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CLIENT NEWS: Hamilton watchmaker Neil Thomas retires after 44 years in the jewellery business

Neil Thomas was just nine years old when he started working in the jewellery business, helping run errands in his father Bob Thomas’ Tokoroa jewellery shop.

The store, Thomas Jewellers, was where Neil returned out after high school in Hamilton, working as an apprentice watchmaker from the age of 17 before winning a scholarship to hone his skills training at Omega in Switzerland in his early 20s.

That passion for watches, and later jewellery, has seen Neil, now 61, work in the industry for more than four decades. During that time, he’s owned and operated several successful jewellery retail businesses around the North Island.

He took over Thomas Jewellers in Rosebury Street, Tokoroa, from his father in 1984, and also owns and operates a Hamilton shop, Neil Thomas Showcase Jewellers in the Centre Place mall.

Both stores have a rich history, and seen bustling trade over the years, but it’s time to move on, and Neil is retiring and shutting up shop at the end of the year.

“It’s the end of an era, so it’s a happy-sad feeling,” says Neil. “I’m happy to move on to a new chapter, but I’m sad for nostalgic reasons.”

The Hamilton shop was previously owned by Perry Frankham, a well-known Hamilton identity, when Neil bought it in 1997. It had been operating since the mid-1960s and saw various name changes over the years, including Frankham Jewellers and Gemtime Jewellers. From 2007 the shop became Neil Thomas Gemtime Jewellers, then Neil Thomas Showcase Jewellers in 2011.

Thomas Jewellers also has a long legacy, and was founded in 1952 by Bob Thomas – who at 91 still recalls the store with pride.

Likewise, Neil enjoyed working closely with his father in the business over the years. “Dad and I are close, and I always looked up to him, and wanted to be a watchmaker just like him.”

It was a proud moment when Neil won the scholarship to Switzerland, learning from master watchmakers for several years, before bringing that knowledge back to share with the New Zealand industry.

While trends in jewellery have come and gone over the decades, Neil says three parts of the business have been consistently strong: watches, gold and diamond jewellery.

Personalisation is also a big trend. “I’ve done a lot of hand-made, bespoke items over the years, and repaired or modified jewellery,” says Neil. “That can be very creative and rewarding.”

One major change to the jewellery industry is the prominence of brand names, which “has become huge”, says Neil. “Fashions and concepts come and go very fast now. Something would be here for a couple of years, but now it’s in for a couple of months then out. That’s been influenced by the internet and social media.”

Although leaving the trade is bittersweet, it’s the customer interaction that made it special.

“I love helping people and over the years I must have fixed up hundreds of things – watches, jewellery – for people. I will miss the one-on-one relationships with customers,” says Neil.

The stores wide range of jewellery, from bangles and bracelets to rings, earrings, necklaces and chains in everything from rose gold to sterling silver. There are pearls, emeralds, sapphire, diamonds and rubies, alongside latest brand jewellery from Karen Walker, Meadowlark and Stolen Girlfriends Club. There are a huge number of quality watch brands, which is no surprise given Neil’s passion for watchmaking.

Selling jewellery is all about selling dreams, Neil reckons, and that’s lots of fun. “We are selling happiness and it’s been a happy business to be in. You are there for special moments in people’s lives. Engagement and wedding rings are important symbols in people’s lives, and you get to be part of that. It’s been a privilege.”

With retirement, comes the chance to get away from the seven-day-a-week work commitment, spend time with loved ones and do more travelling.

To mark the closing down of the two stores, everything in Thomas Jewellers in Tokoroa and Neil Thomas Showcase Jewellers in Hamilton will be sold at half price from October 1.

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