Brattleboro Bling

A southern Vermont town becomes a retail destination for all sorts of jewelry — an art form of universal appeal — from handcrafted original designs to antiques

By Joyce Marcel

Last August, when goldsmith and platinumsmith David Walter opened his elegant retail showroom on Main Street, a concept that had been flying under the radar for a significant amount of time became unavoidable: Brattleboro has become a jewelry hub.

Diamonds may be the town’s best friend, but the quality — and variety — of jewelry in Brattleboro is remarkable. There are diamonds galore, of course, both in contemporary styles and sparkling out of antique estate jewelry. There are precious stones and pearls imported from all over the world and turned into jewelry by experienced Brattleboro jewelers. Then there are unique, handcrafted pieces — works of art — made by local artists.

“There’s a buzz on Brattleboro,” said Suzanne Corsano, co-owner of Gallery in the Woods. “There should be, shouldn’t there? People come in here and say, ‘What’s going on here? What’s this place about?’ I hear a lot of, ‘I’m going to move here.’ And some of the people who live here now are some of those people. And they’re always shopping.”

Customers might live locally, but many drive in from New York and from all over New England. And they don’t fit one easy profile.

“Yesterday, I had a deposit on a ring I have on layaway from a homeless person,” Corsano said. “He’s doing odd jobs and saw this ring in the window, and he had to have it. At first I said, ‘He’s never coming back here.’ And guess what? He did. That’s one level. I have lots of local customers, and then I have collectors.”

Jewelry is wearable art, said Caitlyn Wilkinson, 40, who owns Renaissance Fine Jewelry and the Renaissance Fine Antiques and Gallery, both on Main Street. Wilkinson speaks about the business while wearing a huge tourmaline around her neck, large gold earrings, a 1940s Longines watch encrusted with diamonds, and diamond rings on her fingers. She is not afraid to sparkle.

“I understood the idea of buying one nice thing early in life,” Wilkinson said. “By eighth grade, I told my parents I wanted one nice Christmas gift rather than lots of things.”

Many of Renaissance’s customers live locally, but Brattleboro’s hippie image makes wearing serious bling a determined lifestyle choice.

“Money is not the issue,” Wilkinson said. “It’s people’s comfort level about wearing jewelry. This is an area where you can be the L.L. Bean supermodel but you can be judged heavily if you’re wearing something fancy.”

“It’s a weird reverse discrimination,” she added. “People say, ‘I don’t know if I can wear that.’ I say, ‘Just do it. Be you. Be who you are. And if this is who you are and what you want to wear, then just do it.’ At what point in our lives are we going to be who we are and not fear the judgement of other people?”

“There’s the incredible satisfaction of the day you put a ring on the finger of a customer and their face lights up,” Wilkinson said. “And every time they look at it, it makes them smile. It’s cheap therapy.”

Maybe, but sometimes it’s expensive therapy.

“If it’s well made, it last a long time,” Wilkinson said. “There’s that frugal Vermont nature. I grew up where you valued everything you had. You didn’t leave it to rust in the yard.”

She’s still that way.

“Quality jewelry is something solid,” Wilkinson continued. “It’s a transfer of money. It’s something that has liquid value. Throughout history, there have been times when a country’s money has become worthless, and jewelry was all the people had.”

“Over and over, I have sat with people who have told me stories about how the only thing they left their country with was their jewelry — their gold, their silver,” she said.

A destination market is born

Brattleboro’s jeweler’s critical mass was formed in part by cross-pollination.

The jewelers know one another, they work with one another, and they work for one another. Galleries show their work. Apprentices come to learn their craft, then stay and open shops of their own. Each jeweler cultivates collectors and buyers. Different styles of jewelry attract different collectors and aficionados, and boom! A destination market is born.

The first jewelry artist who took to Brattleboro might be Bob Borter, who came in 1984 and still has a workshop and retail store here. A small, gentle, funny man with a long braid and a stunning long crystal around his neck, he has gone from making contemporary, well-engineered, polished, futuristic gold and silver jewelry to working with raw crystals, obsidian, turquoise, black coral, mastodon tusk, silver, Vermont smoky quartz, black tourmaline, opals, raw ebony, peridot, and fossilized ivory walrus tusks that come from glaciers. His current work looks as if the Iron Age had used the Internet.

In 1987, diamond and gold jeweler Evan James opened a more traditional jewelry store that sells gold and diamond jewelry, estate jewelry, watches, and wedding presents.

In 2001, Gallery in the Woods, which also sells visionary, surrealistic, and international folk art paintings, handmade furniture, lamps, pottery, ethnic and handmade jewelry, opened on Main Street for a trial Christmas run. The store’s still there — supported in large part by jewelry.

“There would never be a gallery here if it wasn’t for jewelry,” Corsano said.

Gallery in the Woods features Borter’s work — Corsano was wearing one of his elegant, more feminine pendants — as well as the work of Brattleboro artist Dawn Russell, whose necklaces, pendants, and rings are handmade with exotic hardwoods, natural pearls, gold, silver, and precious gems.

The gallery also sells the nature-based floral and serpent inspired jewelry of Seth Bordonaro, who came to Brattleboro to be Walter’s apprentice and stayed.

This is where the cross-pollination gets complicated. About eight years ago, Shrum and Elissa Bhanti, who own the popular Indian import store Adivasi, now on Flat Street, opened a high-end jewelry shop on Main Street. To manage the store, they hired Wilkinson, who had grown up in Rockingham loving jewelry and gems.

When the Bhantis decided to close, Wilkinson bought their inventory, took over their lease, and opened Renaissance in 2005. The Bhantis continue to design and manufacture jewelry in India and sell it in their import store around the corner.

A tall, handsome, rough-hewn man who looks like he works in the woods instead of setting precious stones, he wears no jewelry at all, Walter, 57, who has spent 30 years as a master jeweler, came to Brattleboro in a roundabout way.

He started out in New York as an industrial engineer for a shop that “hot-rodded” Ferraris, Porches, Alfa Romeos, and Mercedes. He made jewelry on the side.

Finally, he left cars for a long apprenticeship in New York at Schlumberger, a division of Tiffany & Co. Then he opened his own jewelry shop in New York and made high-end jewelry for such clients as Tiffany, Fred Leighton and Italy’s Buccellati. At the height of his success, he had six jewelers working for him.

“Jewelry combines a lot of the classical elements of fine art — color and texture and pattern and form,” Walter said. “It has a lot of elements I love about design, like the use of tools, the articulation of a piece, the balance of it, how the clasps and hinges work.”

“I like to think when I’m making something I’m having a conversation with the piece. I’m designing it, but it’s giving me feedback as well,” he continues.

“I like how you work with materials in designing, how you put something together. I like working with my hands. A lot of joy goes into that.”

When Walter “burned out” in New York, he came up to his family’s summer home in Westminster to figure out his next move. He became friends with the Bhantis, who asked him to go to India and train their jewelers.

ldquo;Spectacular country, beautiful people,” Walter said.

After Wilkinson opened Renaissance, Walter helped her with special orders and repairs. Then he went to Middlebury to train jewelers, where he met Bordonaro and brought him to Brattleboro. Finally, in August, Walter opened his own store on Main Street.

“Me being here and selling directly, I can keep my price somewhat compatible,” Walter said. “I’m not going to say I’m the least expensive jeweler in town. But I can put all the work and material into making something that I’m happy with, and not be pricing myself out.”

Walter, who has plans to soon open a crafts gallery in his retail space, works with two apprentices, both women with strong roots in the area who might eventually open their own galleries here.

Many of Brattleboro’s home furnishing and clothing stores also sell jewelry, among them Verde, Boomerang, Penelope Wurr, Silver Moon, and Altiplano. Malisun sells handcrafted jewelry from “all over the Thai countryside.” Jan Norris’s renowned fabric store, Delectable Mountain, sells new jewelry that looks like vintage. Beadnik’s is devoted to beads, jewelry fixings, earrings and necklaces from all over the world. The home decor and gift store Brilliance, run by the Kiziltan family, sells “semi-precious and spiritual jewelry — rustic to polished,” and does jewelry and watch repairs. Vermont Artisan Design sells the best of all the Vermont arts and crafts.

“Jewelry is just another form of art,” Wilkinson said. “There’s a lot of creativity here in Brattleboro. And for anyone that’s interested in fabrication and creation and working with objects and creating things, jewelry will have an appeal.”

Jewelry might ultimately be a long-term trend in Brattleboro because everybody buys jewelry, Corsano said.

“When they dig up the ruins from thousands and thousands of years ago, the two things they find are pottery and jewelry,” she said. “People have always worn jewelry.”

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