Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest submission from HHR’s good friend Anonymous in Houston
Usually when Mike or I start researching a potential blog post here at Houston Historic Retail, we have to dig deep into historical archives to find useful historical information to present here on the blog. This blog post is quite unique in that the subject, Houston Jewelry & Distributing, is a company which has embraced their history and they have made a significant amount of their history available for the public to view online. Our readers in Houston might recognize the name Houston Jewelry and recognize it as a jewelry and fine gifts store which is still going strong at the intersection of Westheimer Rd. & Tanglewilde St. in Houston.
However, for decades, Houston Jewelry & Distributing, which was known as Houston Wholesale Jewelers until 1961 when Texas business codes were changed to forbid the use of ‘Wholesale’ in names of retailers selling to the public, was much more than just a jewelry store. Houston Jewelry started out in 1953 as a catalog showroom store at Main & Rusk in downtown Houston in an upstairs section of the Baker Shoe Shop building. This first store was run in partnership between Abe ‘Honey’ Donsky and Dave & Ruth Rubin of DaRu Jewelers. The history of the Donsky family in Houston retail actually predates 1953 by several decades and the Donsky-Solomon family continue to run Houston Jewelry today. The Houston Jewelry website has a great write-up about their history on their official website. I highly recommend reading that page as it shows how a current Houston retailer has ties to this city which date back to the 1850s!
For those unfamiliar with catalog showrooms, the most recent example of a catalog showroom was the former Service Merchandise chain. Other catalog showroom stores Houston readers might remember include Service Merchandise’s predecessor, H.J. Wilson, along with Best Products, United Jewelers & Distributors, and W. Bell. Here in Houston, Best Products is ‘best’ known for their famous location near Almeda Mall called the Indeterminate Façade Best Products store. Best Products worked with James Wines’ “Sculpture in the Environment” (SITE) firm to design a handful of stores with unique architecture. While all of these SITE Best Products stores are famous, the Indeterminate Façade store here in Houston might well be the most cited example of a SITE Best Products store!
For those still unfamiliar with what a catalog showroom store is, the best way to describe them is to say that they were basically department stores that were usually centered around a jewelry department, but they also had departments for hardline items such as electronics, small appliances, sporting goods, housewares, and toys. While not all catalog showroom stores used the same design, most catalog showroom stores would have showrooms with demonstration models out on the salesfloor for non-jewelry products without actually having the inventory out on the salesfloor. Thus, a shopper could interact with products out of their boxes and determine which products they wanted to buy. Once a shopper decided to buy something, they would fill out a ticket or take a pull-card for that item, they would take it to a register and pay for it, and the product would be summoned from the back storeroom for the waiting customer. Many catalog showroom stores used a conveyor belt system where paid items would come from the back storeroom to the customer via a conveyor belt in the store. As someone who made many purchases at catalog showroom stores back in the day, I can tell you about the joys of waiting for an item to come down the conveyor belt! Also, many catalog showrooms, including Houston Jewelry, used a free membership system so that the company could determine where to distribute their catalogs.
Longtime Houston residents will likely remember Houston Jewelry’s commercials. Here is a Houston Jewelry TV commercial from 1982 showing some of the products they sold:
If one wants to get a feel for how catalog showroom stores looked in the 1980s and early 1990s, I recommend this video about Best Products stores in Ohio. From this video, one can see the products catalog showroom stores sold and how smaller items were sold rather normally and larger items were sold in the typical catalog showroom fashion.
Although catalog showrooms offered strong competition for the likes of Sears, JCPenney, and Montgomery Ward in the 1960s-1970s, shoppers were increasingly viewing catalog showrooms as being an outdated concept in the 1980s and onward as discount stores, big box category killer stores, and warehouse clubs became more popular. As Houston Jewelry points out on the history section of their website, Sam’s Club was selling electronics for less than the price that Houston Jewelry paid for their inventory. While Service Merchandise managed to stick around through the 1990s, Houston Jewelry decided to exit the catalog showroom business in late 1992 and focus just on their core jewelry and fine gifts departments.
Houston Jewelry’s transition from a catalog showroom to a standalone fine jewelry and gifts store is itself fairly unique nationally. While other catalog retailers tried to study Houston Jewelry’s success in this regard to try to emulate it, Houston Jewelry’s uniquely successful transition was likely helped by Houston Jewelry having a long history of selling, making, and repairing fine jewelry in well-appointed stores alongside more mass-market items. This, along with the retention of employees from the downtown and Westheimer catalog showrooms, kept Houston Jewelry in the minds of their long-time customers.
Here is home video footage from Houston Jewelry taken in 1992 right before Houston Jewelry closed their Westheimer catalog showroom store. In addition to the great indoor and outdoor shots of the store, there is also a great image in the video at the 2:25 mark of the old Handy Andy/Randall’s Flagship store located across the street from the Houston Jewelry store which was later completely rebuilt in 2011:
Houston Jewelry has operated out of six different locations in Houston throughout their history. One of these, of course, is their current location at 9521 Westheimer Road which opened in 1993. As mentioned earlier, their first catalog showroom location opened downtown in 1953 at 1006 Rusk. This location proved so successful that in 1956, Houston Jewelry moved to a larger location downtown at 811 Rusk in the Houston Club Building. Again, the store was so popular that Houston Jewelry relocated again in downtown in 1966 to the old Star Furniture location at 802 Milam. Since this location sat on valuable real estate, Houston Jewelry sold this location in 1984 and moved to their final downtown location at the First City Financial Tower at 1301 Fannin. This final downtown location lasted until 1991. Here is some home video footage from Houston Jewelry of the 802 Milam location before it closed in 1984:
Perhaps Houston Jewelry’s most iconic location was their suburban store at 9633 Westheimer. This location, not far from their current location, opened in 1973 and offered 81,000 sq. ft. of floor space over two stories. The exterior consisted of Arkansas flagstone and white onyx marblecrete. The entryway was covered in Astroturf! The store featured a snack bar and had pneumatic tubes, elevators, and three conveyor belts for getting purchased products to customers. The location had a famous large sunburst sign on the outside of the store. This location lasted until the demise of the catalog showroom in 1992.
Abe ‘Honey’ Donsky’s brother, Ervin Donsky, operated Houston Jewelry’s sister chain, Sterling Jewelry in Dallas. Sterling Jewelry was one of the nation’s first catalog showrooms when the company was founded after purchasing Kuhn’s Wholesale Jewelers around 1948. Sterling Jewelry’s most iconic location was on the Northwest Highway in Dallas where the flagship Half Price Books operates now. The Donsky family were involved in all of the family’s stores and so these businesses were linked. Sterling Jewelry made their own store fixtures for themselves and Houston Jewelry stores at a dedicated carpentry shop at one of their Dallas stores. Like Houston Jewelry, Sterling Jewelry transitioned to just being a jewelry store in 1993. Barry Zale, from the Zale’s Jewelry family, bought Sterling Jewelry in 1996 and turned it into Barry Zale Fine Jewelry. Here are some TV commercials from Sterling Jewelry from 1981:
My memories of the catalog showroom era of Houston Jewelry are very positive. We used to receive the Houston Jewelry catalog and I used to enjoy flipping through them. More than anything else, I enjoyed looking at the latest electronics in the catalogs. In terms of electronics, Houston Jewelry was especially known for their camera department where their Westheimer store was the leading seller of Canon cameras in the Southwest during the late 1980s. On the topic of photography, Houston Jewelry even photographed many of the items for their catalogs with their own in-house photography studio.
I used to keep several years of old Houston Jewelry catalogs just to keep as a reference. Fortunately, Houston Jewelry has scanned their old catalogs and made them freely available to download on their website. These catalogs are similar to catalogs from other catalog showroom retailers and are a great resource to see what kinds of products catalog showrooms sold and how they sold those products. Furthermore, Houston Jewelry says they can make the jewelry listed in their catalogs even if it’s not something they normally sell today!
I never did visit Houston Jewelry’s downtown locations, but we did shop at the Westheimer catalog showroom location. It was most certainly an impressive store even in the years around the time that it closed. In many ways, it wasn’t significantly different from a Service Merchandise or Best Products store, but it was bigger and had a wider variety of goods such as over-the-counter medications and toiletries. Perhaps it was because the building was more impressive, but Houston Jewelry’s store felt more luxurious than the stores of their competitors. While it was far from a Sakowitz, I always felt that shopping at Houston Jewelry was a bit of a luxurious experience. It’s hard to explain, but the store had the feel of a place where distinguished people shopped even if the goods, at least in terms of hardline items, were largely the same as what was being sold at other catalog showrooms, mass merchandisers, and department stores such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, and Foley’s.
Mike and I would like to thank Rex Solomon of Houston Jewelry, a retail history enthusiast himself, for his gracious assistance in providing us with information about some of the more unique aspects about the history of Houston Jewelry and his family’s history in Texas retail. We wish that all local retailers embraced their history the way Mr. Solomon and Houston Jewelry has by posting so much about the retailer on their website. This wealth of information is not just beneficial for those of us like myself who shopped at Houston Jewelry during their catalog showroom years, but it also helps inform curious younger people and non-native Houstonians understand what the local retail scene was like in past times.
We hope you have enjoyed this brief overview covering the history of an iconic local retailer. As mentioned earlier, Houston Jewelry embraces their history and so their website and Facebook Page are worth exploring for those who want to learn more about them. Finally, please feel free to share with us any thoughts or memories you may have of Houston Jewelry in the comments section below. We love to hear from our readers!