During my first twenty years, I didn’t know a life without dirty rouge and the smell of various chemicals. See, my dad was a jeweler until he retired. And for people who don’t get to visit the backs of jewelry stores, those smells don’t mean anything. They don’t make one verklempt for a life that is no longer the normal everyday being of things.
My dad had originally intended to go into the new science of computers back in 1967. He was already taking classes at the local junior college when he was told by some guy that computers would go nowhere and he wouldn’t be able to find work with it. Though I actually like the path that my dad’s life followed, it’s also really cool that he got to work with early computers. Super cool!
Anyways, my dad ended up dropping out of school and apprenticing with an older gentleman who was a jeweler. He’d already had jewelry sales training with a high school job at a local jewelry store, but this man would teach him how to make his own jewelry.
I’m sure that most people’s first thoughts are “Jewelry. Wow. They must be loaded!” Nah. No, really, my dad never really made much money from it. Perhaps it is all glamour and glitz for other people, but not for this family.
Anyways, my dad’s first job, after the apprenticeship, was at Wilson’s, which later changed names to Service Merchandise. Only it was just like his high school job, where he was only selling jewelry. However, because it was a corporation, my dad did end up winning a trip for two to Acapulco, so that was his and moms honeymoon, so that’s pretty awesome.
But, he’d been trained to make jewelry and was probably ready to get his own bench. He left Wilson’s and started making jewelry out of an out-building at my parents’ first house. The customers who found him there, followed him when he set up business in the building I always knew.
It was a building that was originally built as apartments in the sixties. We don’t have any photo’s of the building or the interior of my dad’s shop, which I am rather sad about. And I can’t just go snap some photo’s because they tore it down a few years ago and built a new building for Good Will. But, I can describe it to you.
The building was a little run down, but not too shabby. The main entrance faced the main road through town, Hardy Street. Dad’s shop entrance was on the side, on N. 23rd Avenue. He had a cement stoop with three steps and black iron railings on either side. But he had a corner area, so there were two large windows, both of which had all this weird wire and tape around the panes. It was a security alarm that didn’t work, but they kept it to fool people into thinking that it was the real deal. Dad didn’t have enough money for actual security.
When you entered, you were faced with a room that was not very large. It had cream walls all around except for the back wall, which you saw first, that had light coloured wood paneling. Besides that, the first thing you noticed were the glass jewelry cabinets, that made an L-shape and separated the customers from the business area. There was also a large wooden desk and a really huge black safe, with a cash register box and a credit card slider on top.
Once you were in and could look around, well, there wasn’t much to look at. There was a wooden planter and some old curtains, but not much else besides the little window that looked in on my dads workshop, where he made all of the jewelry. He figured it would be nice if the customers could actually see him work, plus it helped him to see if anything amiss was happening, I suppose.
We all referred to the entire business as The Shop, but dad’s work area was the coolest. It was absolutely filthy and junky and chaotic, because the process of making jewelry is not pretty. Not at all. This was a former apartment, so this area was the kitchen area and came complete with lots of cabinets in bright sixties yellow with black drawer and cabinet pulls, as well as a sink.
His unit had a hallway off of the workshop area with two bathrooms. I have no idea why. I mean I know it was apartments, but I still don’t get the two bathrooms. Anyways, after a while he just had the one, as something about the other broke and it wasn’t work fixing. So mainly that hall and that one bathroom were storage. Oh, but those bathrooms had the most fabulous foil woodland wallpaper!
I’ll get back to the workshop, but mainly, since I didn’t have a lot to do, I’d go into the hallway and sneak out the back door into the rest of the building. There were two businesses on the lower level and one on the upper level.
I’ve absolutely no idea what these businesses were when I was really young, but the one on the lower level that was most interesting was located in front of the staircase, and they always left the door open. They had either a macrame or knotted wall hanging featuring an owl, and several ladies at typewriters. I’d hide and try to peak around the door to watch them type and if they noticed me, they’d smile and I’d run back to dad’s door, just to do it all over again several minutes later.
The only other interesting one was the business upstairs. They, too, left their door open. But this one was a lot of middle-aged men smoking lots of cigarettes and clanking away on their own typewriters. They were not as friendly as the women downstairs, so I did not try to peak into that office very often, but it felt thrilling to spy on them because well, it seemed so espionage-like to spy on cigarette smoking men.
But then dad would realize I was missing and come find me either creeping up the stairs or hiding behind a potted plant and insist that I was bothering people and make me come back to the shop. Don’t worry. I would totally sneak out again during that same day. Can’t keep a good spy down, ya know.
But back to dad’s shop. Hands down, the buffer machine is what made everything so filthy. They’re really called polishers, but we always called it the buffer. There are red sticks of what look like a cross between wax and polymer clay, called rouge. When you turn the machine on, you run that over one of the wheels. One has a courser bristle pad on it (these are different pads that are pictured), for the rouge and the other has a softer pad. This is for finished works of jewelry. You buff out any scratches with the rouge and buffer wheel, then use the other wheel to polish it to a fine shine.
Even though the rouge starts out red and will help make your jewelry all nice and shiny, the machine makes black feathery dust. It coats everything. EVERYTHING! My dad always had blackness under his nails and in the cracks of the skin on his hands, all from the rouge. So, yes it was everywhere and was really difficult to clean up.
Then there was the ultrasonic. Dad’s has a wavy piece of metal suspended from the inside to hang the jewelry on. You’d fill that with jewelry cleaning liquid, hang the jewelry pieces from paperclips (I’m sure other people use special hooks) and turn it on. It basically vibrates and hums and agitates any dirt and oils off of the jewelry. This came before using the buffer.
Those were the only two instruments I was ever allowed to handle. Though, I’m not sure if four-year old’s should really be playing with Buffer Machines of Death, but I still have all my fingers, so all is well. The other major machines were referred to as “Don’t touch that!” by my dad, but I always thought of them as The Loud Jiggly Robot and The Super Duper Oven, though they are in fact a Vacuum Caster and a Kiln.
They both have something to do with Disappearing Wax, I believe. Or perhaps not exclusively? I know that the kiln melts gold, but is it only for melting gold with in a wax pattern? And the vacuum castor, well that pad with the bubble basically shakes itself to death getting any and all air bubbles out of the gold. It’s loud and it moves… a lot. And I’m pretty certain it’s just that bubble on top and nothing goes inside the ginormous blue, metal box.
See, my jobs were very basic. Dad basically thought that one should be a lower apprentice for well, all of eternity, before getting to anything excited. So, early on it was windexing the glass cabinet showcases (“Never touch the glass with your hands/fingers!”, taking the trash out back behind the building to the dumpster, using the ultrasonic (“NEVER ON PEARLS!”), and using the buffer. When I was older I could start answering the telephone and when I could drive I could take orders to the post office for him and pick up his mail. That last bit was always exciting because I am a bit of a postal nerd! And that was all I was ever allowed to do.
The Sister actually got to make a piece of jewelry once, so she used both of the “Don’t touch that!” machines, so she knows much more about them than I actually do. I just know they were there and are part of a jewelers retinue.
The other fun bit was dad’s work bench. You weren’t technically allowed to sit there or mess with anything. I see why now, as there were bits and baubles of people’s jewelry up there, as well as the Flame of Doom and some weird drill and hammers and mallets oh my! However, dad would leave for five or fifteen minutes and end up coming back to catch me in his black swivel chair messing with absolutely everything.
However, I never did mess with the Flame of Doom, as I referred to it, because again it was just called, “Don’t touch that!”, or perhaps once he referred to it as a torch. It was connected to a large canister of gas and he could set the flame anywhere from orange to blue to white for various soldering jobs. Though it was nice that he showed me, the one time, how it worked. I’m not even sure what the large drill was for, (probably for cutting diamonds?), but I did play with it in the beginning because it had a foot pedal and made a really fun whirring noise. Which incidentally is what made dad come running back into work area, so I generally left that alone after a while so as not to have my fun spoiled.
And though I had fun messing around, it wasn’t really fun for dad. I mean he absolutely loved the creativity side of it all; getting to come up with ideas for pieces of jewelry or help people decide what they wanted created. But, he pretty much worked all of the time. He was either too polite to tell the customers that he couldn’t stand there and talk for several hours or he would work into the night getting jobs done just to make ends meet. Plus, he would encounter those people. The one’s who wanted to see if the diamonds cut glass, so actually ran them across the tops of his glass showcases. People, don’t do this!
It wasn’t always that way. I mean, he did work a lot, but he would really only pull the all nighters, every night for weeks and weeks on end if we were saving up for summer holiday or right before Christmas or one of our birthdays. I’m sure that’s not fun. But as a kid, I didn’t know any of that really. I just knew that dad stayed late to work sometimes and he’d tell me about the shows he was watching which were Designing Women, The Golden Girls and Night Court. How could I not think that was cool?
I simply only knew and remember the fun things. How we would go to Taco Bell or Popeye’s, then head to the shop and meet dad so we could sort of caravan home for dinner, or go by there around noon and walk across the street to eat at Gold Post, or else spend time in the park. And always when we’d go to the shop on Christmas Even to help dad close up so we could go home.
I only ever saw it as fun and really just assumed that dad enjoyed his job so much that he wanted to stay late. Which, of course is ridiculous, but I was a kid and therefore didn’t think much beyond my own little world.
So, my dad was at this building, 2301 Hardy Street for twenty-three years. I remember my parents teaching me basic important things before I even started school. Among them were addresses and phone numbers; our home address and phone number, that of our close family friends, as well as for dad’s shop. They also said I was never allowed to give out our home information to anyone.
So, when I started Kindergarten, I was asked a series of questions to see what I might know. One was our home address and telephone number, but since I was told never to give that out, I told her I couldn’t say, but rattled off all of dad’s information, instead. “2301 Hardy Street, Hattiesburg, Mississippi 39401. 582.4966.” I received marks against not knowing my own home information and questions were raised about me being in the wrong school district. Oh-ho, I was a weird child.
But, having my dad in this one place for all of my life, I feel a little left out of the loop, as The Sister and my mom both remember Wilson’s and dad’s shop at their first home, Grace Avenue. Which as you might have guessed are none of the things I remember, as I wasn’t yet born. They all have stories from that house, as well as customers coming to see dad out back; remembering what those customers looked like. Also going to see him at Wilson’s or The Sister having to stay there and having her own adventures in that place.
But getting back to the building that I knew. I might feel a little out of the loop on the other points, but I was completely immersed in that entire building, so it’s rather nice.
Sometimes dad had commercials made to run on the local channel. As I kid, I couldn’t be more thrilled that there would be a commercial and I’d get to be in it. Only, I wasn’t ever actually in the commercials. Also, dad came up with great idea’s for them, but the TV station did all the work for it… and well, they all turned out rather hokey and just sad.
I’ll explain. Dad wanted them to run for Christmas, which seems to be the time for people to want to buy jewelry. So, dad’s idea’s were that Santa needed help delivering gifts, and who better to turn to but Roberts’ MFG Jewelers! So, a friend of mine and I were to play the elves and we just stepped up to the glass cabinets and handed over some broken gold chains, so I’m in it, but all you can see are my hands. A family friend stood on a step-ladder and had gold chains hanging down like they were really tall, so all you saw were the chains. That’s really all I can remember, though there was more.
But, the TV station voiced over everything and it was really, really bad. And used cheesy shots of my dad and cut it all together sloppily. He was not impressed. He only tried once more and after that he made no more commercials, because they fucked with the artistry, man. haha No, but seriously, those commercials were really, really, really bad. But as a kid I didn’t know that and it was fun to participate… even if the local station people who were at the shop were not really all that nice. Seriously I was five and seven and I could have made a better commercial for him!
By the time I was old enough and dad said I could answer the phones, that was a lot of fun. Mainly because people don’t understand apostrophe’s and had no idea who my dad actually was. Just take a look at that newspaper article and that stationary letter-head. Who ever the copy editor was shouldn’t have let all of those apostrophe mistakes slide. My dad is Paul Roberts, yet people seem to get tricked up by apostrophes and have no idea where to put them, and generally always just think that my dad is now named Robert Roberts. Don’t ask, they just do.
So, hilarity ensues after I’m tasked with answering the phones and basically tell people to bugger off because there is no Robert person at this line. Then after so many short phone calls and no messages for dad, when the phone rings next, he comes to stand in the doorway between the shop and the work space to see what I’m doing wrong. “Hello, Roberts’ Manufacturing Jewelers, how may I help you? No, I’m sorry, but there is no Robert at this line.” to which dad lunges for the phone and says, “Hi, sorry about that. Robert here.”
I’m sure I was making the worst screwed up face possible. Why in the world is dad telling this person that he was Robert? Dad had to explain to me later that most people think he’s Robert, but then when he tells them his last name is Roberts, they think he’s Robert Roberts. “But DAAAAD! How can they not know that our name is Robertsssssssss?!?” I was twelve, so I was a bit little girl whiney. He explained about the apostrophes and that he didn’t want to correct people and make them feel badly, so if anyone else ever called again asking for Robert, that I should take the message. Whenever this happened I would say, “Yes, hold on just a moment.” “Oh, hey ROBERT, you’re wanted on the phone!” and I would giggle while my dad scowled at me.
As I said before, dad would put in all of those long stretches to buy Christmas or birthday gifts for us. Sometimes it wasn’t enough, so our presents ended up being jewelry, because that was free for dad. This sounds super fantastic, but it’s not. I mean, we liked the gifts because dad would make them himself, so they were personal, but after a while, it all becomes just jewelry. That sounds terrible, like we’re a rich, spoiled, whiny family.
I don’t really know what to compare it too because all other people see are dollar signs and fancy diamonds. It’s like our family friends the E’s. Their dad, Mr. Hilary, ran The Rice’s Potato Chip company here in town. Their house was full to bursting with potato chips, cookies and candy of any kind and any variety. At first it was exciting, but then after a while it was just, “Oh, more potato chips. Oh, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups, big whoop.” because it was old. It wasn’t exciting anymore. It wasn’t a luxury, or something fantastic, it was just an everyday thing. It had lost its lustre, so to speak.
Me, however I found that completely fascinating to be surrounded by chocolate and chips, until I was immersed in Keebler cookies and realized, “Oh, yeah… this isn’t awesome anymore.”
By the mid-nineties, my dad felt cooped up in the shop and was bored because he’s not a good businessman. No really, he isn’t. He’s really creative and great at being artistic, but it’s more business than art, sadly. Mr. Hilary offered dad a route to deliver potato chips and candy and all sorts of things (and later a Keebler account), so he jumped at the chance. At the point he split his week between delivering for Rice’s and running the jewelry store.
So, by my late teen years, when there was time working at the shop, I was still only a lowly apprentice and never did make it to Bench Assistant. I no longer explored the building because it was not nearly as magical as it had been in my youth. I was able to help customers with orders and sales, and I also spent time stringing pearls, but business was rather slow and lacking.
The real fun bit was looking for forgotten treasures.
Dad would barter and trade for things. It’s how he afforded our orthodontic appointments or our dance lessons; he’d trade jewelry for goods. He would also trade things for his own work. We acquired silver tea-things and fine china in exchange for someone getting a custom item made or simply purchasing something from the showcase.
There were also things deposited like old gold to help cover the cost of the customers purchase, and just a lot of jobs that people never came back to pick-up. Ever. After a certain amount of time, that inventory then belonged to my dad, and thus to my thinking, me. I was never allowed to have anything truly good, but he did have random odds and ends in a blue metal cabinet affixed to the wall beside his workbench. It was filled with little plastic drawers, and in all of those drawers were all sorts of treasures!
I’d spend time looking through it and find something, show it to dad who would say, “Yes, yes, fine.” in a tone of please stop squishing me at my work area and get back to the desk. Among several, several things, I came away with a silver ring that had claw feet at the top holding a glass marble that seemed very crystal ball-esque. Also came away with a gold ring with that Eastern Star symbol inlaid in the top, complete with all the colours. I’m not a Masonic fan by any stretch of the word, but tell me, what teenager has this as a ring? I thought that it was so far removed from my everyday life that it was fantastic!
At one time the Hattiesburg Police Departments motorcycle unit decided that dad was the jeweler to handle their special insignia rings. So, he made friends with all the motorcycle cops. I think one in particular would come to visit him at the store more than others, because they are still friendly today if they see each other out and about. He even married an old high school mate of mine, so that’s an odd (but fascinatingly cool) bit of coming back around, eh?
Anyways, so all the motorcycle cops at that time knew who my dad was. If they saw him out and about, they’d wave at each other. Dad was super cool to them. Once, there was a line of cars for some reason. Dad knew the motorcycle cop, so waved to him. They talked for a minute and the cop let him pass through. The guy behind dad waved at the cop and tried to pass and got pulled over for it. Dad felt terrible, because the guy in the vehicle behind him didn’t realize the true circumstances, but it’s still slightly amusing of a story.
Dad also had a friend at the local universities chemistry department. There is quite a bit of chemistry involved in making fine jewelry, though most people aren’t aware of that. Beyond chemicals that one might need, it’s the basic principles too that you must know. But dad could go and get chemicals that he might need from this guy. Never got to go on one of those trips, though I wish I’d had a chance, because science is cool! A trip to a real chemistry lab! Isn’t that every young girls dream? Perhaps not… but it was this young girls dream!
Dad’s brother, 11 years his junior, decided to be like his big brother and become a jeweler, only he was a sales associate with Zales. My grandmother got A LOT of jewelry as gifts, I can tell ya! But dad and his brother would exchange jobs through the post, which I’m not certain was supposed to happen, but well it did and that was 20 years ago, so…
Also, on the way to visit our relatives, we’d leave after dad got off work and drive through the night. Lots of times we’d stop to see Mr. Davis, the watch man, on the way. He and dad also exchanged jobs. Mr. Davis would fix a watch that dad couldn’t, or dad would sell him watches that he had around. I always liked stopping to see Mr. Davis. He was older than dad and really nice. They were only short visits, comprising of anywhere between five and ten minutes, but they were really grand actually.
By 2001, dad was so over the entire jewelry thing it was ridiculous. He was hardly ever open and when he was he was only there a few hours. He’d rather be out delivering because it was travel and adventure (that got old rather quickly too, but that’s a story for another time).
So, dad decided to have a huge going out of business sale. This was fun for only two reasons. First, it was the first time ever that I was in charge of the entire store! I got to have the keys and actually open business for the day. I was in charge of removing the jewelry from the safes and re-stocking the show cases and in charge of any and all sales.
Secondly, mom and dad agreed that The Sister and I could choose items of jewelry to keep, since 98% of it was made by dad. I mainly chose men’s rings, because I found them to be rather awesome and all 70s groovy, but there were a few women’s rings that I chose. One item, which actually was the first item I excitedly ran to was this Art Deco styled ring that I had been in love with since I can first remember.
It was crazy huge and just stunning. It was a waterfall design and had 72 diamonds. I was not allowed to take that one. Mom complained that the diamonds weren’t good enough, just chips. Dad hated it. He had created it, but it wasn’t “perfect” enough for him. Plus, our family friend was intent on purchasing it.
There was a ring that always sat beside this one in the showcase. It was a snowflake design with several large, excellent quality diamonds. Mom chose that one and tried to console me by saying someday that it could be mine. Who cares? I didn’t like the other ring because of the diamonds, diamonds matter nothing to me! I liked the shape, that it looked Art Deco and the very plain fact that dad had actually made that one, as opposed to the stupid snowflake one, which he did not, in fact, make.
I really was sad about that. Imagine the most awesome thing you saw at age three. Imagine seeing it continuously for the next seventeen years. Now imagine you still want it and someone says you can have it for free… but then changes their mind. Yep.
Anyways, I did choose some other nice pieces, all made by my dad in some way. He closed up shop forever in August of 2001. It was a bittersweet day really. He still has all of his equipment, but he refuses to fix anything of ours; whether its broken or needs to be resized. He is also absolutely against us going to any other jewelers, so we don’t.
However, mom was trying on some of her rings a few years ago and got one stuck. Dad was out-of-town and it was cutting off circulation, so we went to a jewelry store. They led us past the show cabinets to the real heart of a jewelry store and everything was the same. They had all the same tools, the guy was wearing a visor loupe and it smelled of used rouge and ultra sonic materials. I had to try really hard not to cry, even though that might sound ridiculous. I hadn’t even realized how much I missed all of that until that very moment.
So, we’ll end this by looking a bit of dad’s handiwork, shall we?
It’s difficult to take pictures of jewelry. I honestly don’t know how sellers accomplish this. But, I do have close-up shots to show just how awesome these pieces are. I realize that four of them have diamonds, but eh, that’s not why I chose them. Also, even with the “wonderful” diamonds, these are not worth a lot. The diamonds are super tiny and not great quality, which is just dandy with me.
It’s all about texture here, people! Lovely, lovely texture! The only one that doesn’t have a purposeful texture is the eye shaped one, as it is smooth (though does need a good buff and polish), but it has cut metal laid down in it, to give the illusion that it’s a lot of diamonds. I like the cut metal inlay, so it does have some sort of texture.
I really like the first two as they remind me of Star Trek TOS, with their diamond shapes and sixties style texturing. Also I like that the first one has a piece of jade. The white gold one is all diamonds, but I like that it looks like a flower (on a man’s ring), and again it has that sixties style texturing.
The wedding band, hello all of those notches. It’s just a really cool looking ring.
The pointy V one was The Sister’s choice, but was passed on to me since it fits me better. It does contain a tee-niny chip diamond, but I really adore the V shape and the detail texture in the gold. The next two are one’s that I chose. First, ah peridot how I love thee and the second, well it is a really fine opal, plus I love how the gold is textured to look like tree bark. IF I were to ever get married, THIS would be my wedding ring.
The last one was made especially for me. It’s an opal in the center with a ring of sapphires, since that is my birthstone. I can not wear it, as it was made for me when I was a child, but it means a lot to me. First, dad made it. But this ring has sisters! Dad made opal rings for all the girls; my mom, The Sister, and both of my grandmothers. Each ring was surrounded by that wearers birthstone. Except mom. Her birthstone is the opal, so she just has diamonds surrounding hers because she loves diamonds. But we have sapphire, two emeralds, and one garnet. And I like that they’re all sort of a set, linking us together.
So we have some great stuff here. First let’s take a look at that dragon, top center. That is an unfinished pendant for a necklace. The evidence of how my dad worked on jewelry is still there, attached to the tail and the part that actually hangs from the necklace. I’m sure it’s a piece he was just making to set into the showcase and for whatever reason abandoned. I adore it because it is unfinished. I’ll have a piece of the process long after my dad is gone. So, it means a lot to me to have it.
The bird he made for my maternal grandmother. It is a cool design for a bird, how whimsical it is with that pearl eye, and texturing of the gold, but I really just like it because it has two family histories attached to it.
The Conquistador is a vintage coin from Panama that dad cut away at to make a pin. Not with a machine, but by hand. It was always in the far left showcase for as long as I can remember, along with other things that were random. I’d always get into those show cases when I was there and admire things or try them on, and this was one of the items that I was forever touching.
The other three small pendants were gifts during my childhood. The S R for my initials, which is like the ring, because a lot of us received it as gifts. There’s two R R’s and one B R. The sapphire, of course, is because that’s me.
The silver disc that is engraved with We Love You, was from a silver charm bracelet that dad made for me as a kid; a gift from both of my parents, which my dad used the engraving machine on – it’s not automatic and does take a bit of skill to use. The Magen David pendant was also a gift from my dad, though he didn’t want to give it to me for the very same reason that I love it. It’s not perfect. It wasn’t a perfectly finished product. See, dad made it from hand. No wax cast, no fancy equipment; he cut it and put it together by hand. Which is why it is wonky, because that is not something that comes easily for jewelers. And that right there is why I adore it so much.