A gem of a business

Wahpeton, N.D. An independent jewelry store has been in business here for 125 years, and owned by the same family for nearly seven decades. Olson Jewelers is the last family-owned jewelry store to survive in a community that once boasted six jewe...

Ed Olson cuts

Wahpeton, N.D.

An independent jewelry store has been in business here for 125 years, and owned by the same family for nearly seven decades.

Olson Jewelers is the last

family-owned jewelry store to survive in a community that once boasted six jewelers between Wahpeton and neighboring Breckenridge, Minn., said owner Ed Olson.

It carries on despite recent competition from department stores and big-box retailers.


"Years back, a jewelry store was a jewelry store, a clothing store was a clothing store," Olson said. "Now everybody's carrying everybody's merchandise."

"That made a difference," said Jack Olson, Ed's father and the former owner of Olson Jewelers. "It's getting harder all the time with all the competition."

Ed Olson started working at Olson Jewelry in 1971 after graduating from watchmaker's school at St. Paul Technical Vocational Institute, now St. Paul Technical College.

He bought the store from his father in 1989 and never thought of doing anything but keeping the family tradition.

"He's my teacher," Ed Olson said of his father. "He always has been."

Jack Olson started working at the store in 1945 as a senior in high school.

"It was something I just kind of fell into," he said. "It was here and it was a job."

He bought the store from his father, Melvin Olson, in 1958.


The original store opened in the 100 block of Dakota Avenue in 1882 and was moved to its present location at 506 Dakota Ave. in 1884. George Lacy and his wife owned the business until Melvin Olson, who started working there in 1916, bought it in 1942.

Olson rebuilt the store in 1955 and changed the name from Lacy's Jewelry Store to Olson Jewelers.

The Olsons still have the original safe and ledger from Lacy's. Among the papers is one documenting payment in oats, hay and $5 that Lacy received for a watch, chain and charm in 1882.

A wooden cabinet holds dozens of watch crystals of various sizes and shapes that will probably never be used.

"We have a lot of old stuff in here," Ed Olson said. "Nothing's ever thrown away."

He said some of his best memories are working side by side with his dad and grandfather.

"They taught me a lot of the tricks of the trade," Ed Olson said. "If something didn't work right, they always had a remedy for it."

Like all of the Olson Jewelers' owners, Melvin loved tinkering around with watches, Ed Olson said.


"He was retired, but he couldn't stay away," Ed Olson said.

Jack Olson, now 80, makes his way to the shop every now and then to repair clocks just for the challenge of it, he said.

Changing with time

Ed Olson has seen quite a few changes over the years, the most significant being the style of watches people buy.

As quartz, battery-powered and solar-powered watches have grown in popularity, demand for Olson's watch making skills have diminished, he said.

He used to take apart, clean and repair at least 30 watches a day. Now he might work on one or two old pocket watches a year, he said.

Olson misses working on wind-up watches that contain several parts and screws as tiny as a speck of dirt.

Ring-making materials have also changed. When he started out, everything was 10- and 14-carot gold. Now, rings are also made out of valadium, titanium, tungsten and platinum.


Olson Jewelers carries a variety of merchandise that includes engagement rings, wedding bands, eternity pendants, genuine birthstones, identification bracelets and clocks.

Karl Bednarchik, owner of The Print Shoppe in Wahpeton and Fargo, has been a customer of Olson Jewelers for years.

"It's been a staple of the community," Bednarchik said.

Olson Jewelers doesn't represent the fast-paced 21st century, Bednarchik said.

"It's a proprietor who knows his product and is very easy to work with," he said.

The store also carries gift items that Olson engraves, such as trays and picture frames. He also engraves award plaques and family trees, complete with the names, birthdates and birthstones of up to 40 family members.

Donelyn Oliver, owner of Wizard of Kids children's clothing, furniture and accessories store in Fargo, has gift items engraved at Olson Jewelers.

"It's special gifts that you don't want to mess up. I like to take it to someone who's done it for a long time," Oliver said. "Plus, he gives me really good service."


Ed Olson, 55, plans to keep the shop for at least another five years. Beyond that, he hasn't decided what he's going to do.

He will be the last generation of this Olson family to own the store. None of his children plan to go into the family business, he said.

"Retail's gotten so tough that I said this is it," Olson said. "We're done."

Business profile

Olson Jewelers

- Location: 506 Dakota Ave., Wahpeton, N.D.

- Ownership: Ed Olson

- Phone: (701) 642-4112


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526 A gem of a business Tracy Frank 20080105

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