Forney’s Jewelers in Dover, Delaware

Ami Leaming is surrounded by reminders of her family’s history.

Near the front window of her Forney’s Jewelers on Loockerman Street in Dover stands a tall case clock, a gift from her grandfather to her grandmother. At the back of the showroom is the safe from the original store, founded by her great-grandfather, Nelson J. Forney Sr., in Georgetown in 1915. In that safe is a gold ring with the Forney family crest.

In the rear of the store is an old work bench with old tools, charts and tags that bear her grandfather’s handwriting, an antique Satintone bow-making machine, a decades-old engraving bench—no fancy modern laser—and family photos. There’s also another safe. Inside is her grandmother’s platinum set, including her engagement ring, which Leaming once wore.

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“Call me corny and sentimental, but this stuff has been in my family for generations,” she says. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Leaming, 45, has owned Forney’s for 15 years. There was a time when she couldn’t have imagined that. As a psychology and vocal performance major at nearby Wesley College, she intended to become an entertainer. Instead, she went to work in the wellness center at Dover High School in 1989. In 1998, unable to find day care for her infant daughter, she went to work for her father and mother, Spicer and Judy Leaming, at Forney’s. “I brought Rose here,” Leaming says. “Everybody raised her.”

Like Leaming, Spicer and Judy once had different plans. He was a math teacher at Dover High School. She was a librarian at the school on Dover Air Force Base. In their mid-20s, they “walked right into the business” when health issues forced Judy’s ailing father, Nelson Forney Jr., to stop working. Nelson Jr. opened the store on Loockerman while his father ran the Georgetown location. For many years, Nelson Jr.’s brother, Robert C. Forney, a musician by training, ran a Forney’s jewelry store in Chestertown, Md. None of his five children were interested in taking over, so he sold it. He died six months later.

When Ami went to work, her parents were still working full time. “I don’t want to say I was on trial, but I was.” Yet she trained at her father’s side. She recalls changing her first watch battery. Looking over her shoulder, Spicer told her, “It’s so great to work side by side with you.” “I’m not a big crier,” Leaming says, “but I cried.”

Finally the day came when the elder Leamings announced that they wanted to retire. Ami had never planned to make a career of the place, “but I had to make a decision that this was going to be my business. What if I fail? I feel the weight of that responsibility. I’m the fourth generation. What if I’m the one to end it? But it’s the way you do things that defines your success. We offer great service. Our customers know that we’ll treat them honestly and with integrity. Jewelry is very personal. You want to give things to someone you trust.”

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Leaming’s two sisters have pursued other lives. She has five children, ages 14 to 24. “It would be great if one of them followed me into the business, but I would never ask it of them. So if it doesn’t happen, that’s OK.”

With an employee who used to work in the Chestertown store and another Amy who has worked at Forney’s as long as Leaming has, “If something were to happen to me, the people here will go on just fine.”

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