Drummond Birks, who died on June 23 in Montreal at the age of 98, belonged to the fourth generation to run the family firm, Henry Birks and Sons, when it was the largest retail jeweller in the country. He was with the company for 50 years and in charge for 40.
The Birks family originally came from Yorkshire, in England, and many of them were silversmiths and members of the Goldsmiths Guild in London, dating back to the 17th century. John Birks was the first to immigrate to Canada, in 1832. He worked as a pharmacist in Montreal, then a city of 30,000 people. Two of his children died in a cholera epidemic in the same day, but one of his children, Henry Birks, started as an apprentice at the firm of Savage and Lyman, reputed to be the finest jewellery store in Canada at the time.
As a young man, Henry Birks lived in St. Lambert, across the river from Montreal, and in the winter would walk to work across the frozen St. Lawrence River. There was a financial crisis, known as the Panic of 1873, which triggered a worldwide depression, the greatest until the 1930s. That put pressure on Savage and Lyman. Also, the British garrison had left Montreal, and Canada, in 1870, and the British officers were among the jeweller's best customers. Eventually Savage and Lyman went under.
Henry Birks had saved $3,000 and borrowed $1,000 from his wife's uncle in Hamilton and on March 1, 1879, opened Henry Birks and Co. His sons eventually joined the firm and it prospered, establishing itself as the largest jewellery store in what was then Canada's largest and richest city.
One of his friends was Henry Morgan, owner of the eponymous upscale department store, and the two men decided to move from St. James Street, in the financial district, to Phillips Square, where the original Birks store remains to this day. Henry Birks's eldest son, William Massey Birks (no relation to the Massey family of Toronto), expanded the firm after the First World War. He bought up a series of high-end jewellery stores across Canada, and by the 1930s, Birks was in every major city in the country.
Drummond Birks, a grandson of William Massey Birks, carried on this expansion across Canada, in particular in shopping centres. In 1957, the first such Birks store opened in the Dorval Shopping Centre near the Montreal airport. The anchor store there was Morgan's (now The Bay).
The Birks flagship store on Phillips Square was, at its peak, the largest jewellery retail space on one floor in North America. The firm had a silver factory across the road from the main store in the New Birks Building where it produced cutlery and other silverware. Newborn babies in Montreal were often given a silver cup from Birks, and generations of affianced Montrealers had their wedding gift registry at Birks.
The silver business was profitable, but jewellery made the most money.
"Drummond Birks sent me around the world to buy diamonds and coloured stones," said John Cameron who worked at Birks for 35 years. The firm had buying offices in London and Amsterdam. Mr. Cameron could understand Japanese because his father was a diplomat in Japan and so bought pearls there. "Mr. Birks was more than just a great businessman; he was very kind."
Children of employees who made less than $60,000 a year were given full scholarships; higher-paid employees were given partial bursaries. "It was important to our family and my children took advantage of it," Mr. Cameron said. The Birks Foundation provides scholarships at many universities, most of them in Quebec. All the hospitals in Montreal were supported by the foundation.
The Henry Birks collection of Canadian silver was donated to the National Gallery as part of the company's centennial celebrations in 1979. It is one of the largest silver collections in the world. Not all of it was produced by Birks; the collection also includes some early examples of Quebec-made silver.
George Drummond Birks was born in Montreal on Feb. 18, 1919, and went to Selwyn House, a private day school, and then to St. Andrew's College, a boarding school north of Toronto. He went by his middle name, Drummond, which came from his mother (née Lilian Cockshutt Drummond); the Drummonds were also a prominent Montreal family and there is a Drummond Street in what was once known as the Golden Square Mile in downtown Montreal.
Drummond went to McGill, graduated with a degree in commerce and then immediately enlisted in the army in 1939. He had already been in the Canadian Officer's Training Corp (COTC) at McGill and went on active duty with the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, a prestigious regiment in Montreal, and one that saw a great deal of action in both wars. His father, Henry Gifford Birks, had also been in the Black Watch and fought at Vimy Ridge in the First World War.
The Black Watch Archives recorded Captain Drummond Birks's war record: "His posting to the Anti-Aircraft Platoon on his arrival at the Black Watch in England seemed logical since his COTC qualification at McGill was in Artillery. He would have been familiar with the large bore anti-aircraft guns and that assignment was proper based on his training.
"He scored well in the War Intelligence Course. The Black Watch, at the time, had an abundance of qualified infantry trained officers. His transfer to the 5th Brigade Headquarters (not Army Headquarters) was most likely the result of assigning him to the best position he was suited for, based on the results on the Intelligence Course.
"While with 5th Brigade Headquarters, he would have landed in Normandy one month after D-Day the same time as the Black Watch and followed the same path into Germany at War's end."
Mr. Birks was "Mentioned in Dispatches," in early 1945 and given an award for bravery, though there is no record of what the citation was for. After the war, he went into the family business and by the mid-1950s, he was running the Birks operation and expanding it.
Men in the Birks family had always apprenticed as jewellers when they entered the business, but because of the war, Mr. Birks skipped that step. It didn't hurt him as his strong organizational skills helped the firm prosper.
When Mr. Birks's son, Jonathan, got married in Peru in 1970, however, the president of the jewellery firm did some shopping there and came home with some blue stones. He believed them to be aquamarine and bought them at a knock-down price. Back in Montreal, Drummond Birks sent his find to the jewellery department to have it assessed. He was surprised when he didn't hear back for quite a while. The truth was, and it was a story Mr. Birks often told, that he had bought blue glass.
Mr. Birks had few hobbies. One of his family members said that business was his only hobby. He played golf at the Mount Bruno Golf Club about 10 times a year and was involved with the Black Watch Regiment at its armoury on Bleury Street in Montreal.
"Drummy Birks was a generous man who was self-effacing and didn't seek the limelight," said Stephen Angus, a family friend and former honorary colonel of the Black Watch Regiment. "He was always loyal to the Black Watch. We have some valuable silver memorabilia, including a ram's head with silver on the end of the horns and other silver accoutrements. I took it in to Birks to have it repaired. It was quite a big job. It came back in mint condition and there was never any charge. He was generous in big and small ways."
At his funeral in Montreal, Jim Armour, the pastor of the Black Watch and minister emeritus of the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul, gave an appreciation focusing on "his services to not one but all the universities of this city – the Birks building at McGill, Birks Hall at Concordia, the Birks Medal, Birks scholarships – to say nothing of all that he did for the Children's Hospital, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, the Montreal Association of the Blind. The list goes on. Drummond Birks was a generous and public-spirited human being."
Like his 17th-century ancestors, Drummond Birks was a member of Goldsmiths Hall and a Freeman of the City of London. In Canada, he was the director of a number of companies, including Standard Life and the Royal Trust.
Henry Birks and Sons went into bankruptcy protection in the early 1990s following an unsuccessful expansion strategy. At its height, the firm ran about 220 stores in Canada and the United States. In 1993, Birks was sold to the Italian-based Borgosesia, now known as Iniziativa Regaluxe SrL.
Mr. Birks leaves his sons Jonathan and Thomas; daughters, Lynn and Cynthia; wife, Anne Charlotte Lohéac; 18 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, Muriel Anne Scobie, who died in 1979, and his son Barrie, who died in 2002.
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