When Vaclav Jule Pekor was 16, he left his birthplace of Prague, Austria to immigrate to the United States. In 1878, he found family in Georgia, apprenticed at two jewelry stores in the city of Columbus, and went on to open his own jewelry store 11 years later. This is the genesis of Tom Cook Jeweler, which turned 131-years-old this year thanks to five generations of family jewelers.
Similar to many European immigrant stories, Vaclav entered the US at a port of entry where he could be properly processed as a newcomer to America. He had two motivational factors going for him at 16. The first was his desire to find opportunities in the US. The other was an older brother who owned a company called Pekor Iron Works in Columbus, Georgia.
Finding family was perhaps the easier task. More challenging was seeking out a work opportunity then blazing a career path. Young Vaclav landed two apprenticeship jobs with jewelers. He swept floors, and eventually took on more and greater responsibilities as he worked up the ladder.
In 1889, when Vaclav was 27, he founded Pekor Jewelry Company. Three years later he became a US citizen and then married and had three daughters. Vera, one of the three Pekor girls, married Tom Cook, Sr. in 1924. Two years later Pekor Jewelry Company was organized in Macon, Georgia, where Tom Cook, Sr. went to work with his father-in-law. In early 1931, Tom Cook, Sr. purchased the business from his father-in-law and renamed it Pekor-Cook Jewelry Company.
Jewelry retail was going well for the enterprising family. Sadly, in July 1931, Vaclav died from a sudden heart attack. Tom Cook, Sr., ran the Macon store until he was called to active duty in October 1940. He pursued his military advancement much like his civilian work, with vigor and determination – qualities Vaclav most likely approved of when giving away his daughter’s hand in marriage.
During active duty, Tom Cook, Sr. worked his way up to the rank of colonel. He commanded the military police detachment at Camp Wheeler. Like any good soldier he sent his monthly pay back home to family to keep them and the business going. The long distance strategy worked.
Upon returning to civilian life his family business was in fine shape. Unfortunately, Vera’s health took a turn for the worse. Doctors recommended warmer climates to ease some of the symptoms. The couple vacationed often in Daytona Beach, Florida. A scouting expedition to the Florida city proved fruitful with a jewelry store for sale on Beach Street.
The year 1947 was an eventful one for the couple. Tom Cook, Sr. held a liquidation sale with the goal of moving his family and business to Florida. That same year he renamed his store Tom Cook Jeweler and incorporated the family business. While the original jewelry store with the new name remained open in Macon, Georgia, the couple moved to Daytona Beach for warmer temperatures and new opportunities in the Sunshine State.
The change of scenery didn’t have an impact on Tom Cook, Sr.’s approach to running his business. The changes he ushered in, fostered by the Old World work ethic of his upbringing, allowed the couple to quickly gain footing and following in Daytona Beach, especially with engraving services.
“As the family history is told,” says Tom Cook Jeweler’s president Sheryl Cook, “Tom Cook, Sr., sold 12 sterling silver goblets that needed to be hand engraved. He sipped Old Forester [Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey] while teaching himself that skill.”
The year 1947 wasn’t through with its changes. It was also the year Tom Cook, Jr. began working in the family business. Enrolled in college at the University of Georgia, he left school to join his father and mother in Daytona Beach. Working in the family business wasn’t just a career path, it’s also where Tom Cook, Jr. met his wife Gloria Houston. They were married in 1952. The following year their daughter Vicki was born and five years later her sister Sheryl was born.
Tom Cook, Jr. worked at the Daytona Beach store for roughly four decades. Colon cancer forced him to retire in 1995. Sheryl and Victoria, both of whom grew up in the business, took the management reins over at the store when their father became too ill to work.
“My sister Vicki became secretary/treasurer, while I became president of the company,” says Sheryl. “That’s when we officially became the fourth generation of family jewelers.”
Vicki’s daughter Ashley Leonhardt Lee showed interest in the family jewelry store at an early age. It’s no surprise that after graduating from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in advertising, she went on to become a Graduate Gemologist. In 2005 she became the fifth generation to call Tom Cook Jeweler “home.”
New blood. New age. New media, Ashley “took the store’s marketing to a new level,” says Sheryl. “In addition to becoming the store’s chief diamond buyer she created a fresh online presence by designing a new website and advancing our social media pages as the vice-president of sales and marketing.”
New media and marketing aside, in looking back at 131 years in business, Sheryl knows that honesty, integrity and extraordinary customer service were inherent personal and professional qualities handed down proudly like the keys to the front door.
Being of service to the community is equally important as serving the community. Tom Cook Jeweler has a lengthy history of community outreach with many family and staff members working in or volunteering with their favorite charities and non-profits.
Even with the current challenges businesses of all types and sizes are facing in today’s economy, Vicki, Sheryl and Ashley are working diligently to keep the store going for not just another generation of customers, but perhaps even the next generation of family jewelers.
“The store continues to find new and exciting jewelry lines and watch brands for our customers,” says Sheryl. “We strive to bring the newest and best jewelry to our customers at affordable prices. This is just part of the work that will keep the family business going. Factor in exceptional staff and Ashley’s daughter Madison is already calling Tom Cook Jeweler ‘her jewelry store’ at five years old. This is what will keep the legacy going.”