Meet a family-owned jewelery store that prides itself on reputation and quality, part of the secret behind Dixon’s oldest business.
When she began working at Trein’s Jewelry in 1964, and when she married owner Gordon Brantley in 1978, Dixon native Linda Brantley couldn’t have predicted all the adventures that would follow, as she pursued her career as a jeweler. Her training took her to the best gem and watch-making schools in the United States and Switzerland; buying trips took her to Belgium and South America. Mining tours took her to Tanzania, Africa – where she decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in celebration of her 50th birthday. “We could see four countries when we reached the top,” she recalls. “We pitched our tent on a glacier.”
By 1993, Linda was one of the first women in the world to become a certified gemologist, and also one of the youngest. She’s certified by the American Gem Society as a gemologist appraiser; by the Gemological Institute of America as a graduate gemologist; and by the Independent Jewelers Organization as a Master Jeweler. And she’s proud to own the longest-running business in Dixon, at 201 W. First St., established as a jewelry store in 1883. She stays current in her industry through annual recertification.
But the most important lesson she ever learned about running a successful jewelry business came from husband Gordon.
“He taught us to always be very honest and fair with people,” says Linda. “He was very insistent about this. He said that people need to be able to trust their jeweler over the long haul. That your reputation is your business, and if it doesn’t precede you, you don’t have a future in this industry.”
Gordon also reinforced the love Linda felt for her hometown region, and taught his family that Trein’s should be involved with and supportive of its community. “He always said that the prettiest stretch of highway in the whole country was between Dixon and Rockford.”
Linda lost Gordon to Alzheimer’s disease in 2005, personally taking care of him at home, to the end. Shortly afterward, she also lost her parents, a brother and a 24-year-old niece, within the span of five years. “Life can be harsh, and we’re wise to keep celebrating the good moments as they come,” she says. For her, that means spending time with grandchildren Sophia and Preston, and helping customers to mark milestones in their lives with precious objects that stand the test of time.
Today, Linda runs the business with son Eric Brantley, a certified goldsmith and designer, and his wife, Judy, who manages most of Trein’s purchasing.
“I love every aspect of what I do,” Linda says.
“Except maybe bookkeeping and inventory,” Judy reminds her. They laugh.
Linda considers Gordon’s legacy of honesty to be the cornerstone of Trein’s continued success.
“Members of the same families we served decades ago continue to seek us out, even though many have moved to Chicago and out of state,” she says. “They trust us. We’re a destination store because of our expertise, but also because of our reputation for honesty. Unfortunately, a lot of people are finding that to be increasingly rare.”
Gordon Brantley was a native of Austin, Minn., working as a watchmaker, until he moved to Elgin, Ill., to attend the famed Elgin Watch School. When a diamond salesman mentioned the impending sale of Trein’s Jewelry in Dixon, Gordon lost no time. “He came down to visit over Thanksgiving and never went back to Minnesota,” says Linda.
Today, Trein’s is primarily focused on fine jewelry. “We concentrate on diamond jewelry, traveling to Antwerp, Belgium, at least once a year to hand select diamonds,” explains Judy. “We also carry exciting colored gemstone jewelry, pearls – both fresh- and saltwater – a private-label Swiss watch line, and gold and silver jewelry.”
Trein’s refuses to play pricing games with customers. There are no “30 percent off” placards on the merchandise, no customers who receive preferential pricing.
“We don’t give discounts,” Linda explains. “They offend our sense of fairness. We don’t mark something up just so we can mark it down. What you pay for it is what it should have been priced in the first place, and the price is the same for anyone who walks in.”
Trein’s doesn’t apologize for its prices, either. “We know what we’re talking about – at least when it comes to jewelry – and we’re happy to explain why a piece is valued at a certain price,” says Linda. “We’d rather explain it than apologize for it.”
Even in a difficult economy, customers are marking special occasions with jewelry purchases. “It’s definitely a joy and love industry,” observes Eric. “People still like to mark milestones in their lives with the purchase of something precious.”
But with precious metals and diamonds at historically high prices – gold was at $1,700 per ounce at press time – the Brantleys are making provisions in their inventory to satisfy customers who long for quality they can afford.
“A fine diamond priced at $6,000 or $7,000 just three years ago now costs $8,000 to $9,000,” says Linda. “Still, people understand that fine jewelry will hold its value. Right now, we’re selling more silver jewelry, because it’s less expensive than platinum or gold, but still high-quality, precious and beautiful.” For their silver lines, the Brantleys work with California designer Frederic Duclos, whose work meets their high standards and accommodates both traditional and modern tastes.
Trein’s offers appraisal and custom design services, a full-service repair workshop and computerized engraving. Jewelry cleaning is free, even if the items weren’t purchased at Trein’s.
To help families keep track of the jewelry they’ve purchased from Trein’s over the years, and to make gift-giving much easier, Trein’s offers a computerized wish list service. It’s the kind of thing that couldn’t have been imagined by S.S. Dodge and Augustus Kling, when they opened their jewelry store in the same building in 1883. They couldn’t have imagined the rise of TV jewelry shopping networks, either. Asked how he feels about them, Eric says, “We love them. They’re wonderful for our repair business. We have one customer in particular who loves to buy things on TV in the middle of the night. They’re always falling apart, so she brings them to us to fix.”
Another modern-day phenomenon is Internet research. Never before have shoppers arrived so fully educated about carat weight, cut, shape, certification, color and clarity of diamonds, for example.
“We like it when they come through the door educated, when they’ve already decided what matters to them in a diamond,” says Linda. “We take a lot of time trying to educate people, so this really helps us to meet their needs.”
One thing the Brantleys do share in common with old-time jewelers is the need to travel. When Trein’s celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2003, it researched local newspaper snippets like this one: “Mr. Kling, of the firm of Dodge & Kling, has just arrived from Europe, with a large stock of watches and jewelry.”
Lately, Linda’s been traveling the back roads of the Czech Republic in search of fine, hand-blown art glass, to fill the large side cases of Trein’s. Clocks, watches, gold pens, spectacles, cutlery, musical instruments, plates, collectibles, figurines and even bicycles have filled these windows since 1883.
Today, they’re filled with heavy, smooth, sparkling pieces of original, signed art glass in brilliant hues of red, green, yellow, orange and blue. The sheer energy they project makes Linda smile, as do memories of obtaining it.
“We went to Prague, in the Czech Republic, got into a car and started roaming the countryside, stopping at the little glassblowing companies we found,” she says. “They’re family-owned and just wonderful. It was the Bohemian glassblowers from this region who taught the Italians in Merino how to make this fine glass. Many think it was the other way around.”
Trein’s carries the largest selection of art glass in the region, outside of Chicago, and is designing different lines, all fulfilled by small companies near Prague. “We communicate with them through an email translation program,” says Linda. “It’s not always perfect, and some pretty funny correspondence takes place, but it works.”
Along with staffing Trein’s, Eric and Judy own the Crystal Cork Wine Shoppe, at 219 W. First St. The shop, which has a warm and welcoming atmosphere, features wines from around the world.
Linda and Gordon’s other son, Kris, runs a video production company that travels the world. He and wife Shelly are parents of Linda’s grandchildren, Sophia and Preston.
When she was in high school, Linda worked at Trein’s as an engraver and window washer. “I earned 45 cents an hour,” she chuckles. Back then, she had no idea she’d someday own the store and become a globetrotting and pacesetting master jeweler who thrives on her work. But she’s glad it turned out that way, and she’s delighted to have her family involved with the business.
“I love doing the appraisals and designs, love working with customers, love working with the jewelry,” Linda says. “I love it all.” ❚