Shortly after the Spreckels Building, on Orange and Loma Avenues, was completed more than 100 years ago, A.G. Hughes, a watchmaker, opened a small shop. Then in 1921, Elmer Muhl traded his historic home in North Park for the business. He ran the jewelry shop until he sold it to Patricia and Wilton Johnson, but he continued to work there until he finally retired. Patricia loved running the shop and received her degree from the Gem Institute of America (GIA) in Santa Monica, specializing in gemology appraisals.
Their son, Rodney Johnson, grew up in the business and worked there full-time starting at age 19. They worked together in the store until Patricia was in her 90s. Rodney’s daughter, Renae Johnson-Wease, grew up here in Coronado with fond memories of when locals could use the Hotel del pool and everyone kept an eye on everyone and reported to your parents if you weren’t behaving. She remembers rushing to the family jewelry store every day after school at Christ Church Day School. As a little girl, she hid her toys and snacks in the display cabinets, which have been refurbished and are still used today. They were built in 1921, by Schieffer & Sons, the same company who made the original furniture for the El Cortez Hotel. The company stopped making furniture and switched to making airplane parts during the war. The safe, cash register, work benches, and scales are also original. Renae still uses some of her father’s tools, a few date back to the Muhl era.
She began polishing jewelry at a young age and spent many hours observing stone setting and design elements from her father. She designed a pearl ring set in white gold at the age of 12, and still carries a version of her original design for sale in the store. Renae got her degree in education and became an elementary teacher and taught kindergarten for seven years, before her father went in for a routine medical procedure and passed away. The business was closed for two weeks, and then she decided to take over and hasn’t looked back. She is now a graduate of the GIA and says, “My best education was the years spent in the shop working with my dad.”
Renae remembers her father fondly, telling the story of rebuilding the hinges on Liberace’s piano ring when he was here for a Hotel del concert. With 90 percent of their business from local families, they have built a legacy with many prominent folks coming through their door for custom designed jewelry, including the Stockdale family, Orville Redenbacher, and Leila Dunn, to name just a few. “Every holiday, my father made my sister and me a handmade jewelry piece. He told us that he couldn’t leave us lots of money, but wanted us to have family heirlooms to pass down. I still try to make my sister a unique piece each year,” says Renae.
Renae’s mom, Cathy, helped run the business for 25 years in the front office and still comes to help a day or two each week. Renae has put her own personal twist on the store, adding flower boxes to the exterior and painting the walls, which had original wallpaper that hearkened to her grandmother’s era. She also has an estate consignment case for long time customers, some are pieces that were made a generation or two back in her family. Seventy percent of their business is bridal jewelry, and they have been the proud creators of the Coronado Crowns for nearly 70 years. They also make military insignia pieces, like Tridents for the Navy SEALs.
Proud to carry on her family’s tradition, Renae offers comprehensive services from stone procurement, remaking old jewelry with modern designs, to creating custom pieces and jewelry and watch repair, many times on items that were made by her father or grandmother. She also showcases pieces made by San Diego-based artists, who became her friends growing up in the business.
Renae’s daughter, Miranda, 20, has grown up coming to the shop and hiding things in the jewelry cases just like her mom. When she was in preschool, her mom and grandpa were in the back sizing rings and they came out to find Miranda and her My Little Pony figures standing in the midst of diamonds all over the floor which had spilled when she tried to look at some under the microscope. “We decided right then that it was best not to leave little ones alone in the store, even for a minute,” remembers Renae. Miranda gained insight into the family business spending time in the shop, and for her senior project, she created three pieces of jewelry. Now, she sometimes helps with errands. Renae’s son, Ryan, 14, drew his first jewelry design on Post-it notes at age four. He likes to solder, work on watches, and carve in wax. When asked if he would be the fourth generation to take over the business, Renae says, “We will have to wait and see, because he is very interested in robotics and engineering.”
Muhl Jewelers is the longest tenant in the Spreckels Building and Renae remembers her grandma having to show the owners where the circuit breakers and gas shut off valves were. Her father discovered the original stained glass front windows when he was remodeling and since then the landlord has uncovered the windows in each of the businesses in the building. All the store fronts used to also have matching ornate chandeliers in the front window, but Muhl Jewelers is the only one with theirs still hanging, now in the center of the store, after the original cloth wiring was redone. Renae laughs as she mentions that the phone bill is still in her grandmother’s name.
When you take a moment to enter through the original front door at Muhl Jewelers, still located at 1130 Orange Avenue, you are sure to be greeted warmly by Renae and shop dog Hamlet, who treats everyone like family.