By Maia Kowalski
On a Thursday afternoon in FireWorks Gallery, a man in a green overcoat and jeans hunches over one of the gallery’s glass jewelry cases. He listens as a salesperson describes different types of diamond carats, and looks down to examine the samples she’s brought out.
“Do you know what she wants?” the salesperson asks kindly. She smiles at him as he pauses.
“No, I don’t really know,” he replies. “This is my first rodeo – and hopefully my last,” he adds, laughing sheepishly. He shuffles a little in his spot, and then asks how long a custom design will take.
The salesperson explains that it’ll take about four to six weeks, and he nods. Standing up straight, he proceeds to go over to the cash register to make a request for one.
Custom jewelry design isn’t new to Halifax. A handful of other stores, such as Fawcett’s Fine Jewelry and James Bradshaw Goldsmith, offer this same option. Only a few of these stores also sell jewelry from other artists.
What makes FireWorks different, though, are the ideas and styles that come from their solid three-person creative team, made up of owner and goldsmith Judy Anderson, goldsmith and designer Bruce Trick and master goldsmith Ha Luong.
The beginning on Barrington
The store sits at 1569 Barrington St., and has been in operation since 1977. With three intricate signs bearing the store’s name and a bright red (although rolled-up) awning, it’s hard to miss while on a walk through downtown Halifax.
Anderson opened the store herself when she was only 22 years old. A Connecticut native, she moved to Halifax at 17, and was initially only interested in making pottery. She eventually found herself drawn to jewelry, and began creating and selling silver jewelry for the wholesale market and craft shows.
However, in 1977, she decided it was time to open up her own shop, after the one she had been selling to went out of business.
Her first location was at the corner of Blowers and Grafton streets, but she soon stumbled across the current Barrington location. She’s been there ever since.
From craft shows to custom designs
All the design magic happens on the second and third floors of the building. A narrow and creaky staircase upstairs opens up to a disorganized office space, but not before unlatching a dog gate, which Anderson explains is there to prevent her dog Luna from wandering downstairs. Soon enough, the small shiba inu makes an appearance, running up to say hello to her owner.
Stacks of paper and file folders cover every inch of a long table that hugs the curve of the wall. Anderson’s personal workspace is just a small round table in the corner, partially cleared of different coloured paper and writing utensils.
Bruce Trick sits with his back to the staircase, his desk overlooking the main floor of the gallery, and fiddles around with a new ring design on his computer.
Anderson estimates that the gallery receives about three or four custom requests a week. They also offer a jewelry repair service, and she says they receive about 10 of these requests daily.
She never has to look far for new design ideas.
“I get inspired by the works that we carry by other people, going to trade shows and seeing what’s going on, reading trade magazines,” she says. “I get very inspired by antique jewelry.”
Her team uses JewelCAD software to create custom designs. It allows the designer to play around with band shapes, carat sizes and colours before creating a solid ring mould.
After a ring design is created and saved, it can be accessed on the third-floor computer that’s hooked up to a ring casting machine. The third floor is also home to master goldsmith Ha Luong, who’s worked at the gallery since 1980 after leaving Vietnam.
Anderson credits Luong with showing her the ropes in goldsmithing.
“[I’m] pretty much self-taught, working with silver wire and silver jewelry,” she says. “[But] he taught me a lot on how to work with gold.”
But what’s the difference between a master goldsmith and a regular one?
“It’s someone who has worked for 10 years and trained professionally in goldsmithing,” says Trick. “Ha is definitely a master.”
“But not everyone who works for 10 years is a master goldsmith!” laughs Anderson.
To create something like an engagement or wedding ring – two of the most popular custom requests – the whole team throws their ideas and skills together.
Although they ask clients for a four to six week window, it’s usually just a 1-3 day process. The team splits up the work in segments.
Trick and Luong usually do the CAD work, and once the design is complete, Anderson makes the waxes and casting for it. She then passes it off to Luong to finish it off.
The starting price for one of these rings is around $1200, but depending on the size of the requested diamond, the price can increase drastically.
Surrounded by love
This collaborative work ethic between the creative team is reflected in the jewelry they create, but also within the staff that work the main floor.
Renee Warner, a sales consultant, enjoys working at the gallery.
“It’s nice to be surrounded by things that are made with lots of love, and are made by hand,” she says.
Although she’s only been working at FireWorks Gallery for eight months, she says she’s already learned a lot about repairs and different kinds of metals and stones.
Warner explains that she often runs up to the second floor to discuss with the designers what types of repairs can be done to fix certain pieces of jewelry.
“Communication is really important between upstairs and downstairs,” she says.
Open to originality
While the FireWorks Gallery team creates unique pieces out of their own ideas, sometimes clients come prepared with ideas they’d never even dream of.
Recently, Anderson has been working on a cast of a ring made with a client’s grandfather’s ashes.
“We get a lot of memorial requests,” she says.
She pauses and shivers a little. “It’s kinda weird.”
She’s also had the honour of making a medal for the Dalai Lama.
“It was a big gold piece with lots of detail,” she says. “It was a gift given to the Dalai Lama from the Kalapa Court by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. He’s the head of the Shambhala, and I’m his jeweller.”
But wherever her job takes her, she’s loving every second of it.
“I’ve been here for 37 years and never worked for anyone else in my life,” she smiles.
“[I like] making pieces that will hold special meaning for people.”