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Charlie Stewart

All in Good Time
Henne Jewelers
Celebrating 125 Years

Fall 2012

CSAccording to family lore, jeweler Rudolph Joseph Henne stood on
a hilltop above East Liberty in 1886 and surveyed the landscape below to scout the prime location to open his new shop. He put $5 down on a dwelling house at 6018 Centre Avenue, presuming it would become the neighborhood’s main street. After converting the lower floor to a store, R.J. Henne opened for business in 1887.

This fall, Henne Jewelers is looking back at its success over four generations in celebration of its 125th anniversary. The store is the oldest jeweler in Pittsburgh and a Shadyside fixture, selling new and estate jewelry and watches, with extensive design and repair services.

Like so many fine jewelers of the 19th century, R.J. Henne started as both an optician and watchmaker, having learned the trade from a cousin in Pittsburgh. He had worked for several local jewelers when he began repairing watches out of his mother’s house. A growing clientele prompted him to buy the two-story building on Centre Avenue that provided him with his own shop and a convenient residence above.

Left: The storefront where it all began—6018 Centre Avenue in East Liberty—with Rudolph J. Henne standing in front with his son Rudolph G. “Gerry” Henne in 1904.

CSThough Penn Avenue ultimately became East Liberty’s main thoroughfare, his location (where Paris 66 bistro is today) proved ideal. Its proximity to a railroad station became the foundation for a thriving business repairing watches for train conductors—important work back then to help keeping the trains running on time.

Right: After the Civil War, a fraternal organization of Union veterans called the Grand Army of the Republic established posts throughout Pennsylvania. In this photo, taken sometime between 1887 and 1904, proud members of the GAR posed in front of R.J. Henne with their flags and banners flying.

Henne married in 1897, and two years later, he and his wife, Margaret, had their only child. Weighing just three pounds, Rudolph Gerard “Gerry” Henne was born on the second floor of the shop building on the coldest day in February 1899.

“Having been born over the store, I have spent practically all my life in the store,” Rudolph Gerard Henne is quoted as saying in 1952 in Guilds, a publication of the American Gem Society. “I learned watch and clock repair after school and on Saturdays through my grade school and high school years. In 1918, I was called into the service and because of the end of the war was discharged on December 11. I arrived home and started work on December 13 of the same year.”

CS“My father inherited the business in 1934, when granddad died,” explains Jack Henne, who was four years old at the time. “He was the first certified gemologist in Pittsburgh. He was strictly in sales and management and had a few people working for him at that time repairing watches and stringing pearls.”

Squirrel Hill resident Jean Armstrong, 86, recalls first going to R. G. Henne’s in the late 1950s. “He had a sense of humor and enjoyed telling jokes,” she recalls. “And no matter how old you were, he always gave you a roll of Life Savers.”

Left: Three generations: Gerry and Jack Henne flank little John Henne on the stoop of their East Liberty store in the late 1960s.

Jack Henne remembers getting his first taste of the business at age 12. “I started off fixing old Westclox bedside alarm clocks that you couldn’t ruin,” he reminisces. “They had a loud tick and were very crude when you look at them from today’s standpoint, but they worked pretty well. It wasn’t much to fix them.”

He later earned his credentials as a certified gemologist and used to do nearly all of the store’s appraisals. By the time his father died in 1982, he had already been running the business for nearly seven years.

CSSeeing the changes under way in East Liberty, Henne moved the store to 740 Filbert Street in fashionable Shadyside in 1978. In 1994, he decided to break through a wall and expand to the corner of Walnut and Filbert streets.

His son, John Henne, remembers that move and his first job at the store. “In the basement there was this old bow machine that had to be 70 years old,” he recalls. “I was 12 when I used to make the ribbons for our signature gift-wrapping package.”

Right: Jack Henne, Meg Henne Gibson, John Henne, Anne Henne Rockwell, and Nancy Henne after the 2003 move to their second—and current—Shadyside store at 5501 Walnut Street.

After college, John Henne worked as an accountant at KPMG before joining the family business in 1992. His sister, Anne, joined the business three years later.

CS“At first I didn’t want them to ever come in the business because I liked the way our family was,” says their mother, Nancy Henne. “Anne was with Anderson Consulting, and when she wanted to come in, it was Jack’s idea to hire a business consultant. He worked with the whole family and suggested that our younger daughter Meg and I both come into the business, too. He taught us how to work together and communicate. It never would have worked without him because we really needed help. It’s worked to draw us all closer together, which is pretty amazing.”

Left: John Henne inside his store.

In recent years, both Anne and Meg have elected to stay home with their children. Since the fourth generation came into the business, it has grown to 27 employees, including the much sought-after Chris Travelstead, a Certified Master Watchmaker, of which there are only 511 in the country.

“I love what I do,” says John Henne, a Fox Chapel resident and now full owner of Henne Jewelers, which moved to its present location at 5501 Walnut Street in the Rollier building in 2003. “We deal with people most often during the happiest times of their lives, and jewelry is one tangible way of expressing their love and appreciation for somebody.”

CSFor its 125th anniversary, Henne Jewelers is planning a celebration the week of October 22 to thank its clients, with events happening every evening.

And the lineage continues. John Henne has four boys, all in grade school. “I hope to treat my boys just like my father treated me,” he says. “I do not want there to be any pressure on any of them to feel the need to carry on a family tradition. I want them each to pursue their own dreams and desires.”

So the answer to whether a fifth generation will someday run Henne Jewelers is, of course, just a matter of time.

John Henne holds a pocket watch that has been handed down to him. It was originally given to his grandfather, “Gerry” Henne, by John’s great-grandfather, Rudolph Joseph Henne, and his wife. The inscription reads “From Father & Mother, 21st Birthday, February 22, 1920.” John carries it daily and says, “Winding it is actually one of the first things I do in the morning.”

With many thanks to SHADY AVE magazine for granting me permission to reprint on my website.


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