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In Memoriam: Nelson Tobias Alter, Alter’s Gem Jewelry March 12, 2014 (0 comments)


Beaumont, TX—Nelson Tobias Alter, retired former president of Alter’s Gem Jewelry, died March 2.  He was 87.

Alter was born July 14, 1926, in San Antonio, TX, to William and Celia Alter.  He graduated with honors from Thomas Jefferson High School, where he was an officer in ROTC, then continued his education at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a member of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. Alter served in the U.S. Navy during WWII, and then returned to Austin to earn degrees in accounting and law.

Alter married Shirley Ann Jacobs of Beaumont, TX, in 1949. She preceded him in death in 2010 after a 61-year marriage. Alter entered the family jewelry business founded by Shirley’s father, Morris Jacobs, in 1950. He presided over Alter's Gem Jewelry, a Beaumont landmark, from 1950 to 2002, when he retired. His son, Brian, now heads the business. 

But the story of Nelson and Shirley Alter and Alter’s Gem Jewelry actually began in 1939 in San Antonio, when both were but children. Young Nelson was about to celebrate his bar mitzvah, and his grandmother, Esther Tobias, wanted to buy him a watch to commemorate the special occasion. But on the eve of World War II there were no watches to be found in San Antonio, because all the watch factories had been converted to support the war effort. A forward-thinking jeweler named Morris Jacobs in Beaumont had stockpiled hundreds of watches to be able to take care of his clients’ needs during the war. Esther Tobias contacted him and arranged for Nelson to have his Bar Mitzvah watch, making the very first contact between the Alter family and the Jacobs family about a piece of jewelry.

Son Brian Alter says it was clearly meant to be. Jeweler Jacobs and his wife, Helen, meanwhile, had a 10-year-old daughter, Shirley Ann, whom Nelson Alter met again by chance when both were in college. The rest, as they say, is history, and their marriage, as Brian Alter says, was the stuff of Hollywood fantasy.

Alter had a flamboyant and charismatic personality, which he used mainly to build a multi-generational family business, and to make Beaumont a better place to live. But he also brought laughs and good cheer to all he met, including a waiter in a New York deli who remembered him—and his chocolate fixation—from year to year as “that crazy guy from Texas who eats dessert first.”

Under his leadership, the business grew into a multi-store chain that became the premier family jewelry business in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana. He was also an active and successful real estate developer who built Normandy Townhomes, Griffing Development, the J.C. Penney building in downtown Beaumont, and many other projects. He was co-founder of Union State Bank, which specialized in small business lending and later became Allied Union Bank.

Nelson and Shirley Alter at the opening of Alter's latest store.

Philanthropy and community involvement were very important to Nelson Alter. He was a founding member of Beaumont's Better Business Bureau, an active member of Rotary International, the Bar Association, and the Schlesinger Geriatric Center. He was a lifelong member of Temple Emanuel Congregation, where he served in many capacities, including president.

But family was of the ultimate importance, says Brian. His father often used to say that a stick is easy to snap in two, but a bundle of sticks is much harder.  In that way, he always insisted on family togetherness. As the bundle of sticks, the senior Alter saw each member as an individual, but together in a tremendous unbreakable network of family support. Any family member who wanted to enter the business was welcomed into it—but never, ever forced into it.

Nelson Alter was predeceased by his wife, Shirley, in 2010, and his eldest son, Dennis, in 2013.  He is survived by Dennis' widow, Alyce Alter of Chesterfield, MO, and his other children, Keith (Sherri) Alter of Wichita, KS; Brian (Lori) Alter of Beaumont; and Wendy Alter of Los Angeles, CA. He also had eight grandchildren: Grant, Blake, Allison, Adam (Laine), Daniel, Devon, Carly, and Arianna; and two great-grandchildren, Jackson and Zoey.

Memorial contributions may be made to Temple Emanuel, 1120 Broadway, Beaumont, TX 77701.




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