This May is the 85th anniversary of Montague’s Jewelers. As the oldest jewelry store in Billings, Montague’s has a long and intimate history with the city. As I talked with third-generation owner Chris Montague in his store on 2nd Avenue North, I learned a lot about jewelry, family history, and our community. Chris’ grandparents, Wally and Lois Montague, founded the store on May 12, 1937 at 2817 2nd Avenue North - just across the street from Montague’s current location. Wally Montague apprenticed with a jeweler in Driggs, Idaho; after completing his training, he decided to open his own store in Billings. He was purposeful in his selection of community: Billings was the commercial hub for the region then as it is now. As with many new business owners, the Montague family started out with adversity. The great flood happened one week after they opened their store, ruining both their downtown shop and their midtown apartment. What happened next is a familiar story: Billings’ community stepped in. Chris Montague says, “Billings took them in, fed them food, gave them lodging, and helped them rebuild.” With the community’s help, Wally and Lois reopened their store and have been a fixture in the community ever since. In a virtuous circle, Billings’ generosity inspired the Montague family to give back, and they have been active in local philanthropy for three generations. Currently, Chris Montague supports around thirty charitable organizations with gifts of cash or jewelry: Tumbleweed, which his mother helped found; the Food Bank, Eagle Mount, the hospital foundations, the Montana Land Reliance, and the Boys and Girls Club are among his favorites. As a six-year member of the board of directors for the Billings Symphony, I can attest to the consistency and quality of the pieces Montague’s has donated for auctions at our fundraisers. A nine-decade family business has its share of stories, but one of Chris’ favorites comes from the World War II era. At the time, the family had recently hired and trained Otis Hopper, a longtime fixture for Billings watch aficionados. Otis started out as a railroad man and lost his leg in an accident; Wally gave him a chance at a new career, and Otis did watch work for the Montague’s for sixty years. During World War II, Wally and Otis offered free watch service for US military servicemen - a significant offer in an era when nearly every man wore a watch. The next few decades were full of changes. Business flourished during the post-war boom, and that prosperity lasted till Billings’ economy crashed during the 1980s. Unable to make things work in a time that gutted downtown Billings, Montague’s consolidated to their West Park Plaza location, then Rimrock Mall, remaining there for eighteen years until Chris Montague returned the store downtown in 2003, where he plans to stay for good. For a while they had two stores - one on 2nd Avenue downtown, and one in Rimrock Mall. Now, they have two stores downtown: the jewelry store, and a shop that specializes in sterling silver jewelry, baby items and giftware. If you’ve walked by their downtown store, you might erroneously assume that their relatively small storefront has a limited selection. In fact, Montague’s carries a surprisingly large and diverse assortment of pieces: their offerings range from $25 and up silver items at the silver store to prestige pieces that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. As I browsed a bit, I was impressed by the quality of some of the stones in his collection. Space constraints are real, as they are in any business, so Montague has focused finding the very highest quality pieces, and his attention to detail shows. Montana is renowned for its Yogo Sapphires, and Montague’s carries a nice selection. Men and women alike will be awed, as I was by his small but exquisite portfolio of ultra-high quality Colombian emeralds, featured in a ring, two pairs of earrings, and a tennis bracelet. Rubies are another gem that Montague does well: his current supply includes a number of superb and tasteful pendants and bracelets with the famous blood red-colored gem. Diamonds of course are there in abundance. This being the Men’s Issue, I wanted to talk a bit about premium watches, and Chris Montague has a lot to say on the subject if you ask him. He carries a nice range of premium watches for both men and women, and is always on the hunt for great pieces. If you know what to look for, there are good deals to be had on premium watches via well-preserved vintage pieces. Conversely, certain vintage brands and makes are much more expensive than new ones. If you want a fine Swiss watch, Montague can find almost anything. Chris Montague’s philosophy is simple: he finds the best pieces and sells them to his customers at fair prices. You’ll never see a 60-70% off sale at Montague’s because the savings are already there. Pricing things fairly the first time around has been their philosophy from the beginning. At large stores or online, one can find an almost infinite selection, including a nearly equally large number of mediocre or subpar pieces. Montague does the online shopper’s work for him: his carefully curated collection saves shoppers the trouble of sorting through thousands of items, allowing everyone to find the truly best piece for their budget. When not curating jewelry or serving on boards, Montague likes to take advantage of the Big Sky Country’s offerings to the utmost. He enjoys both backcountry and downhill skiing, especially around Yellowstone Park and Cooke City. Fly fishing, golf, and tennis round out his athletic interests, along with a passion for reading, particularly historical nonfiction. Obviously passionate about our community, Montague has one message for Billings: “Buy local: it’s worth it.” His message will surely not be foreign to readers of this magazine. The more we support support locally owned businesses, the more money stays in our community, the more we can all grow together. For Montanans in particular, neighbors supporting each other means survival in difficult times and magnified abundance in good times. Much like 85 years before, Billings stepped up to support Montague’s in 2020. In what was a difficult year for many, the Magic City community purchased dozens of custom pieces and hundreds of engagement rings at Montague’s, keeping his business profitable and allowing him to continue his charitable giving uninterrupted. Three generations of Montague’s tell the same story many of us have: individuals, families, and businesses supporting the community and being taken care of by the community.
Article by Robert Saunders
Photography by Daniel Kessel - Alienated Productions
Originally published in Billings Lifestyle