North Springfield, VT—John Megown Von Bargen, founder of the four-store Von Bargen’s Jewelry chain, died July 4 following a two-year battle with lung cancer. He was 70.
Von Bargen was born on September 25, 1945, in Ironwood, MI, to John and Jessie Von Bargen. He was the brother of Mary Von Bargen Frederick. As a child, Von Bargen moved around a number of midwestern states following his father’s career in the United States Forest Service. After graduating with a degree in economics from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, his first career was as a traveling comb salesman covering the United States. On one of his trips, he visited Vermont where he met and fell in love with Leslie Bibens, who would become his wife in 1975 and predeceased him in 2012. The Von Bargens built a home together in North Springfield, VT, and had two children, John Eric Von Bargen and Julie Von Bargen Thom.
With a desire to work with his hands, Von Bargen decided to train himself as a silversmith. After selling his jewelry at local craft fairs, he opened his first store, The Silver Mine in Killington, VT, in 1975. Von Bargen’s entrepreneurial spirit, together with a passion for quality and a willingness to take risks, led to the founding of the first Von Bargen's jewelry store in Springfield, VT. The business has since expanded to four store locations (three in Vermont and one in New Hampshire) and a robust online business. Von Bargen’s earned industry-wide respect for its quality and ethics, as well as a leadership position among independent jewelers for its innovations in e-commerce.
John Von Bargen's charisma, enthusiasm, and engaging conversation often left those with whom he interacted with an unforgettable impression, both at home and in the jewelry industry. At any given event in the jewelry industry, Von Bargen usually could be found surrounded by a vivacious circle of friends in lively discussion. He had incredible energy and a wild streak that revealed his love of and appreciation of life, says his daughter Julie Von Bargen Thom. As an addict to the New York Times, a long standing VPR supporter, and a voracious reader, he could speak to any topic at length, she says.
“His confidence and delivery made him a great storyteller, and he never let the facts get in the way of a good story. He may have been often wrong but he was never in doubt,” remembers Thom. “He will be missed intensely by his family and by the many friends he developed throughout his life.”
Jeff Feero, managing partner of Alex Sepkus, credits Von Bargen as one of his company's earliest supporters.
“The first time I met John was in the winter of 1992 or 1993. I had literally $90 left to my name, and a few pieces of our jewelry in my pocket so I decided to just pause and go snowboarding. I knew the store from my days at [Michael] Bondanza, so I went in with the few pieces I had. I asked one of the associates if I could leave the jewelry while I went snowboarding. When I came back, John came out and said ‘Young man, I need to talk to you. Where did this jewelry come from? I know pretty much everything that’s out there and I’ve never seen this!’ He recognized [the potential of] what was in front of him and jumped all over it. He really helped launch us. He paid soon and often, and gave me a lot of great advice.
“I went to see him last week and told him how much I loved him and how much he was like a brother and a father to me—of course, he gave me a dirty look when I said ‘father,’ but that’s what his advice was like. If he stopped buying our jewelry I’d still be friends with him.
“But he was really instrumental in our growth. A lot of people from New York and Boston would go skiing up in Stratton and they’d come back and say [to their jewelers] “Why don’t you have Sepkus?” and that helped launch our growth.”
On a personal note, I remember many late-night gatherings at Centurion and in the early days of the Couture show, when John was part of the group. Whether it was the industry, business, politics, or even the merits of a Cuban cigar, he always had something both intelligent and interesting to say. To Julie's point, his knowledge seemed boundless--and if he was making it up as he went along, he certainly did a convincing job of it!
In April 2016, John was married to Veronica Todorovic, though his illness cut their time together too short. In addition to Veronica, he is survived by John and Emily Von Bargen, Jason and Julie Thom, and three grandchildren: John Eric Von Bargen Jr., Henry Richard Von Bargen, and Evie Leslie Thom.
The funeral service will be held at Friday, July 8 at 11 a.m. at the Congregational Church in Springfield, VT. A reception will follow at the Von Bargen's home. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in John's honor to The Norris Cotton Cancer Center Research Fund, (603) 653-0745.