Iowa City Hands Jewelers stands five generations strong

For five generations, the Nusser family has lived and breathed the jewelry business. Over 100 years after opening, one could say that the family business is in good “hands.”


Wyatt Dlouhy

Bill Nusser Jr. and Charlie Nusser test the quality of a jewelery collection at Hands Jewlers in Iowa City on November 15, 2019. Hands Jewlers has been family-owned and located in Iowa City since 1895.

John Hands left England behind in 1881, deciding that the United States was the key to his future in the jewelry business. Like thousands of other immigrants who traveled to the U.S. during this time, Hands passed through Ellis Island.

If the Hands name sounds familiar, you would be correct — the namesake store located at 109 E. Washington St. is currently operated by John’s great-grandson Bill Nusser.

On a rather dismal Friday afternoon, Nusser sat comfortably in a leather-clad mahogany chair in his office at Hands Jewelers. Donning a pristine, white dress shirt and massive diamond ring, Nusser recalled — with great fondness — the beginnings of his chapter of the Hands legacy.

“I remember my grandpa taking a nap every day at 1:30,” Nusser said. “There was a little room that we used for our gift wrapping, and he laid on a little beat-up leather couch. Everyone in the store had to be quiet, and it was a nice break in the day. I’m sure he told everyone that he was doing paperwork, but we all knew he was sleeping.”

Wyatt Dlouhy
Bill Nusser Jr. and Charlie Nusser pose for a portrait at Hands Jewlers in Iowa City on November 15, 2019. Hands Jewlers has been family-owned and located in Iowa City since 1895.

Like his grandfather, Nusser had worked in the store since he was a teenager. Although one may assume that his employment at the family business was a given, this was not the case. As Nusser recalled, he had to fill out an application and interview “just like everyone else.”

“Even though I didn’t get any special treatment, I still remember that time so well,” Nusser said. “My grandpa was a skilled engraver — I mean he could do things to a plain gold band that would make your jaw drop. I also remember him taking my sister and I fishing, he would make his own lures. He knew where the fish were.”

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These positive memories, however, are paired with private turmoil — just like his father, Nusser is a recovering alcoholic. Growing up, Nusser said addiction was rarely discussed. This, he said, is partially due to the stigma surrounding alcoholism, but also because mental illness is more stigmatized amongst men.

“When I was in first grade, our teacher had us write down what we wanted to do in life,” Nusser said. “My No. 1 choice was to smoke, and my second choice was to drink… I certainly lived up to those goals.”

After Nusser began to raise a family and shift into an ownership role at the store, he decided that “enough was enough,” and he sought treatment. Today, he is involved with Prelude, a nonprofit that focuses on educating and destigmatizing people about alcoholism.

“I’m thankful that society has become open to the idea that alcoholism isn’t a personal weakness,” Nusser said.

Wyatt Dlouhy
Charlie Nusser holds a vintage piece of jewelery that is rumored to have belonged to John Hands at Hands Jewlers in Iowa City on November 15, 2019. Hands Jewlers has been family owned and located in Iowa City since 1895.

In addition to the changing nature of mental-health stigma, Nusser said the jewelry business has gone through a few transitions of its own. In addition to a shift in proclivity from mechanical watches to quartz movements, Nusser said jewelry preferences have shifted as well.

“Of course watches weave in and out of popularity,” he said. “Right now, we are experiencing a resurgence in popularity of mechanical, or non-battery-powered pieces. But that is only a small portion of what we do. I think a lot of [jewelry stores] choose merchandise that is trendy, and that is a mistake.”

Charlie Nusser, Bill’s son and ninth-generation jeweler, said that there have been some merchandise-related foibles during his time at Hands thus far. At one point in time, he said, the store sold charm bracelets that Charlie thought would “sell like hotcakes.” This was far from accurate, and the bracelets sat in storage for months.

“It’s about trial and error,” the younger Nusser said. “Of course we do know what a majority of our customers like, there is a real sense of sophistication there. Where we have ran into trouble is trying to pick up on jewelry fads that are more short-lived than we’d like. Even though it stings in that moment, we joke about it afterwards.”

Wyatt Dlouhy
Charlie Nusser speaks with a customer at Hands Jewlers in Iowa City on November 15, 2019. Hands Jewlers has been family owned and located in Iowa City since 1895.

This sophistication, Charlie added, doesn’t come from a position of snobbery — far from it, in fact. Both Nussers agreed that many people view jewelers in a less-than-savory light, adding that many “expect to get ripped off right when they walk through the door.”

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Hands attempts to counteract this, Charlie said, by hosting jewelry makers’ work in pop-up shops within the store in addition to other community-oriented events. Even if a store has been in a family for multiple generations, he added, its continued existence isn’t guaranteed.

“Of course we could say that we don’t have to try, that just like the business has been in our family for generations the customers have been as well, but that isn’t the case,” Charlie said. “As generations of Iowa City residents get to know us, we have to prove ourselves every single day. That may sound cliché but it’s true.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, this community engagement was in full-swing, as Hands hosted Santa Fe-based designer Denise Betesh. The jeweler’s 22-karat gold hand-crafted rings and $3,000 diamond necklaces were at home amongst Hands’ assortment of dazzling gems.

More salient than the glamor and glitz of a brand-new heirloom, however, was the sight of Bill and Charlie Nusser working side-by-side along with Betesh. Standing on the sales floor of 109 E. Washington St., one cannot help but feel the presence of nine generations of jewelers mingling with customers among a sea of mahogany and glass cabinets.