Jane Theis is a jewelry artist that first came to Jewelers’ Row right after high school. She has been on the row, and in fact, in the same studio for 40 years. She is also the organizer and operator of the HighArt Destash, an online marketplace for vintage and surplus jewelry tools, equipment, and ephemera. In this series, Jane talks about how she got started with jewelry, how she made her way to Jewelers’ Row, and how she’s seen it change over the last 40 years. As an outspoken member of the Jewelers’ Row community, Jane also voices her opinions on the proposed development on the row.
PART 1: LEARNING THE BUSINESS AND LANDING ON JEWELERS’ ROW
Kevin Wohlgemuth: Well, so one of the things that we want to get out of this is the history of Jewelers’ Row and trying to find people like yourself who go back far enough to give us the long story of it.
Jane Theis: Well, I came here on a class trip in 1975. I graduated high school in 1977 and came here right afterwards.
KW: So, you’re from here?
JT: I’m from Downingtown. I went to Downingtown High School. Grew up in Exton. Jewelry was a class I could take in high school. Took it for three years. First year was half jewelry, half leather craft. Second year was all jewelry. And third year was all jewelry, independent study. And by the third year, my senior year, I was teaching the first years because the jewelry teacher was the tennis coach. So, she would leave to go teach tennis and leave me to teach the first years. So, I was teaching jewelry when I was in high school.
KW: What were you teaching?
JT: Well, I would keep an eye on things. If people needed supplies, I could check them out – the things that the teacher would ordinarily do. Not so much the teaching but I would be able to say no you’re doing this wrong, try this. I would be able to look at them and say you have bad form and no, their saw blade wasn’t tight. I was advanced enough that I could certainly handle that.
By the time I was a senior I was in the art room for 5 classes a day, after school, study periods. I was making shit tons of jewelry.
KW: So right after high school you came here?
JT: Well, I always had a workshop in my home. So, a guy in the class ahead of me came to Jewelers’ Row and got a job across the street for Alex Krause. And Alex asked him if they knew anybody, they wanted to hire a woman to work the counter. And so, he says yeah, and he called me. And I gave my mom a week’s notice and I said I’m moving to Philadelphia. And that was it. I’ve been here ever since. What a long strange trip it’s been.
KW: Well keep going. Where does it go from there?
JT: Well Alex Krause, I worked for him for three months. It was right across the street at 711 Sansom. While I was working for him, I would come across the street to Seymour’s. And I didn’t know Seymour and his wife Lois well at the time but I knew one of their employees who was a little older than me, Debbie Heap-of-Birds. She was married to a Native American – That’s the kind of name you remember. But I would come over and hang out there. I didn’t know anyone in the city so I’d come and hang out on my lunch break. So, when I quit Alex Krause, Seymour said we’ll find something you can do. So, I worked here for about a week then I went over for Aion, Avi Greis at Aion Mfg at 8th and Walnut. I worked there for about a week and I think then I got a job at a health food store. But I still had my workshop at my apartment. And eventually, I came to Jewelers’ Row full time. And I’ve been here ever since. I was living over across the street over what is now the Craftsman’s Row Saloon and the roof started leaking so I had to move my tools out so I moved into here (704). I started out on the 3rd floor in the front with my friend Carolyn. Then I got another partner and moved onto the 2nd floor then moved it into the room it’s in now [on the 4th floor]. Ed Gay was managing the building then, son of George Gay.
KW: When was this?
JT: 1979, 1980. And that’s the way it worked.
KW: What was Jewelers’ Row like when you got here?
JT: It was all the old-school men and that was it. Since then, there’s a lot. There’s Asians, Russians, Muslims. It’s a melting pot, there’s everybody here.
But back in the day, the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, you could drive down this street and it was a beehive of activity. All night long.
You’d hear this sound, this really distinctive sound and it’s like a lullaby to me, probably to most jewelers, a hammer on a mandrell.
And you’d see guys in white aprons running back and forth. They’d be setting a diamond and the tip would break off and they’d run it over here to have it soldered back on and they’d do it while they waited and you’d run it over here and get it polished and you’d run over there to pick up the pearls that go with it from the pearl stringer. And everyone was specialized. This guy only set diamonds, this guy only set color. This guy only sold diamonds, this guy only sold color. Unless he really knew you and then well, maybe. And it was all handshake deals. And to this day you can get things on memo. For instance, yesterday I had a customer who wants a pair of diamond earrings for his wife. He wants to spend $5,000. So, I went to three different places and I said I need a pair of diamond stud earrings, preferably in yellow (gold) and he wants to spend $5,000. And I just signed my name and I walk out of the store with the earrings. If the stores are open I can get a platinum and diamond tiara and just walk out with it. Just sign on the dotted line. It’s called getting it on memo. And everyone knows. Because you have to show the customer. You don’t want to buy it. You take it, show it to the customer, then you bring it back. And that’s just the way the business works.
My sister was with me one time, we were coming into this building and somebody was leaving and apparently they had been up to my room and missed me. So, they see me in the hall and they say, “Are you Jane?” And I said yeah, and she said, “Here fix this.” And she walks away. She hands me a job bag. I say, “Ok.” And my sister and I get back in the office and she says, “Well what was that, what did they hand you?” And I say, “I don’t know.” So, I look in the bag and it’s a diamond tennis bracelet. I had no idea who this person was but they knew who I was. And it’s just the way this business works.
It’s very much a family. It’s a weird little village in the middle of the city.
KW: How many people have been here 30 years? That are still here.
JT: At least 100. A lot of the really old school jewelers have passed away.
Barsky, for one of their promotions had a live elephant on the street. Right here on the street. A couple of years ago, they had Silver Linings Playbook. They filmed it right here, the Christmas decorations…well, they had the traffic going the wrong way in the movie so they turned the Season’s Greetings sign around for filming then turned it back the next day. They filmed lots of movies right around here. My jewelry was in the 6th Sense. And I made a necklace that was owned by Dr. Maya Angelou. And Jill Biden is one Maryanne’s customers. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia was filmed right here. It’s just bizarre.
HOW JANE’S JEWELRY BUSINESS WORKS…
KW: You said your customers aren’t really around here…
JT: I sell on-line, I don’t really have any customers around here. I don’t do repairs, I used to do repairs. I don’t anymore, I haven’t in years. Never been poorer, never been happier.
Angelina Jones: When did you change to being solely on-line?
JT: I’m going to say at this point about ten or twelve years ago, I was doing antique jewelry repair, which is a very specific specialty. Nobody wants to touch antiques and I like them. I respect the way that they [were created], the methods, the handmade stuff back before the days of lasers and this that and the other thing.
I like to treat an item with respect and do it the way it needs to be done with the appropriate stones, the appropriate findings, and the appropriate techniques. To make it right, so that it could still be sold as an antique.
I’m not just going to turn everything into steampunk and say, “fuck you.” No, that’s not really the point. I had one really good customer that was my main customer who was pretty much paying my bills and then he got cancer and died. [That’s when I thought] I’ve always just wanted to do what I want to do. If not now, when? So, I got rid of all my customers, I didn’t have that many left anyway, like I said it was a specialty thing, and I said, “you know, I’m just going to do what I want to do.” Make the stuff that I want to make. I have the tools, I have the stones, I have the skills, I have metal. I’m just going to lock myself in a room. Then this whole project with Seymour came about, it’s going on four years, so that changed my trajectory. Now there’s still easily a couple more years to go selling Seymour’s stuff and I feel bad that I can’t finish. He’s 85 and he has Alzheimer’s and all the stuff’s just going to go in the dumpster. Most of it. They don’t have the means to deal with it. They don’t have any computer skills. I don’t like not finishing things. Especially something I took on for somebody else, I said I would do it. I made a commitment… so, that’s kind of upsetting. And to not know, to not even offer an option. I don’t know what the future holds. I just don’t know. I have faith that the next step in my path will be revealed to me, hopefully in a timely fashion. Who knows. It’s like believing in the Easter Bunny. What good is it gonna do ya in a realistic way?
KW: When you do create, when you do what you want to do, what is that?
JT: Every day is different. I just go in [to my studio] and if I don’t have a plan to finish something I already started and if I’m starting something from scratch I just go in and I look around and see what speaks to me and that’s what I do. You know, if I find a stone and it speaks to me – okay [this is the one] I’m going to work on today. Then I do it until I finish and then I find another [stone] and I do that until I finish it and then I find another one. That’s what I do. That’s my method. Not very scientific, but it works for me and it makes me happy.
AJ: Is there a website that you put your work on [to sell it]?
AJ: On Etsy, great…
JT: A lot of pieces I’ll buy at the scrapper and I’ll remake them into other things. The scrap metal dealers, people go in to sell their silver and gold, I follow them in and buy it back. And [the metal dealers] just put it on the scale, they don’t care what I buy, so I’ll buy like a bucket of silver for a few hundred dollars. Then I’ll go home and start fiddling with it, making things up. Doing this and doing that and changing the stones… [For example] if I buy religious pendants, I make them into rings. They sell over and over again. People like them, I just did four of them. [Looking at her computer] This is my Etsy store “HighArt.” I started out selling roach clips that I made out of sterling silver flatware, spoons and forks, I’d cut of the spoon part or the fork part and use the decorative handle and make it into a roach clip. So, it started out as HighArt. Since then, Etsy has banned them because they’re drug paraphernalia, but I can’t change the name, so it’s still HighArt. Now I sell them on Amazon, who don’t seem to have a problem with it.
(looking at Etsy page) So, that’s an antique ring and I just set the stone… this I made out of spare parts, this is 18 kt with blue diamonds, I made that. Bead stringing I don’t consider making things…that’s a meteorite, I made that. That’s 18 kt with red coral – silver, garnets, labradorite, ruby, green sapphire… fire agate. I do a lot in diamonds, I do a lot with fire agate, I like it a lot. I have 517 items [on my Etsy shop] and I’ve made over 1,000 sales.
KW: Do ever hear from your customers how they find you [on-line]?
JT: No. I don’t care … I don’t care. It’s just not something that interests me. I just like making stuff. I don’t care what happens to it after I make it. If it sits in the Etsy store for more than a couple of years, then I usually give it away. Unless I’m too heavily invested and I can’t. I just this past week, Wednesday as a matter of fact, donated silver jewelry to CASA children’s advocacy. [It goes to] kids that are in the foster care system and have just been put through the ringer from abuse, removed from homes for abuse and neglect. My sister just died, I guess going on two months ago, and I was going over my Christmas list – who I needed Christmas presents for – and there were only like four people and it just made me really sad. So, I decided some of this stuff I just had kicking around and I don’t really care about it. I polished it up like new and put it in gift boxes and I dropped it off and some kid is going to get a present they wouldn’t have had. Silver jewelry is not on their radar, you know, ‘cause they’re struggling. They’re struggling, so here give them a present. I don’t need to know them to give them presents. I did that.
You know, I do, I give a lot away. I just don’t care. I just like making stuff. I don’t care what happens to it after I make it. I mean, I have bills to pay like anybody, but… [Another thing] it was like a month ago, somebody’s house burned down. It was nobody I know, but I donated a shit ton of stuff to them so they could silent auction it. I don’t even claim it on my taxes as a charitable donation. I just don’t care. You know, it’s helping somebody. It’ll all work out in the end. It’s not very scientific. It just helps me sleep at night. So, I’ve been on Etsy since 2008 and I’ve made 1,204 sales. That’s [a picture of] my studio and the sun is shining in.
KW: Is there anything you find yourself making over and over again?
JT: Meteorite pendants. I sell them over and over again… Meteorites, yeah I buy them in bulk. A lot of people just solder a ring to it, since it’s metal. That just seems tacky to me and it seems that it’s disrespectful of the thing. So, I make these little silver and gold cages for them. Yeah, I just shipped one today… I’ve sold 76 and I have 19 active… I make these little silver cages with the gold dot on the end and I solder them to a jump ring… here is a pair of earrings, and these are in a little glass globe because they’re too small to work with. They’re all different and I take fresh pictures of each one, so that the thing you’re seeing is what you actually get. So, I do them a lot and the religious medal rings I do over and over again. They do really well… Yeah, I make [miraculous medals] into rings. Some are still pendants – I leave them alone, but most of the really generic ones, I make them into rings and… people really like them. A lot of times a necklace is more of a fashion thing, but if your faith is important to you, you can wear it as a ring – it’s against your skin, it’s subtle and it’s small, they’re low profile, and that’s a private thing for yourself and then you can wear a necklace that goes with your outfit… that’s another thing I buy at the scrapper and flip them. You know, I pay next to nothing for them. You know, nowadays silver is relatively high, and I pay $17 an ounce… I just got five of them [earlier this week] and they’re already made into rings and listed. I’m trying to make as much money as I can. Pad the coffers. Those are my things. That’s what I do.
In Part 2, Jane discusses how the Destash came about and how it has brought together thousands of jewelers from around the world.