Honoring tradition and embracing change go hand in hand at Wirt’s Jewelers, where third-generation ownership means keeping the vision and the books in balance. Kelli Mayfield – who owns and operates Wirt’s in North Little Rock, Arkansas, with husband Lance – took the long way home before finding her place in jewelry retailing. But signing up for the RJO Next Gen Experience helped solidify her path.
“I literally grew up in the business,” Mayfield says. When she was kindergarten age, her mother, Cindy Rouse, began to work at one of the family’s two jewelry stores while her uncle managed the other location. Mayfield recalls riding with her mother to the store and sleeping on the floor in the showcase covers.
“I grew up with a lot of interest in the bench – watching my uncle, the other jewelers, the watchmakers, and playing with the tools.”
Despite that early fascination, Mayfield went on to pursue a degree in special education – until the program changed.
“My uncle had gotten out of the business by then. I was in limbo with my school program, and Mom asked me to come work for her. … There came a sense of pride and desire to grow something my family had built. I later met my husband, and life just fell into place.”
Thirteen years into their marriage, Lance left his career in law enforcement and joined Kelli in the jewelry business. “Seven years now, working together, and we still really like each other!”
The stores had been established by Mayfield’s grandfather, Sedric Wirt, who served in the Korean War as one of the “Chosin Few,” soldiers who fought in the Chosin Reservoir Campaign. Wounded and taken prisoner, Wirt lost both legs below the knee to frostbite during his 10-day captivity. His rehab program introduced him to watch and jewelry repair.
Back in the states, Wirt married wife Phyllis at 19 and completed his education in horology through the VA. He was just 21 when they opened their first store and daughter Cindy was born. The store didn’t pan out, and they closed it – but Wirt’s dream persisted. He took a job as a foreman at US Time Corp., and in 1964, opened another store. Phyllis, a seamstress, collected repairs all day while Sedric worked at the plant.
“He would come home, eat dinner, and head back to the shop to do repairs all night,” Mayfield says.
When the Leveretts (then of Leverett’s Jewelry) recommended Wirt to Missouri Pacific, he became the railroad’s official watch inspector, serving until the program dissolved in the 1980s.
“That built up quite a bit of business for us,” Mayfield says.
Wirt’s Jewelers incorporated in 1969 and operated two locations for nearly three decades before closing one. Eventually the family purchased and renovated a freestanding former bank building to move into. The drive-through window came in handy during the pandemic in 2020.
Today, Wirt’s has six personnel, with Mayfield and two others in the back and Lance working with two others in the front.
A significant moment in Mayfield’s career occurred when she hired a jeweler whose passion for teaching meshed with her desire to learn CAD.
“We shared a desire to continue the trade by educating the next generation – and in fact he just left the bench to teach at SEARK College in Pine Bluff,” Mayfield says.
After learning the basics from her former jeweler, Mayfield began designing wax models on her own. She later took Stuller’s beginners’ MatrixGold course and recently completed the latest advanced courses at Stuller. She plans to continue her education in CAD and to complete her GIA gemology degree.
Mayfield credits the Retail Jewelers Organization with helping her get her bearings as a jeweler.
“Joining RJO was probably one of the best moves we made,” she says. “We were able to make friends all across the nation, good people to reach out to whenever you have a question.
“And RJO Next Generation – we were one of the inaugural groups. It’s an education program for people in their 20s and 30s who are part of the family business. They may have been thrown into it, or it may have been their passion, or they’re next in the line of succession.”
During the weekend seminar at McDonald’s Campus in the Chicago area, a major topic was establishing a vision.
“It got the wheels turning. I thought, ‘What’s my vision?’ Did I just want to carry on the current status quo or make it mine? I learned that I’m not a traitor to the family business by putting my own spin on it.”
The Mayfields decided to add a modern touch while honoring tradition.
“What my husband and I want is to be on the front end of technological changes, and to continue building the knowledge and skills of our people,” she says.
“We value education. It keeps our staff up to date on industry standards. We pay for each of our employees to complete the GIA AJP courses. … We also bring in special training and include them on buying trips and seminars. And in honor of my late grandfather, we plan to open a scholarship to help someone interested in becoming a bench jeweler or watchmaker.”
One tradition that appears to be passed down from her grandparents:
“We are not dependent on the bank! We operate on a cash-flow basis, we own our stock inventory, we follow a budget, and we don’t spend millions on advertising. This allows us to work smart with our money, provide competitive wages for our work family, and reasonable prices to our guests. Plus, we get to take home a reasonable wage to live a comfortable life.”
Mayfield takes after her grandfather in honoring the memo: Instead of stocking unusual pieces, she works with a supplier to provide items on memo to meet requests that current inventory can’t meet.
“What we sell, we pay for. What we don’t, we send back. It’s a win-win for both our vendors and our guests.”