The history of one of Chattanooga's oldest businesses

The history of one of Chattanooga's oldest businesses

April 10th, 2016 by April Mitchell and Suzette Raney in Opinion Columns

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If you wished to buy a diamond for your sweetheart in 1913, one store in town stood out — Edwards & LeBron Jewelers at 805 Market St. The Chattanooga News on Sept. 15 extolled the craftsmanship of the jewelers, Frank Edwards and Otis K. LeBron, and their building.

Thrown open to the public on the firm's 10th anniversary, the store was "unsurpassed in the entire south." Edwards & LeBron was a wonderland of sparkling beauty: diamonds and emeralds and rubies, china from England, France, Germany and Austria, and glass and crystal from Sweden. Otis K. LeBron had designed the establishment from its buff exterior sitting on antique verde marble to the symphony of blues and greens that decorated the many interior departments, creating a "harmonious work of art."

The firm relied on the artistic skill and creativity of its two proprietors, Edwards and LeBron, and two employees, C.A. Armstrong, master of watch repair, and W. J. Frink, engraver extraordinaire and marvelous creator of clever small mechanisms that graced the windows of the store. According to the News, there were "no finer window displays in the entire world than those made by the Edwards & LeBron store." In addition, thousands of visitors came to marvel at Mr. Frink's "wonderfully constructed mechanical window displays."

Edwards, a diamond specialist, handled the store's financial affairs, managing the office and keeping the firm's records.

He came to Chattanooga in 1885 having learned the jewelry business from the workbench to the selling and buying of gems. His first job was management of the watch department for E.P. Durando, who had opened his shop in 1872 and was said to "have sold more diamonds in his time than any other jeweler in Chattanooga." Edwards bought an interest in the Durando firm in 1885 and became part of the management team. Durando died in 1902 and Otis LeBron bought out his interest a year later. The Durando firm thus became Edwards & LeBron, the enterprise of two remarkable craftsmen and businessmen, each gifted with "mechanical ability" and "artistic temperament."

Otis LeBron had arrived in Chattanooga in 1889 from Illinois. His father and grandfather worked in the jewelry trade, and he was the great-nephew of Prince Charles LeBrun, a one-time treasurer of France. He started his career with W.R. Fischer, who later became part of Fischer-Evans. After joining Edwards, LeBron associated with Chattanooga royalty when he made at his expense crowns for the queens of the May Festival. Each year, "he fashioned a different and more dazzling crown." He also made crowns for the queens of the Cotton Ball and the Junior League Ball.

LeBron lent his talents to many Chattanooga enterprises. He planned the street decorations for the Confederate reunion in May 1913. He chaired the merchants' committee that brought light to Market Street. This installation of electric lights in the "Great White Way" was admired for both its practical side of lighting the street as well as its decorative effect.

LeBron promoted his business and his city. In the Chattanooga Times, January 1925, he boasted of his business acumen. Edwards & LeBron had opened its doors allowing its customers to enter the store from both Market and Broad Streets despite "hoots of derision." Their success prompted other merchants to do the same. LeBron believed that their jewelry store was the first to install a telephone. Their workforce grew from 5 people in 1903 to 23 people in 1925.

In 1949, Edwards & LeBron held a celebration to commemorate its 79th year showcasing special exhibits. The public enjoyed music and refreshments while viewing Masonic jewelry, the first watch sold by Hamilton Watch Company, Windermere sterling silver tea sets, Lenox china served in the White House and a LeCoultre collection of fine jeweled clocks. Of course, one could also see flawless rubies, emeralds, blue diamonds and pearls.

In 1959, the company went into bankruptcy and was reorganized. Edwards & LeBron vacated the Market Street building in August 1961. The assets of one of Chattanooga's oldest businesses were purchased by a newly organized company, Jewelers Inc., which opened at 511 Georgia Ave. After 91 years, the purveyors of sparkling treasures, Edwards & LeBron, had lost its gleam. But Fischer-Evans, which traces its beginnings to 1869 and trained Otis LeBron, carries on the quality jewelry tradition at 801 Market St.

April Mitchell and Suzette Raney work in the Local History Department of the Chattanooga Public Library. For more information, call 643-7725 or visit the library.

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