Fayetteville, AR—When Bill Underwood was 15, his father--who owned a gas station in Mountainview, OK--gave him a book about various trades to consider for a career, and told him to pick one that wasn't owning a gas station in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. Being good with his hands, the younger Underwood immediately enrolled in a three-year horology program at a college in Weatherford, OK. At 18, he graduated and enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a watchmaker. While serving, he earned a G.G. (graduate gemologist) diploma via GIA’s correspondence courses and, upon his discharge, enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in Norman to get a business degree. While there, he went to work for John Roberts, the class ring company, which orginated as an independent jeweler in Norman. John Roberts wanted to expand into other college towns, so Underwood went to Fayetteville (University of Arkansas) and began to manage that store. The owners, who within a year had decided to make class rings on a wholesale level, sold the Fayetteville retail business to Underwood for $1,000. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bill Underwood in 1964 and today. Watch a University of Arkansas documentary film about him here.
Underwood’s journey recently was chronicled in the Fayetteville Flyer. Although Fayetteville, AR today is widely known as the corporate headquarters of both the Walton family and discount behemoth Walmart, and Underwood’s became known in the jewelry industry as one of the nation’s premier successful luxury independent jewelers and practically synonymous with American Gem Society leadership, it wasn’t always that way—in fact, the early years were pretty rocky, Underwood recalls in both the article and in a video about the store’s founding.
Having failed to get a loan from any banks to buy the John Roberts store, the young Bill Underwood invested a hard-earned $1,000 of his parents’ life savings, and almost lost it. The store sold collegiate jewelry, trophies, and even stuffed animals, but Underwood insisted that anything with the Underwood’s name attached be the best possible quality of its category, a philosophy the store continues today.
But like many jewelers, his passion for the business and the merchandise he handled was both undeniable and not to be ignored. Gradually, he added high quality gems and jewelry to his collegiate merchandise, and by investing and reinvesting in the store, he was able to move to a new location in 1966. Working with a local architect, he built a modern, custom space on Dickson Street in Fayetteville, where the store remains today. He grew skilled at both appraisals and custom design, which netted him an AGTA Spectrum Award in 1999, an invitation to create a piece for the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent jewelry collection, and to have Underwood’s jewelry featured on the red carpet. Meanwhile, his appraisal skills (he holds the CGA title from AGS) landed him the opportunity to appraise a ring that once belonged to Elvis Presley.
Underwood rose to leadership in the industry, both at AGS, where he won a coveted Robert M. Shipley Award, and in other organizations such as Jewelers of America. Known for no-nonsense/no-gimmicks advertising, Underwood’s has relied on fair prices, truthful advertising, an excellently trained staff, and the uncompromising quality that he promised from the first day he opened. A 1990-era TV commercial for Underwood's famously showed the jeweler dropping a piece of a competitor's inexpensive gold jewelry into a fishbowl, explaining that the reason it was so cheap was because it was so light it would float. A similarly styled but much heavier piece from Underwood's, however, naturally sank to to the bottom of the bowl. "Our gold doesn't float!" he said with a smile.
Today, Underwood’s son, Craig, has taken over the business, following in his father’s footsteps in both philosophy and industry leadership, being one of the AGS’s leading voices as well. He has served as the chair of AGS’s of the Diamond Standards Committee, chair of the AGS Laboratory Gemological Committee, and chair of the International Task Force on Fancy-Shaped Diamond Cut Grading, as well as AGS president and on the board of directors of Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co. Craig’s wife, Laura, serves as Underwood’s corporate treasurer/secretary, public relations director, and office manager.
Craig Underwood as a child, already started on his career path, left, and today. He estimates he was about three or four years old at the time the photo at left was taken.
To celebrate the store’s 60th anniversary, Underwood’s is giving away $20,000 worth of custom jewelry, via Facebook, in-store raffles, email lists, and more. Below, one of the jeweler's posts, left, and the winner, right. The jeweler has been featuring the winners of its giveaways on social media.