FAIRBANKS - Gold is the oldest business in Fairbanks, which makes Dorothy Perdue a living legend.
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Perdue and her husband, Ralph, started Perdue's Jewelers and Gifts in 1962. Next month, she plans to sell the shop and go into retirement.
"I just felt like it was time that somebody else took over and I did something else," Perdue said from behind the counter in the Shopper's Forum Mall store, where she's worked seven days a week for decades.
Perdue's Jewelers opened during an innovative time for local goldsmiths and has weathered several storms over the past 45 years.
An Athabascan leader born near Koyukuk in the late 1920s, Ralph Perdue grew up around the downtown jewelry stores along Second and Third Avenues, starting an apprenticeship before he became a teenager and studying under local masters until he decided to enroll in an intensive course of study at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.
The Perdues opened their first shop in the old Nordale Hotel in the early 1960s, as the local jewelry industry started going through major changes. Low gold prices made experimentation affordable. Perdue, who died in 2003, quickly became known for his creativity. Dorothy credits him with making the first watch band from gold nuggets.
They moved into their current location on Airport Way in 1978, around the time some of the best-known local jewelers, such as Harry Avakoff and J. Vic Brown, began considering retirement.
"Those were the big guys back in the late '60s and early '70s," said Kay Hoch, owner of Matrix Jewelers. "There was an opening in the market."
Perdue's maintained strong loyalty in Native and rural communities. Even after some airlines dropped direct flights to Fairbanks, Perdue's managed to keep the customers from the Bush and always promoted Native crafts.
"It was like walking into a historic museum" of Native arts and crafts, said Bud Fate, former state representative and long-time friend and customer of Perdue's.