Russakoff Jewelers: Trust Them with Your Memories | December 2017
By Maria Landry
In 1928, a local resident purchased an engagement ring at Russakoff Jewelers in Skowhegan and gave it as a Christmas gift to his beloved.
He had no way of knowing that nearly 90 years later, in 2017, that same jewelry store would restore the ring for his grandson, who is now going to propose with it.
“That’s a big part of what jewelry is to us,” said Andy Russakoff, who owns and operates the 110-year-old jewelry store with his wife, Donna. “There are many things that you cannot pass down anymore. Cars don’t last, cell phones, computers, none of that lasts. But you can buy a piece of jewelry that you can wear and give to your kids and give to your grandkids.”
Founded by Andy’s grandfather Susman Russakoff in 1907, the downtown Skowhegan landmark is Maine’s oldest continuously owned and operated jewelry store.
“I think a large part of the reason for that is because people know when they come here they’re going to get a very special piece,” Donna said. “We can offer something for anyone for any price range, and we feel confident it’s a quality piece, and they feel confident it’s a quality piece.”
Andy added, “Jewelry is one of those items that, if you don’t know what to look for, from a distance pieces can look very similar. Online pieces can look identical. But we know the manufacturing techniques, and we know our manufacturers are making a better quality product. That makes us feel good about what we sell. We wouldn’t sell something that we wouldn’t be proud to wear ourselves.”
Andy examines every diamond in the store, noting that he and Donna are “hands on” with the products they’re selling.
“Some people have the misperception that that’s going to cost them more money,” Donna said. “No, it doesn’t. It means that you’re not buying off the rack. You’re not going to have the same piece that your neighbor has or your co-worker. You’re going to have the piece that was designed for you. It doesn’t necessarily translate to costing more money.”
The Russakoffs don’t mark up their prices in order to mark down, the way some retailers do.
“We offer a fair price 365 days a year,” Donna said. “We have a case that we call our customer appreciation case. They’re pieces that are no longer available—maybe the designer is no longer making them—and that case is always 50 percent off.”
The Russakoffs focus on U.S. manufacturers as much as possible, with their diamond lines and Peter James line strictly U.S. made.
Based in California, the Peter James line is all hand-crafted. “We’re one of only two dealers in the state of Maine who can carry the line,” Donna noted. “What I like is, I can call up and can ask one of the designers, ‘I have a customer who has a very small wrist, can you retrofit this bracelet to her size?’ They can. ‘I like this earring, but I wish it were slightly larger or slightly smaller.’ They do it for me. That’s just part of being here for a long time.”
There are numerous benefits to Russakoff’s longevity, including a sense of community that both Andy and Donna are clearly passionate about.
Andy remarked, “Probably once a month somebody will come in that has a story to tell me about my dad [second-generation owner Archie Russakoff], who’s been gone 24 years now. Occasionally we get some much older folks that remember my grandfather, who passed away in 1966.”
Donna remembered a man who visited the store last year with a payment book from the 1950s.
“It was initialed by Andy’s dad, by Andy’s grandfather, by Andy’s mom. … It’s about the people. I love it when a customer walks through the door and I can say, ‘how’s your dad?’ Or ‘how old is your baby now?’ Or ‘happy anniversary’ or ‘happy birthday.’ We can do that with so many people.”
“It makes us feel wonderful that we can be a part of everybody’s life,” Andy said.
Donna reiterated that the reason generation after generation of customers keeps coming to Russakoff Jewelers is because of quality and trust: “Making people comfortable, knowing they can trust you… Trust is a huge factor.”
Andy nodded. “They trust us with their memories.”
Russakoff Jewelers: A Brief History
From a very young age, Susman Russakoff knew he needed to leave Russia.
The late 1800s and early 1900s “was not a good time to be in Russia,” Susman’s grandson, Andy Russakoff, noted. “There were pogroms [violent attacks] against a lot of Jews. It wasn’t safe to be there.”
Russia wasn’t allowing Jews to leave the country, so in 1904 Susman escaped via a system similar to the Underground Railroad, traveling at night from farm to farm and sleeping in barns. He made his way to England, then to Fall River, Mass., and finally to New York, where he began apprenticing for a watchmaker.
“The repair shop that he worked for in New York was getting watches shipped to them from a store in Skowhegan,” Andy said. “[Susman’s] logic was that they must not have enough watchmakers in Maine.”
At the time, Susman and his wife, whom he had brought over from Russia, were expecting their first child, and they didn’t want to raise their family in New York City.
“He thought he should see what Skowhegan was like,” Andy said. “At the end of 1906 he took the train to Skowhegan. He saw that this town had three nice jewelry stores, and he thought if it can support three it can probably support a fourth.”
Susman was right. He moved his family to Maine and founded Russakoff Jewelers in a storefront by the river in early 1907. Russakoff is the only one of the four jewelry stores from that era to remain.
In the 1940s Susman’s son, Archie Russakoff, became the second-generation jeweler, and he and his wife, Phillis, took over sole ownership when Susman passed away in 1966. Archie worked in the business until his death in 1993.
Andy, Archie’s son, joined the jewelry store after graduating from college in 1983. Andy and his wife, Donna, continue to run the business—Maine’s oldest continuously owned and operated jewelry store.
Russakoff Jewelers been in its current location at 100 Water Street since the ’50s.