It was in 1987 that Kit Kuhn drove into Gig Harbor.
And it will be in 2014 that he retires, either selling or closing a jewelry design firm that over nearly three decades has become a small-business, downtown mainstay.
By way of Denver, Stockholm, the Oregon Coast and parts in between, Kuhn came to the harbor on something of a whim, noting that a cousin had once said it was somewhere she might want to settle.
Kuhn was in the business of jewelry design in part because his father said he could not succeed.
“He said I could never make a living as a jeweler,” Kuhn said earlier this week. “One of my goals was to prove him wrong.”
He proved him wrong, and now Kuhn is moving on.
He opened the first iteration of his business in Gig Harbor by joining a group of retail crafters. He worked from a 9-by-11-foot space he rented for $200 per month plus 10 percent of the gross receipts. He worked then primarily in silver because he couldn’t afford gold.
In 1992 he moved to his current location at 3104 Harborview Drive and has since developed something of a following for his one-off, handmade pieces. He began by working “70-hour weeks to build up the business. I had to build up inventory, and I had to build a reputation.”
He likes his work to tell stories, as with his “image rings.”
For a client who lost a daughter and a grandson, Kuhn designed a ring featuring a guitar, cowboy hat and hummingbird. For a couple that met in New York, a ring shows the city skyline.
Add fishing boats for other customers, or elephants, bears, whales, motorcycles.
Beyond the image rings come rings and pieces more typical: bracelets, necklaces, rings to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and wedding sets.
“I specialize in wedding sets,” Kuhn said. “It’s what people are going to spend the most on. You can easily spend five or six hours with a couple.”
He can provide “a hundred-dollar wedding ring or a $20,000 wedding ring.”
On the road to retirement, he opens for business three days a week and by appointment. At 52, he has shared his workdays for 16 years with wife Kathy, and, for nearly five years, with shop dog Koa.
“He’s been a participant in a number of different organizations,” said Warren Zimmerman, president and CEO of the Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “He’s been a great supporter of the community at large. We hope that certainly we would find another business to go in there that would be equally as successful.”
“I’ve seen a lot of people pass away,” Kuhn said. “I saw my step-mother pass at 65, and a lot of customers. It makes me realize I wanted to do other things.”
A member of the junior ski patrol in his native Colorado, Kuhn now says proudly that he skis his age, having skied 52 times in a season. He plans to continue his work with Hands On Art, a local school arts program, and his passion for wild wolves has not diminished. There’s property near Hood Canal, and both Kuhns enjoy scuba diving.
When he decided to retire – to sell the business – he contacted Washington State University and was referred to John Rodenberg, a certified business adviser at the Tacoma Small Business Development Center.
“Many baby boomers are selling their businesses and retiring,” Rodenberg said Wednesday. “I’d say it’s 30 to 40 percent of the 25 million small businesses in the United States.”
With 26 offices throughout the state, the SBDC advises both buyers and sellers.
Rodenberg and Kuhn developed a plan to sell the Gig Harbor enterprise.
Among the steps Rodenberg would advise that any potential seller take: Describe why you’re selling; list what’s for sale, in detail; describe the business and future prospects; conduct an evaluation; generate a list of potential buyers.
The four most common buyers of businesses, he said, are customers, competitors, suppliers and employees. (For a guide to buying and selling a business, contact Rodenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Kuhn has placed ads in trade magazines and appears on the business website bizbuysell.com.
The selling price: $485,000.
“We’re not necessarily taking the highest offer,” Kuhn said. “We want to find an honest, talented jeweler that will take care of our customers.”
“He’s doing it really right,” Rodenberg said of Kuhn’s campaign to sell. “With what he’s doing, I’d say his chances of selling have improved from 30 percent to 80 percent.”
“The money just pays the bills,” Kuhn said. “The thrill I get is making something that will be a part of someone.”
And these days, his father wears three gold rings that Kit designed.