The House That Henry Birks Built
Behind those familiar blue boxes under the Christmas tree lies a romantic and often strange story of a king’s ransom in diamonds, bogus rubies, a lost burial urn —and even a diplomatic scandal
LATE this month (on the twenty-fifth, to be precise) hundreds of thousands of Canadians will unwrap identical little blue boxes. The covers, embossed with a black lion rampant and the twin letters “B,” will open to reveal anything from a four-dollar tie clip to a half-million-dollar diamond-andplatinum bracelet.
By the year’s end most of these boxes will have joined other blue boxes with black lions rampant in a few hundred thousand bureau drawers. In time they may be relegated to holding hairpins, unmated earrings or assorted foreign coins, but these boxes are seldom thrown away. The reason is sentimental: apart from Christmas, which accounts for much of the distribution of the boxes and their contents, few Canadians go through life without having at least one milestone with a memento from Henry Birks and Sons.
Christening mugs and spoons, graduation watches, athletic prizes, engagement rings, wedding gifts, retirement tokens, all come in the ubiquitous blue boxes. The final gift for many a Canadian also comes from Birks —the company sells hundreds of burial urns every year.
The Birks lion rampant has been at the birth and death of Canadians, marking their joys and triumphs and extravagances, for a relatively short seventy-five years. 1 was in 1879 that the first Canadian-born Bi/e s, Henry, set up shop in a fifteen-foot-widf store on St. James Street in Montreal. T1*" a behind him was an extraordinary dynast, ie wJrks engaged in the cutlery and jewelrv - right back to the first Queen Elizabet. Cane Rs delighted with the skill of one RiPj >> saiçpks at “the scyence, craft and mystryN , Tier.” With the present generation thr^ e a »ve spanned the two Elizabethan era?
Henry Birks the fir three thou-
sand dollars capital and his staff of two men and a hoy, catered only to Montreal’s carriage trade and turned over a respectable thirty thousand dollars in his first full year of business in the fifteen-foot store. His son William and his grandson Henry had the happy knack of satisfying what has become the Rolls-andCadillac trade and at the same time attracting the patronage of the kind of people who ride on streetcars. They thus expanded the family business to the point where grandson Henry Birks today reigns as president from the company’s discreetly sumptuous headquarters store on St. Catherine Street, Montreal, over a jewelry empire that includes branches in seventeen Canadian cities.
The staff of three has increased to twentythree hundred and the turnover of thirty thousand dollars in 1880 has grown to more than fifteen millions.
This gross is aided considerably by the fact that Canadians with really big money to spend on jewelry almost always go to Birks. Not long ago a Montreal woman treated herself to a pair of Birks bracelets at just under a million dollars. Another Montreal woman recently bought from Birks a $600,000 necklace. It is true that this type of trade, and the façade that goes with it, sometimes loses customers for Birks. An executive of Peoples Credit Jewellers, one of the few large rivals Birks has not bought out in its expansion across Canada, comments gleefully: “They take one look at
the doorman and hurry on to us.”
There may indeed be some justification for both the mystery and the prestige which have come to surround Birks. There is, for example, probably no other business house in Canada whose dignified president is entitled to get drunk in London without danger of arrest; or to be hanged, if it ever came to that, with a silken rope instead of a hemp one. Henry
Birks, as a Freeman of the Mystery of Goldsmiths, an ancient City of London guild, is entitled to those privileges. He is also eligible to vote for the Lord Mayor of London.
Prestige, in the form of a “biggest in the world” label, also belongs to Birks. The company is not the largest retailer of diamonds in the world, but because it concentrates much of its buying in Antwerp, the world’s diamond-cutting capital, it is Antwerp’s biggest retail jewelry customer.
Once and sometimes twice a year the faces in Antwerp’s Diamond Club light up at a notice on the board. This announces the impending arrival of J. Lovell Baker, Birks’ chief diamond buyer, and adds in French and Flemish that he will be “interested in acquiring some fine goods.” All diamond dealers have used the term “fine goods” for stones since the days when a code name was necessary to protect them from informers and footpads.
Probably the real truth about the Birks success story is that the company’s directors have been able to devise a suave combination of snob appeal and modern mass-merchandising methods. Somehow, too, a routine Birks business transaction often bestows on t he company publicity beyond price. When B. C. gave Princess Elizabeth a Birks diamond-emeraldand-platinum necklace during the 1951 royal tour the future queen told Provincial Secretary W. T. Straith: “I have never received a more beautiful gift.” This comment was widely published, and a clipping of the report was given a place of honor in the Birks archives.
Birks’ large trade in church regalia and religious jewelry got a fillip when the Quebec government turned to the firm for a gift to Paul-Emile Cardinal Léger, Archbishop of Montreal, after he became a cardinal. Birks created the biggest ecclesiastical ring in the world—bigger than
Continued on page 45
The Heuse That Henry Berks Built
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 21
the Pope’s. It contains an enormous amethyst surrounded by diamonds, set in an engraved platinum mounting more than an inch thick, and equipped with a hinge so that it can be worn outside a glove. Birks and everyone else concerned are reluctant to discuss the cost of the ring, but it is known to run to five figures. It was the most expensive ring of its type ever made by Birks.
Birks is always discreetly vague about such private sales, and never discloses the name of a customer. A Birks salesgirl found out why when she unthinkingly broke the rule. She saw the father of a girl friend in the store and learned that he had just bought a bracelet for three thousand dollars. That night she asked her friend: “How did your mother like the bracelet your father bought her today?” The bracelet unhappily was not for mother.
For every sale thus reminiscent of de Maupassant, Birks records a hundred in the key of O. Henry. A down-to-earth little man prices a small trophy cup, explaining, “It’s for the winner of a sort of race our club is holding, a rabbit chase on motorcycles.” A brisk sales manager orders a miniature silver vacuum cleaner. “We’re holding a contest among our door-to-door salesmen,” he reveals. Birks’ insignia department has supplied articles ranging from plaques to identify foreign embassies to serviceclub badges, from a bishop’s crozier to mascots for teen-agers’ hot rods. The Calgary Stampede goes to Birks for its sombrero crests.
The show windows set in the bronze and marble exterior of a typical Birks store are invariably an Aladdin’s Cave of tiaras, eighteenth-century candlesticks, beaten silver, bone China, Morocco leather, crocodile skin, costly bric-à-brac from five continents, and personal notepaper at $250 per thouj sand sheets. Inside, however, amid mahogany walls, marble pillars, plateglass showcases and inch-thick carpets ! it is possible to find even the sort of | costume jewelry that may be bought at the gift counter of any good department store.
Birks’ stores are happy hunting grounds for elderly women who live militantly in the past. They know that at Birks the clerks will not stare blankly when asked for a muffineer, but will promptly produce the required sugar dredger. And it is a matter of routine knowledge to a Birks assistant that the lowly term, “potato ring”—derived from the fact the article was invented in Ireland—is still occasionally applied to those dish rings that keep hot tureens away from polished table tops.
The first Henry Birks, who set the j “carriage trade only” policy, once had ! to scurry across the floor of his Montreal store and whisper to a clerk: “A !
lady over there has just asked me for a brass curate not more than two feet high. Is she mad or am I ignorant?” The clerk replied: “I’m afraid you’re
ignorant, sir. She’s using an old English term for a cake stand.”
Most members of the Birks sales staff start on the floor in their teens. Statistics show that if the average male cierk stays seven years he stays for life. Birks gives financial help to | many clerks who take a correspondj ence course to become registered jewelj ers. Among other things they must j learn the history of jewelry from the
Two bracelets were sent to the embassy: only one came,back. \\ ho was the thief?
days when cave men hung colored pebbles around their necks and they must pass written examinations supervised by local university professors. The Gemological Institute of America sets the courses.
A much stiffer course is set by the American Gem Society which admits to its ranks only top-flight experts who buy, sell and value the most costly stones and metals. The examinee must obtain a hundred percent on the tests. Passing the first makes him a registered jeweler and the second a certified gemologist. Birks employs half the cerl ified gemologists in Canada.
Rubies are Cheap in Bombay
Birks employees, whether they have degrees or not, are constantly reminded of their duty to the customer. One company leaflet says: “When an un-
usual request is made . . . We avoid blunt refusal and the customer is impressed with our desire to oblige.”
The trust and confidence of patrons are sometimes a source of embarrassment to Birks when its gem experts have to break bad news to people who have finally decided to dispose of “fabulously valuable” heirlooms. Lovell Baker, a dark, amiable map in his early sixties who is Birks’ chief diamond buyer and jewelry expgrt, must diplomatically explain that the intricate designs in precious-metal lockets, rings and pendants of grandmother’s day are worth only their weight; and worse, that the stones of ole® jewelry
are so badly cut by today’s standards that, even when big, they bring low prices.
Baker also must shatter the dreams of wealth of travelers who return to Canada with “fortunes in stones” they obtained for a song in a Bombay backalley bazaar. One woman went to Baker with half a dozen rubies she had bought in India—the source of most rubies. She said she had paid more than a hundred dollars each for them. Baker had to tell her they weren’t worth five dollars each. Just after the last war, however, an English sea captain brought in a purse full of rubies he’d bought in Ceylon. During the war his ship had been sunk by a German raider. When the captain was picked up from an open boat his rubies were concealed in a heel of his shoe. During three years in a German POW camp his rubies were hidden successfully in the wooden back of his hairbrush. Baker gave him three thousand dollars for them, twice the original price. A Birks customer bought them on the strength of their romantic story and had them set in a bracelet.
For a firm that deals in small articles of great value, Birks has had few thefts or attempted thefts. On one memorable occasion however a foreign ambassador to Ottawa stole a Birks bracelet. He asked Birks’ Ottawa branch to send up to his embassy two bracelets, one of which he would choose. The bracelets, each worth about two thousand dollars, were sent, and the next day one was returned by the ambassador’s chauffeur with the message that His
Excellency had decided not to buy it.
“Then where’s the other?” he was asked. “Should there be two?” the chauffeur replied in surprise.
When enquiries were made at the embassy the ambassador swore he had received only one bracelet. Further enquiries showed that he had positively received two. But the ambassador was adamant in his denial. Bilks made discreet approaches to the Canadian Department of External Affairs and to the ambassador’s government. Hands were held up in horror. No action must be taken. Good relations between the two countries were worth more than a bracelet. Diplomatic immunity must apply even to ambassadorial larceny.
Birks sat back helpless. Henry Birks, now president, was so angry that he told the story in a raised voice in the St. James’s Club, Montreal. “That’s slander,” said one member. “You could be sued.” Replied Birks: “That’s exactly what I want. If I can’t sue him he must sue me. Then the whole story will come out.” But it never has come out publicly until this day. A few years later the ambassador died. His widow opened a strongbox to which only the ambassador had had access. There was the bracelet. She returned it to Birks without comment.
Ticket for an Aged Watch
The firm was most heavily exposed to robbery during a fire at the Montreal store in 1908. When the blaze was at its height three men, posing as clerks who had been told to rescue some watches, tried unsuccessfully to get past the police cordon. A woman tried to get by, crying: “1 have a
valuable watch in there for repair, and I’m going to get it.” Two men were caught attempting to climb through a back window. A Montreal theatrical costumer, aware of the fire in progress, was sharp enough to refuse a man who came into his store in a hurry and asked to rent a fireman’s costume. As a policeman of those days remarked, “It was like trying to guard an apple orchard from a reform-school picnic.” Yet Birks succeeded. Losses amounted to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, all from fire, and were covered by insurance.
In a company as old as Birks, past and present tend inevitably to mingle. Thus a transaction begun on Oct. 12,
1901, caused no comment when it was completed a little more than a third of a century later. On the former date Mrs. I. A. L. Strathy, of 206 Cote des Neiges Road, Montreal, left a watch to be repaired at Birks. On Oct. 27, 1934, one of her descendants presented the ticket for recovery of the watch. Impassively the assistant removed the watch from a numbered hook on which it had received ten thousand three hundred and forty-four daily polishes and charged the claimant the sum inscribed on its yellowing 1901 ticket: $4.50.
The longest Birks transaction on record was completed when president Henry Birks last August received a letter which caused him to call an emergency board meeting.
The letter informed Birks that during the 1837 uprising of Lower Canada under Papineau a rebel named J. O. Chenier had been shot by British redcoats at St. Eustache, about fifteen miles northwest of Montreal. He had received a battleground burial in unconsecrated earth. In 1885, forty-eight years later, his remains were disinterred by surviving supporters of Papineau, cremated, placed in an urn bought from Birks, and carried to the cemetery on Cote des Neiges Road, Montreal, for a martyr’s re-burial. For some reason, the letter said, probably because the Catholic church in Quebechad opposed the rebellion, the Montreal cemetery authorities refused permission for the remains to be reinterred.
Nobody then had known what to d with the urn. Finally, because th name was on it, Birks were asked take care of it until a solution w; reached. It went into Birks’ vau and was forgotten for seventy yea.
The signatory to last August’s leL explained that he was married to; descendant of a man who had bee mayor of St. Eustache at the time c the rebellion and had fought agains the redcoats with Chenier. Could \i please, he added, have the urn bad for re-burial under the auspices of tin St. Jean Baptiste Society, a Quebec Catholic organization?
Birks directors were questioned b& none knew anything about the urn. Then Birks vaults were searched anr the urn was found. For some weel it stood in a cardboard box in one q the Birks offices, much to the disma;
In Antwerp diamond buyers take their pick from envelopes filled with gems
of a stenographer whose desk was nearby. ^At last, after Birks had carefuH,’ F¿’°^Jpd the credentials of the the urn was sent to him aiise ‘k8 War;he, carefully wrapped and inscr^.fu, .h the comment: “No
The71110!1 s*‘excîusive” when applied to Birican f^es is often factual statement ránK$r than advertising hyperbole, for xhe simple reason that Birks manufactures much of what the firm sells, particularly in silverware and jewelry.
Four hundred men work in the silverware factory across the street from Birks’ Montreal store. About seventy men work in the precious-jewelry factory over the Montreal store—-including Turks, East Indians, Germans, Italians, Belgians, Swiss and English, besides the Canadian majority.
Jewelry designer Herman Gutknecht says: “Good jewelers are rarer than
the gems they handle. When a jeweler dies or retires we sometimes have to scour the world for a replacement. It’s more of a vocation than a job. I can usually tell by a man’s face whether he’s got what it takes. I can’t explain it. It’s something under his skin and in his eyes.”
Every year Gutknecht visits Europe and New York to check trends in design. There is constant rivalry between the two localities. Innovations on the one side influence the other. Right now, he says, the flowing design is favored. This means that people prefer brooches, rings, clips and buckles set in loose loops, knots and bows of platinum rather than compact masses of densely clustered stones.
Now in his fifties, Gutknecht is an elegant slender man six feet three inches tall. Born and trained in Switzerland he joined Birks in 1927 and is a director of the company. As such he is on intimate terms with many wealthy clients and this has thrust him into the role of unofficial—-and unorthodox —salesman of upper-bracket jewelry.
Through Montreal’s social grapevine Gutknecht once heard that a man he knew had twelve thousand dollars lying idle and was toying with the idea of a gift to his wife. When next he met this man Gutknecht said: “I am
making a bracelet for your wife.” The man replied with surprise: “I haven’t
ordered any bracelet.” Gutknecht answered: “I know, but I’m making one just the same.”
For three months Gutknecht reported progress on the bracelet and was unabashed when the man said he had no intention of buying it. After that the man started getting interested in the bracelet and asked to see its design. But Gutknecht wouldn’t show it.
In six months the bracelet was ready. Gutknecht called on the man, beckoned him out to a swimming pool, and produced in the reflection of sun and water a bracelet that was almost blinding in its lustre. The man bought it on the spot. “The secret of selling jewelry,” says Gutknecht, “is to create an ardent desire for it in the customer’s mind.”
No Haggling over Diamonds
When Birks is the customer, however, caution rather than “ardent desire” is the watchword. Lovell Baker, the diamond buyer, who started as a messenger boy, has made more than fifty trans-Atlantic voyages in his hunt for diamonds. Often he spends a million dollars in Antwerp, then moves on to the secondary diamond-cutting cities of Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and Johannesburg and spends another half-million dollars in each place.
In Antwerp Baker meets by appointment the emissaries of a score of diamond-cutting firms in a private room of the Diamond Club. Each emissary, to protect himself from accusations of theft or substitution, brings from his boss a sealed and numbered envelope containing a collection of stones.
No haggling follows. There is not even any talk. Baker breaks the seal of the envelope and pours the stones out on a tray. He then examines each stone with an eyeglass under a strong light. Usually he rejects seven stones out of ten because they have a faint yellow tinge or flaws, or are inexpertly cut. (In some cases eighty percent of a diamond’s worth lies in the cutting.)
After making his choice Baker puts the selected stones in a second envelope, seals it, writes the amount of his bid on the outside and signs his name. He then seals the rejected stones in the original envelope and signs his name on the back. The emissary then takes the envelopes to the diamond cutter.
If the diamond cutter turns down Baker’s bid Baker hears no more about it. But if the bid is accepted the stones are returned, still sealed, to an official of the Diamond Club. The official breaks the seal, weighs the stones and announces their caratage and the price offered on the notice board. This helps the Diamond Club members to keep close tabs on demand and prices. After this Baker pays for and receives the stones, insures them, and forwards them by registered mail to Birks headquarters store in Montreal. Once he mail«! $250,000 worth in a single package. Birks has always found the registered mail safe.
There is no import duty on diamonds in Canada. The original Henry Birks saw to that. When Laurier’s Government was considering imposing one he went to Ottawa and got himself admitted to a cabinet meeting. He took from his trousers pocket a fistful of diamonds and poured them on the table in front of the astonished members: “There’s a million dollars’ worth there.” he said, “of the most easily concealed wealth in the world. Your proposed tax on diamonds is impractical because it’s uncollectible.” The idea was dropped.
The first Henry Birks was a nonconformist churchman, a teetotaler and nonsmoker, a man of simple tastes and thrifty habits, a staunch supporter of “the Empire” and an ardent reserve officer as a young man in the Victoria Rifles of Canada. He could look back on forty-seven ancestors whose names were inscribed in the Court Rolls of the Ancient Company of Cutlers in Sheffield, England, one of the earliest of the medieval trade guilds and still in existence.
The first known ancestor of the Canadian Birks was one Richard Birks, whose work was bought by Elizabeth I. Then there was a ’Thomas Birks, whose patron was James I, and a William Birks, who made silverware for Charles IJ. William Birks’ trademark was a church warden’s pipe. This mark now belongs to Birks of Canada and is stamped on their best silver. After William Birks there was a Jonathon Birks, who was Master of the Ancient Company of Cutlers in the days of Good Queen Anne. Yet another William Birks was Master of the Company in 1795.
Into this family, at Wombwell Hall, near Sheffield, was born a John Birks who broke with family tradition and became a druggist. In 1832 he emigrated to Canada and set up a drugstore on Montreal’s St. James Street.
Two of the three children John Birks brought out from England died in the cholera epidemic that ravaged Montreal in the 1830s. But Henry, his first Canadian-born child, grew up a stalwart lad. Henry, who was later to become the family’s “Old Gentleman,” was apprenticed to Savage and Lyman, Montreal jewelers. Savage and Lyman prospered for years on business with
but in the 1870s the tly because Imperial .■s, whose officers were the corners, were withdrawn from ..ureal.
When the Old Gentleman set up in business for himself on St. James Street in 1879 with three thousand dollars capital, he instituted three principles then new to the jewelry trade: spot
cash for all purchases; one price to all customers; no haggling. In his first twelve months of business the Old Gentleman turned over his stock seven times, then a Canadian jewelry-trade record.
He had to be respectful to Montreal’s wealthy families but he never bowed under a slight. One day when he was holding his first and last auction sale, to get rid of some surplus watches, the scion of a big Montreal family pushed his way behind the curtain separating the stock from the customers. William H. Lavers, the boy assistant, commonly known as Billy, asked him to return to the customers’ part of the store. But the visitor was drunk. He picked up a sword. Unsheathing it he struck Billy across the mouth with the scabbard. Then he ran away.
That night Henry Birks penned a caustic note to the intruder’s parents. Next day the family’s lawyers offered Billy fifty dollars to keep his mouth shut. The Old Gentleman stepped forward and said: “Mr. Lavers will
not connive in a criminal offense for a paltry fifty dollars.”
“How much?” asked the lawyers.
“One thousand dollars,” said Birks.
The lawyers bowed in agreement and turned to go. As they left up spoke Billy:
“To be paid,” he said, “by noon tomorrow, in the name of William H. Lavers Esquire, to Montreal General Hospital.” The hospital benefited. The young man’s family continued to patI ronize Birks. To this day their deI I scendants still do. Before he died in ' 1915 Billy Lavers became managing ; director of the Montreal store.
By the turn of the centurv Henry ! Birks had more than two hundred employees in a big new store on St. Catherine Street and Phillips Square. He had also admitted as equal partners his three sons, Gerald W., known as “the Colonel,” John Henry, known as “Mister Henry,” and William Massey, known as “Mister W. M.”
The Colonel, the youngest, was in charge of advertising. In spite of a tubercular hip he went overseas in World War I as a colonel in command of the Canadian Military YMCA. After 1918 he retired from the company and devoted his life to YMCA welfare work. Mister Henry was responsible for starting the company’s silver factory. Mis! ter W. M. was the driving force behind the many amalgamations and extensions which over the next thirty years established Birks in seventeen Can¡
The biggest amalgamation carne in | 1905 when Mister W. M. and his brothers went into partnership with the Ellis and Ryrie brothers in Toronto. Though the main Toronto store is now owned wholly by Henry Birks and j Sons, an Ellis is still in command.
When the Old Gentleman died in ! 1928 Mister W. M. became president. I He lived on an old seigneury at Mount I Bruno, eighteen miles south of Monti-real, and on Sundays read the lesson in a family chapel made from an old mill. He wrote a book on church architecture and helped to found the United Church of Canada through the fusion of nonconformist theological colleges at McGill, on whose board he sat.
Though he spoke French almost as I well as English, he got on bad terms
with Montreal’s French-speaking society during the 1917 conscription crisis. In spite of the firm’s important business in Catholic church regalia he sad in a public speech: “The
exclusive and extreme provincialism that lias been shown in the province of Quebec is neither national, imperial nor international but ecclesiastical and tribal and sometimes I despair of it.” But every year Birks still does a big business in Catholic church regalia.
Some years before his death Mister W. M kicked himself upstairs into the chairmanship and his brother, Mister Henr>, became president. Then, in 1949 and 1950, the three second-generatioa Birks died within a few months.
Since then the president has been Miste: W. M.’s eldest son, Henry Giffori Birks, invariably known as “HGB.” He is a lean well-preserved man of sixty with blue-grey eyes. Like most of the Birks clan HGB started “on the ficor” in his teens. In World War I he was an infantry officer with the Black Watch of Canada and was wounded at the Somme. His brother Victor, now managing director of the Montreal store, won the Military Cross and Bar in the same war.
At [least once a year HGB shows his face in every Birks branch in Canada. All the branch managers are used to seeing him halt on the threshold of each department and check up thus before entering: “Now let’s see. That little
red-haired youngster is Tommy. That tall dark one with the glasses is Arthur. The girl in the corner is Miss Smith. And that old boy over there is Mr. Black Right? Okay, let’s go in.”
Can’t Resist Black Pearls
HGB inaugurated the Old Guard, a group of employees with more than twenty-five years’ service. Today it has about four hundred members. Among their privileges are freedom from the time clock and three weeks’ holiday. HGB maintains the beautifully bound company scrapbooks started by his grandfather. They contain photographs, clippings, souvenirs and letters written by employees on foreign travels.
Both his daughters, now married, have been presented at Court. During the war the elder served in England with the Canadian Red Cross. His son Drummond, now being groomed to succeed him in the presidency, is a last-war veteran of the Black Watch of Canada.
Doubtless Drummond Birks is studying the secrets that have brought Birks millions of ordinary and at least one extraordinary customer.
This customer is a South American millionaire who keeps a sumptuous apartment in Montreal. He dresses like a diplomat out of a nineteenthcentury operetta and carries an ebony cane with a gold knob that is between a golf ball and a baseball in size. He buys all sorts of jewelry continuously but is especially devoted to black pearl. Dozens of sets of black-pearl studs, cuff links, tie pins and other accessories lie in his strong box. One Birks executive says: “He tells me that at night
he arranges all his jewels on his dressing table and talks to them.”
A couple of years ago the millionaire trapped part of his anatomy in a door and had to have it removed. In great delight he went to Birks and asked if the firm could replace it with a gold substitute. Birks said the firm was not equipped for the operation but recommended a dentist, who obliged for a princely sum.
Today that South American millionaire is probably the only man in the world equipped with a gold thumbnail. ★