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Jan Dee looks back on 45+ years as custom jeweler
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2018-06-20

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For as far back as Jan Dee can remember she has always been interested in arts and crafts and has parlayed that into her own business, Jan Dee Custom Jewelry, now located at 1425 W. Diversey Parkway in Lincoln Park.

"When I was a child, I loved creating things with my hands," said Dee. "My art teachers told me I was the best, fastest and most creative student they had."

Dee grew up in Boston and graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School in 1958. After a stint at a community college in Boston, Dee worked for a psychiatric agency but her dreams of doing something creative never went away.

"I quit my job at the agency and went to Italy to learn how to be a goldsmith," said Dee. "There was a man named Gian Carlo who owned a gold factory where everything was made by hand. His friend referred me to him and he invited me to become his student so I went over there from 1967-'68. He taught me everything I know about making jewelry. I studied hard and worked 10 hours a day, six days a week on my craft. It was a wonderful experience."

Dee said she was unsure about how to begin this new career so she got a waitressing job to pay her bills but that did not last long. She told her parents that she wanted to quit her job and start making silver jewelry full-time.

"My mom said 'you should have a shop in our basement'," said Dee. "At the time, silver was a dollar an ounce. I had $600 to my name so I bought 600 ounces of silver in all sizes. I set up my equipment and silver in the basement and put a little sign outside my parents' house advertising that I was in business. I had one showcase to display my wares and would get a few people coming in now and then to look at my jewelry. That lasted for six months and then I decided I needed a little store."

Dee explained that she was one of a few silversmiths in her neighborhood at the time.

"I opened my store but most people did not understand silversmithing because they were used to buying costume jewelry," said Dee. "I ended up closing my store at that location and the following summer, I opened a silversmithing shop at Rocky Neck Art Colony in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The shop I rented was a converted boat house on the water. I called it The Silvershop. This lasted for a couple of years. Business got better but not well enough because people had not caught onto silver jewelry. It took awhile to educate people.

"While at Rocky Neck, Woodstock was happening [1969] and all my friends said we should go. I told them I had to stay back and mind my store and that day I made four dollars. I was so mad because they came back and said, 'You do not know what you missed.' This made me realize I need to seize the moment when it comes and I have done that ever since."

One way Dee seized the moment was by doing wholesaling to other stores in New England. She was able to support herself on those sales alone. At the same time, Dee met a woman who was visiting Provincetown from Chicago. They started dating and she invited Dee to visit Chicago. Dee said seeing Lake Michigan made her fall in love with the city because it felt familiar enough to the East Coast. When her then-girlfriend invited her to come live with her she said yes. She opened a workshop in their home and continued her wholesaling business.

Dee decided to create a catalog of her wares in 1971 and it was so popular she was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week to fill her orders. She explained that due to her jewelry's popularity she had an opportunity to sell to a large corporation that had 300 stores across the country. Dee turned them down even though she would have received $900,000 from the initial deal because she did not want the responsibility of opening a large factory. After Dee turned down the corporate offer she ceased selling her jewelry wholesale.

"While I was selling my jewelry out of our home, I realized a little storefront would be a better option so I opened a summer store in Provincetown, Massachusetts," said Dee. "I met a younger woman in Provincetown whom I took under my wing to teach her silversmithing. I gave her my extra bench and she worked for me for quite awhile. She later moved to Chicago to continue as my apprentice."

At the Provincetown store, gay and lesbian couples felt comfortable buying commitment rings since the town had many LGBTQ residents and vacationers. Dee felt that a summer store was not as opportune or convenient as a year-round store so she rented a storefront in 1973 at Belden and Clark Street in Chicago. She stayed at that location for more than 15 years.

Dee wanted more autonomy over her store so she bought a building on Diversey Parkway in 1990. It had been vacant for 14 years and had to be completely renovated. The building used to be the location of CK's Lounge, one of the largest gay bars at the time. She said people were surprised that she would open a store in a remote area where there was no retail. Dee explained that her other stores had many window shoppers and numerous complaints about parking availability and this new location offered more amenities. She noted that most people who visited the Diversey location came to purchase items or come in for design services.

"Our philosophy is to make a person feel as comfortable as they can when they come into the store, ask as many questions as they want, educate them and take their time in making a purchase," said Dee. "We have always been a service store and pride ourselves on the quality of our repairs including sentimental pieces and other jewelry. Caring for our customers from the time of purchase is very important to us."

Over the course of her 45-plus years in business, Dee has had many customers come through her door. Dee noted that during the 1980s, there would be many times when a straight and a gay couple would come in simultaneously to buy engagement or wedding rings. She said the couples would spend time getting to know each other and that "would make my heart sing."

"The fact that people accepted each other for who they were and shared their stories about their upcoming celebrations was great to witness back then," said Dee. "Everyone felt comfortable shopping at my store because we have a welcoming business."

Dee said she came to Chicago at the right time to be an out lesbian business owner because it was after the height of the gay bars being raided by the police. She said her store's location was also a factor since the neighborhood was LGBTQ-friendly even in the 1970s. Dee explained that LGBTQ bankers, high school principals and doctors were among her friends and that she never had one person or group try to boycott her store.

"Chicago has always had a stronger LGBTQ activist base than many other places," said Dee. "I did not come out until I was 28. One of the catalysts for me moving to Chicago was Boston got too small and it was not a friendly place for LGBTQ people who were out and proud back then."

Dee said that when she had the Clark Street location Stedman Graham, Oprah Winfrey's long-time partner, came in and bought an elongated pearl with a diamond accent ring for Oprah.

"Stedman's gift was mentioned in the INC column and I was credited as a Chicago jeweler," said Dee. "They never mentioned our name and I always felt sad about this."

Among the other notable people who bought wedding rings from Dee's store was Walter Jacobson.

Dee explained that a gay violinist from Russia, Artem Kolesov, wanted to buy wedding rings for him and his fiancée Lalo.

"A friend of mine called me and asked if we could take care of Artem," said Dee. "I said it would be a pleasure. When they came in to pick up their rings, Artem showed his appreciation by bringing his violin and playing a solo for us in the store."

"We love the rings and get a lot of compliments on how beautiful they look," said Kolesov. "We are extremely grateful to Jan for her amazing mastery and precision. I do not have to take off the ring when I perform since I cannot even feel it on my finger."

"A lesbian couple who are friends of mine from Aukland, New Zealand would only buy their wedding rings from my store," said Dee. "They came here to buy them and had a beautiful wedding in New Zealand. I also designed wedding rings for many other wonderful gay and lesbian couples from all over the United States."

Dee decided to go back to school to further pursue her interest in art. She went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago ( SAIC ) from 1979-'81 with a focus on photography. In addition to her own photographic endeavors, Dee also did the photos for the construction benefit to finance Horizons ( now the Center on Halsted ) location on Montana Street. She also did photos for Open Hand Chicago's brochures. Dee recently donated her entire darkroom to the SAIC.

"I also went to Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation on April 25, 1993 and photographed the attendees and speakers," said Dee. "It was a moving and exciting experience to be there and hear from LGBTQ activists across the country in one place."

One way Dee gives back to the community is through her membership in the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois and the Lincoln Park Chamber of Commerce. She has also attended many benefits and donated gift cards and items from the store to non-profit group's silent auctions. Dee said this gives her a chance to give back and introduce herself and the store to new people.

"When Horizons first opened I started a fund for them," said Dee. "They wanted 10 people to donate $300. In return, they would have their name on a plaque on one of the office doors. I raised $3,000 and they were very happy with this. My friends felt so proud to help."

Now Dee has gotten into the Airbnb business. She recently renovated the upper floors of her building to accommodate up to 12 people. Dee previously lived in the space with her partner Janet Gutrich whom she has been with since Dec. 17, 1994. The couple now live in the South Loop.

See www.airbnb.com/rooms/25139005 to book Dee's Airbnb.

For more information about Jan Dee's store, visit www.jandee.com/ .


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