BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
When the world ran on train time, founders of Marshall Pierce and Company, now anchoring the Magnificent Mile at 960 N. Michigan Avenue, got their start repairing and selling watches at Union Station. Chicago’s oldest jewelry store still in business today, the luxury shop—which carries gorgeous jewelry in addition to its fine timepieces—owes much to its ancestor Ellis Bern who brought his family’s knowledge of watches to Chicago from Sweden in 1896 as a young man of 24.
Current President Jerry Bern, who shares the company’s leadership with the sixth-generation of Berns in the jewelry business, daughter Celeste and son Evan, showed us photos and told us how it all began: “For over 200 years, Fagerhult, a picturesque little town in southern Sweden, continues to be home to family members. Our family became known as clockmakers and one of their clocks was prominently located on top a tower in the town square. This necessitated the attending family member to climb the 157 steps for every winding of the mainspring. With sons apprenticing under fathers, they mastered this unique blend of science and art, becoming watchmakers as well as clockmakers in the 1800s.”
He continued, “The Swiss invented watches in the 1700s. The early watches of the 1800s were all pocket watches, with wristwatches becoming popular in the early 1900s. I believe it was Cartier that decided to put a strap on a watch. The early ones were like sundials for your wrist. They really came into their own in the 1920s.”
Coming to Chicago following the Columbian Exposition that brought millions of people to the city by train, Bern would soon see that 1896 was a powerful year for of the railroad, and that Chicago was a major hub. The Democratic National Convention that nominated William Jennings Bryant in 1896 brought delegates from across the country to town, and the Klondike Gold Rush encouraged amateur prospectors to climb aboard that same year.
Ellis Bern came to town with his savings, knowledge of the watchmaking craft learned from his father, and his precision tools. “Soon after his arrival, my grandfather Ellis realized that timely trains were of utmost priority. Conductors had to have pocket watches that kept exact time, and they needed to be repaired every 60-90 days. He began at Union Station with Chas H. Bern, a watch sales and repair store, and then developed six stores at all the major stations. Ellis and his brother Charles became certified inspectors for the railroads serving 24 railroad lines,” Jerry explained.
“The conductors were his friends—he knew all of their families,” Jerry added, speaking of his grandfather. “The train station store expanded to sell alarm clocks, radios, silver, crystal, and jewelry as well as watches, but nothing high-end. During the 1940s and ’50s, many celebrities came through Union Station–Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were among the customers who stopped by between trains.”
Chas H. Bern became one of the jewelry business’s first chains and stayed in business until the late 1980s. Ellis Bern left just prior to World War II, working out of his home before opening a small one-man watch repair shop on the South Side of Chicago that he maintained until his retirement in the late 1950s.
He shared a little bit about his parents, Jerry Bern, Sr., and Mary Bern: “Both my parents were aviation enthusiasts. Jerry spent time in Hawaii as an aircraft mechanic during in the 1940s. Mary (a true pearl enthusiast according to her granddaughter Celeste), flew DC-3s out of Midway in the 1950s—one of the first women to do so.”
After living in Japan for a year following the conclusion of World War II, his father joined Chas H. Bern as a salesman. “Working for Uncle Charlie was by no means an easy entry into the jewelry business. Charlie’s business survived the Depression because of parsimonious practices and ruthless Swedish practicality. Being Charlie’s nephew provided Jerry no apparent advantage. He was assigned to further develop the railroad employee clientele Chas H. Bern had acquired as an official railroad watch inspector,” Jerry said.
Rather than wait for railroad employees to venture into the city and its stores, Jerry Sr. went directly to them, following the tracks from Chicago for hundreds of miles in every direction. He sold certified railroad watches, jewelry, and small gift items out of the trunk of his car. This was helped along by his undeniable charm, wit and honest nature—and a railroad industry practice of supporting certified watch purchases by employees through a payroll deduction plan.
“In the 1960s, when train travel was dying out, my father bought the Marshall Pierce Company, which was founded in 1928 and moved to Jewelers Row on Madison Street. Our business was mainly referrals, and we continued our deep history of watches, importing high-end Swiss ones and selling American timepieces as well,” Jerry shared. “He also instituted evolutionary organizational changes that continued to improve per employee sales figures and overall efficiencies. Over the thirty years that he ran Marshall Pierce & Company, annual sales were bettered by each succeeding year.” Seeking more visibility, the company moved to the Magnificent Mile in 2015, “ground zero for luxury.”
Jerry explained that the coming of age time for a person to receive a very special watch comes a little later these days: “It used to be that an 18th or 21st birthday was the time you received a very nice watch. That has been pushed back a bit, with 30 now being the age. You have landed a great job, and this is a way to celebrate. For a man, this is usually your only piece of jewelry, with the exception of a wedding ring. For many it is very important to own a fine watch where you can appreciate its movements and quality.”
“We have several collectors who have an amazing collections of watches for all occasions, some expensive, some casual,” he added. “Apple watches? Great for calculating steps, heart rate, calories, and other functions.”
Although watches will always be associated with the Bern name, they sell more jewelry today: “Diamonds will always be our most popular because you can find them at any price, and they can be casual or formal. They are always elegant.”
It didn’t surprise him that children Celeste and Evan joined him in the business. “When he was about 10, Evan loved to come in and try on all the big watches. Celeste has always love bling.”
Celeste, who moved back to Chicago from Los Angeles to work with her father and brother, commented, “Many clients recognize specific watch pieces from a favorite celebrity or athlete. The most popular celebrity recognition I’ve seen is from the iconic Cartier Tank watch that has been worn by many icons, such as Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, Princess Diana, Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie, and many others. The Cartier Tank is my everyday watch as well.”
“Some of the more popular jewelry pieces among clients in my age range would be elegant everyday jewelry pieces, with diamonds being the most popular but also enjoying sapphires and the beauty of colored gemstones. Pearls have also been making a strong appearance in fashion jewelry,” she shared.
Having a friend who works at a Gold Coast jewelry mecca could be a Breakfast at Tiffany’s moment. Do her friends drop by to try on items from the sparking vitrines? “Friends and clients are very interested in our line of work. Everyone loves the Bern family and supports our business in any way possible. My friends are getting engaged and coming to Marshall Pierce for engagement rings and wedding bands. Some of my other girl friends regularly stop in to say hi and try on new product that I will post on Instagram and Facebook. You can follow our account at @marshallpierceco!”