A Diamond on the Hill: Morgan’s Jewelers’ Marshall Varon calls it a day 

Marshall Varon at his shop, Morgan’s Jewelers, in the Peninsula Center. Photo by David Fairchild

by Mark McDermott 

Marshall Varon loved and respected his father, but he had absolutely no intention of following him into the family business. 

Morgan and Helen Varon founded Morgan’s Jewelry in 1946. Morgan was newly returned from World War II, where he served in the Air Force in England. He’d grown up in Seattle, and while he was in the military, his brother had entered the jewelry trade. His mother, a Greek immigrant, had taken his brother to a jeweler in Seattle and asked him to apprentice her son. This was the old way of learning the trade. By the time Morgan returned from the war, his brother had moved to California, and opened up his own small jewelry store in Huntington Park. Morgan joined his brother in the business. 

“When I say small, it was very small,” Marshall Varon said. “It was like two cases deep —  two cases on either side of the doorway, and a small office behind.  So I guess my dad got claustrophobic after a while and moved to Del Amo Mall, when it was first starting out, back in the day.” 

Marshall worked in the store while in high school, but when he thought about the future, he didn’t picture being in the store, or anywhere inside, for that matter.

“I was more of an outdoor athlete, a person who wanted to stay outdoors,” Varon said. “I didn’t want to have a set of keys, or worry about locking stuff up, or anything like that.” 

During his college years, Varon had a minor injury and was laid up in bed at home. His father, while checking in on him one day, casually left him some reading material. They were books on gemology, the branch of mineralogy that focuses on the geoscience of gemstones —  their mineral qualities, how to identify them, and how to evaluate a gem. Varon became engrossed in the books. 

The hook was set. His father, Varon later realized, knew exactly what he was doing. 

“He kind of knew the direction that was going to take,” Varon recalled. “He was pretty shrewd that way.” 

By the time Varon healed, he’d changed his life’s course. 

“It was a complete shock to me that I went that route,” he said. 

If there were any lingering doubts, those evaporated when his parents took him on a worldwide gemstone hunting trip. This was the 1960s, and the gemstone industry was vastly different than it is today, when so much information can be found online. Back then, a jeweler needed to develop sources for his or her gemstones. One needed to know where to look, and with whom to talk. Having an ability to identify the quality of a gem, by eye, was essential. The industry was filled with colorful and sometimes questionable characters. It was a bit of James Bond, a touch of Indiana Jones, a lot of science, even more art, and of course, rife with a sense of style. 

Varon’s father taught him how to navigate this terrain. 

“We went to Europe and Asia,” he said. “So we were in London, in Italy, in France. We went to Hong Kong and Bangkok —  that was a great trip, there were some great gold designers there. I was in Antwerp, Belgium; I learned how to cut diamonds there. We met a lot of great artisans in Hong Kong….And then Bangkok, a lot of color stone gem traders, and a lot of good metal artifacts that are designed in Nepal, or the Himalaya areas, where they do a lot of bronze statuary work. So we imported some of that as well.” 

Varon was 20 years old, and had just gained entry into a big, glittering, almost magically colorful world. But it was also ultimately a world grounded in knowledge. To become a gemologist was a trade that could only be learned through on-the-ground experience. 

“Back then, there was no grading system for stones like we have today,” Varon said. “There was no internet where you could look up things, no catalogs on how to grade a gemstone, and what it was worth per carat, on colored stones or diamonds. So you really had to have a general knowledge of the field to know how to price things and know how to buy things, because it was truly due to experience.” 

Back in the States, he began four years of study with the Gemological Institute of America, and by 1971 was certified as a gemologist and appraiser. But before he’d graduated, he helped establish a second Morgan’s Jewelers store, this one in Palos Verdes. 

The store opened in 1969. For a decade, Varon worked alongside his father, but in 1979, Morgan Varon faced what appeared to be a critical health crisis. He had both heart issues and colon cancer and was given two years to live. His son urged him to retire. 

“Which he didn’t like,” Marshall Varon said. “I said, ‘If you’ve got two years to live, I want you to go enjoy yourself. And so he took off, and he lived another 24 years.” 

It was a bit of an echo of how his father had gotten Marshall into the gemstone business to begin with —  afterwards, it seemed like a plan had fallen into place. 

“You tell me, was he a master bullshitter, or what?” Varon said, with a laugh. “But it worked out pretty well.” 

His brother, Russ, took over the Torrance store, and Marshall focused his energies on the Rolling Hills Estates store. Morgan’s Jewelers became the official Rolex Jeweler for the South Bay, and developed a national reputation for the quality of its collections. But for Marshall Varon, the business has always ultimately been about people. Morgan’s Jewelers became, as only a few businesses do, something more than than than a store, but a community institution. Varon witnessed family generations unfold, and carefully tended to their needs, both in gemstones and fine watches.

“I’ve built myself a good reputation over the years, as far as being honest and sincere and trustworthy and all that good stuff,” Varon said. “I just enjoy people, I try to do the right thing for them. I try to protect them. I am a gemologist, and I run a gem laboratory here, also. I speak the truth and I give you honest opinions and we try to take good care of people when they come in —  that was the foundation of working in this community.” 

He also knows this community. It’s not Beverly Hills, but in a somewhat less ostentatious way, Palos Verdes residents are likewise aspirational in their sense of style. 

“I’ve always had a great love for really fine quality gems, so I’ll bring in really nice quality,” he said. “I’ll shop it like crazy to get the best price I can, and come across with a decent price for my clients. Sometimes I’ll compete with Beverly Hills or South Coast Plaza, because I want them to be able to shop here versus travel all around —  keep it in the community, so to speak. So I put that pressure on myself to have really nice merchandise, maybe beyond what is really necessary for this area, but something exciting and delicious looking, so they can fantasize about it even if they don’t want to buy it.” 

He’s also developed a reputation for the combination of his custom work and the highest quality gemstones. After 60 years in the business, Varon still gets excited when talking about these kind of stones and that kind of work. 


Marshal Varon. Photo by David Fairchild


“Really fun rubies, or colored diamonds, really exquisite emeralds, blue sapphires,” he said. “I once had a sultan come in on a referral to me, and he wanted some custom things made, like a new sword sheath. We custom made fountain pens for him. We did all sorts of things. It was a labor of love. It was a challenge, where I’d never done certain things before. So I had to task force people in the metal fabrication industry to make me a roller for a very wide piece of gold that we could make into a sword sheath for the sultan. We had another company make tapered holes so we could put the gold through to make the housing for the pen, that we could fit diamonds in —  a lot of unique things that I’d never done before.” 

As his grandmother understood when she unknowingly launched the family into the business, Varon’s job, at the end of the day, has been to acquire the practical knowledge required to help make dreams come true. But he also learned from his father, not only the trade, but about enjoying the later chapters of a life well-lived. And so Morgan’s Jewelers in Palos Verdes closed this month. 

Rumors have swirled that the cause of the closure was due to Rolex no longer anointing the store as an official dealer. Varon didn’t reject or acknowledge the rumors, but said a larger reason caused him to call it a day. 

“It’s a multitude of things, but my body is requiring me to close,” Varon said. “I want to have a decent amount of healthy time left to enjoy the rest of my life, and so my body’s telling me that I should kind of retire.” 

His body, due to his passion for outdoor sports, has seen a lot of action. He credits his wife, Shintia, with giving him many more healthy years by getting him off pain medications in favor of juices and herbal remedies. They own a 4.5 acre organic farm and vineyard in Temecula, and plan to spend more time there and in their home in Hawaii.  

“She saved my life, basically,” he said. “What happened was many years of sports, and then I had a head on collision with a semi-truck years ago, and all that kind of destroyed my back. I’d also been a stuntman when I was a kid, so I’d fallen off buildings. I had just torn my body apart doing many things, so needless to say, I was in a lot of pain. I’ve had six back surgeries and three hip replacements and a lot of other things. And so I was on a lot of pain medication for maybe 40 years, and when she heard about me and heard about my condition, she and another gal who works at the Torrance store made concoctions of natural fruits and things of that nature for me. She literally got me off my pain medicine.” 

He has simple advice for community members concerned about losing Morgan’s Jewelers and their expertise. 

“Go see Russ,” he said. “My brother is still in business in Torrance. He’s got a wonderful collection of things down there and should be able to serve everybody. He’s got a nice shop there as well, for designing and manufacturing.” 

Varon leaves with no regrets. 

“It’s a very exciting industry, and I’ve met a lot of tremendous people,” he said. “It’s been a very exciting run.” PEN


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