Nettleton’s Jewellery co-owners and brothers Geoff, Cameron and Richard will soon stop welcoming loyal customers to their familiar store in what will be a bittersweet end to four generations for the family-owned business.
Now featuring a storefront that hosts a large “retirement sale” banner in the Westgate Shopping Centre, Nettleton’s will wrap up 106 years when the brothers retire on Jan. 31, 2023.
“We were hoping to keep it going longer, but with the perfect storm hitting – age, health and lease – we have to reconsider,” says Cameron. “The lease is too expensive, our health is still good, and our age is getting up there.”
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After so many years, the brothers move around the display cases, worktables and each other with practiced ease, greeting each customer, familiar or new, as an old friend. They call to each other from their desks to clarify important dates or details, like the year they moved to a certain location or how old their father was when he took over the business (in his early 20s). Aside from one part-time employee, it is just Cameron and Geoff running the store, day in and day out.
“We used to be on rotating four-day work weeks,” explains Cameron. “But now we have been working every day so that there are always two people in the store. We’re filling in the gaps.
“You clean the toilets one day and write the cheques the next,” he laughs.
The Nettletons prioritize one-on-one, gold-standard customer service, the brothers say. While they aren’t goldsmiths, they are “fundamental jewellers”; repairs and watch battery changes are done in-store while design and manufacturing are completed at workshops that are contracted by the Nettletons.
The store displays family photos on the walls alongside glittering cases of jewelry and watches, a reminder of the foundation that built the business into what it is today.
J.E. Nettleton, son of an English tailor, opened the first store in Penetanguishene, Ont. in the late 1800s. In 1916, his son, 25-year-old George G. Nettleton, moved to Ottawa and, with a local business partner, started Nettleton & Haskett Watchmakers at 196 Queen St. Within a year, the business had outgrown the location and moved to 93 Bank St.
George quickly earned a reputation as a watch inspector for drivers, engineers and conductors of the Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk and New York Central railways. He was tasked with setting and maintaining the time on the timepieces. It was important work; railway employees with a lagging watch would be fined.
In 1947, when George passed away, his son Douglas took over and in nine years became the sole owner and manager. Between 1973 and 1978, Douglas’ sons Richard, Cameron and Geoffrey joined the business.
In the years since, Richard, Cameron and Geoff moved the store to the Met Life Building at 225 Albert St. and opened a second location in the Westgate mall. In 1995, their father retired and the downtown location moved to the Royal Bank Centre at 90 Sparks St., where it stayed for 13 years. All three brothers are co-owners and Cameron and Geoff now operate the store since Richard’s retirement.
Over more than 100 years, Nettleton’s has evolved into a full-service jeweller that specializes in watches and custom jewelry. The brothers change anywhere between 30 and 40 watch batteries every day, says Cameron.
Just five minutes of conversation with the brothers reveal their wealth of knowledge. Cameron can describe, in great detail, the various alloys in gold and silver that can result in an allergy or reaction for the wearers. Geoff laughs when he remembers seeing the first LED wristwatches that emerged in the 1980s – he says he insisted that his father order and stock them at the store. “I thought they were so cool.”
Margaret Terry, a regular customer, was disappointed to see the retirement announcement outside the store when she stopped by to ask for Cameron’s advice. Terry has been clearing out her brother’s apartment after he passed away recently and came across pewter chalices and pint mugs. She says she came to Nettleton’s to see if the items were worth restoring.
“(Nettleton’s is) much more accessible and personable,” Terry says.
The most in-demand products involve gold jewelry, like chains and pendants, custom jewelry designs, and the estate jewelry collection, which sells clients’ pieces on a consignment basis.
The brothers have their share of fond and funny memories, including their father delivering rings to chapels and churches just in time for wedding ceremonies.
One customer, Cameron recalls, would visit with a shoebox filled with watches. “She had over 300 watches,” he says. “I would take 25 at a time to change the batteries.”
Their favourite memories tend to involve generations of loyal customers, he says. Cameron remembers designing a signet-style ring with a family crest for one customer. Years later, the client returned to have an identical ring designed for his grandson. Many customers receive an engagement ring from Nettleton’s, then return throughout their lives for any jewellery needs. Another customer designed an engagement ring for his fiancee with Nettleton’s, then turned to the brothers years later to mark milestone wedding anniversaries with customized pieces of jewelry for his wife.
Once, a client hired Nettleton’s to create a ring design for an opal she had brought home from Australia. When the time came for her to pick up the finished ring, the brothers’ father, Douglas, couldn’t locate it, despite searching everywhere. In a panic, he rushed to have a replacement made to satisfy the order. The client was in the airport about to leave for Florida for the winter when Douglas received a call from a workshop.
“They were asking if we wanted the opal ring back,” recalls Cameron. “The ring was sent to the wrong workshop, one that specialized in watches instead of rings, so that’s why we hadn’t been able to find it.”
“Father ran through the airport to meet her,” Geoff laughs. The replacement ring was switched for the original and Nettleton’s sold the second ring in-store.
The brothers watched their family members work around the clock and Cameron and Geoff have done the same in the current store. Nettleton’s never closed during the pandemic – instead, the brothers were frequently updating their Facebook page and website and fielding calls from customers desperate to have items repaired and watch batteries changed.
“Everywhere else was closed,” explains Cameron. “We would run out for the watch, come in to change the battery, then run back out to give it back to them.” Cameron’s practiced hands can change a watch battery in about three minutes.
While they are currently covering expenses, their business is not what it was pre-pandemic, explains Cameron – he says they initially lost about 80 per cent of their revenue. The day they re-opened for in-person services, they changed 65 watch batteries.
And with the future of small shopping malls like Westgate, in-person business, and retail in general uncertain, the brothers say it is time to retire. The cost of the lease was a factor in a mall that is currently full of vacant stores.
“Retail isn’t what it used to be,” says Cameron. “The pandemic really forced everyone to sit down and re-evaluate their life.”
While there is a family-wide appreciation for the business, the younger generations of Nettletons won’t be taking over. The brothers say they encouraged their own children to seek lives that are more “forgiving.”
“And they did,” says Cameron. “They have government jobs and holidays and we never got that … the next generation moved on to a much saner lifestyle.”
But they have loved their jobs, the brothers agree. It is a bittersweet ending.
“If someone took over ownership and operation, I’d work here,” explains Cameron. “But I always say I want my name at the top of the cheque, not signed on the bottom.”
As for retirement, spending time with grandchildren is the biggest priority. Cameron also sees himself golfing at the Canadian Golf and Country Club in Ashton and spending time at Geoff’s cottage in North Frontenac – although, that might have been news to his brother.
“After 47 years of working seven days a week, we might pick up something else and start a new career at 68,” suggests Cameron. “But we mostly want to make up for 47 years of no time off and no vacation.”