It's doubtful that a man wearing a bee mask and carrying an ax as he approached the door at Rone Regency Jewelers knew owner Bobby Mason had been hunting since he was five.
Or, that the unassuming Mason has been known to get in a short dove hunt in season before going to the business on Gunbarrel Road that he has owned since 2006.
"He had a bucket with him," Mason recalls while talking about incident in his second floor office at the store on Gunbarrel Road. "He came in and I started yelling at him to get out and then walked to the back to hit the robbery button. He just took off in his bee mask."
The staff gave police a description of the car. The mask robber was later stopped and arrested by the Chattanooga Police Department. As it turns out, one of the arresting officers was someone Mason had held as a baby in his store.
"I get to hold a lot of babies, and I love it," Mason says. "Then, they come back and I help them with an engagement ring."
Inside the stories Mason tells of holding babies in his 49 years at Rone Regency is the secret sauce of why the local business has endured for 75 years. Repeat business that crosses generations and goes back to its founding by Frank Varello in 1944 at the corner of 8th and Market streets downtown.
The result is a 75-year-old business that began with inventory consisting of pots, pans, tool sets and electric shavers that is now recognized for upscale jewelry and gifts that never experienced a year when its revenues did not go up, according to Mason.
"Customers trust us," says Mason, now 70. "We take time to educate every new customer about our store, our history, our product and our commitment to them. We want them to know we are locally owned, and that if we make a piece for them, there will never be an issue, no matter what."
Mason spent 36 years working at the store before buying the business from Varello, who died in 2013. The company started in 1960 at Brainerd Village at a time when Brainerd was growing and expanding. Mason said 80 percent of his business is local.
Looking to move to the area around Hamilton Place in 2009, Mason bought property on Lee Highway and was planning to build before the opportunity to buy the 8,000-square-foot building in the heart of Gunbarrel Road's retail hotbed.
"Mr. Varello used to say that our customers don't want to be out by the mall, but I would say that if people were going to shop, they are going to be out near the mall," says Mason.
Mason, who personally buys every diamond sold in his store, said business volume has risen 20 percent since moving to his current location. He credits store manager Janie Colbaugh for directing the business over the past eight years as Mason trimmed his workday from six to four. Eighty-five percent of Rone Regency's sales are local.
Mason's wife, Sherry, is a buyer for the company's jewelry designers. He said employees such as Emory Balthrop, who has been with the business for 42 years, provide consistency to the company's brand.
"Not everybody has 75 years of a proven record to fall back on and being consistent telling that story is critical to our success," says Mason.
The company's reputation built by Varello and picked up by Mason is well respected in Chattanooga, said Jim Winsett, president of the Chattanooga Better Business Bureau.
"When the BBB started in 1960, it carefully selected its charter members, and Rone Regency was one of them," Winsett says. "Our mission is to be the leader in advancing trust in the marketplace. When this BBB charter was established, it invited those prominent businesses in the marketplace that exemplified trust."
Rone Regency is only authorized Rolex dealer in Chattanooga and has sold the product since 1969. Rolex and other high-end watches represent 30 percent of the company's business and form many of the relationships Mason has around the country.
Mason said Rolex has reduced the number of worldwide locations that can sell its watches from 1,400 to around 400 as part of a marketing strategy to build more exclusivity to the brand. As part of that, Mason was required to invest $250,000 in his store to create a special section for Rolex watches. The section was finished in mid-September. Rolex watches retail from between $6,000-$75,000 at Rone Regency.
"We've sold every kind of watch there is over the years," says Mason. "At one time, we carried 16 different brands of watches, and you could buy one for $75 back then."
A "by chance" phone call caused the business to partner with former Cincinnati quarterback and media personality Boomer Esiason's foundation formed to combat cystic fibrosis for 20 years. Esiason created the foundation when his son, Gunnar, was diagnosed with the disease. Mason first encountered the quarterback before Super Bowl XXIII in January 1989.
"A friend in his neighborhood referred him to me," says Mason, who has Esiason's signed jersey hanging in his office. "He called on the Tuesday before they left for the Super Bowl. He needed a watch for an assistant coach who was retiring. He left the inscription up to me, but he had to have it done. We got it to him before the team left on Thursday. Been friends ever since."
Mason points to a recent encounter with the daughter of a man he sold a steel Daytona Rolex watch to in 1972. She had been to several locations asking what the watch was worth. She had been offered "a couple of hundred bucks," she told Mason.
"It was solid steel, and I told her I would write her a check for $10,000 on the spot," says Mason.
Using nearly five decades of contacts in the New York diamond industry, Mason sent pictures of the watch to a friend with Christy's Auction House, who estimated it would bring $30,000 at auction.
"It sold at auction in Dubai for $54,900 in March," says Mason.
Mason said he has increased security at his store in recent years. He employs an off-duty Chattanooga police officer when the store is open, and customers are now buzzed in at the front door.
"We've been robbed a few times, but I never really worried about it too much," says Mason, the hunter. "I took steps because of my employees just in case. It's more about them. I've always been prepared for someone looking to rob us."
The man with the bee mask and ax can attest to that.