Farewell to Fetting's, a jewel of a retailer

Jacques Kelly

April 25, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

In a few weeks, the A.H. Fetting Co., the Tiffany of Baltimore-area jewelers, will join the legion of local businesses now fondly recalled, but only in the past tense.

No more will customers pore over Fetting's showcases of carriage clocks, amethyst earrings and French porcelain coffee pots.

"The closing was a proper business decision but it doesn't eliminate the emotional aspects of all this," said John H. Fetting Jr., the fifth and last generation of his family to own the firm, now in Towson Town Center. As always, he was dressed in a conservative gray suit, looking more the part of an investment banker than a jeweler.

Fetting's five children -- John, Margaret Anne, Mary, Mark and Jeanne -- decided not to enter the family business.

"And while other jewelers approached us about buying our name, we were not pleased at what they would do to it in the future," said Mark Fetting, who is a financial consultant.

The German-born Anton H. Fetting founded the firm in 1873 on German Street, the pre-World War I name for Redwood Street. Over the next 118 years, the business acquired a reputation for its understatement, unerring taste and excellent wares. At one time, the firm employed more than 15 goldsmiths and silversmiths and an enameling staff.

"We had a reputation of being a bit intimidating and formal," John Fetting said. "People have been coming to the shop recently and saying, 'I have always felt I could not afford what is here.' "

Fetting was just out of the Marine Corps in 1946 when he joined the family business, then in the 300 block of N. Charles St., the most proper carriage trade address in local retailing.

"Every morning, the street's bankers and businessmen met for coffee at Minor's restaurant to discuss the world's troubles," Fetting said.

In those days, this one block of Charles Street housed the city's top jewelers -- Hennegan-Bates, James R. Armiger, Kaiser Klocks, the Schofield Silver Co., B.D. Nuitz -- the renowned Hopper-McGaw grocers, the Woman's Industrial Exchange, DeLuxe saddlery, Payne-Merill mensware, Cook's florists, Lycett's stationers, and the furriers Auman and Werkmeister, Benjamin Tarlow and the Fine Fur Co.

"And if the street had a flamboyant woman, it was Mildred Davis. She had a sense of style," Fetting said of the proprietor of the block's best known fashion house. He also admired the Hanna fine linen emporium and Gordon's children's wear. And, just down the street, the very proper O'Neill's department store.

Fetting's Charles Street store was all dark wood cabinets, silver-colored chandeliers and a lacy, plaster ceiling. The salesmen wore dark suits and spoke in quiet tones. The show windows, which acquired the name of "Fetting windows," were designed with a sense of high drama that aimed at a simple, direct effect.

In 1954, Tiffany & Co., the New York jeweler and silversmith, announced that it had selected Fetting's to sell its wares locally. A few years later, Boehm porcelain birds arrived at the shop.

Fetting described his customers as "sophisticated and demanding."

There was the businessman who wanted a new band for his Rolex watch. The Southland Hills matron in search of a silver baby rattle. The Guilford lady looking over Hungarian china pieces.

In the 1950s, Fetting saw the downtown trade begin to move northward. He took notice when silversmith Samuel Kirk opened a shop in Towson, then a sleepy village that was the northern terminus of the No. 8 streetcar.

"I took the advice of Hunter Moss [a prominent member of the Greater Baltimore Committee] and waited for Towson Plaza shopping center to open," Fetting said. "I had considered moving to Allegheny Avenue or the old Stewart's York Road shopping center. Both places would have never been as good for us as here."

By the end of the 1960s, the Fetting store in what is now Towson Town Center was outselling the Charles Street store. In 1979, Fetting made the decision to close the downtown retail operation, but he still rented an office and jeweler's workroom there. "I have my own affection for downtown," he said.

After much agonizing, he decided to close the Towson store this spring. His customers were mailed a notice of a closing sale beginning April 19. They were 10 abreast at the front door that morning.

One day this week, a member of the Hutzler Brothers family of department store fame stopped by. This woman wished Fetting well and complimented him on his decision to close up shop "with dignity."

Many customers came to buy one last piece of the Fetting style of permanence and quality. A gentleman selected a French clock housed in a heavy brass case. "I just want something to remind me of the fine store and fine family behind it," he said.

Indeed. And as a way of wishing those final customers goodbye, the Fetting's last show window featured a little man, tipping his hat to an audience. He was on a stage. And behind him was a sign with a single word, "Farewell."

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