From the 1950s through the 1980s, one of the biggest jewelers on Oahu was Security Diamond & Conrad Jewelers.
I heard from Connie Conrad’s daughter, Sandra, who told me how her family came to Hawaii and began their business. It’s a great story.
“In 1933, when he was 22, my father, Conrad W. Cornfeldt, was an architecture student at USC,” she said. “He only went for two years. His dream was to go to Hawaii and live on coconuts and pineapple (as he was a vegetarian).
“He had $100 and bought a one-way, third-class ticket for $75 and arrived with $25. In those days many people went down to see the ships come in. Someone mistook him for the actor Johnny Weissmuller (who played Tarzan), befriended him, brought him home, introduced him to an architect, and he was hired as a draftsman.
“In 1933 it was common to call men ‘Mr. First Name.’ So everyone at work called him Mr. Conrad. His friends called him Connie.
“When he met my mother she thought his name was Connie Conrad. Before they got married he wanted to change it to that legally. To do so required that the name change be published in the newspaper for three days.”
As Hawaii was very small and this was “embarrassing,” they published it in the Japanese-language newspaper, The Hawaii Times. And so he became Conrad W. Conrad. His signature was CW Conrad.
He and Barney Dahl soon opened their own architectural firm and designed many of the apartment buildings in Waikiki.
The most famous house they designed was the Bob Topping house at Diamond Head. It was Hawaii’s first air-conditioned house and had a slide from the living room to the pool.
They did architectural work on the Queen Theatre, which opened in 1936, and also designed the Kau Kau Korner drive-in at Kalakaua Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard.
“What most people did not know is that upstairs was a gambling hall/casino,” Sandra Conrad recalls. “It also had a slide to the ground level, in case of a raid.
“Dad’s father, Max, and mother followed him to Hawaii, and my grandfather opened the first credit jewelry store where a plantation worker could buy a $12 watch for $1 a week. Many did.
“When World War II came, my grandparents wanted to leave the islands. My grandfather told my father that if he stayed and ran the store, he would give him half.
“My father knew nothing about the jewelry business, but on the way to the ship, my grandfather told him all he needed to know in 10 minutes.
“Dad put my mother, my baby sister and me on a ship going to San Francisco. We left Christmas Day 1941 and arrived two weeks later after tacking across the Pacific to avoid Japanese submarines.
“Dad took over the jewelry store, then called Royal Credit Jewelers, on King Street downtown.”
By 1944 he opened the first Security Diamond jewelry store on the corner of Nuuanu Avenue and Pauahi Street.
The store found itself in the center of the red-light district during World War II. During the war, basics were rationed and luxuries were scarce. The only thing the women could spend money on was jewelry.
“The women could not easily leave their ‘houses’ (which were sponsored by the U.S. government), so my father would take a small suitcase of jewelry to the ‘whorehouses’ so the women could do their shopping.
“Nuuanu Avenue also had many bars and tattoo shops. That made it the perfect location for soldiers and sailors to buy a ring for their mother or sweetheart, and we would mail it back home for them.
“After the war my grandparents returned to Hawaii and lived at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel from 1949 to 1960,” Conrad continues. “The rate was $16 a day, including breakfast and dinner. That is where I always went to the beach.
“Chick Daniels, the head beachboy, would bring me a backrest, towels and an umbrella. I was 12. I would have lunch at the Surf Room with my grandmother on Saturdays and then go across the street to the Waikiki Theatre for their 1 o’clock show. I always sat in the sixth row, as the first six rows were $1.
“In 1960 they bought a fifth-floor oceanfront studio at the Colony Surf for $19,000. As my grandparents didn’t drive, they would have Mac’s Market on Monsarrat Avenue deliver their groceries.
“I was born in Honolulu in 1938, raised here and then went to UCLA on the mainland, married and when I was seven months pregnant with my first child, returned to Hawaii in 1958.
“We stayed at the Princess Kaiulani the first night back. The room was $10. My husband came to work for my father at Security Diamond Co. We had the store on Fort and King, right next to Liberty House and across the street from McInerny’s. His take-home pay was $388 a month. Occasionally there was a three-paycheck month and we could buy extra stuff, like toothpaste.
“Our rent for a one- bedroom apartment on Lunalilo Street was $125 a month. We negotiated that down to $100.
“When my baby was born Aug. 12, 1958, I spent a week in a private room at Queen’s Hospital. Fabulous food and great service. Total bill at checkout was $300 (including the nursery). We didn’t have that, so we worked out a 10-month payment plan of $30 a month.
“After a while, we finally were able to buy our first home. Enchanted Lake opened up with five models. We chose the Queen model at $20,500. It was 1,200 square feet, three bedrooms, two bathrooms.
“We chose a lot and put down a $100 deposit to reserve it. That was our ‘last’ $100. Somehow we borrowed the down payment from Bank of Hawaii, and told them it was to buy appliances. Than we went to Sears and ‘charged’ our appliances.”
Security Diamond & Conrad Jewelers expanded to four stores after the war, three downtown and one in Waikiki.
When Ala Moana Center opened in 1959, Security Diamond had two choice locations — opposite Liberty House and Shirokiya on the east end, and the other opposite Sears and Longs — “the two busiest corners at Ala Moana,” their ads said.
They sold diamonds, jade, cultured pearls, fine gold jewelry, watches and precious gems.
“In the 1970s I was the buyer — along with my mother, Claire — for all of the merchandise at Security Diamond. On the Saturday before Super Bowl Sunday, I told my dad that I had to get off early and go to the market as I was having friends over for the Super Bowl.”
His reply: “What’s in a Super Bowl?”
Connie Conrad, then 68, sold his stores in 1979 to Hawaii-based Sedico Corp and retired. He said sales at the time topped $10 million, putting them in the top 25 jewelry stores in the country.
In his retirement, Connie pushed the idea of a water taxi system to take tourists from the airport to Waikiki. He envisioned stops at Magic Island, the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Fort DeRussy, the Natatorium and Aloha Tower.
It never came to fruition. The jewelry empire might have been his better idea.
The Rearview Mirror Insider is Bob Sigall’s weekly email that gives readers behind-the-scenes background, stories that wouldn’t fit in the column, and lots of interesting details. My Insider “posse” gives me ideas for stories and personal experiences that enrich the column. I invite you to join in and be an Insider at RearviewMirrorInsider.com. Mahalo!