Feared lost: one perfect, luminous commercial gem with a deep, rich history and an elegant setting.

Last night Galt & Bro. Jewellers, a 200-year-old firm whose history is intertwined with Washington, its politics and American history, ended a three-day private sale for longtime customers that may be prelude to shutting the shop's doors forever.

"We don't want to see Galt's become a chain operation of poor quality and poor service," said Edward Hall, president of the firm, whose customers have included Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and officials of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. "Rather than see that happen, we would rather close it with good memories."

The need to find a successor doesn't spring from adversity. It comes from the fact that Hall, 70, and Vice President J. Montague Hatcher, 71, are retiring. Although the privately held firm doesn't disclose financial data, Hall said Galt's has just completed its most successful year ever.

Even as he took steps to reduce the inventory at the spacious, elegantly decorated store across from the U.S. Treasury, Hall said he was hopeful about talks with prospective buyers. "We are not calling this a going-out-of-business sale and are carefully not saying we are going out of business," he said.

The invitation-only sale began on Tuesday, and the store was as filled with memories as with the more than 500 customers who came to shop and say, perhaps, farewell.

One of those customers was Frances Donohue, who arrived in Washington from Georgia in 1940 and had an immediately favorable reaction to the store.

"In my section of Atlanta, and with my Democratic background, we just thought Woodrow Wilson was a saint," Donohue said. Wilson was married to the former Edith Bolling Galt, whose first husband's family started the business.

Donohue, who worked at the State and Agriculture departments and who now lives in Southern Maryland, said she hadn't bought much from the store over the years but had depended on them to repair rings she had inherited and to restring her pearls. Service was always impeccable, she said.

But on Tuesday she did buy something--a vase, as a wedding gift for a great-niece. "It's a lovely little crystal vase, something a bride can use right away and just put a couple of posies in it."

"Yesterday was rather amazing," Hall said after the first day of the private sale. "I'm really optimistic this is going to have a good end for Galt as well. My fondest wish is that this business and its history continue."

The store contains a reminder of that history, which began in October 1801, when James Galt opened a shop in Alexandria. An advertisement from the Aug. 25, 1801, Alexandria Gazette, informed the public that "James Galt, clock and watchmaker, respectfully acquaints the public in general that he has commenced the above business at the corner of Prince and Royal Streets . . . where he determines paying close attention to give satisfaction." An enlarged photocopy of the ad hangs on a wall near one of the jewelry counters.

Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia, as originally incorporated in 1802. That allows Galt's its contention that it is the oldest business in the District. Its claim to being the nation's oldest jeweler, a claim also made by a handful of other long-standing jewelry companies, dates back to a notice in a 1771 newspaper that James Galt was relocating his business from Richmond to Williamsburg. But that, said Hall, "may have been James Galt's father."

James Galt moved his business to Pennsylvania Avenue in 1824, and his sons Matthew and William took over at his death in 1847. In 1868 the store moved to 1107 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, where it remained for 66 years. There was a move to 13th Street NW in 1934 and one to its present location, at 607 15th St. NW, in 1987.

Norman Galt, grandson of the founder, took over in 1891. On his death in 1908, his widow, Edith, inherited the business and named Henry C. Bergheimer to be the first non-family member to manage the business. And in 1934, the jewelry firm's employees bought the business from Edith, who was by then Woodrow Wilson's widow as well.

William Wright, who led the employee buyout, died in 1940 and was succeeded by his assistant, Lena M. Black, a pioneering woman who became a registered gemologist of the American Gem Association. Black married jewelry designer and manufacturer Armand Bayardi.

Bayardi was in charge when Hall, a Navy veteran fresh from the Korean War, answered a help-wanted ad in 1952 and became an apprentice watch repairman. Hall, who went on to design jewelry for the store, was named president in 1992.

One of the reasons Hall is leaving the business and its six-day workweeks is to further pursue his design talent. "I think I'm an artist, and I want to find out if I am," said Hall, who plans to paint and sculpt.

In the meantime, there are the reunions with and the partings from customers.

"I'm very distressed by this. I'm not handling this well," said Meribel S. Ayres as she reached across to clasp Hall's hand yesterday. "There has to be someone who has the same sense of value and integrity. There's so little left in Washington that has this integrity and long-standing tradition and attachment to beauty and quality."

Yesterday Hall brought out mementos from the company's long history, including its ledger from 1860 to 1869, which showed Abraham Lincoln to be a frequent purchaser of jewelry for his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

"There were some things that Galt took back from Lincoln's estate" to clear what the Lincoln family owed, he said, "and we forgave some of the debt."

And there are other items, historically as well as intrinsically valuable. There is a heavy, solid-gold "humanitarian of the year" medal, struck by Tiffany & Co. and awarded to Woodrow Wilson in 1916. His widow sold the medal to Galt's, which Hall said will donate it one day to the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

And there are two engraved gold plaques that were to be mounted on gifts that were never delivered. One was to decorate a gift from President Dwight David Eisenhower to Nikita Khrushchev in anticipation of a visit to the United States; the visit was canceled when Soviet gunners shot down the U.S. U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers.

And there is another that reads: "His Majesty the Sultan of Zanzibar Seyyid Jamshid Bin Abdulla from John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President of the United States. December 1963."

John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.