When it comes to precious stones, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Robert Scott learned this in the late 1960s while shopping for an engagement ring.
The young U.S. Marine, who was serving in the coastal Vietnamese city of Danang, traveled one day to the local Post Exchange to find out what $290 — all the money he had to his name — could buy.
Mr. Scott quickly decided on a one-carat diamond ring that was sure to please his girlfriend, Louise, back home in Riverhead. But before he could slap his money on the counter, his gunnery sergeant, who had accompanied him to the PX, urged him to reconsider.
“He said, ‘Look at it. It’s all black inside,’ ” recalled Mr. Scott, now 69. “It had a lot of inclusions.”
Swayed by his superior, he settled instead on a 38-point solitaire diamond that was noticeably smaller but had good cut, color and clarity.
It turned out to be the better choice: In June, Robert and Louise Scott celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.
Over those four decades, Mr. Scott, who opened Robert’s Jewelers in Southold in 1985, has established himself as a reputable local jeweler and certified gemologist. He is so committed to his craft, he said, that he “hasn’t had a real Christmas in 41 years.”
With this in mind, Mr. Scott has decided to retire. Robert’s Jewelers will close in mid-January.
“I just want some time back,” he said.
Although he spent his formative years in Wichita, Kan., and possesses some of the character traits traditionally associated with residents of that region — honesty, dependability and a healthy work ethic all come to mind — Mr. Scott doesn’t think of himself as Midwestern.
“I consider myself a Long Islander,” he said. “I belong here.”
Shortly after graduating from high school in 1964, Mr. Scott cemented that belief by moving to the East Coast after the Wichita printing company he was working for went bankrupt. After a four-day trip on a Five-Star Continental bus he landed in Riverhead, where he moved in with his mother.
Mr. Scott quickly got a job in the deli department of the now-closed King Kullen on Route 58, where he “met a lot of friends and made lasting relationships.” But his most enduring connection was made at a friend’s party, where he was introduced to his future wife, Louise.
“I saw her at somebody else’s house for 20 minutes,” he said. “You know the old adage ‘That’s the girl you’re gonna marry’? I just knew.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Scott wasn’t able to spend much time with Louise, who quickly became his girlfriend. About a week before he met her, he had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“That changed the whole game plan, but it was too late,” he said.
Louise drove Mr. Scott to Fort Hamilton, N.Y., where he completed boot camp. In December 1968, he was sent to Vietnam.
During his yearlong deployment, Mr. Scott oversaw a communications center. But while he “did his job” and felt fortunate to receive weekly letters from Louise, he found the country itself depressing.
“I felt sorry for the people because we didn’t belong there,” he said. “We didn’t help them. We ruined their economy.”
When Mr. Scott’s 365 days in Danang were up, the Marine Corps offered him considerable money to stay an additional year — more than he’d “ever dreamed a person could make.”
He decided to go home instead.
When Mr. Scott returned to the area, he began taking classes at Suffolk County Community College and working in Stony Brook as a part-time night printer. Later, he was hired by the former LeValley Press on Roanoke Avenue in Riverhead, where he’d worked before joining the Marines.
Mr. Scott, who had taken a high school vocational course that enabled him to become a master printer, relished his position with LeValley, where he printed forms for banks and other small businesses. He loved the ink itself and “being able to create something on paper that nobody else could.”
One year later, he was hired by Suffolk County’s General Services Department in Yaphank. But 15 months into the job, he said, printing no longer delivered the same satisfaction. As technology continued to advance, the work simply became too easy.
“And I understood it,” he said, “but it wasn’t what we had come to grow up and cut our teeth on.”
After Mr. Scott left the printing industry, he focused on finding a full-time job that could support his wife and two sons, Bob and Joe. In 1975, he was hired as a salesman at the now-closed Acard Jewelers in downtown Riverhead.
Just two months into the position, Mr. Scott had a revelation that would forever alter the course of his life.
“I realized this is what I wanted to do my whole life,” he said. “I loved the people. I loved the jewelry. I loved the intricacy of everything involved with it.”
To educate himself on the precious stones he sold, Mr. Scott enrolled at Manhattan’s Gemological Institute of America, becoming a certified gemologist. He also honed his skills as a salesman, successfully convincing one gun-shy customer to purchase the engagement ring of his girlfriend’s dreams.
“I said, ‘Sir, if you put this ring back in this case it’s going to cry all weekend because it’s not on her hand,’ ” he recalled.
After six years at Acard, Mr. Scott accepted a managerial position at the former Rose Jewelers, also in downtown Riverhead. By May 1985, however, he’d decided he was ready to be his own boss.
Just one month later, Mr. Scott — who by then had been living in Cutchogue for nearly a decade — opened Robert’s Jewelers in Southold’s Feather Hill plaza.
In the 31 years since, the longtime volunteer firefighter and North Fork Chamber of Commerce board member has distinguished himself as a local jeweler with a reputation for integrity.
“He honestly wants to do right by the customer first, even if it’s a financial loss to him,” said his elder son, Bob, 43. “I’ve seen him basically talk people out of buying a much bigger item because he knew who they were buying it for and he knew it just wasn’t going to be right for them.”
For 23 years, Mr. Scott also demonstrated appreciation for his clients with his annual “Snowfall Madness” promotion. Under the deal, customers who made a purchase during the holidays were asked to choose from a handful of dates in late December or early January. If it snowed three inches or more between the hours of 6 p.m. and midnight on their chosen date, Mr. Scott would refund their purchase.
For more than two decades, luck was on the jeweler’s side: He wasn’t obliged to make his first payout until early 2014.
“Do you know how long I’ve waited for this to happen? Twenty-one years,” Mr. Scott told The Suffolk Times that winter. “And people said it was a stupid event.”
There won’t be a “Snowfall Madness” this year. Instead, Mr. Scott, whose family spent countless Christmas Eves helping him at the shop, plans to celebrate the holiday at home. First, however, he intends to cook Thanksgiving dinner.
“I’ve lost the knack,” he admitted. “I want to get that back.”
Mr. Scott had contemplated selling his business, but the two prospects he had in mind didn’t pan out. One prospective buyer, he said, “wanted to run it into the ground and make money off people that didn’t get what they were supposed to.”
Rather than let that happen, Mr. Scott has opted to close Robert’s Jewelers entirely by Jan. 14. Until then, he’ll sell the shop’s remaining inventory at discounted prices.
“I’ve got a little bit of pride in this and nobody is going to destroy it,” he said. “I’d rather close it and say it was done well.”
The news is bittersweet to customers like Mary Lou Purcell of Southampton, who stopped by Robert’s Jewelers last week to pick up a repaired piece of jewelry.
“I’m sad for me, but happy for him,” she said.
Robert’s Jewelers may be closing, but Mr. Scott’s work as a jeweler is far from over. In fact, he already has plans to work as a consultant for small jewelry stores across the country.
“He needs a different challenge,” his son said. “He needs something new to get him refreshed and reinvigorated — maybe not something with retail hours. He’s earned it.”
Photos: A Kansas native and certified gemologist, Robert Scott got his start in the jewelry business in the mid-1970s, working as a salesman for the former Acard Jewelers in downtown Riverhead. (Credit: Krysten Massa)