Longtime clients of Grader Jewelers have noticed a new smile behind the polished rows of glass cases, rings, and gleaming gemstones. At 22, Andrea Grader is the third generation of her family to proudly take her place in this line of work.
Her paternal grandfather, Peter, had studied watchmaking in Germany. He came to the United States in 1953, and with his wife, Lorraine, an accountant, founded Grader’s Clock Shop. The company evolved into Grader’s Jewelers and in time passed into the capable hands of their son, Mark.
There were unmistakable signs that Mark was a born jeweler — one of his first major purchases as a teenager was a diamond. But the first love of Mark Grader’s life is his family, and he often used jewelry shows and the necessary travel as time to bond with wife Linda and their daughters, Samantha and Andrea.
“I’m pretty sure my first flight ever was to an IJO [Independent Jewelers Organization] show,” Andrea said. “They’re fun. It’s just an incredible time.”
It’s also a collection of like-minded professionals. The organization, which has grown from 52 to 850 members worldwide since its inception in 1972, is the largest buying group in the world for independent jewelers. Members promote principled, community-minded business, and operate actual storefronts in their communities.
“It’s basically a group of mostly family businesses. And it’s really nice now that I’m getting to see and work with some of those same people that I spent summer vacations with,” Andrea said.
Growing up, Andrea worked occasionally at the stores, filling in a day here and there so someone else could stay home.
She felt drawn to the profession, so she started taking on more hours the summer after her junior year in college. By the time she graduated with her bachelor’s in business administration from Southern New Hampshire University, she said, there was no question in her heart. She went to her parents and asked to join the company full time.
It was evidently the right decision.
“I just love everything about it,” she said. “It’s hard to describe because I really do love it all. I love the people, I love the jewelry.”
She also loves spotting new trends and new talent at the annual shows. Although her personal aesthetic tends toward “big and cool and different,” she said, she focuses on selecting pieces that reflect diverse tastes and styles.
“My dad is good at reminding me that not everything is for me,” she joked.
There is often an expectation in family businesses, Andrea reflected, that the upcoming generation will take the reins. But her parents always made it clear they wanted her to find her own life’s special calling, she said.
“They were very supportive. My dad never forced this on me, or even assumed that I would want to work here,” she said. “Being second generation himself, I think he understood because he’s been in my position. And even now — he doesn’t hover. It’s really nice working with him.”
In a separate interview, Mark echoed Andrea’s feelings.
“I never wanted to pressure her, because my father never pressured me. No young person wants to be pressured into a job,” Mark said.
But in the big picture, he is grateful for the way things have worked out.
“I love seeing my parents seeing her working in the business,” he said, adding that she brings great perspective and ideas.
“It’s really nice to get another set of eyes,” he explained. “And that’s a thing I learned from my own parents — that it’s important to be open to the ideas of the next generation. My parents always encouraged me. ... Of course, looking back there are things I wouldn’t try again,” he laughed, “but they gave me that freedom to experiment and to learn.”
Andrea moonlights among Grader’s three locations in Norwich, Groton and Waterford. Although they don’t share a lot of time on the sales floor, Mark is proud when he sees her in action, helping customers.
“She’s very bright, friendly and straightforward. People enjoy talking to her.”
Growing up in a decades-old business meant that Andrea already knew many of her future co-workers.
“We have people who have been with us for 30 and 40 years,” she explained. Larry Dahl, who attended college with Mark, manages the Waterford store and has worked with the company for 30 years.
“Some of the people I now work with were at my parents’ wedding,” Andrea said. “Being new, it’s nice to get to know everyone” in a professional context as well. “I especially love getting to know customers who have been coming to us for years,” she said.
The Graders’ time in their business has given rise to a unique family tradition.
Each year since 1996, the family has set out on the water to photograph a coastal New England lighthouse for their signature Christmas ornament series. The Graders document the iconic structures from each side and forward the information to an artist in Rhode Island who recreates them in miniature from gold-plated brass. Although popular as Christmas ornaments, they are free-standing as well for year-round display. Rose Island Lighthouse off Newport, Rhode Island, is featured this year. Visitors to the store will see many iconic structures, including Stonington, Saybrook, Avery Point, Block Island, Montauk, Point Judith and Watch Hill and Ledge Light lighthouses among others.
For more information, call 860.445.8767 or visit www.gradergems.com. Grader Jewelers is a member of The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, The American Gem Society, The Independent Jewelers Organization, Jewelers of America, and the Connecticut Jewelers Association.