At The Goldsmith, spectacular stones don’t come without a little rocket fuel

SHARE At The Goldsmith, spectacular stones don’t come without a little rocket fuel

From checking email in bed to conferencing behind the stroller, work-life balance can be a struggle. We’re asking Chicago business leaders how they fit their careers in with everything else. Welcome to “Day in the Work/Life.”

Sherry Bender, owner of Chicago jewelry shop The Goldsmith Ltd., hasn’t had a day off in two months.

“Coffee is essential,” she says. “I call it my rocket fuel.”

Bender’s alarm sounds at 6 a.m., and she heads straight for the kitchen for her first cup of the day. She clears her head with a walk from her Lincoln Park home to the lake, sometimes with her husband. “Even in winter, I have to get out,” she says.

Then she’s off to The Goldsmith, where she’s worked since the ’70s.

The shop was founded in 1960 on Walton Street by Don Lawrence, whom she bought the business from 10 years ago.

Bender’s mornings are carved out for bookkeeping and drawing sketches. Half of her work is custom — which means cobbling together customers’ thoughts on shapes, metals and stones, then marrying those with budget.

“You try to extract as much as you can from them and start to talk it through and possibly sketch,” she says.

Bender drives to the Gold Coast store and is in by 9:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday (a little later on Sundays). As soon as the Goldsmith’s doors are open, seven days a week, customers expect Bender to be at the ready.

“I have people who come in from out of town and they expect me to be here,” she says. “They want to come in, say hi, get their ring polished, see what new stones I have.”

It’s a good problem to have. She references a few women who came by minutes earlier, toting armfuls of shopping bags to pick up their pieces being cleaned. “One came in and had something done [years ago],” she says. “Then, next trip or two, she brought a girlfriend, then another one. That’s how things build in this business.”

Though Bender has a staff of six full-time and a couple of part-time employees, customers want to see the brains behind their custom wedding ring or redesigned heirloom brooch.

“You get to know people so intimately,” she says. “First it’s the engagement ring, then the wedding band, then their first child.”

Stone dealers come to call in the mornings. Bender also does rounds at the gem and jewelry conventions in Tucson, Ariz., and Las Vegas each year. Takeout for lunch, she says, is often gobbled down at the office, meaning she often doesn’t step outside during the day.

At any given time, Bender has hundreds of projects. From simple fixes like restringing pearls or installing a new clasp to creating a piece from scratch or resetting an out-of-style piece, jewelry is constantly shuffling in and out. For the custom work, she’ll create wax models so a customer can yay or nay as a sketch comes to life.

And, of course, there’s always the potential for things to go wrong. Sometimes all at once: “A casting didn’t come out, the jeweler calls in sick, I’ve got something crucial promised, something’s missing for the moment — you have this moment of panic,” she says.

Once, a shopper interested in engagement rings grabbed one out of her hand and took off running (he was later caught). Even when Bender’s not chasing down thieves, there’s hardly a moment of peace.

“There’s never a quiet time for us, really,” she says. “Whenever there’s not people in here, we’re working on a catalog, we’re working on an ad, we’re doing quotes, we’re doing sketches, we’re putting waxes away, I’m going over projects with a jeweler, I’m filing things, I’m calling customers about projects, ordering parts [or] pieces.”

Bender and company usually close up shop at 7:30, but work often continues.

“Last night I did a delivery, ran a couple errands, and I’m making a salad at 9:30 at night,” she says.

Bender’s husband is traveling a lot for his job in construction procurement. His absentee schedule isn’t permanent, but the two try to catch as much time together on the weekends as possible — even if it involves work. Recently, a customer wanted to surprise his wife with a 25th anniversary gift and gave Bender free rein to design a piece.

“He said, ‘Look for the best and finest stone — I want something spectacular,’” Bender says. “I went to one of the shows and I spent almost the whole trip looking. And I found something extraordinary.”

She designed a ring with a “priceless” spinel stone — creating what she says is one of her favorite pieces she’s ever made. She and her husband walked over while the couple was having dessert at North Pond to make the delivery in person.

“It’s a very personal business. You become friends with people. That’s the real upside of it,” she says.

“Business is business. There’s still always days where there are a lot of headaches. When you’re a business, you’re a boss and a janitor. That’s the reality.”

Photos by Heath Sharp

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