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M.C. Ginsberg mostly retires as daughter joins jewelry business in Iowa City
Lizzie Ginsberg O’Neill aims to infuse more art into retail
IOWA CITY — Despite his best efforts, Mark Ginsberg could not dissuade his daughter from taking over the family business.
After nearly 40 years at the helm of M.C. Ginsberg, a family business that first started in 1926, he’s beginning to hand over the reins of the Iowa City location to his daughter, Lizzie Ginsberg O’Neill.
As she takes over, the shift in how they’re doing business is part of a natural evolution that started decades ago. Several years after buying the family business in 1984, Ginsberg changed the business’ name — removing the emphasis on jewelry by making it “M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art.”
In a country where Walmart is among the largest jewelry retailers, Ginsberg has worked to shift his clients’ mindset on jewelry from utilitarian pieces of metal and precious stones to an art form that restores the respect jewelry used to command.
Last a lifetime
In the 1960s, Ginsberg came of age during business trips with his father and uncles to other cities, where jewelers were part of a tight-knit community and every transaction ended with a handshake between trusted people.
“If it doesn’t last more than a lifetime, it’s not worth it. You should have this to gather stories over your life — that’s what jewelry should be,” Ginsberg said. “That’s what jewelry was at the beginning of the 20th century and before that.”
The Ginsberg jewelry business got its start with Isadore Ginsberg opening a downtown Cedar Rapids store in 1926. Through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, his sons — Herman, Louis and Stanley — expanded to five stores, with two in Des Moines, two in Cedar Rapids, and, in 1969, a store Iowa City’s Sycamore Mall.
Mark acquired ownership of the Iowa City location following his father’s death in 1984. Today, the flagship Cedar Rapids location, Ginsberg Jewelers, retained by Herman and his son, Steve, is located at 4647 First Ave. SE.
Since 1984, Mark said, much of jewelry retail has lost its luster. With a hollowed-out, depersonalized version of the retail art that past generations experienced, the joy of jewelry has been sterilized — all but gone in many jewelry stores.
“I thought retail was going down the wrong path. We were commodifying the experience. You had this sterile, antiseptic environment,” Ginsberg said. “For that reason, I didn’t want Lizzie to get into a treadmill of an industry.”
At 65, though, he said it was time for him to either retire or evolve the store into something more specialized.
“I’m doing both,” he said.
As O’Neill attends to her family’s needs with young children, Ginsberg will slowly start to step back from the day-to-day operations, making way for a new vision.
In an industry rife with “grocery store environments,” where customers may look to buy as many carats as they can afford, M.C. Ginsberg will continue to be a de facto art studio.
A new era
A February auction selling everything left in the store’s inventory ended Ginsberg’s leadership on the same note the business pursued over the years — giving back to the community. Last month, tens of thousands of dollars from those final sales benefited the Iowa City Community School District.
With no inventory left, all of M.C. Ginsberg’s work will be custom-made, and all clients will receive personal attention through an appointment-only model. Customers will have the chance to work with the jewelers individually to create personalized pieces, and Ginsberg and his daughter will have more flexibility and family time
O’Neill, with a degree in 3D design, will continue the career that first started with her internship using the store’s 3D printing machine 12 years ago.
After M.C. Ginsberg’s expansion into cottage manufacturing, biotech and education — making medical prototypes or models of viruses to pass around a classroom, for example — she hopes to dive even more into 3D.
Before returning to the store in 2017, O’Neill spent time teaching art at schools in Eastern Iowa. In this new chapter, she hopes to embrace art in every facet of the business.
While their business’ approach extends to medical prototyping and practical applications outside the jewelry world, she still thinks of it as art.
“If you look at art a certain way, you become an amazing problem solver,” she said. “We’re not in our little jewelry box. We can be in any box we want to be in.”
Their business model’s embrace of art is the antithesis of the jewelry industry’s commercialization — and a potential part of their survival as a small, locally owned business.
Ginsberg’s mindset of shifting jewelry from utilitarianism to art also informed his approach toward interacting with the community.
Over the years, annual events Ginsberg says his business initiated, like the Iowa City Jazz Festival, helped cement a new culture in the college city, which was a “ghost town” during the summers when he first owned the business.
“I’d like to think we had a part in that — a part of growing the culture in this community,” he said. “That’s my brand, that’s the way I advertise.”
That, and word-of-mouth. M.C. Ginsberg eschews most other traditional forms of advertising.
O’Neill, 34, hopes to continue the legacy her father set by leaving the community better than she found it, too.
“If I can come close to what he’s done, that would be beyond my wildest dreams,” she said. “My legacy is to connect with people where I can.”
She hopes to continue the philanthropy that anchors the business not just by writing checks, but through education. She hopes to start new programs, like one where artists could visit Iowa City classrooms to talk about their jobs and lives.
She looks forward to discovering the brilliance of her community via close-up interactions.
As far as physical creations, she hopes to do more custom design work for nonprofits, like a pendant she did for the Dance Marathon at the University of Iowa.
“It’s a great way,” she said, “to get to know them and see what they’re doing, and connect with your community.”
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