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March 31, 2014 Faces of Business

Third generation jewelers a Main Street mainstay

Photo | Steve Laschever Bill Bray was formerly a stock broker before he decided to join his family's jewelry business. He runs Manchester's Bray Jewelers with his brother Wayne, as they head into their 100th year in business in 2015.
Stan Simpson
Photo | Steve Laschever The most profitable item Bill Bray and his brother Wayne sold was a 15-karat single diamond bracelet that went for $250,000. The commission was about $15,000.

For Bill and Wayne Bray, their love of the jewelry business and attention to customer service can be traced almost 100 years ago to a great uncle who had a talent for watchmaking.

Francis Bray died in 1963, but not before passing on his passion for watchmaking to his nephew William, the father of Bill and Wayne.

Bray Jewelers opened in 1915 on Main Street in Manchester. Over the years, and after a few relocations on the strip, it has become a town landmark.

It's the go-to place for people who want an engagement or wedding ring, a new piece of jewelry, money for some bequeathed rubles, or just a battery for their watch. The business survives largely by referrals and repeat customers. So, quality merchandise, great service and integrity are at the core of this family's business — now run by a third generation of Brays.

Uncle Francis set the tone. William followed his lead. When William died two years ago at 85, he was still actively involved in the shop. William Bray grew up on a farm in Coventry. Hard work was all he knew. At the urging of Francis, William Bray attended watchmaking school in Philadelphia in 1946. For two years, he learned his trade by day. At night and on the weekends, he washed dishes and sold pencils and flowers. The work ethic is something that his sons Bill and Wayne fondly recall. It shaped their lives and the way they conduct business.

“It had a lot of impact on me,'' said Bill, 52. “You learned to push through; whether it's good conditions or bad conditions. You did the best you could. Why did he choose watchmaking? You know, the key to business is to find a need and fill it. Manchester needed a jewelry store.''

Bill was working the stock market in the mid-1980s before he joined Wayne at the store in 1988. As a broker, Bill saw boom times and a crash. He didn't get burned too badly when the market collapsed because he always maintained a very conservative approach — buy and hold — to investing. But he became bored. Bill's hyper-conservative approach to investing wasn't a great fit for an industry built on the expectations that lots of money could be made in a short period of time.

The pace of the jewelry business was more to Bill's liking, plus he and Wayne always got along. They even live next door to each other. Both are sports fanatics, married and have a combined nine children. Their mother Merlene lives a few houses up the road. Family businesses can often times cause stress and friction. Bill and Wayne say that's not the case with them.

Their secret?

“Bill knows who's boss — and that's me,” said Wayne, 51, the gregarious younger brother. “Seriously, we each bring different aspects to the business. We've always been a very close family. We get along great. … I wish my dad was still around to see it, because this was a big part of his life.”

Wayne, a goldsmith, handles the repair work (chains, earrings, bracelets and setting stones). He is also the chief buyer of jewelry. Bill is the numbers guy and runs the day-to-day operations. Bill's experience and philosophy as a stock broker influences his approach to business. It is all about having a balanced portfolio, so in good times and bad the business can turn a profit.

Fifty percent of this jewelry business is bridal — engagement rings, anniversary and wedding bands; 30 percent is estate jewelry. A person inherits jewelry from a family member that they either want to sell, repair or turn into a custom piece. The rest of the business comes from repairs, or other sales such as changing watch batteries.

The profit margin in the jewelry business is not high. Like most industries, it relies on volume.

The most profitable item the brothers sold was for a customer with a 15-karat single diamond bracelet. It appraised and sold for $250,000. The commission for the store was 7 to 8 percent — about $15,000.

The brothers say their chief focus is on customer service, quality jewelry and integrity. They tell the story of the woman who came in regularly for years just to have her watch adjusted so it could highlight the correct day and month. There was never a charge for the service. One day the woman's sister came into the store, thanked the brothers for always taking care of her sister — and then proceeded to purchase several hundred dollars' worth of jewelry

“My father always said just do the right thing and you'll never have to worry,” Bill said. “The most important thing is this community. They've been here. They've come in. They've purchased. We've got people we've showed engagement rings to and they say their grandmother bought her ring here. …. It means my father did the right thing 50 years ago.”

One wall of the store is adorned with pictures sent from customers of their weddings and anniversaries. There is a small staff, one fulltime and one part-time person assist the brothers. There are no grand plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary in 2015. For now, the brothers just want to keep up with the busy flow of business.

When asked if there will be a fourth generation of Brays manning the shop, Bill and Wayne note the nine grandchildren of William Bray — and shrug.

We'll just have to watch.n

Stan Simpson is host of “The Stan Simpson Show'' ( and Saturdays, 5:30 a.m., on FoxCT). His 'Faces in Business' column appears monthly.

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