By Mimi Pollack
South Africa and Vietnam don’t appear to have much in common, especially culturally. However, one of the nice aspects of living in California is that there are many immigrants from all over the world and they can intermingle and work together.
Charles Koll Jewelers in Fashion Valley, founded by the late South African jeweler Charles Koll, is a good example of disparate cultures coming together with positive results. The elder Koll and his son, Malcolm Koll, began mentoring a young Vietnamese immigrant, Khai Le, in 1993, and 20 years later, Le opened his own jewelry store, Khai’s Jewelers, in Rancho Peῇasquitos.
Malcolm Koll was born in Pretoria, South Africa. In 1961, his family moved to Welkom, a gold mining town, where Charles had jewelry stores. In 1978, Malcolm had the opportunity to come to the United States and he met a woman who had a jewelry store in Seattle. She offered to sponsor his parents, so he could bring them over. Not happy living under Apartheid in South Africa, the Koll family decided to try their luck in America.
In 1990, they moved to Orange County, then in 1991 they came to San Diego, where Charles Koll opened up his first jewelry store at Westfield UTC. With much hard work, the store became successful and Charles Koll made a name for himself in San Diego. In 2001, the family opened a second store in Fashion Valley. They ran both stores until 2011, when the store in UTC closed.
In 1993, a Vietnamese immigrant, Khai Le, and his family came to San Diego sponsored by Catholic Charities. One of the agreements of being sponsored was finding a job within six months. Khai’s sister went to apply for a job at a casting plant the Kolls had downtown. Khai went along to give her moral support. When they both met the manager, he didn’t hire the sister, but rather offered Khai, who had been a budding jeweler in Vietnam, a job.
His sister went back to school and Khai went to work at the plant, casting wax models of jewelry. He was stubborn and ambitious, and although he sometimes butted heads with the manager and the Kolls themselves, Khai found a way to double the productivity at the plant.
After that, he was transferred to the jewelry store, where David Armstrong mentored him and showed him how to do everything. Armstrong was not only instrumental in helping Khai learn about the Jewelry business, he also took the time to teach him about American culture. Khai was still learning English and sometimes they communicated with pad and pen, but it was a successful mentorship.
“The Kolls provided me with an environment where I could learn and grow,” recalled Khai. Not only that, they encouraged Khai to spread his wings, and with their blessing, Khai opened up his own store twenty years after being hired. He still occasionally pops by the Kolls’ store to use tools there. His English has also improved tremendously and he is now fluent.
In 2001, another Vietnamese immigrant, Loc Tran, came to San Diego sponsored by his wife’s family. He had been a jeweler in Vietnam, and in 2002, under Khai’s mentorship, the Koll family hired him to work at their store where he continues to work today alongside another man from Vietnam and one from Mexico. The store is a good example of immigrants coming together to find a better life in America.
Malcolm has passed on the reins like his father before him. His son Richard, who has a degree in finance, runs the everyday operations at the store. Malcolm, Richard, Khai and Loc all share a love of family. Each one is married with two children. Both Khai and Loc remain grateful to the Kolls for hiring them, and the Kolls in turn praise the two Vietnamese immigrants’ work ethic.
Charles Kols Jewelers is known for their custom products and one-of-a-kind jewelry. They take their time working with each customer. But they’re also known as a welcoming enterprise that encourages diversity and treats long-time employees as family.