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Jewelry store owners have savored wild ride to the top

When it comes to business growth stories, it's pretty hard to beat a journey that started in a tent at the base of a New Hampshire mountain and wound up in a prized corner location at The Village on Venetian Bay shopping center in Naples.

John and Jennifer Phelps, owners of William Phelps Custom Jeweler since 1998 — when they bought the business opened by John's parents a decade earlier — said it's been a wild ride from the beginning.

"My dad went to jewelry-making school at Bradley University in Illinois in the mid-1950s but ended up becoming a traveling salesman for the Dymo label company instead," explained John Phelps, referencing a business famous for producing handheld label-makers. "He was Dymo's No. 1 salesman, but when the company went from a commission model to a straight salary his income went down. So in 1974, at 40 years old with four kids and no guarantee of success, he switched careers."

William Phelps started modestly, his son said.

Owners John and Jennifer Phelps in their shop William Phelps Custom Jeweler in Naples on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. (Dorothy Edwards/Staff)

Owners John and Jennifer Phelps in their shop William Phelps Custom Jeweler in Naples on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. (Dorothy Edwards/Staff)

"He was in the process of building a home at the base of Loon Mountain in New Hampshire at the time," John Phelps recalled. "Since he didn't have any money for a freestanding building, he literally just put up a tent in the yard. And that was his first jewelry business."

But not William Phelps' last. From New Hampshire, he eventually moved the business to Dallas, then to Southwest Florida in 1988.

It was shortly after the business's time in Dallas when — just barely — Jennifer Phelps entered the picture.

"My parents had moved onto Naples while I stayed in Texas working as a goldsmith for another business," John Phelps said. "But then my parents started doing so well they needed another goldsmith and asked me if I wanted to come to Florida."

Phelps said he met his future wife during his going-away party.

"Just my luck," he said with a laugh. "I meet the love of my life the day before I leave the state forever."

Jennifer Phelps takes over the story from there, noting that she and her husband managed a long-distance relationship for a while before she moved to Florida and the couple married.

"John's mother, Lois, taught me bookkeeping for the jewelry business, so that's what I do, while John handles everything out on the sales floor," said the Texas native, who holds degrees in psychology and social work.

William Phelps died in August. Lois Phelps died in 2007.

"I miss them every single day," John Phelps said with a palpable hint of emotion in his voice.

Jennifer Phelps said her husband's parents would be proud of the way their son has helped grow the business they started out of a tent in New Hampshire.

"We were in the original, 700-square-foot location for 25 years, then three years ago we moved next door to a 1,000-square-foot corner spot," she said.

It's in the new location where William Phelps Custom Jeweler garnered recognition in 2013 as one of the "Top 10 Coolest Jewelry Stores in the United States" from InStore magazine, Jennifer Phelps said.

Asked what made her store so cool, she rattled off a list, including a full wall of loose, colored gemstones, an in-store video display that allows customers to watch as their jewelry is cleaned, repaired or created, and a custom line of jewelry featuring Southwest Florida nature and wildlife.

"Everyone wants a pelican or dolphin jewelry piece to take back home with them," she said.

Dorothy Edwards/Staff Owners John and Jennifer Phelps in their jewelry shop on Wednesday.

Dorothy Edwards/Staff Owners John and Jennifer Phelps in their jewelry shop on Wednesday.

And then, John Phelps said, there's the fact that he and his three fellow goldsmiths at the store offer clients a combined 100-plus years of experience in their field.

"Thomas Morrison, Darren Kensington and Gary Maxwell are all exceptional at what they do," he said.

Morrison and Kensington both said they wouldn't trade their jobs for any other.

"I have a passion for my profession, which goes back 10,000 years or more," said Morrison, who has worked with the Phelpses for the past nine years. "It's easy to have the ability to destroy something, but to create a piece of art is what it's all about. I've always tried to make pieces of art someone else can treasure.

Kensington, a self-described "military brat" who spent a good deal a time in Colorado, agreed.

"To see a smile on someone's face after I reinvent a sentimental piece for them and turn it into something is really enjoyable for me," he said. "There's something special about that, like a bonding experience. Because I put a piece of myself, a piece of my heart, in every piece I make."

William Phelps Custom Jeweler is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.

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