For many, fine jewelry is an ornament that marks a special point in life. A pair of pearl earrings or a pristine timepiece can signify a young person’s emergence into adulthood. In a similar fashion, a band of gold, a diamond ring, can transform an individual into a part of something larger—a family. Holidays, graduations, births and anniversaries are all celebrated with gemstones and twists of metallic beauty.
These mementos are important not only in monetary value, but also in sentiment. The Ball family has helped their customers select the perfect item for the perfect moment throughout not just one generation, but four.
Lisa Ball Ponder is the great-grandchild of Henry B. Ball and is the newest owner of Henry B. Ball West. After 100 years of business, Ponder is looking to take them into the future while never losing sight of their rich history.
The first generation
An Akron staple, Henry B. Ball has been a part of the local jewelry story for 100 years. The man himself, though, had very humble origins. “He started this in 1915, but he actually dropped out of school in seventh grade and started as a runner for a bench jeweler,” says Ponder. His first steps in the business came in the form of running deliveries and doing pick-ups for a jeweler who did repairs and manufacturing. Later, he became an apprentice and then a bench jeweler. Throughout these years, Ponder says that her great-grandfather learned not only how to work with jewelry, but how to do it very well. “In the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, Henry B. Ball was synonymous with quality and craftsmanship in manufacturing jewelry,” she says.
At the time, Ball did not yet have an independent store. Instead he manufactured jewelry for other jewelers and for private customers who wanted custom, unique pieces. Ponder says that he then partnered with the W.J. Frank Company to get his first store off the ground, but ended up buying out his partner—creating the Henry B. Ball Company. In 1954, he celebrated the grand opening of a new location on the first floor of the Sheraton-Mayflower Hotel in downtown Akron. By 1976, the second generation of the Ball family was firmly at the helm, with Mary Ball Gorman opening a second location in Pilgrim Square on West Market Street.
When downtown Akron began to decline, that location was moved to Belden Village in Canton. With a grand opening in 1983, this location is currently managed by a third generation member of the family, Robert Ball.
As a part of the fourth generation, Ponder has a good understanding of the hard work that led to the present incarnation of the business. “[Henry B. Ball] built his own name. He didn’t stand behind the name of another person; he didn’t get a fancy education. He built his own name with blood, sweat and hard work. It just carried through generation after generation; that’s kind of what we’ve all tried to strive to continue—to show that hard work and integrity,” says Ponder.
The second generation
Mary Ball Gorman’s path into the jewelry industry was not a direct one. “You might almost say I married into it because I married the son of Henry B. Ball,” she says. Along with her husband, Walter “Skip” Ball, Gorman trained in the industry, eventually becoming a certified gemologist. Not an easy feat, Ponder likens the achievement to earning a master’s degree. “You have to be a registered jeweler, then a graduate gemologist, then a certified gemologist,” Ponder says. “You have to complete all of the coursework through the Gemological Institute of America, and you do training on not only gemstone identification, but it’s much more than that—it’s precious metals and precious stones. You learn how the gems are formed naturally and in labs, how
they’re cut, recognize different cuts and different traits.”
Through extensive training, certified gemologists learn how to classify and value gemstones, allowing them to offer official appraisals. “Being a certified gemologist, your appraisal will carry the seal of the American Gem Society (AGS),” says Ponder. Not just a piece of paper, an appraisal by a certified gemologist will hold up in a court of law as a legal document. “It has a little more substance to it because you are educated and certified to put your seal of approval on it.”
Obtaining this level in the jewelry industry is no easy task, though. “Well, it’s been studying and working and education ever since [we started]. In fact we signed up to become registered jewelers when we were on our honeymoon out in California,” says Gorman.
Now 91 years old, Gorman has had quite the career in the family business. The recipient of numerous awards, she also travelled all over the world. Visits to diamond, ruby and tanzanite mines, pearl beds and watch factories dot the years. “I’ve been to Tanzania. I’ve been to South Africa. I’ve been to Burma—that’s not usual. Not many people go there. I’ve also been to China and Japan—I’ve been to the pearl beds there,” says Gorman. Trekking into the mines of Burma or Sri Lanka, she was often the only woman around. “In some cases I was the only one,” she says. This didn’t stop her though, and she continued on these trips decade after decade.
Gorman says that travelling, seeing all of the amazing places she did, made remaining in Akron for all of these years an easy choice. “I’ve been fortunate because I’ve been able to travel a lot. It’s been very interesting for me, so I’ve never had the urge to go anywhere else,” she says.
The third generation
On the home front, Gorman raised six children, five of whom are still living. Like many children of multi-generational family businesses, the Ball kids worked in the jewelry industry. One of Gorman’s children, Barbie Musci, worked for the family business in her youth and is again, now that the fourth generation has taken over. “I am working here part-time for Lisa and it’s been great. It’s her store, even though I’ve been a part of this store for 57 years,” says Musci.
As a child, Musci says that she would go to the downtown Akron location with her mother sometimes. While her mother was doing appraisals or other work upstairs, Musci would ride the dumbwaiters—used to send packages up and down to the wrapping department and jewelers’ benches—creating a thrill ride out of it. Over time, she went to work with her siblings. “I started working here in high school during my summer vacations and then I [continued] while I went to college,” says Musci.
Travelling with her mother, Musci says that they went on buying trips in New York twice a year and to the jewelry shows. While at one show in California, she remembers attending a lecture that has stuck with her over the years. “I remember one time I went to a show out in California and for all of the children of the parents who were doing their studies—every year they had to go renew their certification because there was always something new on the market. While she was doing her certification, they put some of the kids into classes,” Musci says. One of the classes was run by another family-owned jeweler and discussed the difficulties of growing up in the family business. “He said to us, ‘don’t ever let anybody tell you that working for the family business is easy, that you have it made.’ They said it’s harder because they expect more,” she says.
The challenges of working closely with family are not always the first things people think of. However, for members of the family involved, it is a whole different ballgame. If you are late for work or unenthusiastic, it’s not just your boss who yells at you, it’s your parent. “Whenever I was late—and there were times in college that I was late—she would read me the riot act,” Musci says. “She’d take me over [to the sign] and say, that’s your name on that door. Nobody else’s.”
Though Musci did stretch her wings and explore other ventures, she is now back to help Ponder. As she steps back into the family business, she is embracing the changes of the new generation. “Lisa’s got great ideas to take the history of this company into what people are looking for today,” says Musci. Instead of china patterns and crystal, she says that brides are now opting for creative cutting boards and other unique gifts. The fine jewelry that Henry B. Ball is known for is still an integral part, but now there is also a mixture of prices and items in the store.
This shift is something that Musci says reflects societal changes, including the fact that in many young couples, both partners work. “Long gone are the days where you have to wait for your husband to buy you a piece of jewelry for your anniversary or Christmas or your birthday. These women are going out and buying it for themselves. Lisa is doing a good job trying to navigate that.”
The fourth generation
To say that change is a challenge is a major understatement. Often in life though, amazing things can happen when you see change coming and instead of balking at it, you embrace it. Lisa Ball Ponder and her husband did just that when they had the sudden opportunity to purchase Henry B. Ball West.
Born and raised in Orlando, Fla., Ponder and her husband had vaguely discussed purchasing the business until they suddenly found themselves facing the choice head-on. “It was kind of a whirlwind decision,” she says. “We had actually talked about making an offer to purchase the business when we were going to be coming up for Christmas, but it was something that was just in talks. And then we found out that they were actually going to be closing the store, so we sped up our timeline from just talking about an abstract potential future investment, to yes, we’re doing this and we’ll be up there in two weeks.”
Once the decision was made, they went all in, remodeling the store and making it their own. Ponder’s husband pitched in during the construction process, swinging the sledgehammer, installing fresh carpet and painting cabinets. While he helped with the physical part of the remodel, the couple plans to follow in her grandparents footsteps and learn about the industry together. “He’s going to the trade conferences and taking the coursework right along with me to be educated in gemstones and fine jewelry,” Ponder says.
Apart from physical changes to the store’s appearance, Ponder also plans to expand into the digital realm. “In this industry and in the retail industry in general, our generation shops online,” she says. “We shop on our cell phones. People get their ideas for what they want for their engagement ring, for wedding gifts, fashion jewelry, hostess gifts [online].” Harnessing this is something that Ponder wants to do to expand beyond a traditional brick-and-mortar storefront to what she calls a “marketplace that knows no zip code.”
One way she plans on doing this is through an app called Mallzee. Similar to the dating app, Tinder, users simply swipe the picture they see one direction if they like it and another if they don’t. “You swipe right or left and you create this ‘likes’ category, and you can turn your notifications on when things go on sale.” As a retailer, Ponder says this will help her to know what items are trending with potential shoppers.
Despite all of the changes, Ponder still wants to honor the generations of her family that have come before her. “I’m really honored to take on the family business and see it through another generation. I think 100 years in business is a huge feat, and being a family business and keeping that value is something that I really strive to follow in my nana’s footsteps,” Ponder says.
Not only has working at Henry B. Ball been passed down through the generations of their family, but going to Henry B. Ball has also become a tradition for some local families. “I had a customer come in, in his 20s, who was the third generation to come to us for an engagement ring. That alone is a huge honor,” she says.
As the past heritage continues to support the future, Ponder understands the responsibility behind what she does. “It’s not just a family business for us—it’s a family business for Akron.”
/ Managing editor Molly Gase has been pacing around the office non-stop since Christmas, trying to make her Fitbit happy with her daily step count.