Watch shop owners help customers stay on time

From left, Semyon, Rachel, and Alina Ilyashov

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

In 1979, Rachel Ilyashov’s parents, Semyon and Alina, emigrated to the United States from Minsk, the capital of Belarus in what was then the Soviet Union. Jews were leaving the U.S.S.R. as quickly as they could to flee lives of constant persecution. Many of them came to the U.S. and to cities like St. Louis.

Today, Rachel, 26, is running the family business, Timekeepers, a watch repair store in a short strip mall at 9495 Olive Boulevard in Olivette. The family also has a store at 17 N. Meramec Avenue in Clayton.

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Although her family used to belong to Congregation Shaare Emeth, they are unaffiliated today. Rachel graduated from Clayton High School in 2003 and spent two years studying at the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, Calif., where she received a graduate gemologist diploma. In her spare time, which is rare since she is married and has a young daughter, she designs women’s jewelry that features classic pins and brooches and beaded bands she has woven.

Five people work at the store in Olivette, and they are protected by a large, trained police dog named Gizmo.

Has the economy affected your business?

For repairs, we’ve always had a good business. With the economy, our sales are not the same. We specialize in vintage, antique, pre-owned watches and jewelry. We do have a niche.

I saw pocket watches in the case. Are they original?

All original, from the 1800s and early 1900s.

I see quite a bit of jewelry, too.

We are pushing to sell more jewelry.

Are you well positioned, considering the economy?

We are. We are unique. We have many older, high quality watches.

Can you give me an example of a good buy?

If you were to buy a brand new Rolex, you’re going to pay $10,000 to $12,000. And there’s no markdown when it’s retail and it’s Rolex. That’s versus $5,000 to $6,000 pre-owned.

Is it as good as new?

It’s the same watch. It could be worn five times. It could be worn a hundred times, but if they’re in the right condition, it’s the same thing.

What’s the warranty?

Two years for Rolex. Everything else is one year.

Have cheaper watches eaten into the high-end watch market?

No way. There are people, especially men, who collect watches and know good watches. There are plenty of people out there who want good watches.

Why is that?

A watch is a man’s jewelry. A lot of men are interested in their watches just like they are interested in their cars. It’s a toy. It’s another toy. I know a lot of guys who come in with their business partners, and they are all comparing their watches.

Why buy a Rolex when it might get stolen?

It’s a good investment. Rolex is a good investment because you can always get your return. If you go to resell it, you’re not going to lose any more than 10 percent if you bring it back to me and it’s in good condition. It’s going to hold its value. If you want a long-term investment that you want to pass down to your kids and they pass down to their kids, that’s a Patek. That’s the best watch you can buy. It’s the quality of the movement, how they make it. It’s always Swiss made.

Let’s talk about growing up here. Why did your parents choose St. Louis?

They were given two options: New Zealand or St. Louis. They were being placed by specialty. My father was a watchmaker, and here is where there was a need for watchmakers. They came through Jewish Family and Children Services.

Did they know where St. Louis was?

They could find it on a map, but they couldn’t find New Zealand on a map. It was so far away that they couldn’t even figure out where it was. They came in 1979 and the store opened in 1981.

What was it like growing up in St. Louis as a first-generation American?

It was always interesting for me because I was seeing things from a different light. My parents always spoke Russian at home and always kept the Russian culture. So we knew what it meant to work hard. We were always here, even after school. I don’t feel like I grew up like an American. I grew up more Russian. I had a real good friend who was Asian. We had a connection. Her parents owned a Chinese restaurant. It was the same thing. I was always Russian. My husband is Russian, and my daughter is being raised Russian.

What is Russian culture?

I think it’s Russian Jewish culture. It’s a common bond, more than many other families here have. We ate all our meals together, we were always together, because I was always here.

Any other education besides the Gemological Institute of America?

I went to Austria for four months to learn hand engraving. This is my passion, my love

Why do people want engraving?

To make it personal. People have their monograms. I have a really good picture on my phone of one of the last pieces I did. It was for a gentlemen who writes “The Complete Guide to Watches.” That’s the Bible for watches. He sent me one of his watches to be engraved for one of his customers. I think he’s a conductor on the railroad. He wanted his watch engraved with a train. I did it on both sides. One going this way, the other going the other way. I was looking at another pocket watch that was

Do you consider yourself an artist?

It is an art. When I was at GIA, I took courses in jewelry design. That’s one of my passions as well. I’m definitely more of a creative person.

Tell me about the jewelry you make.

It’s called the Fusion Collection. It’s bracelets and necklaces, mainly. It’s the fusion of antique jewelry, which I take apart, and mix it with different things, like woven beaded-type pieces.

Doesn’t that destroy the antique?

No. Because I’m taking things like pins, which people don’t wear any more and really not popular, and I’m making them into a necklace or bracelet. Things in my showcases that nobody is wearing, I’m making them into something new that people will wear. I never would take away the integrity of the piece.