I particularly like helping customers with, because they are such important symbols in people’s lives, something they will hopefully wear forever.”
To mark the closing down of the two stores, everything in Thomas Jewellers in Tokoroa and Neil Thomas Showcase Jewellers in Hamilton will be sold at half price from October 1. For more information see www.showcasejewellerhamilton.co.nz