Farewell, Peggy Kirby
Hilda "Peggy" Kirby, a pioneering female executive in the jewelry industry, died on November 6, 2016, after a very brief illness. She was 102. Kirby was one of a dozen women who helped found the national Women's Jewelry Association in 1983, and she was the first recipient of its Hall of Fame award in 1985. She kept up her involvement with WJA until the end of her life. Kirby was a regular presence at WJA Board meetings, where she continued to contribute advice and wisdom. She attended her last meeting this fall.
The daughter and granddaughter of jewelers, Kirby began working at Finlay-Straus, a small jewelry store chain in New York, in 1940, and stayed with the company as it evolved into a major operation that leased space to manage and sell fine jewelry at department stores. These retail emporiums were then in their heyday, and were located in every large and small city around the U.S. She worked at Finlay Fine Jewelry until 1978, serving as a vice president and handling marketing, advertising, displays, training, and company statistics, according to a detailed Q & A interview that former JCK magazine Editor in Chief Hedda Schupak conducted with Kirby in 2007, from which much of this tribute is derived. 

The industry veteran grew up in Boston, and remembered being at her father's jewelry office one evening in 1921, at the age of 8, when a diamond wholesaler named A.S. Hirshberg stopped by. Seeing the ash growing longer at the end of his cigar, the little girl gave him an ashtray. He was so impressed that he told her father, "Ed, some day I'm going to hire her!" Eventually, he did, when he purchased Finlay.

"Peggy Kirby was one of WJA's most important,
most influential leaders -- strong, gracious, passionate
and pioneering. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have merely crossed paths with such a dynamic woman as Peggy, let alone sat across from her during board meetings this past year. Her legacy will be remembered and treasured for many years to come."

- WJA President Brandee Dallow 
Kirby graduated from the University of Michigan with a pre-law degree and then attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a joint venture between Harvard and Tufts universities, where she received a master's degree in international law and diplomacy. She graduated in the midst of the Great Depression, however, and was unable to obtain a job in her field of study in Boston. "Not one girl could get interviewed by any corporation in Boston," said Kirby. "Nursing and home economics were fields for women... Entry into most businesses was via stenography. Only men were interviewed for other jobs."

The young woman headed to New York in the late 1930s, where she obtained a job at the age of 24 in the garment industry, which did hire women. Fed up with that industry by 1940, she was persuaded by her father's old friend, A.S. Hirshberg, to stay on in New York and work for his company, Finlay-Straus, which was about to embark on its venture into selling jewelry via leased departments. She never looked back, and the leased business exploded, especially after World War II ended in 1945. Kirby became known for the statistics she would produce, based on the merchandise that was selling, and the advertising. Eventually, she said: "I was nicknamed 'the red-headed computer.'" 

What was it like being a woman in the jewelry industry in the post-World War II era? Kirby related that she asked a fellow alumna of the University of Michigan, Margo Sherman Peet, for advice on how to conduct herself as a woman in a man's world. The slightly older woman, who was then a pioneering female ad executive and senior vice president at the McCann Erickson ad agency, told Kirby: "always be a lady, and never cry. You're going to run into all types. Stand your ground." Kirby attributed some of her luck to the way most executive women found a path at the time. "Back then, even if you had a law degree, if you didn't take shorthand and typing, you couldn't get in the door... careers weren't defined, they [just] happened."

"I have always said, I hope I can grow up to be
Peggy one day. She was a woman before her time.
Her dedication to WJA was unparalleled."

- Ann Arnold, WJA President 2006-2007 
In 1954, when Finlay sold its retail stores to concentrate on the leased departments business, Kirby was promoted to one of the three top jobs in the company, becoming one of the first female vice presidents in the jewelry industry. "[Back then] Finlay was one of the biggest businesses in the jewelry industry, and three people could run it!" she remembered. It was the era when post-war engagement rings began to feature one carat diamonds, she said, and when the watch repair department was one of the most essential to the retail business -- because all watches were mechanical. The median sale for Finlay during her era, she recalled, was $100. She was also proud that Finlay's gross sales per linear foot were $900 -- a record for the time.  

Kirby also recalled that fashion was completely driven by the great fashion shows of Paris. "Fashion flowed from the top down, not the street up. It was the accepted theory that a look took seven years to get from top to bottom." She believed that the fall off in jewelry wearing in the modern era was in part due to changes in fashion. Back in her day, she said: "Good suits were de rigueur and a spring coat a must. Every [department] store had an alteration department and many had a made-to-measure shop. We had cocktail dresses, Sunday evening dresses, and formal evening dresses. Hats, white gloves, and white handkerchiefs were standard equipment." And all of those outfits needed jewelry.

She also remembered adhering to strict practices in the marketing of jewelry. "In my time, the government and New York City had very strong consumer protection laws. Your descriptions in ads were very carefully monitored. We had a rule in the office: Don't change copy in Miss Kirby's ads, because I wasn't going to go to jail for someone else's changes!" Kirby also deplored the modern practice of constantly discounting jewelry. "Seventy percent off is ridiculous ... the greatest percent off I ever advertised was 20 percent. And you were supposed to have sold the item at the original price [first]." 
" Peggy was an inspiration to us all. She brought her
'A game' to every WJA board meeting and had a terrific memory, which allowed the board to fully understand
the rich history of WJA and its founders."

- Yancy Weinrich, WJA President 2008-2009
After Kirby retired in 1978, she wrote for trade magazines, such as Pacific Jeweler and Executive Jeweler, and then became involved in WJA, continuing to advocate for women's roles in the jewelry industry. In a 2005 Professional Jeweler magazine article penned by former WJA Board member Lynn Ramsey, concerning the lack of parity for women on the boards of industry organizations and companies, Kirby observed that more women were going out on their own, rather than trying to break into corporations. "It seems many women have been carving a niche for themselves with success in being their own boss ... and not going the corporate route."

Looking back on her career with fondness, Kirby observed in 2007: "I listen to the [young women] in the business today, and I think I had a much easier life than they do ... the stresses for women are so much stronger because they're in different positions than we were 50 years ago."

But whether yesterday or today, Kirby never stopped being a role model for women in the jewelry industry. 

"Peggy lived every day to its fullest!" said former WJA President Phyllis Bergman. "Her most famous quote that I will never forget was: 'As you get older you must have two things: enough money and a good driver to take you everywhere.' I think what I most admired was her lack of fear to capture and enjoy the moment."

Farewell, Peggy. Your memory is, truly, a blessing.

BY PEGGY JO DONAHUE, WJA Communications Chair

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