Steven Lesse has some stories to tell – making a necklace out of a gall stone is just one of them.
The co-owner of Abracadabra Jewelry and Gem Gallery has seen a lot since opening his downtown Ann Arbor shop in 1974. Originally located in the building that now houses Herb David Guitar Studio, Abracadabra moved to its current location at 205 E. Liberty in 1976 and has remained there ever since. Lesse, who co-owns the business with his wife Katherine, fell in love with Ann Arbor when he set up a booth at the art fair during the summer of 1973.
“I was tired of the gypsy lifestyle – it was like being in a rock band,” Lesse said. “You were always traveling around city to city, art fair to art fair. It was a fun lifestyle when you’re not attached and you don’t have own a house.” Soon after he visited, Lesse rented his first building in Ann Arbor and opened his first gallery, which also became his apartment.
The store is well-known for pieces made using the mokume gane metalworking technique, a layering process originally used to create samurai swords hundreds of years ago. The store sells the work of five of the top artists in the country who specialize in mocha mokume – “mocha” referring to the color of the jewelry. For those looking for a less expensive version of the mokume jewelry, the store offers jewelry made using the Damascus technique, which has a similar look but a lower price tag.
In general, items in the store range from $20 for pre-made pieces to as much as $20,000 for high-end custom work. They work within a customer’s budget when crafting one-of-a-kind pieces, so prices vary.
In addition to mokume jewelry, the business sets itself apart by using alternative metals like palladium, as well as exclusively recycled and conflict-free stones. This ensures that the stones are ethically mined, which means that the land isn’t disturbed and workers are paid and treated appropriately, Lesse said. It also ensures that money earned from diamond sales has not been used to fund illegal activities.
“This is a choice any jeweler could have made all along, but we were one of the first to do it,” said Katherine Lesse. “There’s no reason to mine fresh stones, to rape the earth, when there are already an abundance of recycled stones.”
The store is also know for its custom-made jewelry. Some of its work has garnered national attention: a women’s ring designed at the gallery and made of diamond and wood was featured in an issue of Vogue magazine.
When The Chronicle asked about the strangest pieces of jewelry he’s ever created, Lesse recounts the one time a woman came in to his store asking him to make a necklace out of her gall stone. “She said that she almost died, but she survived and that the necklace was to be symbolic of her triumph,” said Lesse.
He’s also cast a Doberman puppy’s tail, which he said resembled a rabbit’s foot charm. For his daughter’s birthday, Lesse made a necklace featuring her favorite condiment: hot sauce. Lesse claims he can make jewelry out of almost anything, and encourages customers to bring in their own stones or miscellaneous items that they want made into jewelry.
Despite the weak economy, Lesse says Abracadabra has been busier than ever, growing through customer referrals and word of mouth. “It seems that as the economy has been going down the drain, our business has actually been getting stronger,” he said. “For us, the market always seems to be good and growing.”
There are a lot of jewelers in Ann Arbor, but Lesse says it’s a less competitive market then one might think. “You’re always going to compete, but each jeweler is doing something different, whether it’s custom jewelry or another kind of specialization,” he said.
Abracadabra has seen inquiries about jewelry sales via their website continue to grow – Lesse says that they receive around one email per day asking about pieces on the site.
The Lesses have done their own bit for the local economy, by featuring the work of those who have lost a job. Currently the store is selling jewelry made by a man who was laid off from Pfizer. Lesse said it wasn’t until the man lost his job that he realized he had a passion for art. “We feature a lot of our friends, a lot of local artists who are just starting out in the business,” said Lesse.
Lesse wouldn’t have predicted any of this when he got his first lessons in jewelry-making – he’d be the first to admit that an art career was not his main intention when he signed up for a jewelry class in high school years ago. After finding out from his older sister that the class was almost all girls, he thought it might be a good way score a date with his female classmates.
Today, he offers a few words of advice to anyone who is trying to decide what direction to go in their life. “You need to do what you’re enthusiastic about, that one thing that you love, because then it’s not work, it’s just what you do.”
Abracadabra Jewelry and Gem Gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. The shop is closed Sundays and Mondays. The Ann Arbor Art Fairs are the busiest time of the year for the Lesses and their staff, but afterwards they take a break by closing the shop until Aug. 18.
About the writer: Alex Nicola-Iott, an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is studying journalism and business at Indiana University. He’s spending this summer with his family in Ann Arbor.