Jeweler got its start during the Gold Rush. Its closure is the end of an era for Placerville

Oldest continuously operating jewelry shop in California to close

Randolph Jewelers was founded in Placerville, CA in 1852 at the height of the gold rush. After 167 years in business, the store is closing, according to owner Charles Stephens.
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Randolph Jewelers was founded in Placerville, CA in 1852 at the height of the gold rush. After 167 years in business, the store is closing, according to owner Charles Stephens.

The sun is setting on the oldest continuously operating jewelry store in California, whose displays have glittered with precious trinkets since the Gold Rush.

Randolph Jewelers in Placerville is set to close its doors by the end of this week after the final flurry of Valentine’s Day sales.

For nearly four decades, store owner Charles Stephens has seen generations of families come through the store in search of the perfect engagement ring, anniversary gift or holiday present.

The gem-encrusted earrings, necklaces and rings are still on display, but almost everything now bears tags reflecting deep discounts.

“Everything must be sold,” proclaims one sign, as Stephens and his wife, Kathy, prepare to retire.

For 166 years, Placerville has had a jewelry seller on Main Street selling gold, stones and other precious goods. Some of those earliest pieces were made from the lodes of plentiful mines in town and in surrounding El Dorado County.

Jewelry trade magazine JCK Magazine in 2015 ranked Randolph Jewelers as the seventh oldest jeweler in the country.

Randolph Jewelers started as F. F. Barss & Son, founded by Barss in 1852 during the Gold Rush era. It began as a business run largely out of a tent, Stephens said, before moving into an office and eventually proper retail space.

“I have made some of the finest quartz jewelry taken from” mines near Placerville, Barss told The Fresno Morning Republican in 1898.

The store moved into its current location in 1857 and was bought out by another local jeweler in 1922. It was then sold to William Randolph in 1946, who would change the store’s name and later sell it to Stephens.

As for Stephens, he got into the jewelry business when he was still in high school, working for a friend’s family jewelry store, Hilton Jewelers in Redwood City. “I was making sterling silver chains, one link at a time,” he said. “I never made it past 12 inches.”

He suspects the chains were immediately melted down once he finished them, but said he was happy to learn the skill anyway.

Eventually, Randolph offered Stephens’ mentor Walt Hilton the chance to take over the business. When Hilton declined, Randolph asked him if he knew any other potential buyers.

“Well, I’ll ask Charlie,” Hilton said, and Stephens soon visited the shop.

“I came on a hot August afternoon and the guy looked like my grandfather and the place just felt like a comfortable tennis shoe when I walked in,” Stephens said. “I asked him what he wanted for the place, and he told me, and I said OK, and that was how I got to be here.”

It was 1981, he was 29 and had to borrow “every nickel” he could to buy the inventory. Since then, he said, he has increased the store’s merchandise tenfold.

Over the years, styles and fads have come and gone. When he first bought the place, Stephens said, Black Hills gold was the store’s best seller, as was jewelry featuring hammered gold nuggets.

“We had no idea computer-aided designs or halo rings would be so popular,” he said. The store is now most known for its custom jewelry work and repairs.

In Placerville, buying jewelry at Randolph is a rite of passage for locals, and an apparent requirement for city officials. When former Mayor Wendy Thomas was proposed to by her then-boyfriend, Dennis Thomas, she had to make sure of a couple things.

“Her first question she asked him was, did the city get the sales tax, and the second question was, did the ring come from Randolph’s?” Kathy Stephens said.

“And he said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘Well OK, then the answer’s yes,’ “ Charles Stephens said.

Thomas confirmed the story.

“I knew better than to get a ring any other place than Randolph’s” he said in an email.

It’s a familiar story for many Placerville residents. Stephens has helped shape hundreds of the happy weddings and holidays with his work at Randolph.

There was the woman who bought a custom wedding ring within his first year of owning the store. It was a labor-intensive design, but she loved the results. “She was so emotional, I was invited to the wedding,” he said.

And then there was “the little old lady” who came into the store about 10 years ago with a pair of wedding rings she had bought 50 or 60 years ago, Stephens said. She even brought the box, which bore the original “F. F. Barss and Son” name.

She didn’t give her name, or want money for them. Her husband was dead and she was moving into assisted living. Her one request was that the rings be placed in the jewelry store’s permanent display case of historical items for everyone to see.

Over the years he has encountered children and grandchildren of former Randolph customers, bringing in precious stones or estate jewelry to be repurposed and given a new life.

The first week after the pending closure was announced late last year, a line of people had formed to the end of the block waiting for the store to open, Stephens said.

“Just seeing the emotional outpouring from the community when we announced we were going to close” has been difficult, he said. “I didn’t want it to end this way, but it had to happen.”

Business had been steady, but finding a buyer for the store was nearly impossible, Stephens said. Young people are less interested in getting into the industry, he said, and securing the loan required to buy the jeweler’s inventory is not as easy as it was in 1981.

Over the last few weeks, Kathy Stephens said, hundreds of customers have returned to Randolph one last time to reminisce and make a final purchase.

That was the case for Kay Lenhart, a Placerville resident who visited the store Friday afternoon.

In 1991, her then-boyfriend bought her a gold necklace from Randolph for their first Christmas together. “To me, it’s irreplaceable,” she said. “It’s the first thing he ever bought for me.”

Three years later, her boyfriend became her husband, and once again Randolph was there for the couple. Lenhart brought in her grandmother’s wedding ring, and they were able to find a ring in her size that could fit the stone for a new wedding ring.

“Those are the only two things I wear” for jewelry, she said.

When she heard Randolph was closing in December, she told her husband, “You better get me something for Christmas.”

“Did he? No!” she said.

Valentine’s Day is around the corner, but Lenhart said she isn’t taking any chances.

“I wanted to have at least one more thing that I’m going to let him gift me,” she said. “I just really needed to have at least one more thing from here for it to be a full circle for me.”

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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