April / May 2015
Online version of this article here.
Chuck Cooper’s jewelry career began with candy.
While most ten-year-olds are reading comic books or collecting baseball cards, the owner of Van Atkins Jewelry in New Albany was operating a successful candy business out of his family’s department store.
“There wasn’t a candy store anywhere around back then,” recalls Cooper. “I bought candy bars from a wholesaler and took them back to our store. People from other businesses would come in to the store and buy candy from me. I made about $100 a month by doing that.”
The Van Atkins name is one that is very familiar in Holly Springs, Oxford, and the surrounding areas. Cooper’s family opened the first Van Atkins department store in Mississippi 1959. The original Van Atkins store in Walnut Ridge, AR, had already been in operation for 10 years. In addition to selling candy, Cooper worked in the men’s clothing department throughout his childhood and well into college.
It was obvious, even from a young age, that Cooper had an eye for opportunity. In 1980, during his freshman year of college, he made a decision that would forever shape his future. He took some of his candy profits and essentially started the store’s jewelry department with $1200 worth of gold chains. Once the chains sold, Cooper took the profits and purchased more.
“We had a huge old cash register in the store back then,” Cooper says. “The bottom drawer in the register was mine. Whenever someone sold a gold chain, they put the money in the bottom drawer.”
At one point, Cooper thought he might go into the medical field. He even majored in pre-med at Ole Miss. But shortly after selling his first diamond, he realized where his true calling lay. He frequently sold jewelry to Ole Miss faculty and staff, even helped a few fellow students pick out diamonds for engagement rings. As soon as he graduated college in 1985, he established an official jewelry department within the Van Atkins store.
For five years, Van Atkins’s inventory consisted mostly of moderately priced jewelry. That is, until Cooper had a chance meeting with a wholesaler that specialized in estate jewelry. He presented Cooper with an ornate platinum ring and suggested Cooper add the ring to his collection.
Reveals Cooper, “I was very hesitant. It was beautiful, but it was more expensive than anything else we sold. I didn’t think anyone would buy it. But the guy told me, ‘Give it a try. If it doesn’t sell, I’ll buy it back.”
The ring did sell ¾ quickly. Seeing yet another opportunity to expand his business, he invested in more antique jewelry. Most of the estate jewelry Cooper purchases today is between 50 and100 years old. Sometimes the jewelry is in need of repair, but Cooper is passionate about refurbishing each item and returning it to the show stopping piece of jewelry it once was.
“Antique jewelry is a lot like an old house,” he says. “Sure, it’s cheaper to build a new house. But once you restore an old house, there is nothing like it. They don’t make jewelry like that anymore and there are people out there that appreciate that.”
Today, Van-Atkins has evolved from department store to solely jewelry. It is known across the South as one of top estate jewelers, with clients coming in from as far away as Nashville. Van Atkins has even seen their share of celebrity clients, but as a true business professional, Cooper says he doesn’t give out any names.
Family still remains the cornerstone of the business. Cooper’s wife Rhonda, in addition to three of the couple’s four sons and their daughter-in-law all work at the store. Two of the Cooper’s sons, Van and Ray, both have degrees in gemology from Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in Carlsbad, CA. Van is currently studying jewelry design at GIA, while Ray is a skilled hand engraver.
In November 2014, Van Atkins moved from its home since 2001 ¾ the former Bank of New Albany building ¾ to a completely renovated location that used to house a hardware store in its heyday. According to Cooper, the new store provides three times the space, but still possesses the charm that they are known for.
As for the future, Cooper says he is going on focus on, “making this the best jewelry store in Mississippi. Our selection is what makes us competitive, even with bigger jewelry stores like in Memphis. But it’s our great employees that have made us so successful. They really care about the people who come in to our store and know how important the buying process is.”