Miriam Hilser-Foley is the fifth generation of the Hilser family to have run the shop, which was originally a clockmakers when it was opened in 1865 by her great great grandfather, Richard Hilser.
The family first opened their doors on North Main St but moved after 15 years to the current location on Grand Parade.
Hit by soaring rates and declining city centre custom, Ms Hilser-Foley said they looked for another city centre premises but, in the end, they had no option but to move their entire business to their Bandon shop, which has nearly as illustrious a background as their Grand Parade premises.
“It is very sad,” Ms Hilser- Foley said. “It was especially sad telling the older generation that the decision had been made, but Bandon is a great location and we’ve nearly as long a tradition there.”
Richard Hilser was a German clock-maker from the Black Forest area who arrived in Belfast in the early 1860s before moving to Cork. He returned to his home village to choose a German bride, but when his prospect refused him, her sister took up on the offer instead. The while family remained German-speaking for generations.
Mr Hilser has a certain claim to notoriety as the man who introduced the alarm clock to Ireland, something many people may not feel particularly grateful for. But as a family jewellers, Ms Hilser-Foley said, they have had the privilege to participate in the lives of generations of Cork people.
“We get to deal with all the joyous occasions — engagements, weddings — and then they come back to us for the eternity rings after the baby is born, and then communions and confirmations, and then the whole thing starts all over again,” she said.
“We get to know people really well and see them at all their happiest times. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren come in.”
Ms Hilser-Foley, who, like her father before her, joined the family business when she was 17, is so passionate about upholding her family name that she even changed her name by deed poll, according to a promise she made to her great grand-aunt, Ursula Hilser, that she would take the family name and continue the family business.
“I changed my name by deed poll after Ursula died,” she said.
The city-centre shop escaped the burning of Cork by the Black and Tans during the War of Independence in 1920, and being looted during the Civil War three years later.
“I’m not sure if it was the Black and Tans that time, or the other side, so I’d best not comment on that,” said Ms Hilser-Foley. “Someone from Fitzgeralds across the road described seeing Hilsers being looted. But we survived.”
The Hilsers were an affluent family who remained proud of their German heritage, and owned a large house on Buxton Hill, an area popular with the merchants of the Victorian era. However, they never bought the Grand Parade premises, preferring to lease it from Cork City Council.
Ms Hilser-Foley will particularly miss St Valentine’s Day in the Grand Parade shop, and has accumulated several generations’ worth of romantic tales.
“A nice thing happened recently: At Christmas we had a couple in looking at rings, but he was going back to Australia,” she said. “He contacted us and bought the ring and had it sent over because it was so important to him to buy the ring from Cork. When she visited him a few weeks ago, he surprised her by proposing, and she said yes. She actually popped in to thank us last week; she was over the moon.”
Ms Hilser-Foley will turn the key in the lock of Hilsers for the last time on March 26. Until then, a clearance sale and packing up the contents of the building are keeping her busy, but she says it will be an emotional time when they finally close their doors.
“We’ll have a glass of champagne and drink a toast,” she said. “It’s especially important to us to thank all our staff for their years of service, as well as our loyal customers.”