By Holly Kelsey-Henry
A Superior Gem
For Family-Owned Nummi Jewelers, Success is Based on a Father’s Shining Business Legacy
When the postal delivery worker makes her daily visit to Nummi Jewelers on a crisp fall morning, she’s greeted by name, offered a cookie and given a referral to the bakery it came from.
Next through the door comes a regular who loves her earrings and wants another pair, then a fellow who is looking for a watch. Following in the footsteps of their father and business founder Harry Nummi, it’s clear son Dale Nummi and daughter Karen Nelson think of all who enter here as friends and family.
For 62 years the business has been driven by the elder Nummi’s mantra: “The bitterness of poor service and quality lingers long after the sweetness of a cheap price is forgotten.” He also regularly reminded family and staff to “Look sharp, feel sharp and be sharp.” Though Harry Nummi died in 2011, he and his quotes of encouragement remained an integral part of the family business right up until he passed.
“He was here the Saturday before he died,” recalls Nelson. “At 92 he was still part of this business and his philosophy of how to do business lives on.”
After 10 years in the watch-making business, Harry Nummi started his own shop in 1951 in a small building several doors down from Nummi Jewelers’ current location at 1120 Belknap Street. He worked it for many years with his brother, Ralph. While the business has been located in three different shop fronts through the years, it has never strayed from Belknap Street.
“They believe in the community and everything has a local focus with them. Superior is very proud of these types of businesses.”
– President & CEO Dave Minor, Superior-Douglas County Area Chamber of Commerce
A master watchmaker, Nummi prided himself on exemplary service and quality products, calling them “a gift of lasting loveliness.” Back then folks swarmed to Nummi’s for formal silver serving pieces, cigarette lighters, pen and pencil sets and jewelry. While today the Nummi siblings focus on watch, clock and jewelry repair and engraving, the focus is still on creating a sense of community in all they do. The business serves the needs of many other local businesses, among them Superior Federation of Teachers, Catholic Charities, The Challenge Center, University of Wisconsin-Superior, Northwestern School District, the City of Superior and the Department of Transportation, often providing quality Swiss watches for retirements and engraving for awards.
In an era of the decline of main streets and small business, the name Nummi reflects trust, loyalty, service, quality and longevity. While throughout the nation many downtown businesses have boarded up their windows, Nummi’s has continued to reflect the community’s unique heritage and prove year after year that great service is the lifeblood that keeps small businesses alive.
Dave Minor, the president/CEO of the Chamber of Commerce serving Superior and Douglas County, chalks the store’s success up to the fact that the Nummi name is known and respected in the community.
“It is extraordinary in this day and age to find a small business like this that continues to thrive.”
– President Richard Thompson, L&J Manufacturing Co. Inc.
“They believe in the community and everything has a local focus with them. Superior is very proud of these types of businesses. It’s an institution – family run and community based,” said Minor. “Nothing against big box stores, but some people just prefer to do business on a smaller scale where they can take something back and talk to someone they know. In this case, the Nummis have always had great customer service and instilled trust in their clients. It’s all about relationships, and in the Superior area, we have a lot of folks who feel comfortable with people they know personally.”
L&J Manufacturing Co. Inc. President Richard Thompson has been working as a vendor with Nummi Jewelers since 1958 and agrees wholeheartedly. He recalls Harry and his brother Ralph as “the finest people you would ever meet,” calling them “responsible, dependable and reliable.” Thompson said he would confidently recommend them to people on a regular basis. “I knew people would be taken care of without a doubt,” he said. “If they said they were going to do something, they did it and that tradition continues today. Whether it’s paying their bills or doing something in a timely manner, they just do it. It is extraordinary in this day and age to find a small business like this that continues to thrive.”
Jewelfire sales representative Ben Leeds concurs, noting that “the simple fact of the matter [doing good business] is people just like them.”
“They are just really nice people and they reflect that in their quality and service.”
– Sales Representative Ben Leeds, Jewelfire
Leeds knows of many independent jewelry stores that have fallen by the wayside in the past decade, but says the Nummis continue to stay in business because of their genuine, down-to-earth approach.
“They are just really nice people and they reflect that in their quality and service,” he said. “And that is how remarkably simple it is. When people come to them, they know how they are going to be treated and they know the quality they will get. They can count on it every time. It’s a simple business plan that has worked for them for many, many years and I see it continuing to work for them.”
Indeed, the family admits it has been a struggle to compete with big box vendors and online sales, but quality and service keep the regulars coming back and word-of-mouth attracts new customers.
“There’s something to be said for loyalty and good service,” said Nelson.
In fact, the Nummi children, who bought the business from their father in 1988, credit his “moxie” for the longstanding success of the Belknap Street icon. “He was Finnish and possessed the Finnish version of moxie,” said Nelson. “It’s called sisu.” She herself learned this skill as a teen, finishing every school day at Central High School by walking over to the shop.
“Mostly we just needed a ride home,” she laughs, “but you couldn’t help but watch him and learn from him.”
Dale Nummi remembers taking Big Ben clocks apart as a child and being fascinated by all the working parts. “I’m not sure, though, if I ever got them back together,” he said. “But my father would work away for hours and I would watch him. I learned from him and took an interest in following in his footsteps.”
While their father was a tireless master watchmaker and shopkeeper, he also made sure he had time on his hands to be an adventurer and a dedicated husband and father. Through the years, he took his wife, Mable, and four children on trips ranging from the Smithsonian to Disneyland. Generations learned to hunt and fish under his tutelage and grandchildren enjoyed weekly outings to the Dairy Queen or the A&W.
“All the kids are able to look back and have great memories of spending time with him,” said Nummi. “As for me, I remember camping out in the woods and somehow my dad wired up an old black and white television so we could all watch Apollo 11 land on the moon. He was very creative and clever and was always out doing something, right up until the day he died. He especially enjoyed fishing with family members right up until the end.”
“My father would work away for hours and I would watch him. I learned from him and took an interest in following in his footsteps.”
– Co-owner Dale Nummi, Nummi Jewelers
While watching their mentor live and work, the Nummi children also learned from their father that they were to treat staff members like family. On his 90th birthday, a former employee wrote the following to Harry Nummi: “It has been a joy to work with you almost every day for the past 12 years. Thank you for teaching me to enjoy the simple things in life; appreciate the beauty of a watch; appreciate the beauty of nature; love a good cup of coffee, say a few naughty words in Finnish; love fresh fish and appreciate a Sunday drive. You are the ultimate role model. Your work ethic is unparalleled. It is an honor to work with you. Love, Annie.”
The Nummi family is dedicated to continue that tradition to this day. “What I like most is seeing our old employees developing and growing from the ethics they learned here,” said Nummi. “Many of them come back year after year to say hello and tell us how much they learned here. We’re proud of them.”
Today Nummi Jewelers has four employees, one of whom is Harry’s granddaughter, Katie, who acts as executive manager of the business. The family hopes she will one day be the third generation to run the business and carry on the tradition for many generations to come.
While many things have changed throughout the generations, the modern day Nummi Jewelers still has a focus on its founder’s desire to keep things ticking. The team still repairs clocks and watches and gets called on from clients all over the United States for its expertise in this arena. The business also prides itself on carrying only watches that are either made in America from Swiss parts or Swiss made. While they acknowledge the price points are higher, the quality remains at the top of its range, resulting in products crafted for longevity and reliability. All feature genuine sapphire crystals and they are 100 percent waterproof and made of surgical quality stainless steel.
“This is a big decision in someone’s life and we want the ring or item they choose to last a lifetime.”
– Co-owner Karen Nelson, Nummi Jewelers
Naturally, the family-owned jewelry store also still focuses on matters of the heart, but Nummi Jewelers is also tight-lipped when it comes to its clients’ individual love stories. “We love it that people trust us with something as important as an engagement ring or an important piece of jewelry, and we honor how important this is and leave it up to them to spread the news,” said Nelson. “This is a big decision in someone’s life and we want the ring or item they choose to last a lifetime. We focus our efforts on helping them make the right long-term decision.”
And, it appears, there’s a lot more to choosing a diamond than its bling factor. As with most things these days, there are synthetics and lower quality knock-offs out there. There are low quality prongs and stones that won’t hold up to heat if the ring needs to be repaired. One also needs to consider the Four C’s – cut, color, clarity and carat weight.
Cut describes the proportion and angles of a diamond. A well-cut diamond will reflect light from one mirror-like facet to another and project the light through the top of the stone.
“Basically,” explained Nelson, “all diamonds are not created equal.”
The color of a diamond is graded on a color scale implemented by the Gemological Institute of America. The ratings range from D, which is colorless, to Z. Experts at Nummi Jewelers are able to show customers an array of colors to help them determine their personal preferences.
Staff quickly point out that each diamond is as individual as the person who wears it. Naturally occurring minerals and fractures are formed while the diamond is in the earth. The greater a diamond’s clarity, the rarer and more valuable it is.
Carat is a measure of the diamond’s weight, not size. Larger diamonds are found far less frequently in nature, thus making them more valuable; however, the cut and mounting of a diamond can make it appear larger as well.
And while diamonds are a jeweler’s best friends, Nummi Jewelers also prides itself on a wide variety of jewelry of all kinds. Since Nelson has a degree in fine arts, she enjoys crafting pieces from people’s sentimental objects and has even gone so far as to make earrings from elk antlers.
“People bring in grandma’s old jewels and they just want to do something different with them,” she said. “It’s fun to remake something they can continue to wear and love, and it still has the sentimental value from someone they loved and want to remember.”
On the other hand, Dale Nummi’s expertise is much like his father’s – highly skilled watch and clock repair.
While the siblings’ intention is to continue the business for many years to come, they are counting on the younger generation to take over eventually.
“A lot of people know us and our name, because we’ve always had Nummis in the school system and we’re sort of running out of Nummis,” jokes the second generation master watchmaker. “Our intention, though, is to be around for many more generations.” P.S.
Holly Kelsey-Henry is a freelance writer.