After more than 40 years in business, a Missoula gem is calling it a career and retiring.
On Saturday morning, Barney Jette and Nancy Ball came to their downtown jewelry store to open the shop for the final time.
Jette has been designing custom jewelry in Missoula since he graduated from the University of Montana in 1973. Along the way, he brought in Ball, his wife and co-owner, to help him turn his passion into a business.
“I’m the artist, and she’s the business,” he said.
Every morning when they came to work, the routine was the same. At the end of the previous day, all the jewelry in the store was carefully packed away into locked drawers and a pair of vaults. Before unlocking the doors, all the rings, earrings and necklaces set with Montana sapphires and Russian diamonds were arranged into the display cases and the front window.
Since announcing his retirement, Jette said the response has been tremendous.
“It’s overwhelming – I’ve had people come in that I haven’t seen for 10 or 15 years,” he said. “We had 35 diamond rings sell in the first two days.”
Jette said the decision to retire has been a few years in the making.
“We wanted more freedom, not having to come into the shop every day,” he said.
The pair said they are looking to spend more time enjoying their other passions. Jette has long wanted to dedicate more time to painting watercolors, Ball to calligraphy, and both to spending as much time as they possible hiking and fishing.
Ball said Jette will be remembered for his iconic and recognizable custom designs.
“Women tell me that people grab their hands to look at a ring and just say, 'That’s a Barney.'” she said.
Jette stopped taking custom orders about a month before closing.
While many jewelers now use computer design programs, he continued to make jewelry the same way he was taught at UM. Jette sat in the workshop at the back of his store and used intricate hand chisels to carve a new creation from pink dental wax. One of his last designs – a pair of bitterroot earrings – sat on the workbench recently, waiting to be cast in yellow gold.
In a back room, Jette stored trays filled with more than 700 custom designs made over the course of his career. Each could be altered to make it unique for a new customer.
While the jewelry industry rushed to make bigger, flashier pieces, Jette said he always kept his customers in mind, with low-profile, low-maintenance designs.
“They are an outdoor people, or work in the medical field or with their hands wearing gloves, and they want to wear their jewelry all the time,” he said.
Jette and Ball said jewelry always meant more to hardworking people who made sacrifices to afford it.
“My favorite customers were the young men with limited funds who were in to buy an engagement ring,” Ball said. “They didn’t have much, but it was still important to them that they supported a business that was local, that they gave something that was quality and designed just for her.”