Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
Detroit Lakes is the seat of Becker County, Minnesota. It has a base population of just under 9,000, but that can swell to as much as 13,000 when the tourists and the “summer people” arrive. Tourism is the basis of the town’s economy; folks come from all over to fish, sail, scuba dive, or just kick back and enjoy the scenery.
In winter things are different. It gets cold early in Detroit Lakes and stays that way for a long time. The average daytime high in November is 35; in January it’s 16; by March it thaws to 37. The average annual snowfall is 44 inches.
Every small town has one old, established, go-to jewelry store. In Detroit Lakes it’s Price’s, a family-owned business that opened its doors at the height of World War II. So it came to pass that high school student Andy Marthaler, looking for a part-time job preferably out of the weather, answered an ad for a part-time assistant at Price’s.
“At first I thought it was just a pretty good part-time job,’ Andy says. “It was indoors, and there was no Sunday business. I just worked afternoons after school and an hour and a half on Saturdays.” He didn’t realize he was entering basic training for his life’s work.
“Price’s is an old-fashioned bench shop,” Andy says, a term referring to a jeweler’s workbench and signifying that besides merely selling jewelry, the establishment also repairs, engraves, and even manufactures it. Young Andy, watching these processes up close and personal, became first interested, then fascinated, then hooked. “I actually came to realize that I’d made up my mind that what I wanted to do for a living was create and take care of beautiful jewelry—to work with it, hands-on.”
Andy expressed his feelings to his employer, who was only too glad to put him to work “on the bench,” doing fairly simple cleaning and repair jobs. Then one day Andy’s learning curve took a sharp turn upwards: he was told to resize a lady customer’s husband’s ring. “I must have spent six hours on that job,” he recalls. “I felt all this responsibility; this was somebody’s personal property, and I was supposed to alter it and make it look like it had always looked that way. Evidently I did okay because the store started giving me more and different kinds of simple jobs to do. It was the start of a learning curve.”
From sizing rings, making them both smaller (easy, according to Andy) and larger (not as easy), he moved to simple stone settings, such as placing small round diamonds in earrings. But his high school days were coming to an end and, much as he liked his work, Andy felt he needed to be considering a career. He had actually enrolled in the area’s police academy as a first step to taking up law enforcement when the store owner offered him a full apprenticeship. “I guess deep down I didn’t really want to be a cop, I wanted to work with jewelry. When I got offered the apprenticeship, I took that as a sign.”
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]fter six years’ apprenticeship, Andy had learned all that Price’s could teach him. He relocated temporarily to California in order to qualify for and become accredited by the Gemologists’ Association of America, and thus credentialed, he returned to his old employer. He resumed work but, he says, he had started asking himself, “How do you become the best?” He committed himself to finding the answer to that question wherever it might lie, which would certainly be outside the familiar, cozy confines of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. “I was looking for a challenge in a milder climate,” he laughs. “My criterion was ‘anywhere south of Iowa.’”
Andy checked out leads in Las Vegas and in Texas before noticing that a bench jeweler in Asheville was looking for experienced help. “I answered right away,” he says. “I was confused; I thought they meant Nashville.”
But it turned out to be a fortuitous mistake. The Asheville jeweler was Wick & Greene, which had a lot in common with Price’s—old, established, family-owned, upscale, with an emphasis on custom work—but situated in a growing small city with winters that were a lot kinder than those of Minnesota. “I came down and Michael [Greene] took me for a motorcycle ride on the Parkway,” he recalls. “That pretty well closed the deal.”
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hat was in 2004. A lot has happened in the intervening decade. As Andy settled in at Wick & Greene, he began to settle into community life in Asheville as well. For him, this included becoming active in his adopted church, Biltmore Baptist, where he joined a singles group. There he met Tonya, an attractive nurse and single mom with a ten-year-old son. In due course, Tonya became Mrs. Marthaler.
Andy put in two years at Wick & Greene before taking a similar job with more responsibility at Bisinar & Co., a century-old crafting jeweler’s in downtown Hickory. He made the long commute daily while Tonya pursued her nursing career and held the fort at home. He had decided years before that he wanted his own store someday, but knew that while he had gained considerable knowledge and skill as a bench jeweler, he lacked the management acumen he knew he would need to run his own business. So, keeping his dream of ownership always in sight, he entered the management program with the national chain Carlisle and Co. and began training at their outlet in Gerber Village.
It was about this time that a series of events began to unfold, which convinced the Mathalers, who both hold strong religious convictions, that there really are such things as divine plans.
The first was a nagging feeling on Andy’s part that he wanted to do more with his acquired skill and talent than manage a retail operation as a cog in the wheel of a national operation. Andy missed the bench. He missed the satisfaction of creating and repairing beautiful things. He missed the companionship and the spirit of teamwork he had known in the family-owned businesses where he had learned his craft. He and Tonya had discussed all this frequently, weighing the pros and cons of security versus independence when the dominoes began to fall.
First, without warning, Carlisle abruptly closed the Gerber Village store where Andy was doing his management training. At first, Andy was not particularly concerned because, determined to take the plunge, he started negotiating to purchase a small store in Biltmore Village. But while he was arranging his financing, that deal simply evaporated.
As people of faith, the Marthalers believed firmly that when one door closes another opens. But two doors had closed and they discovered that waiting in the hall can be stressful. Tonya, of course, had her nursing career. Andy had a skill set and experience. And then it dawned on him: at their Black Mountain home, he and Tonya also had a garage.
So the Marthalers regrouped, trimming their budget and relying on Tonya’s income for primary support, Andy got himself a bench, set it up in the garage, and began doing freelance repair and restoration jobs. And then some karma he had set in motion months before came knocking. “Word got around somehow,” Andy says. “People we had never met would actually mail rings and diamonds in to us to be worked on or reset.”
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]nd then a lady customer from his days at Carlisle sought him out. “She had been impressed with Andy’s honesty,” Tonya says. “She met Andy when she brought a bunch of jewelry—personal, estate pieces—in to be appraised. Andy started by going through it, setting aside everything that he felt didn’t have much appraisal value, and then tracking her through the pieces that were marketable and making suggestions. He told her exactly what she needed to know, and she appreciated that.”
[quote float=”right”]“So, I sat down and really worked on what I thought was an impressive-looking business plan, and I went and handed it to him. He just set it aside and looked at me and said, ‘You tell me.’”[/quote]Now the lady was back, this time asking him to do a creative job—to replace a ring had belonged to her father. Andy was able to do so, and the lady was delighted. So much so, in fact, that she introduced Andy to her husband, an entrepreneur with a nose for up-and-coming businesses. He asked Andy, straight up, what Andy thought would be a realistic start up figure.
“I had been carrying that around in my head for years, of course,” Andy says, “but I had never written it down. So, I sat down and really worked on what I thought was an impressive-looking business plan, and I went and handed it to him. He just set it aside and looked at me and said, ‘You tell me.’”
They ended up, all of them, going to dinner at Frankie Bones. During the meal, the Marthalers’ prospective backer astonished them by saying he would not only front the money Andy needed, but required no payback provision. “He said,”—Tonya dabs at an eye in recollection—“he said, ‘If you lose everything, we’re still fine.’”
That was in May of 2010. Marthaler Jewelers opened for business in a small space in Biltmore Park. In its first year of operation, the store doubled the projections Andy had submitted to his backer. The following year the projections doubled again. It became obvious that the store would need to expand, but space was at a premium in Biltmore Park, and that concerned the Marthalers because they didn’t want to leave a location that had been so good for them. Once again, the answer came unbidden. A space unexpectedly came open on the street level of the Biltmore Park Hilton hotel. “It was exactly the size and layout we had in mind,” Andy says. They promptly moved in… and, in their first 18 months in the new location, they experienced a growth of eighty percent.
Today Marthaler Jewelry anchors the Hilton’s retail area, its light and airy space furnished with display cases custom designed and built by local craftsman Scott Gillette. In them are items from such premium crafters as Breitling, John Hardy, William Henry, and Coast Diamond. And Tonya is quick to point out that the store now has the largest bridal gift collection in the state. Much of the store’s success attracting these quality vendors, she says, stems from the fact that Andy had developed business relationships with several suppliers over his years of working for other upscale jewelers.
“We haven’t peaked yet,” Andy says of his store’s success. “We’re fortunate to be in an area that’s growing, and in a place in that area where people appreciate fine jewelry. It’s that simple. And that’s why we’ve tailored our lines so that we can offer people highest quality in all price ranges. We plan to be right here for a long time to come.”
For one thing, the winters are a lot milder than in Minnesota.
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