Safe Keeping: Downtown's Only Jeweler Keeps Its Biggest Rarity on the Floor

Reporters don’t do a lot of jewelry shopping, even this time of year. I probably don’t need to go into why that’s the case. It’s not because of our fabled difficulty in maintaining romantic relationships. At least it’s not just that. But it’s good to know there’s somebody downtown who can put a battery into my Timex. A couple of years ago in this space, I complained about that as one of the ironies of downtown’s much-heralded revival. When downtown was “dead,” there were probably still half a dozen jewelers of various sorts. Then there were none. Now there’s one.

Rick Terry’s does a lot of delicate work. “We’re craftsmen,” says Terry. “We do things most jewelry stores have abandoned over the years.” The craft has changed rapidly in recent years. Last week, they were working on the design for some heirloom jewelry with the help of a laptop. Some of their work is so tiny they have to use microscopes to get a good look at it.

But when I dropped into Rick Terry’s last week, it was to see some heavy equipment that’s hard to miss. There among their showcases of delicate jewelry is an unusual old piece of furniture that’s heavier than a couple of automobiles.

Terry opened his store a little more than a year ago, in the old marble Journal Arcade building at 618 Gay Street. The hallway leading to the shop is a little bit more than a hallway, which is probably why the building is called the Arcade.

There have been three downtown buildings known as the Arcade, from an especially extravagant whorehouse-bar on Central, a century ago, to the Union Avenue apartment building destroyed in a strange explosion, which became the subject of an unusual 1930 blues song, “The Arcade Building Moan.” The Arcade building that’s still standing is the best of them, architecturally, and we can only be lucky it’s been recently restored by the Grimac family.

Built in 1924, it was designed by R.F. Graf, Knoxville’s most modern architect of the era. He’d been the lead designer at the National Conservation Exposition of 1913, and by the time he was working on the Arcade, he was also at work on the mammoth Sterchi Building down the street. The four-columned Arcade was designed to be headquarters to the old Republican daily, the Knoxville Journal. It was the modern era of radio and airplanes, but when the Journal first set up shop here, its editor was a Civil War veteran, Captain William Rule, U.S.A. He came into work every day of his adult life until his sudden death at age 89. He’d just been here in the office, writing an endorsement of Hoover for president, when he came down with acute appendicitis.

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A legacy like that can be daunting to a jeweler who’s new to downtown. Terry lives in Loudon County and has a well-known jewelry store in Farragut. It may boost his downtown cred that his shop houses an antique appliance that served other jewelers on the same street 90 years ago.

It’s a gorgeous old Mosler safe, with a hand-painted scene of a riverside ruin. It could be Tuscany, if it’s not Loudon County. Manufactured in Ohio, the safe’s mounted on freight-train-style wheels that prove it’s portable. But it’s not going anywhere today. Though it’s not much bigger than a filing cabinet, it weighs about 5,000 pounds. Terry doesn’t keep it locked; he has another, plainer Diebold safe back in the office. The Diftler safe is there for customers to look at. Its doors—each weighs much more than you do—have an unusual interlocking construction, designed to stay securely in place even if a safecracker can get the hinges off. It says “Est. 1922,” apparently a reference to its first owner’s business. If you stand to the side and look at it in the right light, you can tell it once had letters identifying it as belonging to Diftler’s Jewelery.

Benjamin Diftler was a Jewish Austrian immigrant who moved to Knoxville in the early 1920s. He had some family here, and first went into business with his brother-in-law Max Friedman. They had a small operation at the corner of Gay Street and Vine, part of the 200 block that’s utterly gone. By 1924, Friedman was off on his own, down the street, running his own store and eventually heavily involved in Democratic politics. But Diftler kept running the store at the original location until he died in 1962. His son Nathan later moved the operation to Market Street. It was in the Arnstein until he closed his store in 1997.

Rick Terry began doing contract work for Diftler in the ’80s, and the two became close friends. Until his death, the elderly Diftler would drop in at Terry’s West Knoxville shop “to talk about jobs, to talk about the jewelry business, to talk about life.” Even as competitors, Terry says, jewelers share a camaraderie.

A couple of years ago, when he was contemplating the downtown store, Terry heard the old Diftler safe had been purchased by another jeweler, and was in Oak Ridge. “I paid more to move it than I paid for it,” he says. The folks who did the work were F.M. George, the key makers, who have apparently done this sort of thing before. It was an interesting coincidence, because an interior drawer in the safe bears an F.M. George logo. They’ve worked with this safe before, even if it’s been a few decades.

Rick Terry doesn’t work here every day, usually just one day a week. His son, Blake, manages the place, with the help of his wife, Rachel, and boxer, Asher. Named for a cut of diamond, and a for Hebrew word that means “happy,” Asher does tricks for treats. Asher actually boxes, as few boxers do.

As we talk, people stop and look in. “I just didn’t understand how important these windows are to Gay Street,” Terry says. “My other stores sure don’t have the walk-by traffic we do here. That’s really fun.”

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