Jeweler prepares to shutter stores

Friedman's Jewelers' five Charleston-area stores, including this one at Citadel Mall, will close by the end of June.

One of the oldest jewelry retailers in the Southeast has started selling off its vast stock of rings, watches and chains as the 88-year-old merchant prepares to close its doors for good.

Friedman's Inc., which opened its first shop in 1920 in Savannah, filed for bankruptcy in January.

The company's five Charleston-area stores, among 30 statewide, will serve their last customers by the end of June.

A locally based firm, Silverman Jewelers Consultants Inc. of Daniel Island, is one of three firms appointed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to liquidate the merchandise from Friedman's remaining 377 stores nationwide.

For companies like Silverman, it's a bittersweet proposition.

With much of the nation gripped by a broad-based economic downturn, many consumers are more concerned about putting gas in their cars and food on the table than spending their discretionary income in the nation's shopping malls, said Bob Epstein, chief executive officer.

"Fortunately, or unfortunately, we're very busy," he said. "It's tough in the retail industry these days."

In its heyday, Friedman's operated 464 stores in 23 states and employed about 3,500 people.

The company moved its head office to Addison, Texas, outside Dallas, when the retailer acquired Crescent Jewelers in 2006.

Locally, Friedman's operates stores in Charleston, North Charleston, Summerville, Moncks Corner and Walterboro.

Seventy-eight locations were sold earlier this year to Chicago-based retailer Whitehall Jewelers. Stock at the remaining stores will be sold during closeout sales that started last week.

Epstein said the liquidation is one of the biggest ever in the jewelry retail industry.

The inventory alone is valued at more than $400 million, he said.

"There are some real bargains," Epstein said. "We're selling everything down to the last piece."

For the jewelry industry, where the number of jewelry retailers nationwide has declined steadily during the past decade, it's another sign that all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

There were 27,600 stores across the country in 1997, according to Jewelers of America, the national association for the retail jewelry trade.

By 2007, that number, which does not include big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, had fallen to 23,400, a drop of 15 percent.

However, recent sales have increased. Since 2003, annual revenue at jewelry stores has jumped nearly 23 percent to almost $64 billion.

The spring and summer wedding seasons are the busiest time of year for the industry, said Lauren Thompson, public affairs coordinator for New York-based Jewelers of America.