Upper Arlington News

Argo & Lehne still a crown jewel after 90 years

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Argo & Lehne Jewelers, a family-owned business that's weathered the Great Depression, a world war and many changes over time, embarked last month on a year-long celebration of its 90th anniversary.

On Aug. 2, 1924, roughly two decades after coming to Columbus from Scotland and working at Bancroft Jewelers, James A. Argo opened Argo Jewelers on Pearl Street, now known as Pearl Alley.

Some 90 years later, his legacy endures through his son, William Argo, his grandson, the late Dick Argo, those two men's sons, Robert and Dick Argo, respectively, and a future generation that may one day help to stretch the family success even further.

On Aug. 2, 2014, Argo & Lehne Jewelers, now located at 3100 Tremont Road in Upper Arlington, began what Robert and Dick intend to be a 12-month recognition of the milestone anniversary.

On Sept. 4, that will include one-third-off sales throughout the store, and other promotions are being planned.

Last week, William, his son Robert and his nephew Dick recounted memories and evolutions tied to the business -- which became Argo & Lehne when James Argo's co-worker, Adolph Lehne, joined the company in 1925.

"When it was only five years old, we had the (stock market) crash of 1929," William, 91, said. "It's amazing how a store that young could hang on and then be rather prosperous in the '30s."

After the original store, Argo & Lehne operated a well-known business at 20 S. Third St. in downtown Columbus that stayed open until May 1991. There also were stores at 84 N. High St., Columbus, and 2376 E. Main St., Bexley.

The family also operated a store at Upper Arlington's Kingsdale Center until July 2002, when Argo & Lehne moved to its current location.

William, who would become president of the American Gem Society, came on board in the late 1940s. No longer involved in the day-to-day operations, he frequently provides "advice and wisdom," Robert said.

Company Chairman Dick Argo started working full time in the family business in 1962.

Robert, now the company's CEO, began his full-time work in January 1979.

William said the family trade began because his father disliked working on the farm in Scotland and learned watchmaking.

He said his father quickly discarded a thick Scottish accent in America so he could become a salesman.

When Argo Jewelers opened, William said, only half the store was devoted to the sale of jewelry.

"The other side of the store was radios," he said. "They were quite popular."

William noted that Lehne's son-in-law, Howard Hawk, was the second person in Columbus to become a titleholder in the American Gem Society, and his work to incorporate scientific analysis to gauge whether a stone was a genuine gem or synthetic pushed Argo & Lehne ahead of the pack.

"We were pretty much the forerunners of gemology in Columbus and I don't think there's any question about that," William said.

He fondly recalls when radio personality Paul Harvey visited the downtown store; when Russian jewelry designer Ilya Abelsky displayed his Faberge eggs at the Upper Arlington store; and the time an award-winning diamond headed to Argo & Lehne was stolen during the famed Lufthansa heist at JFK Airport in 1978.

Dick spoke of the "monumental" changes in the industry that Argo & Lehne kept pace with, including advances in gemology, the growing popularity of synthetic gemstones and the rise in instant communication via cellphones, the Internet and social media.

"It used to be that we'd have to educate them," Dick said of his customers. "Now when they come in, they know all that. Really, it makes our jobs easier, although it was fun to educate people."

Electronic advancements also have changed how Argo & Lehne conducts sales, Dick said.

"In the old days -- and by that, I mean 30 to 40 years ago -- we carried our own accounts," he said. "We would charge a person with good credit to an Argo & Lehne account.

"We would send out maybe 2,000 to 3,000 statements every month to customers. Now, people use credit cards. You get your money right away and we send out fewer than 100 statements a month."

Robert said customer service has always been a key to success, and that includes attention to trends.

"Our current focus represents kind of our evolution," Robert said. "Vintage jewelry is a strong category for us.

"We have kind of a niche in vintage jewelry and we've maintained a lot of customers' business kind of repurposing people's things. We can modify or rethink it."

Robert said Argo & Lehne also tries to coordinate "the position jewelry has in a person's life with what they wear," so pieces don't sit in a box instead of being worn.

"Maybe the underlying thing that combines all of these is, we cater to the person that wants something unique," he said. "We try to honor and polish off the symbols people have in their relationships as they get handed down.

"I think you have to have a passion for jewelry, you have to have a passion for people and you have to pay attention. Things change and you have to pay attention to your customers, you have to pay attention to changes and advents in technology."

Robert takes pleasure in his 21-year-old son, William's, aptitude for the jewelry business, but noted that like himself, his father and Dick, William will have the chance to plot his own course.

Dick credited his family's ability to get along for its success, and said they've been fortunate to have high-quality employees.

He added that gaining customer trust has been hugely important, and he is proud of Argo & Lehne's long and continuing run.

"Very proud," Dick said. "I think any time you have a firm you've had some hand in developing, longevity is something you're proud of."

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