Bill Underwood, founder of eponymous Fayetteville jewelry store, dies at 90

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 2,221 views 

William "Bill" Underwood opened Underwoods Fine Jewelers on Dec. 27, 1957, on Dickson Street in Fayetteville, where it still resides today. (Photo courtesy the Underwood family).

William “Bill” Underwood, the founder and chairman of family-owned Underwoods Fine Jewelers in downtown Fayetteville, died April 2 at his Fayetteville home after a brief battle with cancer. He was 90.

Central United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, Underwood’s church since 1959, will hold a funeral service at 2 p.m. Thursday (April 6).

Click here for the obituary.

Craig Underwood is the company president and became the majority business owner about 14 years ago. He worked alongside his father since 1987. Bill Underwood launched the business on Dec. 27, 1957, on Dickson Street in Fayetteville, where it still resides today.

An Oklahoma native, Bill Underwood spent four years as a watchmaker in the Navy and came out with the GI Bill. He went to the University of Oklahoma in Norman to study business and accepted a job making watches for John Roberts, a company that specialized in manufacturing class rings.

After his first semester at OU, John Roberts offered Underwood the opportunity of managing the company’s small retail store in Fayetteville. After a few months in Fayetteville, John Roberts offered Underwood the chance to purchase the struggling store outright.

“I didn’t have two dimes to rub together,” he told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal in a 2017 interview. “So they sold it to me on credit for $1,000. And that’s how we got started.”

Success took time. The first store, adjacent to the current Underwoods store, sold mostly fraternity jewelry. Underwood lived in the back of the store, carried a full class load at the University of Arkansas and was the sole employee.

“When I was attending class, the store was closed; when I got out of class, I opened the store,” he recalled. “We had a little merchandise, but not much. And I really didn’t have much money to reinvest in the business.”

He hired his first employee in 1958 — the same year he married his wife LeAnn — and successfully paid off the $1,000 credit for buying the business in three years.

Underwood earned his business degree from the UA in 1961. Also that year, the store met the strict requirements to earn the Accredited Gem Lab designation from the American Gem Society (AGS), the first jeweler in Arkansas to do so.

That was the beginning of a new era for Underwoods, highlighted by the construction of its current building at 611 W. Dickson St. Completed in 1966, the original design was the brainchild of the late E. Fay Jones, a nationally acclaimed architect and designer based in Fayetteville.

Bill Underwood

Jones approached Underwood and offered his design services in exchange for office space in the new building. Underwood agreed, and Jones used the second floor as his office until he died in 2004.

Through the years, Underwood garnered dozens of industry recognitions on a national level. He was elected to the AGS board of directors in 1970, and in 1978 he was one of just 33 jewelers in the U.S. chosen by the Smithsonian Institute to create a unique jewelry piece for the Smithsonian Collection.

In 1987, he was elected president of the American Gem Society and was a member of the National Jeweler Hall of Fame (1991).

Underwood was a director of First Variable Life Insurance and First National Bank. He was a 32nd degree Mason and a longtime member of the Fayetteville Country Club. Underwood also served on numerous organizations, including the Fayetteville Civil Service Commission, the Dickson Street Improvement District and the Rotary Club.

Bill and LeAnn Underwood made numerous charitable gifts, including the Sam M. Walton Honor Lab at the University of Arkansas and the Underwood Garden gift to the Walton Arts Center and the media room at the Fayetteville Public Library.

In 2004, Underwood was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and he received the Citation of Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2019.