After four decades in business, the Kuges are closing up shop

Travel and spending time with the family are planned; store to close on Jan. 31

Jean Kuge watches as Irene Rincon of Kahului inspects her redesigned wedding ring recenlty. Rincon said her family has been shopping at Kuge for three generations. “We’re so sad,” she said. “I’ve been buying jewelry here for 30 years.” The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

WAILUKU — Soon to fade from Maui’s business landscape is J.S. Kuge & Sons, the longtime custom jewelry and repair shop on Lower Main Street in Wailuku.

Owners John and Jean Kuge are retiring. They will close their shop Jan. 31, ending 41 years of being in the jewelry business.

For decades, Maui residents visited the Kuges for their engagement rings, help with resizing bands and getting new settings for old diamonds. People were very comfortable in the shop because they trusted the Kuge family, leaving their prized possessions for repairs by John. Kuge, a Washington, D.C., native.

“We are going to miss our customers,” said John Kuge, 72, in an interview earlier this month. “We have seen people our age get old with us. We’ve seen their children get old, married and have children. Now we are (seeing) their children.”

The couple said that they are still healthy and plan to travel and spend time with family. They have two adult sons, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

John and Jean Kuge pose in their Wailuku jewelry store on a recent afternoon. J.S. Kuge & Sons is scheduled to close Jan. 31, after 41 years in the jewelry business.

Working in a retail business, the couple missed a lot of holidays with their own family because they’d be open to serve customers on Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas.

And as small-business owners, they worked well beyond the typical five-day, 40-hour work week. Even if they were closed on Mondays, John Kuge would be in the store finishing up repair work or making his custom jewelry. That included bracelets, rings and even jewelry designed after Japanese family crests, also known as mon.

John Kuge is a rare breed, a local jeweler among national chain jewelry stores, now more commonplace on Maui. Most chain stores don’t have someone working on site making repairs or designing jewelry.

Recently, John Kuge used his buffing machine to clean a diamond engagement ring. The buffing procedure eliminates the scratches on a band, which cannot be taken off by just soap and water cleaning and agitation. That is the type of cleaning found typically at jewelry stores, Jean Kuge said.

Ironically, she met her future husband when he worked for a jeweler on Oahu while attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

John Kuge helps Kahului resident Cathy Kaona recently. “I’m sad that they are leaving,” Kaona said.

Mrs. Kuge said she bought a $55 opal ring from him.

He said he was working at a part-time job that his uncle had found for him. He didn’t envision being a jeweler.

Nevertheless, he was impressed by the jewelry business and went to Quincy, Ill., to learn hand engraving.

Before that, John Kuge found his way to Oahu while he was serving in the Air Force. He later enrolled at UH-Manoa.

After learning engraving, he returned to Hawaii and found out that Hawaiian jewelry was being hand engraved for sale. And, at that time, there was no machine engraving, so everything had be done by hand.

John Kuge did hand engraving in Hawaii, but he decided he wanted to be a jeweler and make repairs. He learned on the job on Oahu.

His resume includes working at stores such as the Security Diamond on Oahu and repairing jewelry for the former Holiday Mart stores, also on Oahu.

In 1976, he moved to Maui and opened his store in the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center. It was in the corner at the present location of the Ramen Ya restaurant, next to Macy’s, the former Liberty House location.

Kuge named the store J.S. Kuge & Sons for himself, John Shunji, and his two sons, who he thought would take over the business one day. But that never materialized, and John and Jean Kuge say they’re happy with their sons’ decisions to pursue other careers.

And John Kuge would understand because his father had a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and he didn’t want to pursue that as a career.

In its heyday, the J.S. Kuge shop had seven employees. In 1983, Jean Kuge joined her husband at the store, and she’s never left his side since.

The family later left Ka’ahumanu to move to its Lower Main Street location in 1987.

John Kuge said he sold the Ka’ahumanu business to the House of Adler. The Kuges continued to keep their clients, but they downsized their business.

The husband and wife duo, for the most part, commanded the Wailuku store, where they educated customers about diamonds as well as the jewelry they were buying.

On a recent day, John Kuge helped a customer determine whether he had real pearls.

Perhaps this was one of the keys to the local store’s survival. John Kuge said that what set the store apart was its “personal service.”

There will always be competition, but “you have to carve your own niche,” he said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.


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