OCEAN CITY - Sam Koperwas and his childhood friend from Brooklyn, Jeff Sherman, knew nothing about jewelry before they opened their first store together on the Boardwalk at 12th Street.
But more than 40 years later, Henry's Landmark Jeweler is one of the island's most long-lived single-owner shops.
Their second store in Cape May's Washington Street Mall has been open nearly as long - for 35 years.
Koperwas, of Ocean City, said knowing his customers well made all the difference.
"We knew absolutely nothing. We had no knowledge of the jewelry business. We had a plan that if we showed nice things and had reasonable merchandise, people would come. Each year, the business grew," he said.
Koperwas and Sherman grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but spent summers in Atlantic City, where they worked at Sherman's father's souvenir shop. After college, Koperwas thought about opening his own business.
"We didn't think about the risks then. We were recently married. My wife was teaching. She was off in the summer. I wasn't happy with the job I had. I was also teaching," he said. "So we invested a little bit of money."
He and Sherman chose Ocean City to open their jewelry store. Within five years, they were doing well enough to open their second store in Cape May.
Today, the stores offer national designers such as Pandora, Tahizea and Marahlago, along with Cape May designer Scott Thomas' line of shore-inspired themes. These include the "Cape May Wave," featuring a crashing wave made from sterling silver and rhodium plating.
The business partners faced a crisis in 2002 when an electrical fire destroyed much of the Boardwalk at 12th Street, including their store, just as summer began.
"Jeff and I thought we were going down with the ship. But we managed to survive that. It took us two years to rebuild the store as it is now," he said. "In the long run, it worked out to our benefit because we were able to build the store to more contemporary standards and our own specifications."
Koperwas said he sees many of the same customers from year to year.
Kim Goodlavage, of Harrisburg, Pa., stopped at the Washington Street Mall to pick up a sea turtle ring that caught her eye.
"I liked the design. I try to make a point to come here when I come to Cape May," she said.
Peter Hutcheon, of Clayton, Gloucester County, bought a Cape May Wave pendant for wife Barbara while they shopped the mall.
"It's locally designed and unique. You won't find it anywhere else, not even Tiffany's. And I like to support local artisans," Barbara Hutcheon said.
The shops offer in-store repairs and appraisals. Employee Adam Lindsay, of Cape May, said a lot of jewelry bought in Cape May has a personal connection to the resort.
"It's a romantic town. People come here for weddings and anniversaries. They want keepsakes to remember their time here, so it's important that the jewelry be durable," he said.
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