Like grandfather, like granddaughter.
Jerry Miller and Samantha Tupper have much in common; they both like sparkly things, and that translates to diamonds – which are the mainstay of Wink’s Fine Jewelry, their store in downtown Brookings.
Now, after nearly six decades at the same location, the Wink’s torch is being passed from grandfather to granddaughter.
The store’s doors were opened in 1963 by V.H. Winkleman – aka “Wink.” Six years later, while a student majoring in mathematics at South Dakota State University, Miller went to work there and stayed until he graduated in 1973.
“It took me a couple of years of college to realize that I liked this industry and wanted to stay in it,” he said. “So I went ahead and finished and got my degree.
“I left and worked five years in the industry somewhere else. I came back here in 1978. I bought part of (the store) in ’78, ’79, ’80 and in ’81 I bought all of it.”
“It was like coming home, when I came back here,” he said of his return to Brookings. “I knew a lot of people downtown; I knew a lot of people at SDSU. This was a great place to raise our children. My customers are phenomenal.”
Miller has eight children, 33 grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and “a couple more on the way.” One of them is Derek and Samantha Tupper’s first child.
Now after 50 years, Miller is passing the torch to his granddaughter. But is he retiring?
“No – sort of – semi,” Miller replied, smiling. “I’ll be around to help Samantha.”
Tupper has been working at Wink’s for the past five years; she attended Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown. Prior to that, she worked two years at another jewelry store.
Miller kept the store’s original name – “Wink’s Fine Jewelry.” Smiling, he said, “There’s nothing cool about Jerry’s Jewelry.”
Initially his slogan was “Take a Wink’s Home In Your Eye Tonight.” In time he changed that to “Take A Wink’s Home Tonight,” a reference to the diamonds on which the store prides itself.
Becoming a registered jeweler
Sometime next year, Miller will work with his granddaughter to transfer the “corporation” to her.
“She’s pretty much been running it the last year,” he explained. “She’s done a phenomenal job. I’m just kind of ready to step back and work not quite so hard and go play golf and go fishing. Wintertime I might be around more for the Christmas season, if she wants to prop me up in the corner, so I can say ‘hi’ to people when I get really old.”
Both Miller and Tupper are registered jewelers in the American Gem Society, what he called “a nonprofit organization for the professionalism in the jewelry industry: ethics, honesty, integrity and knowledge.” Education for registered jewelers is via the Gemological Institute of America.
“You have to take a yearly exam to keep your title,” he explained, noting that “there are four registered jewelers in the state of South Dakota.” Tupper added, “We have one more (Wink’s) full-time employee who is working on getting her registration. That way there will be two or three of us in the store at all times.”
To get his registered jeweler designation, Miller explained that he had to complete some rigorous diamond-grading qualifications, which he did via a back-and-forth exchange of diamonds in the mail.
“They would mail me a diamond; and I would grade it and I would send it back; and they would send me another and tell me what I had done wrong.” Tupper took a different route.
“I had a week in Las Vegas where I graded diamonds 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, and passed a big final exam,” she explained. “And then when I came home, I had another final exam that I had to take to finish my registered jeweler (qualifications). And they mailed me diamonds and I had to grade them and send them back.”
Visits to Antwerp
Miller has been an annual visitor to Antwerp, Belgium, the “Diamond Capital of the World.” And the visits will continue.
“We’re just not sure how yet,” Miller said. “Whether I go with her, the first time or two, I don’t know yet.”
“Ninety-five percent of all diamonds go through Antwerp,” he explained. “They are either uncut, or cut and polished.
“When we go to Antwerp, I’ll sit down and pick what I want for the store. The type of quality that we sell is better than most stores. I handpick them. And I get a better price, which I pass on to my customers.” Miller prides himself on that. And he’s confident that Wink’s high-end diamonds will match anybody else’s anywhere “and at less money for our customers.”
Both he and Tupper believe that people continue to appreciate high-quality, expensive diamonds.
“Oh yeah,” Miller said.
“I think it’s more of a staple now than it was in the past,” Tupper explained, citing engagement rings in particular. “You don’t get engaged without that ring. That’s part of the process.”
“And we’re selling much bigger diamonds today than we did in the past,” her grandfather added. “The economy is well.
“Bigger and more expensive: diamond earrings, lots of diamond pendants, diamond rings, diamond bracelets and the engagement end of it is terrific.”
All about the experience
While the passing of the torch from grandfather to granddaughter is taking place, there’s also continuing generational loyalty from Wink’s customers.
“I’m selling engagement rings to grandchildren of people that I sold engagement rings to 30, 40 years ago,” Miller said. “So, it’s family, you know. Where did mom and dad get their engagement rings? That’s where the son goes. Where did the son get his? And that’s where the grandkids come. Basically because of our name.”
Wink’s customer base includes the Brookings area, with its smaller cities and towns in all four directions, and SDSU. Because of the college student population, Wink’s sells a lot of engagement rings. And some of those students remain loyal customers even after leaving Brookings.
“I have customers all over the world,” Miller said. “They’ve graduated from Brookings High School or SDSU and they call me 10 years later and they’re in Switzerland or Germany or Florida or, you know. Some become my customers for life.”
“It’s all about that experience,” Tupper added. “They’re given a phenomenal experience, which is what we offer.” Now, with the passing of the torch, she looks forward to “making my own name, what I am versus who he is and establishing my own customer base.”
Some things, however, will remain the same: the name, Wink’s Fine Jewelry; the store will stay where it has been for 56 years and be dedicated to serving customers for years to come, which Miller called “a good thing for our community.”
“We’re moving on to the next generation,” Tupper said.
Contact John Kubal at email@example.com.
COURTESY OF: The Brookings Register