We have two full-time bench jewelers at our store. They are always busy, repairing and creating jewelry. We know them well but, for the general public, they seem a mysterious breed–tucked out of sight in the dark recesses of the shop. They work with tools and heat and chemicals that can be dangerous. From the shop come loud noises that sound like wheels whirring, metal clinking, or compressed air escaping. “What’s happening back there? What motivates them to do this kind of work?”
I asked them the pros and cons of being a bench jeweler. From the comments and letters of other bench jewelers there is a broad consensus on the following:
A bench jeweler is fulfilled by making pieces of art that people will treasure. Clients are usually full of admiration and gratitude for the jeweler who can repair a sentimental favorite or create a masterpiece.
A bench jeweler gets to be creative. Whether he/she is making a custom piece for a client or for the store, there are a lot of decisions to be made on gemstone colors, metal design, and the engineering of the piece. Even if the job is a repair, there’s creativity involved in solving the problem.
Bench jewelers have lots of variety. Each repair, each creation poses different challenges. If you don’t like a steep learning curve, don’t be a bench jeweler.
No college degree is needed, however it helps to study at a trade school or design studio. Much of what a bench jeweler needs to know is learned on the job from a mentor.
The environment back in the shop is one of collaboration. Our bench jewelers have shared memories of repairs they’ve done and jewelry they’ve made. Camaraderie is the natural state for a bench jeweler.
As with all careers, there are downfalls. The work of a bench jeweler can be dangerous. It’s not uncommon to get cut or burned. One of our bench jewelers described hot metal flying out of a centrifugal casting machine and being burned in several places.
Even without injuries on the job, years of sitting and bending over tiny jewelry is hard on the eyes and the back. It’s a sedentary job, complete with the multitude of health issues that can come with not moving much.
Bench jewelers often feel pressure to complete jobs. Clients don’t want to be without their jewelry. There’s additional pressure around holiday times, so overtime during the Christmas season is common.
It takes a long time and a lot of practice to be good at this work. In the meantime, you are someone’s apprentice and probably not making much money.
A bench jeweler has to be very patient. He/she has to be able to concentrate for long periods. Just imagine having to work daily with tiny parts, gems, and tools!
IN THE END
Bench jewelers are a special breed– good-humored, courageous, sympathetic, and humble. They must be willing to put up with interruptions from their colleagues and impossible requests from their clients. They must be prepared to take on difficult jobs with potentially expensive consequences because, as one bench jeweler put it, “Somebody has to do it!” They must understand that, regardless of the quality of the jewelry, it has special value to the owner. And they must accept that, stuck in the back of the shop, they won’t always receive credit for their efforts.
And that final quality attributable to bench jewelers–playfulness. They jokingly say that they love playing with fire and banging away with their hammers. They may be kidding, but I think they really mean it!
One of our favorite clients recently lent us his copy of Elizabeth Taylor, My Love Affair With Jewelry. Published by Simon and Schuster in 2002, the book contains 280 illustrations of her jewelry. Even better, the text contains many of her personal stories about the jewelry. She was a knowledgeable collector, and both her passion for and knowledge of jewelry shine through in these stories. She saw herself as the custodian of her pieces–“here to enjoy them, to give them the best treatment in the world, to watch after their safety, and to love them.” She understood that, in the future, other people would have them, and she hoped that they would cherish the jewelry and respect it. As she said, “. . .this kind of beauty is so rare and should be treated with such care and admiration.”
The first story she told was one of the best! She always loved pretty things and, because her dad owned an art gallery in the Beverly Hills Hotel, she was a frequent visitor. There was also a boutique in the hotel, and it was there that she saw the perfect pin for her mother. It was pretty expensive–about $25. That’s a lot of money for a twelve-year-old who earns 50 cents a week! But she saved for it and eventually was able to give it to her mom for Mother’s Day. It was one of her mom’s most valued possessions.
La Peregrina, before and after re-mount
Another favorite story for me was her mishap with a most famous pearl, La Peregrina. Mary Tudor of England wore this natural, teardrop pearl way back in the 1500s and, over the centuries, many other queens wore it, but in 1969 Richard Burton bought it for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Soon after it was purchased, she was wearing the pearl on a delicate chain around her neck, when she reached down to find it missing! Fortunately, she was in her suite at Caesar’s Palace, so she knew it had to be in one of the rooms. Carefully, she started looking for it, trying not to arouse suspicion in her husband. She walked back and forth across the thick carpet in her bare feet, praying to feel the pearl below. All of a sudden, she saw one of her dogs chewing on, what appeared to be, a bone. In a flash, she opened the puppy’s mouth and found La Peregrina! Amazingly, it was not scratched. “I did finally tell Richard,” she said. “But I had to wait at least a week!”
The Welsh Pin, once owned by the Duchess of Windsor, Wallis Simpson
Elizabeth Taylor became friends with many famous people during her life. Two of them were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Duchess wore this Welsh Pin whenever she saw Elizabeth, because Elizabeth liked it so much. It was actually a royal pin that the Duke had received when he was Prince of Wales. When the Duchess’s estate went to auction in 1987, the pin was the item Elizabeth just had to bid on. She felt that the Duchess wanted her to have it. And she knew that the proceeds were going to a cause she believed deeply in–AIDS research. She was one of two big bidders, but she made the last bid, for $623,000.
If you ever have the chance to read this book, I would highly recommend it. It was filled with stories that helped me understand the personality of Elizabeth Taylor. And the pictures of the jewelry were amazing! I’ll close with a quote of Elizabeth’s that, I think, shows something of her true character. “If you’re a collector, I think you’ve got to be willing to share. Some people lock their passions up in vaults, behind dark doors, so it’s only theirs. I don’t understand that mentality at all. Each piece is different, each piece is unique. And they each call out, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ I do, however, have a safe!”
I’m not sure it’s ever been explained in this blog, but Dearborn Jewelers isn’t actually in Dearborn anymore. After 53 years, the store moved to Plymouth, Michigan, and that’s where it’s been for the last 14 years. Those of us who work at the store are very proud of our town. We support the other businesses as much as we can, we donate to many worthy local causes, and, most recently, we’re contributing to the celebration of Plymouth’s 150th birthday!
Plymouth was incorporated as a village in 1867 and upgraded to a city in 1932. The “Old Village” was actually the center of town when the Starkweather brothers first settled here. Over the years, Plymouth has become well known for its special “features”:
- the only place in Michigan where railroad tracks are laid in all four directions
- the “Air Rifle Capital of the World” because it’s the home of the Daisy Air Rifle Company
- its annual events, like the Ice Festival and the Art Festival, earning it the phrase, “There’s always something going on in Downtown Plymouth.”
- Kellogg Park, once owned by John Kellogg and now the site of about 150 events per year. To celebrate Plymouth’s 150th birthday, the park’s famous fountain will be re-done, thanks to a generous grant from the Wilcox Foundation.
the Fountain in Kellogg Park during the Breast Cancer Walk
In honor of this great city, and to help support the Plymouth Historical Museum, Dearborn Jewelers created a one-of-a-kind diamond pendant. One hundred fifty diamonds, totaling almost 150 points (that’s 1.50 carats), decorate a white gold pendant. The letters of PLYMOUTH are subtly woven into the piece. Design elements of the 1860s were incorporated into the pendant. Many of us here at Dearborn Jewelers worked on the design, and we are so proud of our team effort! Someone is going to win this pendant–someone who’s bought a ticket to the Historical Museum event on July 26, 2017.
Plymouth’s 150 Years Commemorative Pendant, created by Dearborn Jewelers of Plymouth
If you’re interested in supporting the Plymouth Historical Museum and, perhaps, winning a beautiful diamond pendant, buy a $25 ticket from either the museum or from Dearborn Jewelers. The event begins at 6:00pm and appetizers and beverages will be served. While the event is sure to be fun, you do not need to be present to win. The winner will also receive a booklet which explains how the pendant was designed and made.
Good luck to you if you purchase a ticket! And don’t forget to wish a great big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Downtown Plymouth!!
I’ll never forget vacationing in Thailand, trying to decide whether to buy a pair of jadeite earrings. The beaming salesman chanted to me, “Burmeeeese jade,” with a knowing nod. His smile implied that nothing could be better.
Imperial-quality jade. Courtesy of Mason-Kay.
That was about eight years ago, when jade and rubies from Burma (Myanmar) were banned from the United States. Retailers in the U.S. could not sell them. Wholesalers could not import them. Well, that recently changed, and the announcement got me interested in the story of how these gems came to be sanctioned.
It was back in 2003 when George W. Bush signed the trade embargo, prohibiting the import of Burmese goods. The military ruling group, the “junta”, of the country had imprisoned the people’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Citizens of the country were having their human rights violated. The embargo was a response to what was considered an unacceptable way to govern.
But there were loopholes in the 2003 document, and Burmese jade and rubies still found their way into the U.S. If a “middleman” country got involved, either in the cutting or polishing step, it was still legal to import these gems to the U.S. That is, until July 2008.
President Bush signed a new document, the Tom Lantos Block Burmese J.A.D.E.(Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, which closed the loopholes and effectively banned the import of ALL precious Burmese gemstones. Wholesalers and retailers selling ruby and jade needed documentation to certify that the gems had not originated in Burma.
The jewelry industry was negatively impacted by the embargo. Burma was considered the best source in the world for fine ruby and jade. Different sources of the gems had to be found, and, over the years, they were. Today many rubies come from Mozambique. Jadeite sources include Guatemala, Japan, and Kazakhstan.
The trade sanctions had the desired effect. Myanmar began to make reforms in 2010. Over the next couple of years, democratic elections were held and many political prisoners were released. In 2011, the U.S. appointed an ambassador, and, in 2012, President Obama visited the country. Using a cautious approach, President Obama lifted some of the sanctions in November 2012. But the ban on rubies and jade remained in place.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now the nation’s State Counsellor (sort of like a Prime Minister), expressed patience, saying that “We believe that if we are going along the right path, all sanctions should be lifted in good time.” And she was right! On October 7th, 2016, President Obama signed an executive order to lift the remaining trade sanctions against Myanmar.
It will be interesting to see how this executive order influences the jewelry industry in the coming months and years. It will take some time to establish or re-establish relationships with Burmese stone dealers. But I believe it won’t be long before we see the deep blood-red Burmese rubies back in our stores. And my “Burmeeeese” jade earrings (Yes. . . I bought them) may soon be easy to find in the United States.
25.59 carat Burmese Ruby, sold in 2015 for $30.3 million
A large polished piece of Greenstone
In late September I was in Swede’s, the famous light blue jewelry and rock store in the middle of Copper Harbor, Michigan. The feisty woman in charge, 83-year-old Mary Billings, asked me as I walked in–“What is the gemstone of Michigan?”
When I answered, “Isle Royale Greenstone,” she looked at me with new respect.
“You’re only the thirteenth customer this season who has answered that question correctly. And we’ve had a lot of people who’ve walked through that door.” She shook her head, a little disgusted that Michiganders weren’t commonly aware of their state gemstone.
Most people, if they have any idea at all, would probably say Petoskey is the state’s gem. And it IS the state rock. But Isle Royale Greenstone, or just Greenstone, has been Michigan’s official gem since 1973. Found mainly on Isle Royale or the Keweenaw Peninsula, Greenstone has the fancy, scientific name of Chlorastrolite, which is a variety of the mineral Pumpellyite. It’s often found in and around copper mines, which are abundant in the Keweenaw. The mineral makes its home in amygdaloidal basalt. If you’re like me, that phrase holds no meaning. I had to look it up, so I’m happy to share its meaning. Basically it’s a pit or cavity in the stone. So amygdaloidal basalt is cooled and hardened lava with lots of cavities in it that have been filled in with minerals.
Once the Greenstone is removed from its host rock, it can be cut and polished. But it’s a tricky stone to work with because it’s not really hard–only a 5-6 on the Mohs’ Scale– and it can have its own cavities and hollow spots within it. Cutters want to expose the best “turtle-back” pattern that they can and eliminate any bad spots. But removing a top layer of the stone is likely to reveal a different, and not necessarily better pattern. The goal is a clear pattern showing some chatoyancy. The best stones will demonstrate that change in luster as they are tilted back and forth in the light.
Tumbled Greenstone with pink Thomsonite
Greenstone is not a particularly expensive gemstone to buy. Even with the labor involved in finding, mining, and cutting it, there’s just not a huge market for the material. But it isn’t an easy gem to own. Since the year 2000, it’s been illegal to take Isle Royale Greenstone off the island. The island is, after all, a national park. And even Keweenaw Greenstone isn’t easy to get unless you have access to the copper mine areas. Most jewelry stores, even in Michigan, don’t carry Greenstone. So plan on spending some time searching for your perfect piece of Michigan’s gemstone. Whether you spend time looking along the shoreline for a rare small piece of it, or whether you search for jewelry stores that carry the gem, enjoy the journey.
My piece of Keweenaw Greenstone! I love it!!
Maybe you’ve seen the ads on TV. A laughing couple in a car, sharing a private moment as they drive a country road. They are in love. But they’re also best friends. And that’s the story of the two-stone engagement ring. It represents the dual nature of their relationship.
The two-stone ring is the latest in a fairly long line of styles promoted by De Beers, the diamond company that, for most of the last century, was the biggest supplier of uncut diamonds. Their ability to create demand for diamonds started with the famous phrase from the 1940s–A Diamond is Forever. And it worked so well that Ad Age, a magazine that analyzes and reports on the marketing world, named it the number one slogan of the 20th century.
A decade ago, it was all about the three-stone engagement ring, or, as it was sometimes called, the trinity ring. The three stones signify your relationship’s past, present, and future. Or the trio can be seen as signifying friendship, love, and fidelity. The most common version of this ring had smaller stones on the left and right with a larger stone in the middle.
Also around ten years ago, the journey necklace was advertised widely as a sentimental way to think about your journey together with the person you love. Their were several styles, for example the ladder, circle, heart, or S, but most had five or seven diamonds.
Other pieces De Beers promoted were the diamond tennis bracelet (1988), the bezel-set diamond solitaire necklace (1998), and the right-hand ring (2003). I laughed when I saw the date on the bezel-set necklace. My husband bought me my necklace in 1999. It’s funny because I’ve never thought of advertising as being influential on my husband or myself. We don’t watch much TV and we hardly ever pay attention to commercials, except for the Superbowl ads. But good advertising does work, and the company that advertises for De Beers is very, very good at it.
And their goal is obvious. They want you to buy more diamonds and especially smaller diamonds. Why smaller? Because there are many, many more small diamonds than large. That’s also the reason why buying a carat’s worth of small diamonds is much less expensive than buying a single, one carat stone. As a quick test, I looked at one diamond vendor’s pricing on one carat, one-half carat, and one-third carat stones. The pricing follows a more exponential pattern. Keeping the other variables of cut, color, and clarity stable, a 1/3-carat stone was about $1000, a 1/2- carat was $3000, and a 1-carat was around $9000. A three-stone or two-stone ring, by carat weight, can be quite cost effective.
The point of my blog is this: Buy a style of ring you love rather than the style that is being promoted at the moment. Don’t get swayed by the sentimentality of the story. Your ring should represent what you want it to represent–not some story made up by someone in advertising.
I never realized there were so many good luck charms until I started working at a jewelry store. Sure, I knew of the 4-leaf clover and the rabbit’s foot, but I’d never heard of the “ankh” and the “cornicello.” One of my more embarrassing moments came recently when a woman came in with her husband’s necklace. It needed repair so I wrote up a repair slip, describing the piece as a “hot pepper pendant on a gold chain.” Everyone laughed at me when I took it back to the shop. “That’s not a hot pepper,” chuckled the bench jeweler. “That’s a gorno.”
The “corno” pendant
“Huh? What’s a gorno?” Well, truth is, he wasn’t completely sure. And the fact is, it’s not a gorno. It’s a corno or a cornicello. Turns out this is the Italian word for “horn” or “little horn.” It apparently protects the wearer from the evil eye. The evil eye is a look, given to inflict harm or bad luck. There is widespread belief in the power of the evil eye, but, supposedly, it started in ancient Greece.
Now, the “evil eye” I’d seen before, a few months back when working with a different customer. It’s kind of confusing, because some people wear an amulet of an eye, as protection from evil. They call the amulet the evil eye. So I guess an “evil eye” can be either bad luck OR good luck.
I think every culture has their own version of a good luck charm. The “ankh”(pronounced awnk) is actually the Egyptian symbol for life. As the key of life, it represents zest and energy, and some people wear it as a protection from demons. It resembles a Christian cross, but has a loop at the top.
The “ankh” pendant
I guess we all can use a little good luck from time to time. Can it hurt to wear a good luck charm? It’s just nice to know there are so many options.
We are so grateful for our wonderful customers, who come in and share their stories with us. Jewelry always has a story, and it’s almost always about love. When people buy jewelry, it’s often to show loved ones how much they care. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, we wanted to share a few of our jewelry stories.
The first story is about a silver and gemstone bracelet bought in Bali in the summer of 2009. My husband and I found it in a tiny shop in a tiny town whose name I can’t remember. But I can remember the face of the stooped old man who owned the shop. He couldn’t speak English, and we couldn’t speak Balinese, but, somehow, the transaction was made. A few days later, rushing in the airport to make our flight, I looked down at my wrist and felt my heart drop. The bracelet was gone. It had unlatched underneath my jacket, and I never felt it slide off. Though I searched the airport, it was nowhere to be found. I had to leave my beautiful bracelet in Bali.
It’s a sad story, but the story isn’t over. I called the airport security when I got back to the States. They had found what sounded like my bracelet! I waited, impatiently, for the package to arrive. When it did, I opened it anxiously. Imagine my disappointment when I opened someone else’s costume bracelet. There seemed to be no hope. Christmas Day, 2009, came, and my husband and kids had expectant looks on their faces as I opened my final gift. Nestled inside the box was my bracelet!! I started crying with joy. “How?” I asked through my tears. My husband has never revealed to me how he managed to lay his hands on an exact duplicate of my original Balinese bracelet. But every time I wear it, I think of the love it took for him to find it.
The next story is really a duo of stories. It’s a story we hear, in many unique versions, over and over again. When a mother, father, grandparent, or even an aunt or uncle dies, their jewelry can remind loved ones of the special bond that was shared. Every time my one colleague wears his father’s watch, it reminds him of his dad. He received it in his father’s estate, and he wears it almost every day. Another colleague took her father’s gold diamond wedding band, melted and re-cast the gold into a lovely cross, mounted with those same diamonds. You would never know her cross pendant was once a ring. But she knows. It’s a beautiful reminder of her father.
Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks and be giving. We hope that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, filled with family, friends, and, of course, food.
With many thanks, All of us at Dearborn Jewelers