Sunday, September 27, 2020

Mad Memoirs of an Old School/Modern Goldsmith – Part II

Uncle Ernest Gravallese taught Richard Alan the trade. Submitted Photos

Uncle Ernest Gravallese taught Richard Alan the trade. Submitted Photos

ALL THAT GLITTERS
Richard Alan
harborgoldsmith@comcast.net

Meanwhile back at old 333 Washington Street, which was then called the Province Building, namely because the building was built directly on top of the exact location of the former British colonial governor’s mansion. It was there since the late 1600s, and demolished in 1922 for the current jewelers building. (My uncle Ernest was one of the building’s first tenants.) Today it is better known as the Boston Jewelers Exchange Building.

By age twenty-two I actually started my own trade business. How hard could it be? I still helped my uncle, who was now in his mid 70s, and we still did specialized work for many of the city’s prestigious jewelry stores.

I don’t mean to toot our own horn, but we were once approached by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator to do major restoration work for the prestigious museum. An accident had occurred to one of the showcases in an exhibit that crushed some of the ancient Roman jewelry artifacts. They were in dire need of exacting restoration, and of course my uncle accepted the task. We spent at least two weeks in the evenings working on several priceless pieces that appeared to be basket cases, but we eventually completed what looked impossible at first. Now, thinking back today about what we both accomplished, I would say what we did was miraculous.

Ernest called the curator and told him all the Roman pieces were restored and ready to go back on display. He showed up the next morning and was amazed at our results. My uncle would not accept a penny for our services. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

Damn! All those lost nights working I could have been hanging out at the downtown discos. I have to admit it was a personal achievement for Ernest and me to be even considered to be chosen to do such exacting museum quality work, and they chose us from the whole city of Boston and beyond.

Because we refused payment the curator in his appreciation gave us a small collection of loose ancient Roman intaglio gemstones, two that I still have in my possession and that I still cherish today.

I now personally accepted repair work from suburban “Mom and Pop” jewelry stores. Back then, as well as today, not every jewelry store had its own “on premises goldsmith,” and many had to send the work out to an inner city trade shop like ours for even the simplest repair.

Without realizing it, I jumped from the pot into the fire. The work poured in, and in those days it had to be completed in less than a week’s time. Those were crazy years, long days and nights to meet demands that were never ending. A vacation was out of the question – if you took a week off, you would lose many accounts. After awhile I had to take an occasional break. It’s called “bench burnout” among we fellow goldsmiths. So if I lost some accounts because I had the audacity to take a vacation, it meant I gained new, and sometimes better, accounts.

I really miss the way we did business in the old days, by that I mean the late 60s and early 70s. I can remember riding the elevator carrying trays of valuable diamond rings worth thousands that I would be delivering, merchandise from one floor to another, and not thinking twice about getting robbed. I would run up and down eight flights of stairs when it took too long waiting for the elevator; this I did countless times a day – it would kill me now! There is no doubt in my mind that my years in the jeweler’s building in Boston were the most formidable, and the old school knowledge I absorbed would never be seen again in these days and times. It shaped my morals and taught me the real sense of being an artist and a professional jeweler/goldsmith. I will always cherish the friends, colleagues and mentors who touched my life while apprenticing there in the good ole days.

I always had a dream of opening my own small town jewelry store and escaping the rat race that was big city Boston. Commuting in and out of the city six days a week was driving me mad. And the commute was only half the battle…finding a place to park every day was even more maddening. My uncle actually bought a small parking lot in East Boston, across from a metro station, to solve his parking problems.

Eventually my dreams of opening my own shop outside of the big city became a reality. It was tough and not as easy as I thought it would be, but I loved the boat-friendly seaside town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. My store was quaint but classy, and was in a basement shop below a popular leather shop. It did not take long for the local population to warm up to the “city boy.”

Business was pretty good when I first opened. You can call it fate or bad timing or just bad luck, the 1980s resulted in one of the worst recessions that hit New England in decades, and the prices of gold and silver shot through the roof six months after I opened shop. Needless to say the jewelry biz as a whole suffered immensely, and after four lean years and a family to support, I was forced close my life-long dream and leave Marblehead.

I was fortunate to gain employment with the U.S. Postal Service when many of my friends were getting laid off or lost jobs due to the severe downturn that caused businesses and factories to tighten their belts or close completely.

During my hiatus I always had a full functioning goldsmith shop at home, so I kept my hand at my true trade, still creating and repairing jewelry for my loyal clientele; I managed to keep them for many years, while still employed full time with the U.S. Postal Service. I soon partnered with a fellow diamond-setter, who also left the big city to follow his dreams, but he relocated to New Hampshire and that was that.

I resigned from the post office in ‘89 and went to work again as a goldsmith for a major Boston jeweler that had nine stores throughout New England. All was fine and dandy for a couple of years…problem was, the managers (bosses) were basically jewelry illiterate and only basic salespeople (I called them “vacuum cleaner salesmen”), and all that mattered was their commissions

Richard at the bench in the late 70s - Boston jewelers building.

Richard at the bench in the late 70s – Boston jewelers building.

and the store’s bottom line. There was no romancing the stone or jewelry in this company…it was all about the money, insane sales goals of $40K to $50K a day! Once you work for yourself, it’s hard to take orders from numbskulls.

So here I was the bench jeweler in the corner, not a high-pressured salesperson who worked on commissions, and I wound up being one of the top salespersons in our store.

The district managers found out and soon the owner of the company came to chat with me. Come to find out I used to get coffee and lunch for his grandfather, Isadore who owned an antique jewelry shop in the jeweler’s building back in the 60s. He was the classiest, kindest and most knowledgeable jeweler I ever met. I learned a lot about antique jewelry; he truly loved every piece he sold and each piece of jewelry had a history and a story. Always impeccably dressed, he was a true gentleman. Needless to say, the president of the company, Bob Ross and I hit it off while reminiscing and trading stories about his beloved grandfather Isadore.

Things were going pretty well until yet another recession hit New England. Bob, the president, had to close several stores, and then there were pay cuts and loss of health care. I saw the writing on the wall. Then out of the blue I got a phone call from an old customer from my trade shop days who despite the tough times was doing quite well. She begged me to work for her, I consented and all was well for a couple of years, but the jewelry bubble seemed to burst even there and once again, I was told because I was the highest paid employee, I would have to go, because they would save money by using a jewelry repair trade shop in Boston (Ironic isn’t it?).

So when the tough gets going the tough goes on vacation! I took the family on what I considered a well-deserved vacation to…Marco Island, Florida! My Mom had been snow birding there for a couple of years and asked us to come. To be honest, I never heard of the place, yet it was the best two weeks of my life. So I went back to Boston, sold the house and packed up the U-Haul, and it was Marco or bust!

With a measly $2,000 to my name and no idea how I would pay next month’s rent, I set up my shop in the un-air conditioned garage and solicited Naples and the island’s jewelers for trade work. The unbelievable happened on my first day – I had a briefcase full of work! I ran the trade business from my home under ‘The Harbor Goldsmith” to keep all my trade and supply accounts for a few months, and soon located to a small office where Allard’s storage is today. A funny thing happened. I got really, really busy, then this thing (something that I was naive to) called “off season” happened. All the work dried up to zero – no income, no nothing. I did not have the capital at the time to open a full-fledged jewelry store, so I did a little this and that, even some painting, whatever to survive the long summer. All this happened 21 years ago.

I did what I thought I would never do again – I took the postal exam and was soon employed at the Goodlette Frank post office. I still kept my little office/shop at Allards. And when season came around again the local jewelry stores called me back to say they had a ton of work for me…Swell!

My wife would have to cart the kids from store to store picking up and dropping off repair work. This went on for years! I know why now, I had a family to support, plain and simple. To this day I still have nightmares remembering the crazy early morning hours (I’m talking 2 AM crazy!) spent doing jewelry repairs, driving to Naples then punching the time clock at 7 AM, delivering mail until 6 or 7 PM for Uncle Sam. There were days I didn’t know if the sun was rising or setting. I could, and had to, live on three or four hours of sleep…then, did I say “live”? I barely functioned as a normal human being.

Then one day I saw a “For Rent” sign at number one Front Street. It was a whopping $350 a month and I grabbed it, hired a local carpenter to build me some showcases and cabinets. The opening was planned for early October 1997. The plan was my eighteen-year-old daughter Lindsay would run the store during the day. I opened the store on schedule with two card tables instead of showcases. My showcases, I soon found out, never existed, and the carpenter who promised on time delivery had absconded with my deposit money and flew the coop. All went well at Front Street, we got new showcases and ended up renting three-quarters of the building, and the years marched on (seventeen to be exact). And even though we were not on the beaten path we became the “go to jeweler” on Marco Island. I can count at least a dozen jewelry stores who have come and gone here on the rock, even before the last great depression. But yet, like a weathered, storm-beaten lighthouse (which happens to be our logo), The Harbor Goldsmith survived everything the world threw at us.

I planned a strategic move five years ago, and I’m now located at the Island Plaza, and come hell or high water it’s still going to be business as usual with my son Andrew and myself in the workshop.

Well maybe more Andrew. I have to admit I should have retired ten years ago. Doing this for forty-plus years, heaven knows I deserve it, but to be honest, I love working with my hands and creating beautiful pieces of jewelry, and yes…making money just like that twelve-year-old kid did in the jeweler’s building fifty years ago.

A heartfelt thank you to all my customers, friends and future customers who finally made this young hearted old school goldsmith follow the road’s ups and downs and achieve his dreams for over 22 years here in paradise…Thank you, Marco Island.

-Richard Alan, Master Goldsmith

Richard Alan is a designer/goldsmith and owner of The Harbor Goldsmith, Marco’s island jeweler for over 22 years and welcomes your questions about all that glitters. 239.394.9275, www.harborgoldsmith.com.

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