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Jan Dee rings in 40 years of custom jewelry in Chicago
by Melissa Wasserman

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Helping a new generation find perfect engagement rings after helping their parents with their engagement rings in the 1970s is something Jan Dee looks on fondly.

Dee is a longtime lesbian philanthropist and business owner. She has supported almost every LGBT and AIDS cause, and has donated items for major LGBT and AIDS benefits throughout her store's lifespan.

Now celebrating Jan Dee Custom Jewelry's 40th anniversary, Dee spoke with Windy City Times about her store, custom jewels and style.

Windy City Times: What drew you to silversmithing and jewelry?

Jan Dee: I loved arts and crafts. I adored it. So I was always making something with my hands and I thought at one point, if I like to make things with my hands, why can't I make a living out of the talent that I have with my hands. Then I thought, "Well if you're going to work with your hands, you need to work with something that's viable like silver or gold." At the time, my parents were poor and had no money, so I was helping them with the house and I thought well if I can make a living, I can help my parents and make everybody happy. When I first started I was about 27.

WCT: Where does your inspiration come from when creating your jewelry?

Jan Dee: Part of it is when you touch a piece of silver or gold, and you start hammering it, it almost makes itself if you love it that much. It's like you take it and just start hammering it, it can be flat, you can make it so it looks concave or convex and everything in the piece starts speaking to you as you make it. You just start making the piece and you curl some wire or you take a sheet of silver or gold and start playing with it, it ends up being a creation that just came to you.

Other times, it was that people ordered things from you. I had a friend order a Gumby, so I made a gold Gumby. At that time gold was not $1,600 an ounce; it was probably $280 an ounce, maybe less. People would come in and ask for really fun things and that would inspire me to make something else too. All of a sudden, you'd say, "well if somebody likes Gumby, maybe I'll make a Mickey Mouse because I'm sure somebody would like that." People coming into your store gives you ideas. And they give you ideas all the time because they're asking you if you make this, do you have this and then after they leave, you start thinking, that's a good thing to make, that's a great idea. So the customers really help you with the inspiration.

WCT: What is the style you usually go for?

Jan Dee: Simple elegance. A lot of my things are very simple and I look and I say it's simple elegance. You wear it and it's just a piece that stands out by itself.

WCT: What's the biggest misconception about diamonds?

Jan Dee: The biggest for me is that it [has] to be perfect. A lot of people want a flawless diamond and it's not necessary. We all have flaws and we're still perfect. So it's like if a diamond has a flaw in it and you can't see it with your eye, or if the color looks good to you, but it might not be the best color—diamonds are an illusion and what it really is is that when a diamond speaks to you, you should by it. It doesn't have to be perfect. It has to be perfect for you.

WCT: What type of jewelry speaks to you?

Jan Dee: Diamonds speak to me. I wear a diamond necklace that spells my name. I wear it all the time and I love it. When I look at a ring I love diamonds going all the way around the ring in about three to five rows of diamonds. Just a beautiful diamond look, that's my favorite. That's the ring I want some day. I have a very simple taste in jewelry

WCT: Is there a signature detail in your pieces to signify Jan Dee Jewelry?

Jan Dee: There are a lot of people who identify a Jan Dee piece and they're not always the same. It really doesn't have any significant one little thing that's indicative that there's another one just like it. We do a lot of custom work, so a lot of it is one-of-a-kind. Usually something that's handmade or handcrafted has a personality of its own.

It's hard to say because I don't have a mark. There's the classic simple lines that we do and mainly it's what people ask for now. They'll come in and ask for a certain design and we make it for them. It used to be we would have a lot of our rings in the showcase, which a lot of people have on their hands and they were the classic rings we used to make in the '70s and '80s. Now it's different.

It's also a talent to make a ring. Somebody can make the same ring as somebody else and it's not the same quality, it may not be the same anything. It's just that you can look at something and know that it's perfect.

WCT: How do you feel about celebrating the 40th anniversary?

Jan Dee: It feels wonderful because this year every Saturday feels like Christmas Eve because I don't know what's happened but people are coming out of the woodwork to come to our store and every Saturday when I walk in—I don't work there all the time—the store is full of gay and straight people. It warms my heart that a small store can survive 40 years and also can continue to be successful, especially now with the economy. We had the best month ever, and it's January. The store is thriving.

For more information, visit, 1425 W. Diversey Ave., or call 773-871-2222.

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