Saturday, February 15, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Bill Brough Jewelers, a staple on Main Street since 1978, will close at the end of February because of Brough’s health problems.
The 58-year-old jeweler and gemologist was hospitalized Dec. 26 with pneumonia, congestive heart failure and kidney failure.
But Brough was upbeat and talking about the future on Thursday at his home in Holyoke. He said he is feeling better thanks to dialysis treatments and is hoping for a kidney transplant. He plans to open an appointment-only custom jewelry boutique when his health improves.
“It’s not a permanent thing. I’m just taking some time off for my health and to recuperate,” he said. “I can’t stop doing what I do. I love it.”
He said it was a difficult decision to close the jewelry store, which shares a space with Everything Optical at 104 Main St., and that it will feel strange to no longer head to downtown Northampton to open the store every day. Brough said he will miss many of the repeat customers he has gotten to know over the years, including some families for whom he has made engagement and wedding rings for several generations.
“To them I’m saying, ‘Farewell for a while,’ ” he said.
At the shop Friday, Daniel and Juliet Gagnon of Northampton were searching the display cases full of pendants, bracelets and rings for their daughter’s birthday present.
Daniel Gagnon said they have bought several pieces from Brough in the years since he made their wedding rings in 1980 and they would miss having him on Main Street.
“We stood around and talked to him for a long time while he made them,” Juliet Gagnon recalled.
“We liked him because when he first started out, he was just a little bit older than us. He was easygoing and easy to talk to, not intimidating,” Daniel Gagnon said.
Brough is well known as a gemologist in the local jewelry community. The title means he can use a microscope to tell real stones from synthetic or fake ones, and can also identify, grade and appraise them. Area jewelry stores often seek his help in the work, said his daughter, Crystal Kane.
Kane, of Southampton, called her father a talented jeweler who delighted in making the perfect piece for each customer. She grew up in her father’s shops, starting in the 1980s when he had space in the Don Muller Gallery. “I used to pick stones off the floor of his and Don’s shop for years,” she said.
“This is really big,” she said of closing the shop. “But he’s not disappearing.”
A lifelong love
Brough said his passion for gems started young — when he was about 5 years old.
“My mom said I always walked around with pockets full of rocks. I’d pick up anything shiny,” he said.
He was born in Michigan and grew up in Stamford, Conn. When he was 15, he talked his way into an apprenticeship with Stamford jeweler Joseph “Jose” Grant, who was famous for crafting intricate “puzzle rings” until his death in 2010.
Brough said he only needed three weeks to prove himself to Grant, who then started paying him for his work while teaching him the trade. “I was pretty close to making master jeweler-type things by 19,” he said.
He spent a year in college studying business, at his parents’ urging, but eventually told them that he knew what he wanted to do. “They said, ‘If you’re going to be a jeweler, be the best you can be,’ ” he recalled.
He went to the Gemological Institute of America, at the time a new school in New York City, and spent a year studying gems in laboratories. When he graduated in 1975, there were only about 200 gemologists in the world, he said.
“It made me go from a bench jeweler adept at manufacturing and building pieces to someone who understood the whole basis of the materials I was working with, the nuances of each stone,” Brough said.
After graduating, he spent a few years working as a salesman at a high-end jewelry store in Minnesota. “I did it, but my heart was really in doing design work and creating,” he said.
Brough moved to Nantucket and sold his own pieces at a shop there for a few summers, saving up enough money to start a business in Hampshire County. He had friends at area colleges, he said, and was originally angling for a space in Amherst until a shop owner there told him to try Northampton instead.
“He said, ‘Go to Northampton, it’s up and coming,’ ” Brough recalled. “And he was right.”
His first space was a small office on the third floor of the Main Street building above what is now Fitzwilly’s, he said. Rent was $100 per month.
Around 1980, he moved to a space in the back of the Don Muller Gallery at 40 Main St., and a few years later moved again to a condominium at 227 Main St. In 1996, when the building was sold to a new landlord, he moved to 104 Main St. He has been there since, sharing the 1,300-square-foot space with Everything Optical.
Creating custom jewelry
Sitting in the living room of his home in Holyoke, Brough was wearing two gold rings, several gold bracelets and gold necklace. Not surprisingly, he said his favorite metal to work with is gold.
For all of his 36 years in business in Northampton, he has focused on creating custom jewelry and selling his own designs, although he would sell other manufacturers’ pieces at his store as well.
A lot has changed in the jewelry-making world since he started apprenticing at 15. Now, a lot of jewelry design and manufacturing is done with computers, but Brough said he prefers to sit at his kitchen table and sketch out designs that suit each individual stone he has selected.
He said he is often inspired to include asymmetry, soft lines and other “natural” features in many of his pieces.
“In some ways, the new technology is great, but my work has mostly been about capturing nature’s curves and lines,” he said. “I don’t need a computer to do that.”
And his technique and style is still evolving, he said. “I’ve been doing this for 40-something years now, and the more I do it, the more I know I have more to learn,” he said. “I will continue to learn my whole life in this field.”
Brough said that for six to eight months before he got sick, he had been scaling back his involvement at the store, run now by a full-time manager, because he did not feel very well. Now, he is optimistic about getting the kidney transplant that he said would allow him to work again.
He plans to open a “studio boutique” where he will focus on creating custom work for sale by appointment and online. “It won’t be a regular retail store,” he said.
“It’s painful to walk away from something I’ve done for so long,” he said of closing the retail business. “But I’m excited to be moving in a new direction. I think it’s high time for a change.”
Until the end of the month, his designs will be on sale at 104 Main St. for 50 percent of their original cost.
“I want to thank all my customers for their patronage and understanding while I go through this difficult time,” he said, and added with a smile, “But I will return.”
Rebecca Everett can be reached at email@example.com.