Jeweler forced to close

Burbank Leader

Kessler Jewelers, the family-owned business that for more than 40 years has been a fixture of the downtown shopping district even as everything around it changed, will close its doors for good next month, the family said.

An award-winning shop whose grand opening in 1967 coincided with the opening of the Golden Mall, Kessler served as the last remaining holdout of an era that saw seven downtown jewelers shut down in the last 50 years.

A sluggish economy, Internet competition, soaring downtown rents and the mass migration of buyers from brick-and-mortar jewelers to big-box chains have made for an especially tough last three years, the family said.

"Ever since the writers strike, things have been really tough," said Barry Kessler, 50, who began working for his father, Allen Kessler, at age 16. "Put simply: The rent went up, and what didn't go up was our profit margin."

Kessler Jewelers, whose four full-time employees boast a combined 135 years of experience in the business, has remained in the same building for the last 43 years. Founded by Allen Kessler, the company survived lean times by handcrafting and customizing much of its retail offerings.

Customers personally designed and altered everything from engagement rings and wedding bands to pieces for newborns, children and sweet 16s. Other customers brought in watches to repair and rings, necklaces and bracelets to clean.

"They've been an institution in Burbank for decades," said Gary Olson, president and chief executive of the Burbank Chamber of Commerce. "As far as the business community is concerned, it's a big loss."

The closure will mean a personal loss for Olson, one of the shop's regular customers. But with the price of gold steadily increasing, Kessler was done in by what one expert called the "Costco-Wal-Mart-Internet Complex."

The megachains and discount and tax-free online retailers have the buying power to make good margins even in rough times, pushing mom-and-pop retailers to the periphery, said Bruce Ackerman, president and chief executive of the Valley Economic Alliance.

"All of a sudden, customization and craftsmanship become secondary," Ackerman said.

Sales and holidays, of late, have done nothing to increase profits, Barry Kessler said. Christmas sales figures were down 70% compared with the previous year, and Valentine's Day, the annual high-water mark for jewelry sales, was "virtually nonexistent," he said.

The suffocating effect of the Great Recession only amplified the other impacts, he said.

"When it's a discretionary purchase — something you don't absolutely need that starts to fall into the 'want' category — I suspect it gets much more difficult," Olson said.

Despite the grim pronouncements, the only indication of the shop's impending closure this week were the dozens of signs alerting customers of "Nothing Held Back! Selling out to the bare walls," as well as "Doors closing forever. Save up to 70% off."

A clerk offered everything from a 2 1/2 -carat diamond ring to $200 and $300 earrings.

Joe Kovach, of Glendale, has visited the store about four times annually for the last 40 years.

On Tuesday, he browsed the selection with his sister, Rosemary Kolegraff, of Sylmar.

"You trust the family," he said, explaining why he's returned after so many birthday and holiday gifts. "They're just really good people."

Barry Kessler breezed through the showroom and toward his father, a magnifying glass in one eye, working to the very end. Allen Kessler was the 2008 recipient of the Robert B. Westover Distinguished Service Award by the California Jewelers Assn. A graduate of Los Angeles High School, Allen Kessler was a freshman at UC Berkeley when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He came home and took a job at another jewelry store before deciding to open his location in the 300 block of San Fernando Boulevard.

For the family, no job was too big — or too small. In the ensuing years the staff grew to include three graduate gemologists, including Barry Kessler.

He said one of the family's favorite stories dates all the way back to the store's opening, when a rival jeweler walked into Kessler and noted the carpeting and chairs spread out in front of eye-level glass cases. The competitor looked around and said: "Oh, that's for Beverly Hills. That's not for Burbank."

Barry Kessler said that at the time most shops were barren.

Allen Kessler, 80, plans to finally retire. Barry Kessler said he'll keep customers informed of his next move, which will include an online component to Kessler Jewelers.

"Jewelry is something given between people who love each other," he said. "Daily, we see customers that are saddened by the news of our closing. We're going to really miss the customers and the people of Burbank."

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