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The Elbert Files: Josephs’ 150 years


Twenty-five years ago, when Josephs Jewelers celebrated 125 years as a family-owned business, I wrote that education and integrity were its hallmarks.

“The better educated our employees are, the more information they can pass on to customers; the better informed the customer is, the better off we all are,” Burton “Toby” Joseph III told me in 1996.

This year, Josephs celebrates 150 years.

And while nothing important has changed, the business does look different after moving in 2005 to its current Prairie-style headquarters in the West Glen shopping district and leasing ground-floor space in 2008 at downtown’s distinctive Davis-Brown Tower at 10th and Walnut streets. 

Both buildings are a far cry from the weighty Equitable Building where the jeweler operated for 84 years. 

Josephs was the Equitable’s first tenant in 1924, moving in while workers were still finishing the upper floors. And it was one of the last to leave when problems stalled efforts to convert the downtown landmark to luxury condominiums. 

The jeweler is Des Moines’ second-oldest family business. Only Hubbell Realty, founded in 1856, is older.  

The story began with Solomon Joseph, a Prussian immigrant, who arrived in Des Moines in 1865 at age 17. After studying watch repair at Elgin Watch Co. near Chicago, he opened a shop on the Des Moines riverfront in 1871, before moving to space in the original Savery House at Fourth and Walnut streets. 

“Solomon was a good pocket-watch repairman,” Toby Joseph said of his great-grandfather.

Holiday advertisements in the 1874 Iowa State Register announced “S. Josephs, Jeweler … Just received the largest and best stock in the city of Gold and Plated Jewelry, Gold and Silver Watches, Silver and Plated Ware, Clocks, Gold Pens, Opera Glasses, Spectacles, &c. … direct from manufacturers for cash and at the lowest prices.”  

Solomon’s thrifty habits and fair prices are still practiced long after his death in 1909.

The founder’s three sons expanded to five stores – two in Des Moines and one each in Marshalltown, Waterloo and Springfield, Ill. But the untimely deaths of two forced the third son, Toby’s grandfather Burton Joseph, to sell all but the Equitable store to settle his brothers’ estates. 

Burton Joseph struggled through the Great Depression, but after World War II, his sons, Burton Jr. and William, launched new expansions, opening stores at Merle Hay Plaza and Valley West Mall.

By the time Toby Joseph joined the business in 1973, the Des Moines jeweler was regarded as one of the nation’s leading diamond retailers.

Another Josephs heritage is watches and watch repair, which are about 15% of sales. Rolex, the world’s premier watch, is an example. Two decades ago, as many as 11 Iowa stores had Rolex franchises. Today, only Josephs and Gunderson’s in Sioux City are allowed to sell new Rolexes.

Josephs’ longtime focus on education and integrity was especially valuable during the recent pandemic. Although the illness disrupted many traditional retail models, Josephs’ brick and mortar stores proved surprisingly resilient. 

“Only 10-15% of jewelry is sold online,” Toby Joseph said. “I said to our people, let’s worry about the 85-90% that actually come in here.”

“Jewelry is something people want to see. They need to touch it. They really need to look at it up close, because what you see online and what you think you are getting may not be what you are getting,” he said.

During the pandemic, Josephs was closed for only five weeks around April 2020. Even then, the sales staff was available electronically and “delivered to customers curbside,” Toby Joseph said. 

“We have very good people who truly enjoy working in the building,” he said. Of his 53 employees, he added, “I haven’t had anybody ask me, ‘Could I work from home?’”

The West Glen store reopened in May 2020 with staggered work schedules and strict distancing, mask and sanitizing policies. Within two months, sales were near normal.

Last year’s holiday season was among the best ever, Toby Joseph said. 

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