FOREVER SHINING: Community members remember Gene Starnes
Published 3:30 pm Thursday, February 1, 2024
Stanly County has lost a gem.
Gene Starnes, the longtime owner of Starnes Jewelers in downtown Albemarle, died Monday. He was 82.
Starnes retired in 2022 after operating the jewelry store for more than 45 years.
His sister, Pat Bramlett, and brother-in-law, Chris, owner of Starnes-Bramlett Jewelers, released a statement on Facebook Tuesday morning.
“Gene spent nearly his entire life here at the store. He spent countless hours, here as a youth while his father ran the business. He began working here full-time in the 1960s, after college, and became sole owner in 1976 after his father passed away. Gene spent the next 45+ years here until his retirement in 2022. Gene’s contributions to Albemarle and Stanly County are immeasurable and his presence will be missed by all.”
Starnes received an honor from the Distributive Education Clubs of America and had served as president of the North Carolina Guild of the American Gem Society, director of the North Carolina Retail Jewelers Association and on the board of directors of the North Carolina Merchants Association.
Starnes was recognized as the Stanly County Business Person of the Year by the Phi Beta Lambda chapter at Stanly Community College in 1989 and was the honored as the Stanly County Citizen of the Year by the Stanly County Chamber of Commerce in February 2023.
“I have not worked a day in my life because I have enjoyed what I did so much,” Starnes said upon receiving the latter honor.
Wil Huneycutt, chairman of the board for the Stanly County Chamber of Commerce, called Starnes “a pillar of the Albemarle and Stanly County community.”
“He was a constant source of support for downtown Albemarle and was a model for what it means to be a citizen who invests and commits to the place they live and work,” Huneycutt said. “He also constantly supported the Chamber and it’s efforts and is our most recent Citizen of the Year, an award that could not have a better representative than Gene Starnes. Our community has lost one of its biggest supporters.”
Albemarle Mayor Ronnie Michael issued a statement Tuesday on what Starnes meant to the city.
“We are all deeply saddened by the loss of Gene Starnes,” Michael said. “Gene was more than just a successful business owner. He truly demonstrated what it means to give back to the community. Gene served on the Albemarle Downtown Development Corporation Board of Directors, Historic Resources Commission and several other committees. Our thoughts and prayers are with Gene’s friends and family during this difficult time.”
In His Own Words
Editor’s Note: Gene Starnes was the cover story for the May 2021 issue of Stanly the Magazine. An abridged version of that article follows. The full version can be read here on thesnaponline.com.
When Gene Starnes arrived at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory in the early 1960s, he didn’t necessarily have a detailed plan for what he wanted to do with his life. He briefly considered a career in marine biology or some similar field, since he always had a love for animals and plants. Whatever path he chose, Starnes assumed he’d do it some place away from his hometown of Albemarle. While he didn’t count out moving back to the city, he planned to take time after graduation to travel to other parts of the country.
But life can be funny sometimes. While in college, he developed a love for salesmanship and came to the realization that the best place to apply his degree in business and economics was his family’s jewelry business in downtown Albemarle. As someone with a lust for travel and adventure, Starnes ultimately enjoyed all that and more during his time with Starnes Jewelers.
“I came back and never left,” said Starnes, now 79.
Even as he’s dealt with health issues in recent years, Starnes still comes to work each day, excited to reminisce and interact with lifelong customers who have since become good friends. That’s not a surprise since, according to Pat Bramlett, his sister, he’s always been a people-person.
“He is always out doing things with people,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons he’s stayed at Starnes Jewelers” over the years. “He just loves people.”
Born in 1941, just a few blocks from downtown, he was the third generation of Starnes men bearing the name Francis Eugene.
He enjoyed playing with friends in the neighborhood and watching movies (especially ones featuring cowboys, circuses and Disney) with freshly made popcorn in the basement of his house on a 16 millimeter projector on Saturday nights. The Starnes house was the popular gathering place for young people, as he and his siblings, Pat and younger sister Judy, hosted many parties over the years.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up,” he said.
Even at early age, he spent much of his time working at the family business.
“I grew up in the store,” he said. “As long as I was big enough to unpack something or pick up a broom or wipe a case.”
Originally founded by his grandfather F.E. Starnes in 1898, Starnes Jewelers is the oldest continually-run family retail business in the county. His grandfather, who was an optometrist and an apprentice to a jeweler in Monroe, set out on his bike to find a location to open his own jewelry store. According to family lore, F.E. fell off his bike in Albemarle. As he got up, he discovered a horseshoe beside the road, which he took for a sign that Albemarle was the right location.
“He picked up that horseshoe and brought it with him for good luck,” Starnes said about his grandfather.
The horseshoe is framed and hanging inside the store.
F.E. Starnes moved locations several times over the years before settling on its current spot on Main Street in 1907. He also opened other stores in Concord, Salisbury, Lexington, Southern Pines and Badin (though most of these were not around when Gene Starnes was growing up).
Because of his increasing influence, he noted his grandfather became well-known across much of North Carolina in the early 20th century. Starnes cultivated a deep knowledge of jewelry due to his time at the shop and accompanying his parents to jewelry shows and conferences across much of the country, including New York City and Atlanta, where his parents would buy precious stones.
These national events were how Starnes and his family were able to network and establish close ties with other jewelers across the country. The business has been a member of the American Gem Society for close to 80 years, he said. The store has also been a member of many other gemological and retail organizations over the years.
Following his time at Lenoir-Rhyne, Starnes returned to the business in 1964. Even during his six-year stint with the Air National Guard in Badin, Starnes still found time to work nights and on the weekends.
“Any time I wasn’t at the Guard, I was working here,” he said.
His father started turning over key responsibilities to Starnes after he finished college, as a way to groom him to eventually take over the store once he retired. Around this time, Starnes also began buying shares of the business. He took over the store after his father died in 1976.
One of the more exciting parts about the business for Starnes has been the frequent travel. Utilizing the store’s connections with jewelers across the world and its membership with gemological associations, Starnes has been to more countries than he can count. He’s traveled across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, China and Antarctica. He’s visited gold, diamond, opal and sapphire mines during his trips abroad.
Once he identified stones for the shop, they were then mailed to Albemarle.
On one trip to South Africa, Starnes climbed on his hands and knees with a flashlight attached to his helmet through caves and tunnels, some 5,000 feet below the ground, after part of the diamond mine had recently collapsed. Once he left the site, the diamond company used him to inconspicuously transport millions of dollars of diamonds in a nondescript paper bag through the streets of Johannesburg to the local post office.
“Some of the men from the company were afraid they would be recognized and knew I wouldn’t,” he said, adding that the whole experience “was exciting.”
He also remembers climbing down into black opal mines on rickety ladders held together by coat hangers while in Lightning Ridge, a small outback town in Australia.
Starnes was part of a group that was one of the first in China to purchase non-government sanctioned pearls. He was also among the first groups to tour Russia after it reopened following the end of the Cold War.
Though most trips tended to last only about a day, Starnes does remember certain excursions, like when he purchased diamonds in Antwerp, a port city in Belgium, that lasted at least a week.
His sister Pat acknowledged that Starnes and their sister Judy both had a love for traveling to far-flung places that were often overlooked by others.
“You could think of a place that you’d say, ‘Well why would you go there?’ and they’d like to go,” she said.
Starnes, for example, has traveled to Iraq and Iran, and has seen the crown jewels of not just those countries, but most others that have a current or former monarchy. He acknowledged most typical jewelry stores don’t have employees traveling the world hand-picking stones because most don’t have the deep connections with diamond companies and organizations like the AGS that Starnes Jewelers has fostered over its many decades.
For a sociable person like Starnes who’s never met a stranger, Pat said, meeting new people around the world was similar to meeting new customers at the store. As valuable as these trips were from a business standpoint, they helped reveal to Starnes the common humanity that exists among all people.
“You get a greater appreciation of people and, even if you can’t speak the same language, how much we all have in common,” he said. “It just broadens your outlook on life and on people.”
Since 1981, when Pat moved back to Albemarle, Starnes has worked alongside his brother-in-law, Chris Bramlett, a certified gemologist appraiser. The only time they’ve been apart was a 15-year stint in the 1990s and early 2000s when Bramlett left the business to establish his own jewelry store in downtown Concord.
Though he has no kids of his own (he was briefly married for a short time), he’s a surrogate father to Bramlett’s three children.
“I love them as if they were my own,” he said.
In addition to his work as a jeweler, Starnes has also been active in his local community. He’s a member of the Albemarle Rotary Club, was a member of the Historical Restructuring Committee and has been involved with the Stanly County Museum.
For the man who grew up imagining a life beyond his hometown, Starnes is content right where he is.
“I could be happy many places but no happier than I would be right here in Albemarle,” he said. “Home is here.”