A Cedarburg stalwart
Armbruster Jewelers mark 130 years in business

By Dave Fidlin - News Graphic Correspondent

Nov. 25, 2014

Anna Marie, left, Pat and John Armbruster continue a tradition of service and involvement in the community that has made Armbruster Jewelers a mainstay in downtown Cedarburg for 130 years.Anna Marie represents the fifth generation of the family to be involved in the business.  
Photo by Mark Justesen 

In 1884, the standard eight-hour workday was established, construction of the Statue of Liberty began, Mark TwAin wrote, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt was born.

During that busy, bustling year, a local merchant named John Armbruster Sr. set up a shop in the heart of Cedarburg’s shopping district. It was aptly named Armbruster Jewelers. One of its signature displays, a long, monumental clock outside the shop, was installed.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Armbruster Jewelers has been celebrating its 130th year in operation as 2014 winds down. As with the world around it, the business has evolved over time. But in many ways it has stayed the same as well.

One aspect that has been a constant: Armbruster Jewelers has always been located in Cedarburg’s downtown. The store began operations a few buildings north, where the Stilt House Gastro Bar is currently housed. The second move followed a few years later in a building that has since been razed.

Armbruster Jewelers has operated out of its existing space for 106 of its 130 years. The store layout, as evidenced by then-and-now photographs, is virtually untouched.

“People have long thought of us for our quality merchandise, and they have trusted us,” said John Armbruster, a fourth-generation family member currently operating the venerable retailer alongside his wife, Patricia. Their daughter, Anna Marie, has also been working in the store, representing a fifth-generation family member.

When asked why he believes Armbruster Jewelers has withstood the test of time, John Armbruster quickly rattles off a number of reasons, starting with the business’ firm commitment to the community.

A window display on Washington Avenue celebrates the 130th anniversary.   
Photo by Mark Justesen 

“We live in Cedarburg, and we’re active in Cedarburg,” said Armbruster, who began working at the store while in high school in the 1960s. “We’ve been involved in a number of different fundraisers and other events over the years. We don’t see ourselves as just a business. We’re visible in the community.”

But the retailer’s commitment to its clientele is another reason for the longevity, Armbruster asserts.

“I would say most of it has to do with the trust we’ve built up; it’s a big part of it,” he said. “That’s an important thing when you’re talking about jewelry.”

By Armbruster’s estimation, about 80 percent of the store’s customer base lives within a 10-mile radius of the building. When people move outside the immediate Cedarburg area, Armbruster said it is not uncommon to have people make destination trips to the store.

While jewelry has been the cornerstone of Armbruster’s operations since day one, the store previously sold a wide swath of other merchandise – a fact prominently displayed in the front windows of the store throughout autumn.

When he founded the store, John Armbruster Sr. arrived in Cedarburg with a background in disparate areas: watch making and music. In a nod to the latter, Armbruster Jewelers had long sold musical instruments and electronics.

“We were actually the first RCA dealer in Ozaukee County,” Armbruster said. “We sold phonographs and other equipment as the technology evolved.”

Eventually, management decided to rein in on Armbruster’s product line and focus more heavily on the jewelry side of operations. By the 1970s, the store no longer sold instruments and electronics.

In addition to its selection of jewelry – including such lines as Pandora, Alex and Ani and enamel St. Christopher medals – the Armbruster Jewelers of today offers a number of related services. Among them: jewelry and watch repair, appraisals, pearl restringing and engraving.

When asked about the future of Armbruster Jewelers, the fourth-generation John Armbruster is optimistic. Over the years, there have been a number of potential threats that could have eroded the business, including the opening of Northridge Mall – and its array of chain jewelers – in the 1970s. Armbruster, of course, outlived the mega retail development on Milwaukee’s northwest side.

Today, online shopping through such sites as Amazon and other click-ready destinations pose potential challenges.

“There always seems to be some variable at play,” Armbruster said. “But we’re still here, and we plan to be for quite some time.”

Armbruster Jewelers
W62-N620 Washington Ave., Cedarburg