TICKING PAST A CENTURY
For the past 100 years Owatonna and Steele County residents have headed to downtown Owatonna to Kottke Jewelers for watches, jewelry, wedding and graduation gifts.
Kottke Jewelers actually got its start as Jurgenson and Kottke in 1919 with Carl Kottke and John Jurgenson as the owners, said Carl’s grandson, Matthew Kottke. Kottke became the sole owner in the late 1920s when Jurgenson left to go into the bulk oil business and it has remained in the Kottke family since then.
Carl Kottke was 16 years old when he started work at Jostens as an apprentice. At that time Jostens was involved with watch repair as well as jewelry and the young Kottke spent five years in the jewelry department and five years in watch repair, said his grandson. At the time, Jostens was located on the second floor of the Roxy Theater next to the Fire Station.
Carl also served in the Army during World War I, stationed in Rochester, N.Y., where he calibrated instruments for the Army.
Matt Kottke said in the early days his grandfather was involved with designing and creating fine jewelry, repairing watches and clocks as well as selling china, crystal, silverware, fountain pens and even wire-rimmed glasses.
Over the years, Kottke said, the business continued to do watch, clock and jewelry repair but also became known for its quality bridal and engagement items as well as silver and flatware.
In 1965, after graduating from Drake University in Iowa, Carl’s son Bill moved his young family back to Owatonna and joined his father in the business. Bill Kottke would work beside his father for the next 20 years until Carl died in the mid-1980s. Carl, Kottke said, was 93 when he died and he had continued working up until two weeks before his death.
Bill Kottke continued to run the business until his death in 2014. With his father’s death, Kottke said, the family faced a decision regarding the business.
Matt Kottke had been working at Truth in Owatonna for 31 years and when his father’s health began to decline, he decided the timing was right for him to leave his job and come to work in the family business. Today, he is the third generation Kottke at the store pointing out that he “just works here” and his mother, Faye, is the owner of the business.
The store has been at the same location for its entire existence, he said, and at his father’s death in many ways it still looked as it always had.
While there have been some changes and “freshening up” of the store “we’re very conscious of maintaining the same charm,” Kottke said. The jewelry cabinets are the original ones, he said, and they used all local companies for repainting, new carpeting and new cabinet lighting.
“I’ve really maintained the same business philosophy that’s been good for 100 years,” he said, including serving the customers with quality service. That includes, he said, free gift wrapping and handmaking all the bows for the boxes.
The tradition of “The Kottke Watch” has also continued since it was started by Carl in 1923. Each year at the Steele County Free Fair an engraved watch is given for the champion 4-H Dairy animal.
“Owatonna and the surrounding communities have been very supportive of the jewelry store and the family,” Kottke said.
After 100 years the business continues to do well, he said, even though there have been changes over the years with the focus now more on jewelry.
When Carl first went into business, Kottke said, all watches were mechanical and many were pocket watches, not the battery operated, digital timepieces of today. Today, though, he said, more traditional watches are making a strong comeback.
“Younger people see them as kind of a fashion statement,” he said. Both men and women are coming back to watches, he said.
In the early days of the business, Kottke said, his grandfather had two other watchmakers working for him and now a retired watchmaker and jeweler comes in once a week to work on mechanical watches.
His grandfather and father were both involved in the community and Kottke said he has tried to follow in their footsteps.
“They instilled a philosophy of giving back to the community,” he said. “It’s a win-win. If the community is strong, businesses do well.”
His grandfather, he said, served on the school board and his father was active with the Chamber of Commerce. Both also were involved in a variety of civic activities.
“I’ve kind of followed that myself,” he said.
When he was growing up, he said, he wondered why his father and grandfather were so involved in so many things but “now I get it.”
Kottke sees a bright future not only for Kottke Jewelers but also for downtown Owatonna. The business, he said, is the oldest business in Owatonna that is still run by the same family and still in the same location.
And for Owatonna, he said, “there is a new and exciting energy downtown.”