By Michelle Graff
Cornwell Jewelers is located on Court Street in Athens, Ohio, home to Ohio University. It will close this summer after 187 years in business. Pictured above is a 1967 Cadillac the Cornwell family bought in 2007 and painted purple to attract customers.
Athens, Ohio—As a kid, Kris Cornwell liked getting jewelry as a gift but didn’t frequent her family’s Athens, Ohio jewelry store, save for some afternoons spent eating pizza in the back of the shop.

She and her sister would “go uptown”—local vernacular for visiting the town’s main drag, Court Street—to shop and catch a matinee before popping into her grandfather’s store with a slice.

Cornwell said she never really considered jewelry as a career, staying local to go to college—she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s from Ohio University, the heartbeat of this small southeast Ohio town—and majoring in education.

But when she completed her master’s in 1994, there came a request: Her mom, Connie Cornwell, asked her to put in a few months at the jewelry store that her family still owned but, at that time, employed no family members.

Cornwell initially said no but eventually relented.

“Probably, I’m a people-pleaser,” she allows. “They asked me and it’s hard to say ‘no’ to your parents when they’ve done so much for you.”

She started working at Cornwell Jewelers in August 1994, learning under the longtime manager until October, when that longtime manager suddenly quit and “really left me kind of holding the bag,” Cornwell said.

She wasn’t going to walk out on a business that, at that point in time, had been in her family for 150-plus years. So she stayed, eventually earning her registered jeweler (RJ) certification from the American Gem Society and attending more than a half-dozen Conclave events in order to learn about the business.

She called the knowledge gained at those annual events a “pivotal part” of her career, a career that was supposed to last about six months but has spanned 25 years.

John Cornwell opened Cornwell Jewelers in 1832, one year after he arrived in Athens to go to college. (Ohio University was founded in 1804 and is the oldest college in Ohio.)

It celebrates its 187th birthday this year and bills itself as the country’s second-oldest family-owned jewelry store.

Kris Cornwell represents the sixth generation involved in the operation of the store, and moved it from South Court Street to its current location, 77 N. Court St., in 2002. The building, she said, dates to the early 1900s and originally was a Pure Oil gas station.

Cornwell was adamant about keeping the store on Court Street, which is lined with college book stores, restaurants and more than its fair share of bars, but chose to move it to a freestanding building that included a parking lot.

Seventeen years later, she knows she needs to move again to survive but just doesn’t want to start all over again, for what she described as a “perfect storm” of reasons.

20190521 Kris with kidsKris Cornwell in her jewelry store with daughters Ava (left) and HaydenFirst, the business has changed.

There is competition from online sellers, which, Cornwell says, has her working harder than ever to stay on top of things and has cut into the business the store does with OU’s 23,000 undergrads.

There also has been a shift in the brick-and-mortar makeup of Court Street.

Many retail shops that cater to local residents (meaning non-students) have closed or moved to other parts of Athens as the main drag has become more student-centric, and more congested when school is in session. “Coming to Court Street is much more of a challenge than it used to be,” she said.

She knows she would have to move her store off Court Street, where it has been since its founding, to continue but just can’t picture the store anywhere else.

Secondly, three of the five daughters she and her husband have combined are getting ready to leave Athens, which made her reconsider her future, particularly in terms of time and stress.

She also suffered two personal losses last summer that took a toll.

In August, longtime employee Eric Coon, who retired from the store a couple years ago, died suddenly of a heart attack. The following day, she lost her brother-in-law to cancer.

“I love my store but I’ve come to a crossroads and have had to make a really hard decision. I still get upset when customers are sad—it makes me sad,” Cornwell said, her voice breaking. “But I know it’s right and I know I don’t have it in me to move and open another location.

“I don’t want to start again.”

The going-out-of-business sale at Cornwell Jewelers began in late April with postcards mailed to VIP customers to let them know the store would be shutting down.

Cornwell said it will continue through mid-summer or until all the merchandise is sold.

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