When it comes to businesses in Woodburn, Piper's Jewelry has been a diamond in the rough. But that will all change as the 94-year-old business prepares to close its doors at the end of the year.
Piper's Jewelry, which opened downtown in 1923, won't be renewing its lease at its Mount Hood Avenue location next year, as co-owners Charlie and Becky Piper decided they'd like to retire.
"(Running a business) is like having a child: It's all-consuming, 24 hours a day, and I'm living it every breathing minute," Charlie Piper said. "I want to watch the snow and not worry if I can get to work tomorrow."
A member of Woodburn Rotary, the Woodburn Planning Commission and the Woodburn Fire Board, Piper, who will be 66 next year, always wanted to have his own business and said the past 35 years have been a great, though an often tough, ride.
"You need that entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "You have to embrace what needs to be done, to wear many hats and find satisfaction in that. You can't be upset because there are interruptions; that goes with the territory. You can't be upset because you're not done at 5. It's not a job, It's a state of mind. … I come from a line of people that embraced that spirit."
How it all started
Ed Piper opened his store in 1923 on Grant Street in Woodburn, where he worked as a watchmaker, filling an important role with the Southern Pacific Railroad. SPRR awarded a contract to Piper to make, inspect and service watches for its conductors and engineers, allowing his business to flourish.
Ed Piper's son, Harley, followed in his father's footsteps early on, becoming the youngest licensed watchmaker in Oregon at the age of 16 in the 1940s. The business changed from E.E. Piper Jeweler to E.E. Piper Jeweler and Son when Harley became a partner more than 10 years later. When Harley bought out the company in 1967, he changed the name to Piper's Jewelry, slowing moving away from watch making, which was being phased out by digital technology.
"It didn't change our clientele," Charlie Piper said. "It established us as a go-to place for specialty gifts."
Piper and his sisters grew up working the store for their dad here and there.
"My sisters and I laugh and call it indentured servitude," he said. "At Christmas when others were wrapping gifts, we were doing inventory."
Piper graduated from high school and attended Oregon State University. Upon leaving school, he had one goal: to own his own business. When his dad offered to let him work for him, Charlie figured it was the fastest route to that goal.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Piper became a goldsmith at his father's instruction.
"When my dad went to work for my grandpa, he sat him down at a watch repair bench and said, 'You're going to learn to fix watches,'" he said. "When I went to work for my dad, he said, 'You're going to be a goldsmith.' So that's what I did."
That was in 1978. By the early 1980s, Piper started to take the lead on certain aspects of the company, but he and his wife, Becky, didn't officially buy out his parents until 1995. And though his two sons worked a little in the store growing up, neither expressed enough interest to take on the business.
Instead, Becky Piper has worked as chief financial officer — "In 35 years, I've never seen a paycheck," Charlie Piper joked — and the couple has had two steady employees for many years. They've also managed to keep it in the family by temporarily hiring a niece to help run the counter.
A continual refining process
Piper's Jewelry has lived in many locations over the years, including two on Front Street and two on Mount Hood Avenue. Its current location, 1537 Mount Hood Ave. #106, has been home for 12 years. Piper's hasn't always stuck to just Woodburn, though. They branched out from having a single location and opened stores in Canby and Wilsonville (in 1980 and 1990, respectively) until about 12 years ago.
"We became our own best competition," Charlie Piper said about why he shut them down.
The business took another turn nearly 10 years ago when Piper joined the Independent Jewelers Organization and went on an IJO-organized trip to Antwerp, Belgium, through whose diamond district more than 80 percent of the world's rough and polished diamonds passes. He returned to Antwerp many more times, purchasing inventory for his own stock and filling special orders for customers.
"It's been the most amazing experience I've ever had in the jewelry business," he said. "I thought I knew diamonds before. I didn't know anything. I feel like I have a doctorate in diamonds now."
Though he said he's a good goldsmith, Piper, who still uses his father's and grandfather's tools, claims to be a better salesman — a salesman who thrives on building relationships with customers.
"I have been humbled by the people who have come in and wished us well or flat out told us we can't quit," he said. "Some of them, it's been five or six generations of doing business with the same family. That's humbling."
Everything in the store is on sale as the business prepares to close Dec. 23. While he's excited for retirement, there are parts of the business that just make an entrepreneur tick.
"I do it for the tears of joy, for the smiles on the young man's face who comes back and tells me, 'She said yes,'" Piper said. "Something special about jewelry is that it's handed down to the next generation, it tells a story. It's corny, but it's really cool."