A jewelry store with the name Miner’s Den Jewelers must have a colorful and rich history to it. And, the Royal Oak, Michigan-based jewelry store doesn’t disappoint.
The tale told by second generation jewelers (first generation store owners) Mike Schowalter and his brother Tom covers not just a lot of history but actual ground, from mining for gold during California’s Gold Rush years and finding a frozen mastodon tusk to flying with famous aviators and foraging for minerals and gem specimens on family vacations in The Great Lakes region.
The Schowalter family’s history (and all their connections to gems and jewelry) dates back to the Gold Rush days of the late 1800s. It wasn’t until 1971, however, that Miner’s Den Jewelers opened its doors to the public, selling jewelry and offering the mainstay of customer services. In 2022, Mike, Tom and Barb, along with their staff, will be celebrating the family store’s 50th anniversary.
Just about every family story of interest involves an eccentric uncle. That’s the case for the Schowalters. “Will Walker, or Uncle Will as our father called him, was a close family friend that discovered gold on his property in Marysville, California in the early 1900s,” says Mike. “With his trusted mule, Bluebell, and a handful of basic mining tools, he found enough gold nuggets to stake claims – some of which are still owned by the family.”
Uncle Will made it big. So much so that he invested in residential buildings in San Francisco. But like most investors of the time, the years leading up to the Great Depression wiped out his hard-earned success. Frank Schowalter, Mike and Tom’s father, was inspired by Will’s voyages. After serving in the US Marine Corps during World War II, Frank held on to that sense of adventure, wanting to strike it big in gold mining.
With an old school chum from college, Frank set out to mine gold in California’s Death Valley. The adventuresome twosome also worked up and down the West Coast on banana boats and visited mining camps near Uncle Will’s old claim. During this time they met up with famous transcontinental aviator Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan, who routinely flew supply runs from the Bay Area to Alaska – known as the “Frisco to Fairbanks” flight path. Alaska was the new gold mining frontier.
Frank and his companion started their Alaskan adventures by signing on with American Smelting and Refining Co. “They first served as operators on huge, barge-like dredges that chewed up the frozen tundra tracts and spit out raw earth behind, digesting its precious gold ore,” says Mike. Later they served on security details for the same company on Alaska’s desolate plains.
With all work and no play they saved up their money for a grubstake and mined gold for one season. There was no gold ore found during that time, but they did unearth the tusk of a wooly mastodon. “Pieces of the tusk are still in the family,” says Mike.
Undeterred, Frank returned home to Michigan to borrow money from his father to purchase a bulldozer. During his stay he met and married Barbara. In time, she was pregnant with Mike which put an end to gold mining aspirations in Alaska.
Frank abandoned his Alaska prospects to start a family. The sense of adventure associated with digging and prospecting, however, never left him. “Our dad’s love of rocks and minerals were the basis for all of our vacations as young kids,” says Mike. “We’d go to Lake Michigan and Lake Superior hunting for Petoskey stone, agate and copper. We camped all over Michigan and looked for rocks as a family. It instilled the love of rocks in our family.”
Over the years the family vacations and the passions that drove them produced a lot of gem specimens and ore. In 1971, the amount of material could no longer be contained in the garage. Frank rented the retail space that Mike, Tom and Barb currently own. When Mike was eight he began cutting stones. A hobby turned into an interest and then a career path when Mike completed his degree in geology.
After completing his stint in the Navy, Mike joined his father in the family business. “Back then we were supplying rocks and minerals to collectors and lapidary equipment to hobbyists,” says Mike.
Miner’s Den Jewelers went from serving rock and mineral collectors to being rock and mineral cutters. Making their own jewelry with gemstones they cut was a natural, logical and necessary evolution in the family business. “In addition to being good cutters we were darn good silversmiths,” says Mike. And with that the transformation began starting in the 1,000-sqaure-foot space.
Mike and Tom remember the formative years well. Similar to evolution in nature, the process of taking the family business from rocks and minerals for collectors and hobbyists to a fine jewelry business for the masses required time, hard work and immense sacrifice.
“We couldn’t afford hiring employees so every family member worked in the business, including Tom, who was 11 when the store opened, me, my sister Barb and my mother,” says Mike. “Our goal back in the early ‘70s was to gross $100 a day. I remember the day when we broke the $100 barrier. It didn’t help support anybody any better, but the added revenue helped grow the business.”
That became the modus operandi for the Schowalter family – run lean and mean and keep reinvesting profits back into the business. Coral and turquoise was all the rage then and it helped bring in much-needed expansion revenue. Money was invested in jewelry making equipment and bench jewelers’ tools, which allowed Miner’s Den to do repairs for their customers and other retailers, in addition to making jewelry in-house.
Doing third-party work had its benefits but also came with its share of headaches. With the 1980s on the horizon it was time to invest in diamonds and finer jewelry. Tom and Mike earned their Graduate Gemologist certificates from the GIA.
Diamond and gemstones, fine jewelry and bench jeweler shops equipped with the latest technology got them on a path to becoming successful modern day jewelers. It took two decades, but by the 1990s the family business evolved, expanded (from 1,000 to 10,000-square-feet) and was profitable.
Miner’s Den Jewelers is now a state-of-the-art jewelry store with jewelry designing services staffed by three designers, six full-time jewelers and a sales team. With such successes come some spoils. In the spirit of gold miners’ work hard, play hard approach to life, Tom has a homemade whiskey collection he shares with customers.
“We’ve always been into making things and whiskey is no exception,” says Mike. “We give customers a snoot to share Tom’s new batches.”
With milestone celebrations on the horizon, Mike, Tom and Barb plan on having a “major party” in 2022 to mark their anniversary. Gen 3.0 is already taking formative shape in the family business, but Mike says,
“It’s no longer our vision: It’s their [Gen 3.0 and staffers] vision because they understand the future of the jewelry better than we’re capable of.”