By Mary Carr Mayle, Savannah Morning News
When the business that is now Levy Jewelers was founded as a small watch repair shop in downtown Savannah in 1900, Wilbur and Orville Wright had yet to take their first flight, World War I was still 14 years in the future, the Russian Revolution nearly two decades away.
And Aaron Levy was newly arrived from Eastern Europe via Ellis Island, having left his wife and small children behind to test his mettle in the frightening, exciting new opportunity that was America.
More than a century later, Lowell Kronowitz heads up the successful family business his great-grandfather started, holding to the family philosophy of “Make a customer, then make a sale.”
“It’s hard to fathom what life must have been like back then,” Kronowitz told a group of business leaders gathered Wednesday for the Business in Savannah quarterly luncheon in the Savannah Morning News auditorium.
The elder Levy opened his small shop in what is now Ellis Square at the turn of the century, he said.
“He called it ‘A. Levy and Sons,’ although it was really just my great-grandfather and his older brother Abe at the time,” Kronowitz said, laughing.
The name proved prophetic, however, as family would play an important role in shaping the business for four generations.
Son Matt had already graduated from the University of Georgia and gone on to Harvard law school when Aaron’s health began to fade in the early 1920s, leaving younger son Jack and Aaron’s two daughters to take on the lion’s share of the business.
“Jack was only 19,” Kronowitz said. “He had to forego college and stay home. My great-grandfather wanted him to learn watch repair so he would always be able to put food on the table. But Jack found the work tedious and wanted to take the shop to a new level of retail.”
Before long, the little repair shop was the only G.E. dealer in town, selling stoves and refrigerators.
“We were also the exclusive retailer for Samsonite luggage and Polaroid cameras,” Kronowitz said. “At one point, we had an optometrist in the store and also sold record albums. It was the early days of branded merchandise, and Jack was ambitious and willing to take a few risks.”
In 1928, the store began offering in-house financing, something Aaron wasn’t too keen about.
“But that’s one reason we have thrived so long as a family business,” he said. “Although my great-grandfather and my Uncle Jack had different business philosophies, they made a point of leaving them at the office.”
In 1929, just as the Great Depression was taking hold, Aaron Levy suffered a fatal stroke, leaving Jack to guide the business through the next turbulent years.
“We actually grew during the Depression,” Kronowitz said. “And I think it had a lot to do with the main business philosophy shared by both Jack and his father — customer service.”
In 1935, Jack Levy bought his first piece of real estate at the corner of Broughton and Drayton streets and, two years later, Levy Jewelers opened on the spot. The store would remain on that corner for more than 70 years.
Jack’s wife Mariam began catering to Savannah brides, and the silver, china and crystal side of the business grew exponentially.
Third-generation owners Aaron and Dayle Levy expanded the business, traveling the world to find the store’s signature diamonds, gemstones and antique and estate jewelry.
“It was important to Aaron to stay downtown, and in 1981, he expanded the Broughton Street store, more than doubling its space. This was a time when most merchants were abandoning downtown,” Kronowitz said. “It was a gutsy move and one I believe helped begin the revival of Broughton.”
Aaron and Dayle Levy wanted to keep the business in the family, but their children had other career plans, Kronowitz said.
“Without a clear succession plan, Aaron came close to selling the business to a larger company. But, in the end, he couldn’t do it and backed away from the deal.That bigger company went out of business in 2009.”
When Kronowitz returned to Savannah to take over his cousin’s business, he knew he shared the family’s long-held beliefs: that the business should always have a downtown presence and that customer service is paramount.
“Think about it — we don’t sell anything people need to survive. We don’t sell anything for the most part that you can’t buy online,” he said. “What we have to offer is personal service and a commitment to stand behind our merchandise.
“Without that, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Last year, Levy Jewelers left the corner of Broughton and Drayton. But it didn’t go far. A new flagship store at Bull and Broughton streets opened in November, joining the store in Oglethorpe Mall and another in St. John Town Center in Jacksonville.
“Bull and Broughton is the heart of our city,” Kronowitz said. “We found our success by sticking to our values for four generations. I believe we should never abandon downtown Savannah.”