A Billings business with deep downtown roots will be celebrating its 80th anniversary Friday night, during the Holiday ArtWalk and the annual Christmas Stroll.
The celebration will run from 5 to 9 p.m. at Montague’s Jewelers, 2810 Second Ave. N., presided over by Chris Montague, who returned the third-generation store to downtown Billings after taking over from his father in 2004.
“I really wanted us to come back downtown,” Chris Montague said. “I just felt like our heritage was here.”
Over the years, Montague’s has been in three locations downtown and at different times had shops in the old West Park Plaza and Rimrock Mall. Now, there is just the main shop on the north side of the Babcock Building, and a satellite store, Montague’s Silver, on the east side of the building, with an entrance off North Broadway.
The silver shop sells more affordable jewelry and an assortment of gifts items, including gifts for babies and children, ornaments and home decor goods.
Chris Montague feels better than ever about being exclusively downtown. For one thing, he said, “North Broadway is full right now — it’s full for the first time since I’ve been back downtown.”
He said the downtown also seems better suited to the kind of store Montague’s is: small, independent, concentrating on service and customization.
“By focusing on history, culture, heritage — I think people respond to that,” he said. “Millennials definitely respond to that.”
In terms of service, he said, “you under-promise and over-deliver. You can’t get that at Costco. You can’t get that at Wal-Mart. And you can’t get that, frankly, online.”
The family’s attachment to Billings began soon after Chris’ grandfather, Wally Montague, and his wife, Lois, moved here from Idaho, where Wally had learned watchmaking. They purchased the Fortney Peace Jewelry store, which they renamed The Jewel Box, at 2817 Second Ave. N., now home to the Christian Science Reading Room.
A month after they set up shop in the spring of 1937, a devastating flood washed through downtown Billings, ruining everything in the Montagues’ basement apartment and heavily damaging their store. But their new community “just rallied around them,” Chris Montague said, and they were able to reopen that fall.
Partly because of that memorable reception, Montague said of his grandfather, “To his dying day, he just loved Billings.”
Wally Montague grew out of the original shop, which had become Montague’s Jewelers, and in the early 1940s moved it to the 100 block of North Broadway, almost across the street from what is now Montague Silver.
In 1944, Wally brought on Otis Hopper, a young man who’d lost a leg working for the railroad. Wally had met Hopper through a mutual friend and asked him if he be interested in learning how to make watches.
He most certainly was, Chris said, taking to it like a fish to water. Hopper officially retired in 1979, after 35 years with Montague’s, but he continued working several days a week, then one day a week, almost until he died in 2010 at the age of 98.
Another expansion came soon after Wally’s son, Jay Montague, graduated from college in 1962 and opened another store, becoming one of the first five tenants of the new West Park Plaza. Jay and his wife, Lynne, took ownership of the two stores in 1975, and in 1992, they left the downtown and West Park Plaza locations and consolidated into a new store in Rimrock Mall.
Jay’s son, Chris, remembers growing up in all three stores, and working in them at one time or another as an engraver, wrapper, delivery boy and salesmen.
“I was terrible at all of them,” he said, and he never had any plans to go into the family business. He was working as a consultant in Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s when he was hired to work on then-Sen. Max Baucus’ re-election campaign in 1996.
“That was my entree back to Montana,” he said, which made him realize how much he missed it. In 1998, he and his wife, Paige Darden, moved to Montana, where Chris opened the Billings office of the Montana Land Reliance, which to date has preserved more than a million acres of state land through conservation easements.
He really enjoyed that job, Chris said, “but something pulled me when my dad started talking about retirement.” He also felt the pull of the downtown, and that transition was made easier when they heard from the owner of Tony Soueidi Jewelers, who told them he was thinking of retiring and wanted to know if they’d be interested in moving into his store.
And that’s how they got back downtown, almost across the street from Wally Montague’s original store. Jay and Paige took ownership of the store in 2004, the same year they closed the Rimrock Mall shop and moved downtown.
“I’m thrilled to be downtown,” Chris said. “I love downtown. It speaks to me more.”
Chris runs the store with Colleen Grover, who has been with the Montagues for more than 35 years — she herself can’t remember exactly when she started. They also employ three part-time people between the two stores, and Jay, though officially retired, still works two days a week.
Chris and Jay design their custom jewelry, but the pieces are created by their longtime associate, goldsmith Shane Berkman, in his own shop. Chris said at least a third of their wedding and engagement rings are custom-made, and they stay “crazy busy” doing repairs, usually averaging about 10 pieces a week.
And like his parents and grandparents, he said, he continues to support a wide variety of worthy organizations, donating $60,000 to $70,000 worth of jewelry to support an average 0f 35 organizations a year.
Chris and Paige have two children, 17-year-old Jay and 15-year-old Virginia, and on the question of succession, Chris said he was trying to be like his parents: “I’m not putting any pressure on them,” he said, though he’d be delighted if either of them were to show an interest in the business.
Not that he’s thinking of going anywhere soon.
“I don’t see my passion for this ebbing,” he said.
When the Montagues celebrated the 70th anniversary of their business, it was with a big party at Buchanan Capital, just down the block. For this anniversary they decided to go with the low-key affair during the ArtWalk and Christmas Stroll, with a trunk show by designer John Atencio, cupcakes and eggnog, and with 10 percent of all sales going to charity.
Chris does look forward, though, to another big party.
“We’ll wait for our 100th to do that,” he said.