Over the summer – should that ever arrive – I hope to run a series on some of Ashburton’s longest continuously operated shops.
On High Street, nestled between Thomas Lee Real Estate and Finch and Lane Interiors is the faded hot pink façade of Ken Ross Jewellers.
When you enter the little shop, which people did with surprising regularity in the short time I was there, you are immediately surrounded by clocks of all sizes and colours. On every wall there are cuckoo clocks, clocks that look like giant wristwatches, and clocks with numbers so big even your half-blind grandma could read them. On the floor are display cases full of gleaming wristwatches laid out neatly and shelves of shining rings and necklaces.
There is no question this is a place where the long-standing employees of 20 years+ take pride in their work. All the clocks tell exactly the same time. The wallpaper is 1950s original, the Christmas decorations handmade, and the staff all happy to chat. The shop has changed little since 1954 so it’s just like stepping back in time… but in a charming way.
Ken Ross, who died last year at the age of 90, began his working life as an apprentice tool-maker. After World War II, he lost his tool-making job to a returned serviceman so decided to move into watchmaking and repairs. He arrived in Ashburton at the age of 23 to work at Wrights Jewellers at 200 High Street.
People thought he was crazy to move all the way out here. Back then, High Street was just a dusty single-lane bluestone street with a couple of brick shop-fronts, a car yard and a service station. But a few doors up from Wrights Jewellers was Miss McKenzie’s Beauty Salon. Working there was a lovely young hairdresser called Betty, who lived in a housing commission house in Lancaster Street with her parents.
Seeing the potential in Ashburton (and Betty), in 1954 Ken decided to buy in to Wrights Jewellers. Even though Betty’s parents were not impressed when they found out Ken rode a motorcycle, her parents eventually relented and the two married, buying a house at 47 Ward Street. Ken eventually took over the business and gave it his name.
Over the years, Ken Ross built up a loyal clientele for his high-end jewellery, watchmaking and repair business.
‘Ashburton’s High Street thrived in the 1970s,’ Ken’s son Glen said. ‘There would be bands playing and parades, with throngs of people.’
Glen, who took over the business from his father several years ago, said the rise of Chadstone Shopping Centre had little effect on his father’s business.
‘People came in because Dad made their mother’s engagement ring,’ he said. ‘We have generations of customers who keep coming back.’ In a 2014 article celebrating his 60 years in the business, Ken speculated that ‘people keep coming back probably because we don’t charge as much.’
Ken’s competitors came and went. ‘Dad was always the original one,’ Glen continued. ‘He was always able to beat them into submission in the early days, and trade them out.’
By the 1990s, the three jewellers on High Street had established their own small section of the neighbourhood’s jewellery business. Ashburton Jewellers specialises in silver jewellery, while John Adam creates bespoke jewellery designs. For Ken Ross Jewellers, the watch repair side of the business is by far the most lucrative.
Business has picked up again post-Covid but High Street has changed considerably. The retail associations warned Glen that suburban shopping strips would be taken over by solicitors, doctors and fitness clubs. And that’s exactly what has happened.
Watch-wearers too are different today from when Ken Ross started his business. A watch used to be just a way to tell time. Now its an investment in style, craftsmanship, and prestige. So there will always be a cohort of people who prefer to buy quality time pieces and will spend money to repair a high quality watch. Although Glen says the customers have become increasingly impatient with the time it takes to source parts from Swiss manufacturers, people come from all over Melbourne to have their vintage clocks and watches repaired at Ken Ross Jewellers.
Ken Ross Jewellers runs a robust Instagram account showcasing their wares and a regular blog featuring articles on everything from caring for your grandfather clock to the history of Omega watches. Unfortunately, the last few years have been very tough for the jewellery shop.
‘Covid nearly destroyed us,’ Glen says. ‘And then Dad died in 2021 so it’s been very difficult.
But I’m happy to keep it going... the old-fashioned way.’
Thanks to Glen Ross and the ladies at Ken Ross Jewellers for their time.