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Local jeweler Sites earns prestigious national award

The Black Orlov, one of the largest black diamonds in the world, is said to bring good luck to whoever touches it. Only a select few people ever get that honor considering the 67-carat stone is valued at more than $1.5 million, but for a few minutes in the early 1970s, local jeweler William Sites (72) held the diamond in his hands.

This guy walked in, and he reached in his pocket and pulled out this little box and opened it up, and in it was the Black Orlov, Sites said recently. I got to look at it and hold it. It was phenomenal.
The Black Orlov, one of the largest black diamonds in the world, is said to bring good luck to whoever touches it. Only a select few people ever get that honor considering the 67-carat stone is valued at more than $1.5 million, but for a few minutes in the early 1970s, local jeweler William Sites ('72) held the diamond in his hands.

“This guy walked in, and he reached in his pocket and pulled out this little box and opened it up, and in it was the Black Orlov,” Sites said recently. “I got to look at it and hold it. It was phenomenal.”

Sites was a young, 24-year-old gemology student in New York City at the time. He'd recently joined the family business, Sites Jewelers, which opened its first store in downtown Clarksville in 1922, and he was spending six months at the Gemology Institute of America, learning everything he could about the trade.

“For six months, we studied diamonds and colored gemstones,” he said. “We studied crystal systems, the polishing, the history. Holy mackerel, what an eye opener. I think I studied more in six months than I did at Austin Peay.”

One afternoon at the institute, a gentleman from the Museum of Natural History interrupted a class. He brought the famed Black Orlov to have it graded at a nearby lab. The memory of that day, when he held the steely gray diamond with its promise of good luck, may have flickered briefly through Sites' mind last April. That's when he learned that, after almost 40 successful years in the jewelry business, he was the 2010 recipient of the American Gem Society's Robert M. Shipley Award.

The award, named after the founder of the American Gem Society, is one of the industry's highest honors.

“Through his professional, community and industry work, Bill has demonstrated his professionalism and dedication to the ethical standards of the American Gem Society,” Ruth Batson, executive director and CEO of the American Gem Society, said. “He's a great asset to the American Gem Society, and a tireless advocate for not only jewelry industry organizations, but for those in his community as well.”

Sites grew up in Clarksville, when the city was a tight-knit small community centered around its downtown. He enrolled in APSU after high school, where he earned a degree in marketing and, surprisingly, didn't intend to go into the family business.

“I always wanted to be in the corporate world of Coca-Cola,” he said.

Sites got a job at the local Coke bottling plant as a helper on a truck. He enjoyed riding out to small grocery stores in the rural parts of the county where he could eat bologna and cheese sandwiches and sip on a soda. But the hours were long, and after a while, he decided to try out the family business.

“I always laugh and say I traded a five-day a week job for a six-day a week job. Not very smart,” he said.

In the years that followed, Sites became a certified gemologist appraiser and he sat on the AGS Board of Directors, serving as president of the board from 2004 to 2006. He was also inducted into the National Jeweler Retail Hall of Fame in 2006, and he has held the position of Clarksville Chamber of Commerce president, Rotary president, Clarksville Memorial Hospital/Gateway Medical Center board president and the vice president of the Nashville City Club.

In 2004, he purchased the Ward Potts Jewelers store in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville, and he remains active with the Clarksville store on Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. These achievements and commitment to the industry led to his name being called that April afternoon in Boston, to receive the Shipley Award during the AGS's Annual Conclave.

“It was a surprise,” Sites said. “It is probably the best kept secret in the jewelry industry. My wife knew. She made arrangements for all the children and grandchildren to be there. They called my name, and I stood up to walk up on stage, and she said, ‘turn around,' and here come all the children and grandchildren filing into the room. I just about lost it.”

His memory, for a moment, might have flickered back to the day he held the Black Orlov. Almost 40 years later, surrounded by family and friends who honored his hard work, it sure did seem to bring him more than his share of good luck. -- Charles Booth