The Gems who made our gems

Washinka & Son Jewelers presented the Spring Festival of Jewels in the Chinese Lounge of the Student Union at Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical College. Members of the Washinka family (including Priscilla Washinka married name Kinnick, age 9) are pictured with the display of jewels provided courtesy of Harry WInston Inc., New York City. Circa 1953. Photo courtesy of Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Photo Collections.

Stillwater’s Jewelers through the years

Story by Roger Moore

The origins of Valentine’s Day are probably not what you think. A little research shows Romans, martyrs, and third-century decapitations, not something associated with romance. However, since the fourteenth century, St. Valentine’s Day has been celebrated as a day of all things associated with love and romance.

What is associated with romance? Flowers, high school crushes, the exchange of cards. Of course, diamonds and jewelry become part of that association once we reach adulthood. And in order to give those rings, necklaces, jewelry of all sorts, a jewelry store is required. Almost 130 years’ worth of Stillwater history includes an interesting cast of characters in the jewelry business, many who worked with and for each other a time or two.

The first jeweler in Stillwater? Perhaps William Holt, whose storefront in 1900 at Eighth and Main next to First National Bank advertised: Holt the Jeweler: Watches, Clocks, and Jewelry. Records show a massive fire in the 900 block of South Main in 1893 and Holt was a vocal proponent of purchasing firefighting equipment. His efforts led to Stillwater’s first fire station, Stillwater Station No. 1 on the northwest corner of Ninth and Lewis. Holt became the community’s first fire chief and ran the department headquarters until 1931 when Fire Station No. 2 on-campus corner was built in 1939 thanks to the efforts of Ray Pence, hired as fire chief in 1931.

M. W. J. Holt was one of Stillwater’s first jewelers and went on to become Stillwater’s first Fire Chief. Photo courtesy of Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Photo Collections.
A small jewelry box from Washinka & Son Jewelers. Photo courtesy of Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar Collections.

Of course, Holt the Jeweler has since passed, but downtown has been blessed with plenty of places for jewelry shopping and repair. A 1948 Stillwater directory shows five jewelry shops within a two-block range.

Washinka and Son, at 616 Main where Merrifield Office Supply now calls home, proclaimed to be “Stillwater’s Oldest Jewelers.” There was also Evans Jewelry (612 Main), Mattox Jewelry (618 Main), Murphy’s Jewelry (815 Main), and Eisele’s (110 W. 8th) all within a stone’s throw of each other. Herman Eisele’s influence can still be seen in Stillwater.

In the nineteenth century, the Gopfert family migrated from Germany to Kansas to Oklahoma. Fannie Gopfert married Ernest John Eisele in 1909 and their first-born son was Herman in 1910. A veteran of World War II, Herman Eisele, set up a small wristwatch repair and all things related to jewelry in a small shop behind his garage on Walnut Street. Before the 1940s were done, Eisele had enough business to move to 110 W. Eighth. A motorcycle enthusiast, Eisele tragically died in a motorcycle accident in 1963. One of his young mentees was John Leonard, a 1954 CE Donart High School graduate.

Fannie Eisele put the jewelry store up for sale in 1964 and John and Earlene became the owners. Leonard Jewelry eventually moved to 712 S. Main where, in 1985, the business was sold to Kent and Annette Kinzie, who moved a few doors down to 708 S. Main where it remains in 2020.

Within Leonard’s history can be found Denis and Pat Abernathy, two men who approach their craft in a traditional fashion, something they inherited from Arless Abernathy. Abernathy’s, a repair and retail jewelry shop opened in 1968 on the corner of Seventh and Main. Like the late 1940s, the 1960s saw a number of new jewelry shops including Leonard (110 W. Eighth), Mattox (702 S. Main), Parker’s (110 W. Seventh), Shedrick (715 S. Main), and a familiar name, Zale’s (713 S. Main). Abernathy moved into Mattox’s old spot and remained open at that location until 1996.

As a teenager, Denis “walked barefoot uphill in the snow” after school to work at his dad’s shop. After graduation there was a stint in the Navy and training in Texas, learning and improving on his craft. For a decade, from 2003 to 2013, Denis worked for Leonard Jewelry. Pat Abernathy, like his brother, has spent the better part of the last 50 years doing the same, tinkering and repairing. He too worked at Leonard and also spent time at Jackson Diamond Jewelers, which originally opened in at 124 W. 7th in 1983 and remains part of the Stillwater community.  Jackson Diamond Jewelers later moved to another location before settling into their current location at 414 N. Perkins Rd. in the early 2000s. 

Pat Abernathy works at his jewelers’ bench. Photo by Roger Moore.

In 2013, Denis the Jeweler opened a shop at the corner of Tenth and Main. In 2018, along with Pat, celebrated a half-century in the jewelry business. A quick stop in the shop provides some old with some new. It’s a place to repair, get re-sized, or put a new shine on grandmother’s old classic ring that has perhaps been in hiding for a decade or two. One thing is evident, jewelry, old and new styles, has not lost its luster and will always play a role in and around Valentine’s Day every February. And although there are not a half-dozen shops downtown like there once was, echoes still remain of William Holt, John Leonard, Herman Eisele, and Arless Abernathy.

Sources:

Herman Eisele: Stillwater Jeweler from 1940s to early 1960s. Payne County Historical Review. Vol. 38, Feb. 2016

John Leonard: Stillwater Master Jeweler. Payne County Historical Review. Vol. 38, Feb. 2016

“Denis the Jeweler Throwing 50th Anniversary Party.” Stillwater Newspress. Sept. 10, 2018.