As Schomburg’s Jewelers prepares to mark its 150th anniversary, its owners can look back on a history that got in on the ground floor, so to speak.
Its hometown – Columbus, Ga. – was a fledgling mill town on the Chattahoochee River when 18-year-old Frederick Carl Schomburg immigrated from Hanover, Germany to America, stopping briefly in North Carolina on the way to what would be his and his descendants’ forever home. Many immigrants to the area were from Germany, and many were attracted by the plentiful blue-collar jobs, such as brick making – but not Carl, as he was called. The son of farmers, he studied clockmaking for a year, then left Hanover never to return to the homestead or to fieldwork. In Columbus, he worked for a jeweler – which in those days was a clockmaker – and after his employer died, he opened the shop under his own name. It was 1872.
“At first it was truly just clocks,” says Mary Luby, who represents the fifth generation of Schomburgs to operate the store. Clocks from Germanic areas including Austria were popular, and there was plenty of business in the boomtown.
“He was big into serving the community,” Luby says of Carl. “He went to all the churches and did their clocks; he’d set them and wind them every day.”
In 1875, Carl Schomburg married Wilhelmina Reich – whose family were Hanover transplants like him – and they had six children: four boys and two girls. The second generation of clock-centric jewelers was in the making.
Carl’s son Frederick Herman Schomburg worked in the store as a young boy and took over operations around 1915 – 1920. But the patriarch kept a hand in.
“Oh, Carl was still in here,” Luby says. “We like to joke that Schomburgs don’t leave unless it’s in a box.”
It was during this second phase that the shop was for a while named C. Schomburg & Son – and the business offerings grew beyond clocks to include jewelry, sterling silver entertainment ware, and fine china.
That triad of anchor items continues to set Schomburg’s apart, says Luby.
“We are one of only a few stores in the Southeast that carry china, silver, and high-end jewelry,” she says.
The third generation, spanning the 1960s and 1970s, saw a short-lived expansion to two stores.
“That didn’t last long,” Luby says. “We couldn’t keep it run by the family that way.”
The fourth generation of Schomburg’s Jewelers was run by Luby’s grandfather, Fred Schomburg, who was a full colonel during World War II and worked at the store before and after his service.
Each relocation has involved moving beloved traditional furnishings.
“We have all the original cases that were built in 1900, and one from 1872,” Luby says. “And we have the original clock, for every move.”
Their current location on Rollins Way in north Columbus is a 3,000-square-foot standalone storefront, part of a corner strip mall that the Schomburgs bought with another business.
Today four family members operate the store together: Along with Luby, there is Laura S. Patrick, her mother; Ricky Schomburg, her uncle (Patrick’s brother); and Collins Schomburg, one of Luby’s 15 first cousins. It’s anybody’s guess who among the many relatives will take on the sixth-generation role.
“Collins is focused on jewelry, gemology, and repair,” Luby says. “My mother and I focus on china and giftware. We buy from a lot of small companies, fair trade. One of our biggest suppliers is Simon Pearce out of Vermont.”
Rick is an AGS certified gemologist and Schomburg’s is the only AGS store in town, she says. The store additionally is the only source outside of Atlanta to offer Herend china and figurines from Hungary.
Luby attributes the staying power of the silverware and chinaware to the traditional Southern clientele that makes up the original customer base. Other influences have brought in less-traditional and less-regional tastes.
“Fort Benning is an infantry training base about 15 minutes away,” Luby says, “and that’s a conglomeration of people from all different areas. And there’s also a very large orthopedic hospital, and their doctors and wives from different areas.”
Over the decades, Luby says watches and clocks took “such a turn” with mass production and innumerable brands that they no longer dominate Schomburg’s operations.
“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is the people are moving to more casual jewelry,” she says. Whereas in the 1960s, people bought items such as dinner rings and special necklaces just for cocktail parties, today people want something that is casual and can be worn every day.
“They like something subtle, not too ostentatious – a simple gold necklace, diamond stud earrings, a nice ring.”
Many challenging periods over the years have demanded new approaches: Not until the pandemic shutdown of 2020 did the Schomburgs find themselves dropping off puzzles to people staying home or offering a nice silver salt cellar for those eating in more often.
Still ticking at 150, Schomburg’s is the oldest jeweler in Columbus, more than a century older than the next one in line.
Luby says the family’s willingness to work hard and sacrifice has served well: “If you’re working during a recession, the owner can decide not to take a paycheck so the staff can get paid. … And you have to change with the times. I never thought I’d be selling puzzles and trinkets and little bags! You have to grow with the times.”