Story By: Carol Lauvray
Photos By: John Wollwerth
The Cuppia family business, Modern Jewelers, located at 807 Bay Street is a downtown Beaufort institution that’s now celebrating 70 years of service to the community. The story of their business reflects the evolution of downtown Beaufort from the late 1940s to the present day, and is also a story of adapting to the changing times and economic environment in our small, historic town. At the heart of the business are three generations of the family who have owned, managed and worked at Modern Jewelers during most of its existence. Rosemary and Kevin Cuppia, the current owners, recount the history of seven decades of their business and their family’s roots and involvement in Beaufort and the community here.
70 Years of Serving Beaufort
Modern Jewelers was founded in downtown Beaufort in 1947 just after World War II, by Lester and Virginia Hiers at another downtown location—909 Bay Street. The Hiers owned the business until it was purchased in 1964 by Palmetto Management Corporation, comprised of four business leaders in Beaufort at the time: Lawrence Davis, Jim Rentz, Forrest Jones and Ed Pike. Rosemary Cuppia’s father, Carson Rembert, managed the store when that group owned it. In 1966, Rosemary’s parents bought the business, and so Rosemary Rembert Cuppia has been involved with Modern Jewelers at one location or the other on Bay Street for more than 50 years. She recalls unloading merchandise for the store as a child.
Rosemary says at the time her parents, Carson and Rosemary Rembert, bought Modern Jewelers, Beaufort had no tourists so the store’s customers were either local residents or people stationed here in the military. “When I was growing up, everyone came downtown on Saturday—it was the place to be. Beaufort had a small-town feel and a real sense of community. In those days, the store sold electric guitars and guitar strings, drum sets, electric shavers, toasters, irons and American Tourister luggage, in addition to jewelry,” she said. “It was in the 1970s that the store transitioned to selling only jewelry and giftware, and during the 1970s and 1980s, we had a huge bridal registry business,” Rosemary added.
Rosemary attended Beaufort Academy for 12 years. She met Kevin Cuppia when he moved to Hilton Head Island and began commuting every day to attend Beaufort Academy while he was in the 9th grade. They started dating when Rosemary was a sophomore and Kevin was a junior. After graduating from high school, Kevin attended Wofford College for a year and then transferred to the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where Rosemary was going to school. Both earned business degrees as USC. The couple was married in 1981 and lived in Savannah, where Kevin worked at 84 Lumber and Rosemary worked for Levy Jewelers.
Carson Rembert told his daughter and her new husband of his plan to retire from Modern Jewelers at the end of 1981 and asked the couple to become partners in the store, which they did in 1982. Kevin laughed as he explained, “Then Carson stayed on in the business and did not retire until 1995, when we moved Modern Jewelers to its current location at 807 Bay Street.”
A transformational event for both Beaufort and downtown merchants, including Modern Jewelers, was the opening of the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in 1979. The Waterfront Park, combined with a much-improved sewage system that cleaned up the river, additional improved city services and facilities, and the preservation of historic buildings, all helped Beaufort become the tourist destination it is today. Rosemary recalls that as a teen, she sat in the front window of the store at 909 Bay Street and watched the construction of the park through the alley across the street. However, at the time she had no inkling of the impact that the park and the other city improvements would ultimately make on Beaufort and her family’s business.
Although Belks department store and Edward’s Five and Dime left Bay Street in the 1980s and many of the businesses downtown were struggling then, Modern Jewelers increased its inventories as tourists began to come to Beaufort after the Waterfront Park opened and as Dataw Island was being developed by Alcoa in the 1980s. Kevin explained that Dataw Island brought new affluent residents to the area who adopted Beaufort’s downtown and began frequenting its stores. Modern Jewelers even opened a second jewelry store for a time in the Cross Creek Shopping Center in the early 1990s, before deciding to close that store and focus on their downtown Beaufort location.
During the 1980s, while both Rosemary and Kevin worked at the family business, they were also starting their own family. They have a daughter, Katie Cuppia Phifer (33); a son, Chase Cuppia (32); and a son J. C. Cuppia (28). All three of their adult children live in Beaufort. Katie, who is a financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors, is married to Matt Phifer and they have a daughter, Riley, who is 3 ½ years old. Chase is married to Emily and their son, Rhodes, will be 2 years old in January. Chase works as a jeweler at the family store, along with his parents. J. C. works in property management.
Modern Jewelers has continued to evolve and add new services. In 2004, Stan Hudson joined the business to provide both in-store and in-home jewelry appraisals. Chase Cuppia, the third generation to work in the family business, came to work here in 2008 after graduating from the University of South Carolina in Columbia. His arrival during a down period in the economy provided a new facet to the family business—complete custom design for jewelry. His mentor was local artisan Jim Schroder, who had a shop on Lady’s Island and in downtown Beaufort.
When you visit Modern Jewelers, you’ll probably meet the store’s mascot, Chase’s 10-year-old English Bulldog-Boxer mix, Woodrow, who spends much of his day at the store. Chase smiled as he related an anecdote about Woodrow, “I saw a 6-year-old girl sitting on the floor in the store one day with a Dairy Queen Blizzard and she was feeding Woodrow. She said she had asked her grandmother to buy Woodrow his own Blizzard!” Rosemary added that Woodrow has quite a following and many folks who come to Beaufort annually on vacation, make it a point to stop by the store to see Woodrow each time they visit town.
Investing in the Community and Treating Customers Like Family
Rosemary says her family’s continued success in the jewelry business over the years is due largely to their commitment to supporting the Beaufort community and the personalized service they give their customers. “Kevin is a long-time leader in the business community. He served on the Main Street Beaufort board for more than three decades, as well as serving on many other nonprofit boards, including the Boys & Girls Club of Beaufort, Historic Beaufort Foundation, and Beaufort Memorial Hospital Foundation,” she explained. In addition, Kevin served as the Commodore of Beaufort’s Water Festival in 1996 and he and Rosemary chaired the Beaufort Memorial Hospital Foundation Valentine Ball in 1998. The couple lives on Lady’s Island and they are members of the Sea Island Presbyterian Church.
Kevin says, “Our business is exciting because we get to be a part of people’s happy moments, like birthdays, anniversaries and engagements. Our customers are like part of our family—sometimes I know that someone is getting married before their parents know,” he explains.
Everyone at Modern Jewelers is very customer-focused and service-oriented, says Kevin. “We want to do all we can to help people make special memories. Several years ago when the local carriage tour companies were still driving down Bay Street, a young man and I planned a special engagement surprise. He and his girlfriend were riding in one of the carriages down the street and just as the carriage made a stop in front of the John Cross Tavern, I walked over to the carriage and gave him a box with an engagement ring, then he asked his girlfriend to marry him in front of everyone riding in the carriage. She said yes!”
The Cuppia family’s business, has been all about family and the Beaufort community for decades, and with a fourth generation of Cuppias now coming along, it’s likely that the business will be all about family and the Beaufort community for years to come!