The year is 1885. James Murray graduated from watchmaking school and moved his family to Muncie from Ohio.
Once in Muncie, James planned to start a watch repair business and partnered with a horse harness maker and repairman.
Now, 137 years later, the business James started is still going strong — with his great-great-grandsons at the helm as two of the store’s co-owners.
“Fortunately, every generation of my family has had at least one person who was interested in the business and keeping it successful,” said Ryan Murray, co-owner of Murray Jewelers.
The family continued to repair watches until the need for watchmakers was no longer necessary due to the popularity of electric watches. In the ‘70s, the business transformed into strictly a jewelry store.
“My dad decided that they needed to do something in order to keep the business going and started doing custom jewelry,” Ryan said. “Instead of buying finished jewelry from the manufacturers and reselling like most jewelry stores, we actually started making the jewelry from scratch in-house.”
The new focus was “enormously successful,” Ryan said, and Murray Jewelers became known for their custom design and in-house repair work.
Growing up, Ryan did not think he wanted to be part of his family’s business, and he did not consider working there until the end of his time in business school at Indiana University.
While he may not have planned to work with his family, Ryan said it’s “really special” to be part of this business.
“It’s really wonderful because all the time we have customers coming in and telling us about how their grandparents were customers,” he said. “It’s really, really nice to be part of something that’s been in the community for a long time.”
Ryan’s brother, James Murray, said when he graduated high school, he did not know what he wanted to do but was not opposed to working with his family.
“I don’t think I knew that I had an interest, but I had an interest in sciences,” said James, co-owner of Murray Jewelers. “And then, as the path of least resistance, I think I agreed to go out and try the Gemological Institute of America (GIA).”
During his time at the GIA in Carlsbad, California, James said it became clear that he fell in love with his classes, and it was close enough to what his family did that he figured he could use his knowledge at the store as well.
“You just get to know about crazy amounts of stones that no one’s ever heard of, and you might not run into in a retail atmosphere …” he said. “But you need to have the skillset to be able to identify practically anything out there as it runs across your radar.”
James thinks it’s “fantastic” to be part of a family-owned business that’s been around for five generations.
“I mean there’s plenty of family businesses that are just two or three generations old, but you know, the luck runs out,” he said. “How many decades are you going to find a kid in the family that’s just like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go do that’?”
While the Murray family may own the store, not all employees are family members, such as Judy Lee, who has worked for the Murrays for eight years. She said she’d known the family her whole life and told James she was looking for a job.
“And he said, ‘How do you feel about working for my family?’” Lee said. “I said, ‘Well James, I know nothing about jewelry. I probably know less than the average Joe, so is that something you guys are comfortable with?’”
Lee spoke with the rest of the family, and they decided to teach her everything from the ground up when she started in Summer 2014.
“It came naturally to me,” she said. “It’s a really fascinating industry. I appreciate the creative side.”
Lee said she’d worked with plenty of family businesses in the past, but none of them had been around for five generations like Murray Jewelers. Although it was a “little uncomfortable” to start working for a tight-knit family, she said it’s “a beautiful thing.”
“They treat me like family,” Lee said. “They have always welcomed me into that fold.”
While the business has been able to count on a steady clientele, Murray Jewelers has not been without its challenges, such as the Great Depression in the 1930s. Ryan said his father found old payroll information to see how that time impacted the store.
“He was able to see the number of employees, and it was something like four or five people,” he said. “That was a pretty fascinating thing to see. Obviously none of us here remember or saw that time.”
Ryan also said the Great Recession in the early 2000s and the COVID-19 pandemic were difficult for the business.
“The pandemic was pretty scary,” he said. “When we had to shut down for an unknown amount of time, that was pretty scary when we were in that situation.”
Although the business has seen hard times, Ryan said the family is “really happy” to still be based in Muncie, especially as they have watched the city change and develop throughout the years. He said the business has moved around the city since its beginning, but it’s been fun to watch other businesses grow and watch the city change.
“Our family has been here for well over a century,” he said. “It is very, very much home, and we love being part of Muncie and downtown.”
Contact Maya Wilkins with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mayawilkinss.