Monahan Jewelers of Harwich celebrates 200 years in business
Situated among a lineup of traditional looking stores and eateries on Harwichport’s vibrant Main Street (Route 28), one shop may appear slightly out of place. Built circa 1850, the rustic, wood-paneled building at 540 Main Street evokes the past—and a sense of nostalgia; visitors and customers who walk through the front door may soon feel they’re being transported back in time.
Inside, a feeling or sense of history is apparent, if not palpable. Hundreds of photos, paintings, letters, and other trinkets cover the store’s walls and display cases, each memento helping to illuminate the rich history of a business—and a family.
For more than 30 years, this Harwich location has been home to Monahan & Co. Fine Jewelers, but the company’s history goes back much farther than that. This year, the company, which was founded in Worcester during the early 19th century before relocating to Cape Cod in 1980, celebrates its 200th anniversary.
“There’s not a store like it in America,” says Michael O’Neill Monahan, the company’s owner and chairman. “It’s a treasure.” For Michael, who has run the business since 1962, the company is his family’s legacy, and he feels a great sense of pride in helping to carry it on.
Unlike pristine and clutter-free jewelry stores one may find in the mall, Monahan’s features jam-packed display cases, jewelry-covered countertops, and endless memorabilia hither and yon. “We realize we’re like a museum,” Michael says, “but we are a store that does business, and the product—people are so happy when they get it from us.”
Open from mid-May through December, Monahan’s sells original, custom pieces, including bracelets and necklaces, as well as fashion jewelry and one-of-a-kind estate pieces such as a tantalizing tanzanite ring that changes color in the light. The company also does repair work, and offers jewelry in a wide price range, from $15 to $500,000. “Anybody, anywhere that wants to buy real top-notch jewelry can come here and get anything they want,” Michael says.
Involved with the business since he was about 10 years old, Michael says the key to pleasing customers is simple: provide quality, personal service. “It’s so easy to be nice to people,” he says. “Just ask people where they’re from, and you’ll start talking.” Whether customers are coming in to have a piece of jewelry fixed or to have a ring sized, Michael says he and his staff enjoy getting to know the customers and making personal connections. “This,” he says, “is their jewelry store. People feel like they are members of the family.” And while Michael is happy to be on Cape Cod, he does look back fondly on the company’s first 165 years . . . in Worcester.
The Monahan’s story begins with Michael’s great-great-grandfather, Jeremiah Monahan (1776-1856), who established a watchmaking and jewelry repair business at the corner of Myrtle and Main Streets in Worcester in 1815. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Jeremiah came to America to build a new life. According to Michael, Worcester’s Protestant Yankees—who under most circumstances at that time would have wanted nothing to do with an Irishman—accepted his ancestor because he provided them with goods and services that had previously required a 45-mile journey to Boston to find.
The business would eventually be passed down to Jeremiah’s son, Patrick (1825-1912); then to Patrick’s son, Charles (1868-1948); and Charles’ son, Robert (1910-1995), who is Michael Monahan’s father. Born in 1940, Michael took ownership of the store at the age of 22. While his seven brothers and sisters also worked at the store when they were young, Michael is the last to stick with the business.
In 1958, the city of Worcester razed the building that housed Monahan’s as part of a city redevelopment initiative—the site later became home to what remains today a Registry of Motor Vehicles—and the jewelry business moved across the street, remaining there until 1979.
That year, Michael was vacationing with family in Harwich when he discovered the building at 540 Main Street was on the market. In the mid to late 1800s, the building was owned by Henry Kelley and served as a ship supply and coal and lumber store; in the 1900s, the building was a hardware store owned by the Eldridge family.
With business in Worcester declining, Michael says it was time for a change and he decided to buy the building, relocating both his business and his home to Cape Cod. “My grandfather [Charles] always said, ‘Go where you think there might be business’,” Michael recalls. “I loved the Cape, and I thought that Harwichport should have a new store.”
The company moved into its new home in 1980, and Michael renamed the business Monahan & Co. Fine Jewelers. Since goldsmith Neal Waters joined the company in 1977, Michael says the business has expanded to offer even finer jewelry. “He is extremely talented,” Michael says of Waters, who doubles as the company’s president. “He has made tremendous pieces for many people all over the United States.”
Over the years—in Harwich and previously, Worcester—endless customers have made their way to Monahan’s, and that list has included dozens of celebrities, sports figures, and politicians. Notable clients include Frank Sinatra, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Shirley Temple, Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, David Bowie, Demi Moore, George Clooney, and Johnny Depp.
Rolling Stones’ front man Mick Jagger has visited the shop as well, and an autographed self-portrait the singer gave to Monahan’s hangs on the wall. “He’s wiggling all the time, even like the way he is on stage,” Michael says of Jagger. “He’s just a wonderful guy.”
Browsing through the store, visitors will find a variety of one-of-a-kind memorabilia. Among the photographs on display is a circa-1845 image of Patrick Monahan holding Claddagh rings made by his father, Jeremiah, and a circa-1900 photo of Charles Monahan with customers in the Worcester shop. A photo from 1883 shows Charles, at 15, donning his first business suit—a reward from his father for selling his first diamond.
A framed picture of Pope Francis hangs on one wall with a personal message written on the back. “I bless the Monahan Family and the longevity of your family business—200 years!,” Pope Francis wrote. “I’ll pray for another 100!” Michael and Neal met the Pope while attending one of his masses in Italy in 2013. “He just happened to say hello,” Waters recalls. The Pope later sent the picture as a gift.
Then, there’s the letter from John F. Kennedy to Michael, dated May 21, 1960. The note was a grateful response to Monahan, who had written Kennedy to congratulate him on his win over Hubert Humphrey in West Virginia’s Democratic primary. Receiving that letter meant a lot to Michael, who had campaigned for the candidate.
“My three idols growing up were Knute Rockne—the Notre Dame coach—Ted Williams, and JFK,” he says, adding that he had the opportunity to caddy for the future president at the Hyannisport Golf Club’s caddy camp from 1953 to 1958. “He was a terrible golfer but a wonderful personality,” Michael says. “He was always joking, always fun.” During the 1960s, Michael says JFK and Jackie visited the Worcester store to purchase a Claddagh ring for the President’s mother, Rose.
Visitors to Monahan’s will also enjoy the “1815 Room.” Located in the back, where the original owner, Kelley, once stored coal and lumber, the space is practically a store unto itself; there are three display cases, regal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and several clocks on the wall.
The room also displays a vintage cash register from Harwich’s once and great Belmont Hotel—and a mahogany desk that serves as the centerpiece of a game that’s been played in Monahan’s for the past decade. Visitors are asked, “Whose desk was it?” and can weigh in on the side of former Speaker of the House and Harwich resident, Tip O’Neil, or former Boston Mayor, James Michael Curley. Votes are cast in a pre-1900 voting machine that originally belonged to the Town of Harwich. “People argue about it,” Michael says of the desk—and the vote. “It gives them something to talk about.” During a visit in May, the tally stood at 19,364 votes in favor of O’Neil, 19,359 for Curley.
The 1815 Room also displays a number of items that are not for sale, including an 18-karat gold miniature pocket watch from the 1700s, which still functions today. According to Michael, the watch was once encircled with 88 tiny diamonds, but Jeremiah—the company’s founder—had removed 22 of the jewels to help pay for his crossing to America, and another 22 to set up shop in Worcester. Customers can also find a ring engraved with the letter ‘S,’ which Michael says Jeremiah made for a prostitute named Lily B. Streeter who never returned for it. Lastly, there’s a shillelagh, which Michael says dates back 1,000 years; Jeremiah kept the weapon nearby for protection.
Contacted to offer their thoughts on Monahan’s, two Harwich business people shared their thoughts on the company. “We’re extremely proud of them for being in business as long as they have been,” says Cyndi Williams, Harwich Chamber of Commerce’s director of member services.
“They have a store that’s got a real neighborhood feel,” adds Guy Winialski, who owns The Mason Jar deli next door. “It’s a piece of the community.” Winialski says Monahan’s longevity speaks to both the company’s dedication and the loyalty the community has shown to the store and its staff.
The sentiment is mutual. Every year, Monahan’s donates pallets of soup to the local food pantry and helps support 50 to 100 charities, including the Knights of Columbus, the Jimmy Fund, Harwich Public Schools athletics, and more. “You’ve got to give back to your community,” Michael says, “because they have given to you. And that’s the tradition all the way back to Jeremiah. The company’s founders always gave to the community—and the community always came back.”
“The Cape is a wonderful place to live,” Michael adds. “The customers are wonderful, everybody’s happy in the retail business, consumers are happy on the Cape. It’s just a great experience to run the store on Cape Cod. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”
While he’s thrilled the business has reached the two-century mark, Michael says he’s looking toward the future. He hopes his daughter, Kara, the company’s vice-president; her daughter, Corin; and business partner Neal Waters will help carry on the business for the next century.
Monahan & Co. Fine Jewelers is at 540 Main Street in Harwichport. For more information, visit monahanjewelers.com, or call 508-432-3302.
All Photo by: Josh Shortsleeve