published Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Era ends for a gem: Chattanooga's M.M. Schenck Jeweler closing

Co-owners Mary Schenck and Barry Schenck are photographed at Highland Plaza inside M.M. Schenck Jeweler. After 44 years in business, the store will close this year on Christmas Eve.
Co-owners Mary Schenck and Barry Schenck are photographed at Highland Plaza inside M.M. Schenck Jeweler. After 44 years in business, the store will close this year on Christmas Eve.
Photo by John Rawlston.

After Mary Schenck started M.M. Schenck Jeweler on Hixson Pike she went a decade without a paycheck.

Forty-four years ago the banks wouldn't talk to her about a loan, and any money she made from selling jewelry or fixing jewelry went toward microscopes or training.

There were few women starting their own businesses in Chattanooga and even fewer in the jewelry business. But she was drawn to the gems. She loved how they were perfected in nature. All unique. So she set herself to knowing them inside and out, training for years.

She became the 11th woman to be qualified as a certified gemologist in the United States, and her store housed the first certified gem testing lab in the state, she said.

But on Christmas Eve, after nearly 50 years behind a jewelry store counter, she will finally go into retirement. And M.M. Schenck, which has sold to some families for three generations, will close its doors for good.

The change is welcomed by the family, said Barry Schenck, her 65-year-old son who owns the store. His mother needs a break, and so does he.

"I have two years of honey dos to catch up on," he said. "When you work six days a week, after a while you don't have time to do anything except what is basic. I may do some fishing."

But it is sad time for customers.

"Some have broken down and cried," he said. "They say, 'Where can we go? Who can we trust?'... I can't work forever."

Sonia Young, known around Chattanooga as the Purple Lady, has been buying from Schenck since the doors opened. Almost every piece she has came from the store. The family was nice, but more importantly they were experts. Their appraisals were always right. And they found stunning stones and built jewelry.

"Barry used to find beautiful amethysts for me. It wasn't just buying it off the shelf. It was finding gorgeous stones and setting it for me. He actually made the jewelry for me," she said.

She hasn't been able to go to the store since they announced the closing, but she said she and her daughter are going today to say good-bye.

"I have just watched (Barry) and his sister grow up. We are family. It breaks my heart," she said.

Mary Schenck started training with correspondence courses in diamonds and colored stones. Her first job was at a jewelry store in downtown Chattanooga, and Barry Schenck said his mother left the store when she realized she knew more about diamonds and stones than her bosses.

For six months she sold antique jewelry out of a booth at Northgate Antiques. Then she finally got a storefront across the street from the current location on Hixson Pike. There was a Hallmark store on one side, a barber on the other.

They changed locations after Hixson Pike was widened and have been in the same spot for 30 years, he said.

Barry Schenck said he started working with his mother one Christmas after he came back from Vietnam. She needed help covering the night shift. Later, he told her he liked the work and might want to stay, but she told him she wouldn't take him on unless he got trained like she had.

So he did as he was told. He got a degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, while he worked at the store part time. He took Gemological Institute of America and American Gem Society courses.

"For six or seven years I studied to satisfy her and satisfy myself," he said.

In the 1970s, he said he and his mother tried to distinguish themselves from popular chain jewelry stores. They only wanted to handle the best quality gems. Nothing average was in stock, he said.

"You have to have the knowledge and expertise to know what you are buying, he said. "We have never competed from a price standpoint."

Over time, they survived on repeat business. They did repairs in house, and customers liked that everything was done in store.

Mary Schenck said she has great memories. She always got to see people at their best when they where in love and wanted to give something beautiful to someone. People were never angry when they shopped at her store, and that impacted her.

"I will miss my customers," she said. "You knew you were doing something to make somebody happy."

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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