Westdale Jewellers sits just off the main road in the neighbourhood, between a yogurt store and the local laundromat. It fits in, it blends like it has always been there. A large changeable sign, the type where you spell out your message by slidingin the letters, mounted on the front of the store laments the passing of Stephen Hawking, ‘A Gem Among Beings’. Open the door, cross the threshold, and step into the world of another gem, Daniel Upsdell of Westdale Jewellers. I will warn the reader here: all quotes are direct and contain liberal amounts of good humour, infused with Daniel’s rapier wit.
In it’s present location for over twenty years now, the store is an anchor in a changing sea of enterprises. Local retail used to be more broad-based, providing a range of products and services for families residing in the popular neighbourhood. But with its proximity to McMaster University the neighbourhood demographic has become more ‘student’, and the area now caters to those less inclined to cook food – it’s described to me as more of a ‘food court’. The longevity of the store’s success points to a certain value provided, to be sure, and more certainly to a loyal client base. People who would once walk to the store now drive to it, likely passing other jewellery stores on the way. They go to Westdale Jewellers because they always have. Or because they were referred by someone who always has. Westdale Jewellers is one of the few remaining ‘old-time jewellery stores’, where the workshop in the back is as big as the showroom out front. And the service they provide is as personal and tailored to one’s needs as it gets.
A lot of successful entrepreneurs have made their way by beating their own path through life and carving out a unique destiny. And that’s very true in this case, except Daniel seems to be going through life backwards in a sense. One of the first things he did in his professional life was resign from a short-lived career at Imperial Oil, buy a small apartment block in Florida, and then retire at the wise old age of 23. Living the dream, some would say. And with the formality of retirement out of the way, he soon thereafter embarked on a remarkable string of hobbies over the next 40 years (other people would refer to them as ‘businesses’ or ‘careers’) mastering various skills. He also found time to squeeze in a formal education that has had unforeseen benefits:
When I went back to university I studied deviant behavior and psychology, which helps me deal with a lot of my clientele… some of my staff… and the mirror – I look in the mirror and sometimes I go uh-oh!
The road to jeweller has had a few waypoints for Daniel. He was a professional musician for a stint. He owned a fleet of dump trucks as well, for a while. He also owned a chain of music stores selling guitars, amplifiers, pianos etc. But the transition to jeweller came from when he was a luthier, producing hand made guitars.
I used to hand make guitars, luthiering guitars up the neck and around the sound hole, and all that purfling and inlay work. Girlfriends were complaining because the boys were getting something expensive and pretty and they weren’t getting nothin’! So, I took some silver and just sort of bent up some stuff and put some things in it, and they were pleased because the earrings match the guitar! “Hopefully he will play with you as often as he does with the guitar!”
The store is part show-room, part workbench, part forge, with a hint of ‘mad scientist workshop’. The shop has been expanded over the years reflecting the various things Daniel has been asked to do. They perform standard jewellery repairs; resizing rings, replacing lost stones, cleaning old jewellery. They also design and produce their own custom jewellery, often creating original pieces from a sketch or an idea that a customer has come in with. They even repair clocks, likely because someone asked them once if they could. For them, it’s simply a matter of meeting the need.
What we can’t do ourselves we have people in the business we can refer to. You can’t be everything. You can be a lot of things, and if you know who’s got what, then you’re ok.
It goes like this at Westdale Jewellers: customer comes in with something somehow related to jewellery and they ask, “Can you do this?”. And Daniel does it. Large stone making your ring spin on your finger? He makes a custom spring inlay that gently grips the finger. Can’t get your favourite ring over an arthritic knuckle? Daniel designs an adjustable band that widens to slip over the knuckle then re-tightens.
They also source their own raw materials and cut and polish gemstones.
I’m an ‘opal-holic’. I like my opals. I like to work on them and reveal the very best you can possibly get out of the stone. – “OK I’ve got this weird looking lump, what am I going to do next?” And you’ve got to be in the right mood. You’ve got to be able to sit down for 4 or 5 or 10 hours and just get lost in the stone. And sometimes you think “it’s just a little bit more… if I just go this tenth of a millimeter” … and it’s gone. The colour layer was that tenth of a millimeter. That’s a screamer. That’s when you say “Ok that’s enough of this for a couple of months”
Another specialty for them is re-purposing gold for customers. They can collect diamonds and gemstones from old jewellery, melt down the gold, and then re-cast it into something new and meaningful for the customer that still has that sense of family history to it. A diamond broach from a grandparent can become diamond wedding bands for a young couple. They can start with a sketch, then create a detailed rendering of the design with the customer. The finished design is 3D printed in wax and then cast into the gold piece.
The accumulated skills that Daniel has acquired over his jewellery career are all shared with his staff. No one is just a salesperson or a clerk. Prospective employees are asked to carve a 1cm cube out of a piece of wax, and then to carve that cube into a sphere – that’s the job interview. He’s looking for the right mix of ability and interest – can you do it, and do you want to do it. And from there, he teaches the staff by demonstration and trains them as jewellers. The longer they work with him they more they learn and are able to do.
Everybody here takes a hand at everything. The electroplating, the sanding, the grinding, the sizing, everything. Do you have any formal training for any of this stuff? Not a bit! Absolutely nothing! Any formal training when you were a luthier? No, not a bit! It’s not that hard to do, if you think of it. Ask yourself “what do you need?” – and you just keep going. I needed to make a circle of something really pretty around the hole of the guitar, so I read some books, bought some articles on it, and talked to some guys who are already in the trade… so, you do what you do. And if it doesn’t work you do something else.
Over the course of our conversation it becomes clear that a lot of what drives Daniel is his values. He is vehemently anti-fraud, particularly in the sense of taking advantage of people. For reasons happy and sad, buying jewellery can often be a purchase rooted in emotion. Someone looking for a memento of a departed relative, or an eager young couple buying their wedding bands, these are examples of a vulnerability that he does not want to exploit.
We made a pair of pendants for a couple that lost their child while it was still in the womb. They were here over and over and over again because I made them slow down and consider what they really wanted. And it would have been so easy to be a jerk and capitalize and take them into expenditures they didn’t need. But they needed honesty and they needed compassion, and they needed comfort. And as a human being I think we have a responsibility to do that when we see it. Same thing in wedding jewellery. Some guy is going to take the most important day of a young couple’s life and sell them a piece of junk because he wants to make an extra 500 bucks? Ooooh (shudders). Ethics and morals should be the same for everyone, but they’re not. People have different standards. People can look in the mirror and not be bothered at all. And I don’t know how they do it.
Through the course of our conversation I undertook a little side project with Daniel. Inspired by something I read about, I asked him if he could turn an old coin into a ring. I had one that I wanted to turn into a silver band. Sure enough, he said he could do it. But what he meant was he would show me how to do it. After a few hours of quick demonstrations by him followed by lengthy toil by me (I’m new at it, folks) the transformation was complete. Drilled, annealed, hammered, formed, hammered again, ground and polished, I now had a beautiful .925 silver band made from an 1904 Newfoundland 50-cent piece for my better half, who hails from Newfoundland. (If you’d like to see it, ask her about it at our Expos!)
I’m doing something I enjoy, and I do it 40 hours and I’m making a living at it, and I have people that are interested in it surrounding me. Why would I go do something else?
Stop in and visit Daniel, he’ll be there. Have a chat with him and you’ll realize, he’s an opal. Enjoy the conversation and let the colours reveal themselves.
Westdale Jewellers is located at 2 Newton Avenue, Hamilton Ontario. Visit their website at westdalejewellers.ca