As a young man taking business classes at Franklin & Marshall College on the G.I. Bill, Irwin Farber received sage advice from a favorite professor: "Make your customers love you."
Today, the 90-year-old Farber attributes this advice to the success of the St. John's Jewelry store he opened with his bookkeeper wife, 83-year-old Charlotte, in 1973. The store spent nearly 20 years in its original location in St. John's Plaza before moving across the street on Route 40 in Ellicott City.
"Dad has always had a custom approach to each and every customer and their needs. He's genuinely interested in their lives," said Farber's daughter, Linda Miller, a gemologist, 52, who now owns and operates the store with the help of a cadre of longtime employees.
Among the employees are Miller's two daughters Margaux, 23, and Nicolette, 15, who are the third generation of family members to work at the store.
St. John's Jewelry held a 40th anniversary celebration earlier this month, and customers gathered to celebrate one of Howard County's oldest jewelry stores amid the displays of cards and flowers.
Longtime customer Donna Birll gave Farber a big hug. "He's known me since I was 16 years old," she said.
Jim Marthinuss, who has been coming for years to the store's Christmas events, said, "It's an old-time jewelry store. You just don't see many of them left."
Sandy DeLaney recounted how she bought her first "piece of real jewelry" from Farber at the store's original location. Now with Miller at the helm of St. John's, she's entrusted her with redesigning family heirlooms.
"I brought my family diamonds to Linda, who used them to create a beautiful piece for my daughter. Linda also designed a brand new engagement ring for me and used my original engagement ring diamond to create a necklace," DeLaney said.
Before opening St. John's Jewelry store, Farber was the jewelry department manager at Taylor's department store (now Taylor's Antique Mall) on Main Street in Ellicott City for 16 years.
"At that time the county was run by commissioners and a five-man police squad," Farber said. "Business was conducted on a friendly handshake."
"Dad knew everyone's name," said Miller who started working at the family store in 10th grade writing repair slips and continued until she left for college on a volleyball scholarship to Florida Southern College.
At FSC, Miller said her volleyball team went to the national championship four times before she graduated with a biology degree.
"When I came home, I had to make some hard decision about whether I wanted to pursue a career in sports rehabilitation or go into the family business. I choose the family business and went to the Gemological Institute of American in California to become a gemologist," Miller said.
After graduate school, Miller worked with her parents "doing appraisals of diamonds, colored stones and became a buyer for the store." She became owner and president of St. John's Jewelry store in 2003.
Today, the store is still a family affair. Miller's mother "keeps the books" and her dad serves as "a business consultant and runs the back office."
As for Miller's daughters, Margaux works at the store "performing event planning and marketing two days a week." Tenth-grader Nicolette is "just getting her feet wet" in customer service.
Miller hopes her girls will take the same path she did "by going out into the world and figuring out if they really want to be in the family business.
"I love what I do," Miller said. "I'd want them to have that same feeling if they choose to work at the store."
She has a hunch that one of the girls will take over the store. "Probably Margaux. I see her doing that," Miller said. "But I'd love to have Nicolette, too."
According to Margaux, Miller's hunch may be right.
"I think there could be a future for me at the store," Marqaux said. "I like planning special events that build our client base. I'm keeping an open mind."
Margaux hinted that her sister may also have an interest, "As a small child, Nicolette always collected stones and rocks. But she's still young. So it's hard to say."