When visitors step through the front doors at Medawar Fine Jewelers in Rolling Hills Estates, they are greeted by glistening glass cases displaying exquisite gems and timepieces and welcomed by an inviting warmth that one would expect in the home of a friend. That is not surprising, given that for three generations the mainstay of the business has been traditional family values.
A neighborly conversation at the store with proprietors Robert and Sheila Medawar turned back the hands of time and revealed a fascinating legacy that began far away on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean Sea. Robert’s grandfather, Chakib, was born in 1912 in southern Lebanon. Hard work was at the heart of his upbringing, and farm chores were soon not enough to satisfy his young inquisitive mind.
Boredom and a fascination with mechanical things led to Chakib taking apart and fixing villagers’ broken watches under a fig tree in the mountains. The self-taught watchmaker, who also became a French and Arabic teacher, married and started a family with his wife, Asmah, before they moved to Beirut to open a small watch shop.
Chakib easily made friends in town and was so highly regarded for his horology skills that even the archbishop brought his watch to him to repair. “My grandfather’s immense discipline and his unwavering passion made him one of the most sought after watchmakers in Lebanon,” said Robert. His eldest son, Michel (one of seven children), later followed in his footsteps, first spending time in the shop after school as an apprentice. With encouragement from his esteemed father, he eventually opened his own store while also managing the flagship store.
Michel married his sweetheart, Yolla (an English teacher), and they had four children: Robert, Joanna, Joseph and Roy. Driven by the same passion as his father, the love of family and a commitment to excellence, four jewelry stores and two clock manufacturing companies—staffed by 200 employees—were added to the original two stores, with Michel at the helm.
Business was flourishing when the Lebanese Civil War began in 1975. Michel was concerned about his family’s well-being and set his sights on the U.S. as a safe haven where one of his brothers already lived. He made arrangements for the family to visit him in the South Bay for Christmas that year. During their vacation they went to Marineland (now the home of Terranea), and it was a car trip through Palos Verdes that would later change the course of the family’s life.
“We stopped to take a scenic photo on Hawthorne Boulevard, and my father said, ‘If we ever move to the States, this is where we are going to live!’” recalls Robert.
The Medawars returned to unrest in Lebanon after the holidays. They soon left everything behind except the clothes in their suitcases to wait out the war in California. Over the course of two years—with great hope for peace in their beloved homeland—they made trips back and forth between the Middle East and the U.S.
By 1977 Michel had resettled his family in Palos Verdes. In keeping with tradition he wanted Robert—the oldest of his children—to carry on the family business and insisted that he attend the Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère (Swiss Society for the Watch Industry) in Switzerland. Robert graduated in April 1978, and upon returning to the South Bay he worked as an apprentice watchmaker at Finley’s Jewelers (formerly in the Peninsula Center) before opening his first store in 1980 on Deep Valley Drive.
In 1985 Robert and Sheila met at church, and she started working for him as a bookkeeper. They married two years later. In 1992 they moved the store to its second location on Silver Spur before building the current location in 2008, where their two artistic daughters have sometimes worked alongside them—Rachelle as a jewelry designer and her younger sister, Rebekah, as an office assistant. In addition to Medawar Fine Jewelers on the Peninsula, five of Robert’s aunts and uncles own and operate 12 stores in Michigan.
When asked how the Medawar legacy has endured war, emigrating to the U.S. and the test of time, Robert proudly says, “We build relationships; we don’t sell jewelry. Our father carried us from a war-torn country to California, where we were free to practice our Christian faith in our day-to-day life with the store as a platform for us to give back.”
And give back they certainly do. The Medawars’ philanthropic contributions support local churches and synagogues, schools and the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Survivor Benefit Fund. Robert also formerly chaired the Palos Verdes Chamber of Commerce, presided over the Kiwanis Club, is an active reservist police officer and sits on various boards.
Married for nearly 30 years, Sheila and Robert travel the world together on buying trips, and Sheila still does the bookkeeping and helps run the business. “Blessed we are able to work together doing what we love every day,” she said with a smile.
Written by Diane E. Barber
Photographed by Stephan Cooper