Barnes family to end 100-year tradition of jewelry in Victoria

A timeline

of the Barnes family's history in Victoria:

1913:R.H. Barnes and son, Bill Barnes, move their jewelry store, R.H. Barnes, Jeweler, from Cuero to Victoria

1923: R.H. Barnes sells his interest to his son

1924-49: Bill Barnes owns and operates Bill Barnes, Jeweler at 116 N. Main St.

1949: Bill Barnes retires, selling the company to son, William Vernon Barnes, and daughter, Lucylle Barnes Henderson

1952: Business moves to 111 S. Main St.

1969: William Vernon Barnes buys his sister's share of the business

1979: William Vernon Barnes sells the business to sons Jimmy and Tom Barnes

1984: Tom Barnes sells his interest to his brother

1988: Tom Barnes opens Thomas Barnes Fine Jewelry at 204 N. Main St.

1994: Tom and Pam Barnes purchase and "gently remodel" the Slotnick building at 108 N. Main St., move business to this location

2013: Tom and Pam Barnes announce plans to retire, close the business

Source: Tom Barnes, Barnes family retirement letter

Find out more

To learn more about Thomas Barnes Fine Jewelry, visit the shop at 108 N. Main St. or call 361-576-6525.

The atmosphere was quiet inside Thomas Barnes Fine Jewelry. While customers perused display cases and salespeople calculated discounts, signs advertised big messages.

"Going out of business," read one. Another, "All sales final."

But the signs weren't just a mark of an upcoming close. With the Barnes family's 100 years spent in Victoria's jewelry business, it also pointed to the end of an era.

It all started in 1913, when R.H. and Bill Barnes moved their business, R.H. Barnes Jeweler, from Cuero into Victoria, said Tom Barnes, who owns the current shop at 108 N. Main St. with his wife, Pam Barnes.

The business changed hands multiple times through the years as family members passed the enterprise - as well as their precision skills - from one person to the next. Bill Barnes, Jeweler came later, as well as an online offshoot, BillBarnes.com.

The most current incarnation came in 1988, when Tom Barnes introduced Thomas Barnes Fine Jewelry to the Crossroads.

The long and winding history comes to life in the current store in a lighted case just off to one side. Inside, old photos of the family's first jewelers sit alongside newspaper clippings, letters and the like.

"This is R.H, here, and Bill," Tom Barnes said, pointing to a black-and-white photo inside the case. "Over here's a buyer."

One yellowed letter on brittle paper, dated in 1923, details a shipment of watches valued at $500.

For Tom Barnes, his initial start in the business began around age 14 or 15, when he began sweeping floors and cleaning showcases for his dad. Once he got older, Dad told him he was going to learn to craft jewelry himself.

And, while Tom Barnes didn't necessarily have a choice - what Dad says goes - he said he found a passion in the work.

Much of the fun came from the interesting projects at hand, he said, noting they worked on everything from animal skulls to shark teeth.

Once, the owners found a scorpion, Pam Barnes said. When it died, they created a mold and cast it in silver.

"It made for something kind of neat to sit on a desk or shelf," she said.

The duo admitted not every husband and wife could do what they do - work together throughout the day, then go home together - but they make it work. One thing that helps, they said, is a mutual belief in teamwork.

Oftentimes, if one person is speaking with a customer but a message or artistic vision isn't getting through, the other can step in and ease the conversation along, Tom Barnes said.

Another key element - knowing which task is best suited to which person.

"I don't try to do bench work, and he stays out of the books," Pam Barnes said with a smile. "It works out OK."

Longtime customer Judy Malik met the Barneses years ago as a youngster. It was back, the woman with salt-and-pepper hair joked, when she was still a brunette.

"Pam and Thomas were good friends, so coffee time was here," said Malik, whose uncle was also a jeweler.

Once the owners made the decision to close shop, they brought in extra staffers to assist with sales. Among those workers was Malik.

"I'm honored they asked me to come in," she said, taking a break from pricing silver chains. "But I'm very sad. I'm going to miss them greatly, and I know a lot of customers feel the exact same way."

Still, she said her time in the shop has been enjoyable - it's led her to consider taking on a part-time job - and has exposed her to interesting items from the past.

A tiny, sterling silver funnel, for instance, sits on a shelf along the shop's wall. Its purpose? Transferring perfumes into bottles back in the day.

"This is some of the coolest stuff I've ever encountered," Malik said with a smile.

Others in the industry say they, too, will miss the shop.

Wayne Gonzales, a jeweler with Eichhorn, Gonzales & Miller Fine Jewelers, said the pending close means he will soon see less of Tom Barnes, and that's something he'll miss.

"He's friendly competition," Gonzales said, noting the Barneses' experience, expertise and support proved helpful through the years. "We consider them friends."

Debbie Kaspar, who manages Green Bros. Jewelers, shared a similar sentiment. She said she's known the Barnes family for years and considers them friends above all else.

"We shared each other. I sent people to them, and I'm sure they reciprocated," she said of the stores. "I'm sad to see him leave."

She recalled the days in 1968 when she first came to Victoria. Bill Barnes, Jeweler was the area's most respected jewelry store at the time, she said.

That quality and reputation continued once Tom Barnes opened shop.

"He's an asset to downtown," Kaspar said. "The downtown district needs people like him."

Looking ahead, the husband and wife said they look forward to the chance to retire. They will, however, miss elements of the work.

They've met wonderful people, Pam Barnes said, and it's been rewarding to watch the families grow. For Tom Barnes, making deliveries - that moment when a customer sees the finished product on a custom piece of jewelry - is special.

Still, he said he's OK knowing his children won't take over the business.

"I don't think I would want my kids to go into this," he said, explaining that increasing precious metal prices and safety issues are among his concerns. "We're OK with that."

They plan to close their doors about Jan. 10 and will rent the lower portion of the building out. A photography studio occupies the top floor now, but Tom Barnes said he isn't sure what might go in downstairs.

As for retirement plans, those remain in the air.

"We may do some traveling, but we don't have plans to fly to Europe and see eight countries in five days," he said. "That doesn't interest us."

His wife concurred.

"There's plenty for us to see in Texas and the U.S. of A," she said with a grin.