After 107 years of operations — and 52 years on the Country Club Plaza — Swirk jewelry is shutting down.
Its lease is expiring and it will close its space on the second floor of the Balcony Building, 310 W. 47th St., on March 25.
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Russian immigrant and watchmaker Ben Swirk was just 15 years old when he opened a downtown watch repair store in 1910.
His son, Joe Swirk, also started young. He was just 10 years old when he became his father’s apprentice.
They relocated several times before moving to the Plaza in September 1965. Joe’s son, Brian, was 4 years old.
Mostly, Brian Swirk remembers the smell of the watch cleaning solutions and observing the shop’s craftsmen at their delicate tasks of repairing watches and jewelry, and creating new designs.
“It was so minute, the dexterity needed to work on such small parts. They would let me take watches apart, which was easy, but I would just leave them in a pile,” he said. “And the Plaza had such a mystique about it, it was pretty cool and all the people coming into the shop. ”
But his family didn’t ever push the idea that he might become a third-generation Swirk to head the business. After mowing lawns and delivering newspapers, the 17-year-old high school senior finally asked his father for a job.
“I think he about fell out of his chair,” Swirk said.
Brian took on a variety of tasks from sweeping floors to learning the art of jewelry repair and design. Within a few months, he was making plans to earn a degree at the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, Calif.
He took over the business in 1986, but his father still came in daily. Brian calls it a “feel good” business, helping clients pick out the perfect engagement and wedding rings that they might wear for a lifetime.
“Even if someone is getting a divorce and they come in to sell the rings, you are still helping somebody,” said Swirk, who still uses his grandfather’s screwdriver to repair clients’ timepieces.
His wife, Tracy Swirk, has worked in the office and in sales for 15 years. Patrick Boyd has been the shop’s main goldsmith and merchandiser for 30 years.
However, more and more consumers are shopping on the internet, and millennials are not as inclined to buy fine jewelry as prior generations, he said.
“But we’re not retiring because we didn’t have enough business. We just feel it is time for us to do something else,” Brian Swirk said. “The Plaza has been very good to us and I’ve always been proud to be a Plaza merchant.”
He plans to continue to help some longtime customers by appointment only.
Patricia Cleary Miller has been a Swirk customer since the 1970s. Her husband turned to Swirk for an emerald to replace the demantoid (a green gemstone) in the engagement ring he had bought her some 40 years before. After he passed away, she planned to use some insurance funds to prepay for her own funeral. But on the way to the funeral home, she stopped at Swirk and bought a gold necklace instead.
“I wear it to black tie events or with a sweater and skirt. Swirk has antiques, wonderful things and the prices are very fair,” she said. “But I also have taken in a piece to have fixed that was maybe worth $2 and he never makes you feel bad about it.”
Jason Vaughn took one of his grandmother’s diamonds and with his future wife, Robin, designed her wedding ring set in collaboration with Swirk.
A month after their June wedding, the Vaughns were carrying boxes into their new home when they realized she had lost a diamond from the eternity band. Brian Swirk not only assured them that the band should be worn during their daily tasks, he repaired it on the spot, free of charge.
“We have pieces that we plan to pass on to our kids or our children’s kids one day, so it is really important that it comes from quality,” Jason Vaughn said. “You go in and see his father’s photo on the wall, his grandfather’s photo. For me, you see the character of the business in that. It is not about a quick sale but building a trusted friendship and partnership.”