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Watters jewelry: local empire, civic shaper

Bruce Watters Jewelers Inc. celebrates its 100th year of operation today. Over the years, the founder had several stores, but always kept a hand in city affairs.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
Published July 27, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - When customers failed to consult him at his jewelry counter in 1925, Bruce Weaver Watters donned his glasses.

"They were nonprescription glasses that made him appear older," said Watters' son, Bruce Walter Watters, who now directs Bruce Watters Jewelers Inc. with his son, James Bruce Watters. "Customers didn't want that young whippersnapper waiting on them."

Later, Watters needed prescription glasses while leading Bruce Watters Jewelry to landmark status. His local empire once encompassed three concurrent stores, and he was a statewide leader in his field. "He was all business," said James Bruce Watters, 46.

Throughout the Depression, World War II and the postwar building boom, Watters helped advance the city. "Among the most loyal participants in the civic life of the community has been Bruce Watters," the Evening Independent wrote, "a veteran in the establishment of the city's civil service system."

In 1904, Watters was born in Bellwood, Pa. His father constructed Pennsylvania Railroad car scales and repaired watches. "I guess that's how my father developed his love for watches and jewelry," said Bruce Walter Watters, 74.

After finishing high school, Watters attended Bowman Technical School of Horology in Lancaster, Pa. He then worked at Pennsylvania jewelry concerns in Tyrone, State College and Altoona.

In 1925, when an ounce of gold cost $20 (it's about $400 today), Watters drove his financed $1,800 REO automobile here to join his uncle - pioneer jeweler A.W. Rogers. Rogers' concern dated back to 1905, first at 27 Third Street N and later at 263 Central Ave.

By the end of 1927, Watters had married Naomi Stevens and purchased Rogers' building and its near-$3,000 inventory - tagging it Rogers and Watters. "We buckled down and lived on $25 a week," said Watters of the Depression era. "We had diamonds, but the home folks were offering their diamonds to us."

About 1939, folks parked diagonal on Central Avenue and gathered to socialize at Watter's enterprise, then at 360 Central Ave. Bridge builder "Dad" Gandy visited, as did real estate agent Walter P. Fuller and Mayor Frank Fortune Pulver.

When trolleys and cars collided, "everyone would leave their store and go out to see the excitement," said Watters, the St. Petersburg Merchants Association president in the 1930s.

By 1935 Watters had renamed the enterprise Bruce Watters, Dependable Jewelers, and he was secretary of the Florida Retail Jewelers' Association. The dapper Watters later became the first vice president (1940) and president (1941) of the association.

St. Petersburg native Curtiss West, 77, admired Watter's integrity. "If you bought something from him, you could be sure it was what he said it was."

Throughout the 1940s, Watters presided over the Florida Assembly of Civil Service and Personal Agencies and the city's Civil Service Commission. Watters aided Red Cross and Community Chest drives, and his business was a military insignia franchise.

In 1944, Watters - who loved fishing, golfing and a good party - bought out the Cole Jewelry Co. at 434 Central Ave. "Dad was an energetic, fun-loving man," Bruce Walter Watters said. "But he was a disciplinarian with his family and his employees."

Near his 434 Central Ave. location in 1962, Watters opened The Bride - a shop featuring exquisite bridal gifts. By 1973 Watters boasted jewelry stores at Central Plaza, Belleair Bluffs and 224 Beach Drive NE - the enterprise's current location. Four years later, Watters left Central Plaza.

"My other two stores were supporting . . . Central Plaza," said Watters, who also once had branches at Redington Beach and Tampa's Northdale area and was active in the Rotary and the Quarterback Club.

In 1986, Watters died at his summer home in Highlands, N.C. He was 82.

As the concern and its 12 employees celebrate its 100th year of operation today, several store showcases - decorated with aged photographs, a diamond scale and early watchmaker's tools - trumpet Watters. The business is one of 13 state jewelry retailers that was established 100 years ago and is still in operation.

"I can still remember Grandpa with both hands pressed down on the glass counter, directing employees," said James Bruce Watters, sporting his initials on the forearm of his white dress shirt, just as Watters had done decades before.

Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com