A King Street Gem: Up Close and Personal with Rhett Outten of Croghan’s Jewel Box
While we’re not about to quit our day jobs just yet, we admit that working in a jewelry store has always sounded appealing. Being surrounded by beautiful things, helping people select gifts for special occasions, learning about the craftsmanship involved in creating a piece…the job certainly has its perks. Speaking with Rhett Outten, co-owner of Croghan’s Jewel Box, only confirmed our suspicions that the profession is worthy of dream-job status—especially when the establishment in which you spend your days happens to be the oldest family-owned jewelry store in Charleston, South Carolina.
Started more than 100 years ago by Outten’s grandfather, William Croghan, who studied hand-engraving in Philadelphia and served as an apprentice, Croghan’s is a jewel box of a shop located on Charleston’s vibrant King Street. Housed in a building built in 1790s, it is charming inside and out, and a destination for clients whose families have been coming to Croghan’s for generations as well as the College of Charleston students who pop in for the occasional gift.
While today Croghan’s is a bustling shop, the store wasn’t always quite so lively. Describing the early days when her grandfather would go to work and sit at his bench making jewelry, Outten says, “It was a laid-back little place.” It was so laid back, in fact, that Outten’s grandfather closed every day at 2 o’clock and took whoever was in the store home for lunch with him to her grandmother. “Sometimes they’d reopen,” Outten says, “Sometimes they wouldn’t.”
It wasn’t until Outten’s mother, Mary, started working at Croghan’s after she graduated from college that it became more of a retail destination. A journalism major, she had no inclination toward jewelry making, but knew how to transform it into a store. Outten and her sister, Mariana, eventually joined the family business as well, and recently Mariana’s daughters, Kathleen and Mini, have been brought into the fold.
The arrival of the fourth generation has brought new energy—and new jewelry lines—to Croghan’s. At her mother’s suggestion, Mini, who majored in art at Clemson and interned with the Met in New York City post-graduation, designed a Charleston-inspired jewelry line soon after returning to her hometown. The first piece she created was comprised of little cockroaches lined up in the shape of a cross. Outten explains, “Cockroaches are everywhere down here, and we’re called the Holy City because no buildings are taller than our steeples, so we have this beautiful skyline of steeples. She said, ‘You look up and see a cross, and you look down and see cockroaches, and, you know, we’re all god’s creatures.’” Outten named the line the Goldbug Collection, a reference to the Edgar Allan Poe short story “The Gold-Bug,” which the author wrote while stationed on Sullivan’s Island, a barrier island not far from Charleston.
In addition to influencing jewelry designs, Charleston and has kept Outten and her family inspired—and in business—over the years and through tough economic times. ““We love where we live. I get inspired in Charleston just waking up in the morning and looking outside. The streets are bumpy and the trees are old and it’s just got such a personality. We have the best customers in the world, and they keep us inspired. There’s always a big project going on, and it’s just fun to get up and go to work every day because there’s always something new happening.”
That “something new” can be any number of wonderful things—fashioning a beautiful pin out of two high school sweethearts’ high school rings as a 50th anniversary gift. “We engraved their names and date and we created this beautiful pin out of their two high school rings, and you know, you would have thought we had silverplated the Taj Mahal,” Outten recalls. “That was just so fun to be a part of. The value of those things is not much, but the value to them is huge.” Other recent projects include transforming a diamond row bracelet a woman inherited from her mother into three modern-style bangles for her daughters, and remaking engagement rings that her grandfather made in his generation that had been reset in yellow gold in the 80s and are now being reset back into platinum.
Speaking of engagement rings, Croghan’s has created a space on the second floor of their shop that is set up to look like somebody’s dining room (except that it happens to contain a microscope gem lab) where men can contemplate their choices in a quiet environment away from the hustle and bustle of the downstairs store. As a bonus, a fire escape that goes up to the back door allows clients to arrive and depart private meetings undetected.
Clandestine meetings to pick out diamonds, beautiful cuffs adorned with gold bugs, one-of-a-kind antique jewelry and silver pieces that have such soul…if this all sounds almost too good to be true, Outten might agree with you. “Selling jewelry? Are you kidding me? We’re surrounded by incredibly beautiful stuff every day, all day. And none of us take it for granted. We just feel really blessed.”
1. Estate Citrine and Diamond Earrings // 2. Hand engraved antique bangle // 3. Oval Diamond Ring with halo // 4. Goldbug Stud Set // 5. Single Stone Engraved Diamond Band // 6. Estate Gold filled fob with Initials // 7. Emerald and Diamond Ring // 8. Hammered disc drop earrings // 9. Estate Sterling Mini Pitcher // 10. Emerald Cut diamond Ring // 11. Crystal Fan Earrings // 12. Diamond and Sapphire 3 across ring // 13. Sterling Silver Diamond Etruscan Bangle // 14. Estate Chrysoprase Fob // 15. Sterling estate friendship trophy c. 1873
Croghan’s Jewel Box // Charleston, SC // 843.723.3594