By Fabian Sandler
Baytown has a storied history, which goes back to settlements called Pelly, Goose Creek and Bay Town, which consolidated in 1948 into the single town of Baytown. The descendants of the three towns have seen the area grow as Baytown, too, grew up. The buildings of downtown Baytown have seen a multitude of businesses come and go since those early days.
Established in 1926, Robson’s Diamond Jewelers is one of the oldest ongoing businesses in Baytown. Generations of customers have walked through its doors and have done business with several generations of owners. The store has thrived through sixteen different American presidents and twenty-eight presidents’ administrations.
Paul Hargrave is the fourth generation jeweler. The founders were Robert Robson and his wife, Hattie, Paul’s great-grandparents, who had moved from Gulfport, Mississippi, where Mr. Robson had a watch repair shop. He also managed a successful jewelry store in Lake Charles, Louisiana, for over a decade.
Paul states, “In the early days he did a great deal of work with the maritime industry repairing compasses and watches. That’s where he learned his trade. In 1925, he decided to move to Texas. That’s when the oil industry started booming here. That’s when the store was conceived in Baytown.”
Paul’s grandmother, Grace, was Robert and Hattie Robson’s daughter. She married Norman Hargrave. Second generation jewelers Grace and Norman were instrumental in growing the business.
“Norman had a good business mind, but Grace was in the forefront of the operation. She was on the sales floor and she handled customers, and helped with special orders, did the buying,” Paul admits.
They had two sons, Robert and Norman, Paul’s uncle and father, respectively
“They were the third generation in the business,” Paul attests. “However, Robert, my uncle, didn’t really work much in the business. He started at an early age with Stewart & Stevenson. He climbed the ladder very quickly in that company and did very well. My dad chose to work in the business and had other ventures as well. He was in the store most of the time.”
The original store was located at 228 East Texas Avenue. Paul says that where the current store is located was nothing but rice fields at that time. “There was nothing here,” he relates. “In fact, Garth Road was a dirt road. That’s just back sixty years ago.”
Robert states that his grandfather grew up in South Shields, England, adjacent to Newcastle near the North Sea. “He was part of a large family,” Robert states. “His uncle was a ship captain of three-masted schooners that carried cargo. One summer when he was out of school, he came with his uncle as an intern and they landed in Gulfport, Mississippi. When it came time to sail, my grandfather decided that he liked Gulfport and the weather. He said that he wasn’t going back.”
When asked if a girl was involved in his decision-making process, Robert smiles and says, “Well, that’s where he met my grandmother. Whether he met her before or after he was in port, I’m not sure. That would have been in the early 1900s.”
After living in Florida and Kentucky, and settling in Lake Charles where he ran a jewelry store, Robert and Hattie moved to Goose Creek during the early days of the Goose Creek oilfield. “This was one of the more prosperous opportunities you could find then,” Robert says.
“My mother and father ran the store up until the mid-eighties, when my brother Norman took over. I still keep the books. It’s a family business. We all work together.”
Robert’s brother Norman ran the family business from the 1980s until 2014. Paul adds, “My dad was my mentor growing up and still is to this day. He’s a natural-born leader and remains an instrumental part of the business.”
Paul is a gemologist who had always wanted to be in the family business. “I was fascinated with gems at a very young age. I wanted to learn more about the business, be a part of it. It was fascinating growing up in the jewelry business. I got to see a lot of unique and different things that set my curiosity on fire.”
Jan, Robert’s wife, adds, “There are people who have come here all their life. They still remember Bob’s mother. It just amazes me.”
“She worked in the store, helping out, till she was about ninety-two,” Robert adds. “She started working when she was fifteen years old, working the store for seventy-seven years. She died in 2005.”
Paul began his career at age ten in the polishing room, polishing what the jeweler had made or repaired. “I would be in the polishing room for hours on end,” Paul smiles. “From there I moved to different departments that included basic repairs and soldering.”
Chris Bergholtz is the store manager. Martha Martinez is a tenured sales associate, with Robson’s for eight years. “She’s our number one sales associate, but she’s very much a part of the business, intertwined with our customers and our philosophy. She knows practically everybody by name.”
Robson’s Diamond Jewelers has a staff of eleven. “We treat our employees like family,” Paul says proudly. “We feel like they’re an extended part of our family. When we hire them, it’s not come-and-go. My turnover rate is very low. When we hire somebody, we generally want to keep them a long time because we’re dealing with people’s merchandise. It’s a high security factor working in a jewelry store.”
When Paul took over the store, he knew he had to make some changes in order to compete in today’s market. “It’s really sad that there were over fourteen hundred, independent family-owned jewelry stores that went out of business last year. On average this year, three to five stores close every day. It’s unprecedented how many stores are closing. There are a lot of factors that contribute there, but it’s very expensive to run a jewelry store in today’s age. I decided four years ago that we had to do things a little different, become a little more edgy, take a little more risk, to take this store in Baytown, Texas, on the same playing field as the corporate, big box chain stores. I sought after the best jeweler I could find in the United States. I researched in our industry who the top jewelers in the United States were. The first guy I found in New York. He worked for a couple of manufacturers and wasn’t moving to Baytown. The second guy I hired.”
Jonathan Smiddy came on board two years ago. “I would say this guy is by far on paper the second best jeweler in the United States, based on awards and his achievements in the industry. He’s very well known, very popular. He’s almost a brand in and of himself. Our custom department has gone up by over three hundred percent, our quality of work has gone higher, the calibration of the jewelry pieces are superior, and the time to get customs out has been reduced. We are at the top tier in the United States.”
The custom department uses a state-of-the-art software program called Matrix. It is a technically advanced CAD design that allows a customer to drive the system on a computer at the store in order to see the custom design process, including choosing the style of ring, settings, designs and gem colors.
“I had an industry expert come out to evaluate our store and business,” Paul states. “He said we are the most technically advanced store he’s ever been in to, with 3D printers, using resin, computer-aided design and touch screen technology, these are the things we’re using to do more custom design and be more competitive. With three to four stores closing per day, we are up thirty-three percent.”
Paul adds that they have reduced their price points to increase volume, and have integrated more custom design into the store. “We can be more competitive with corporate stores. There’s something that independent stores have that corporate stores don’t have. It’s that trust factor and custom design. Corporate stores have ridiculously high [employee] turnover rates. They’re always recruiting because they’re always losing people. Trust is a big deal in our industry. You don’t want to leave your ring after thirty years with somebody that they just hired yesterday. We’ve increased our business, but we still give that same customer service, custom design, repair and craftsmanship in a very corporate industry. I’m really happy about that.”
Paul instituted a plan whereby he was able to get a brokerage license, join a large buying group that buys directly from Antwerp, Belgium, based diamond distributers at a significantly reduced price, and pass those savings to his customers. “There aren’t many jewelers in the United States that say they would match internet prices. I match any internet price,” Paul states.
They are indeed doing something right. Robson’s Diamond Jewelers has a Google rating of 4.7 stars, based on a five star rating. “The reason that’s important is because we are one of the only stores in Texas that have as many reviews as we do. We have one hundred and six reviews.”
A store catering to the public that has been in business for over ninety years is bound to have had interesting and unique custom jewelry requests. “We have been asked to make grills for teeth,” Paul quips. “We’ve been asked to make some large pieces, in the hundreds of thousands. We’ve made some large men’s rings, extravagant cuff links, and some large engagement rings.”
December is a big month for retailers, and of course that includes jewelry stores. “We will have our annual Levian Gala event on December 18. That’s when we have over three million dollars of exotic color gemstones and diamonds in the store, all Levian exclusive pieces.”
Robson’s Diamond Jewelers is a member of the Better Business Bureau, the Baytown Chamber of Commerce, the Accredited Gemologists Association, Jewelers Diligence Committee, and the Independent Jewelers Organization. The latter two involve a commitment to compliance and ethics in the industry.
The store is located at 1120 W. Baker Street in Baytown, just east of Garth Road. Store hours are 10 AM to 7 PM Monday through Friday, and from 10 AM to 5 PM on Saturdays. Their phone number is 281-427-5655. The website is www.robsonjewelers.com.
It has been ninety-one years since the watch maker from England and his wife opened their store in the small town of Baytown. Robert has no doubt in his mind that the store will see its one hundredth birthday in 2026. Paul Hargrave has the vision to get Robson’s Diamond Jewelers there and beyond.