By Joe Whalen
Diamonds, sapphires and rubies catch the eyes of shoppers examining display cases at Heirloom Jewelers. But the most precious gem in the store on Third Avenue can be found hunched over a work bench behind the scenes: owner Jan Leibel.
Two and a half weeks ago at the Jewelers of America regional convention in Billings, Leibel earned an impressive distinction. The custom designer and crafter was named Jeweler of the Year, winning the award behind votes cast by her peers. Leibel, a second-time recipient, received Jeweler of the Year honors for the Montana/Wyoming division in 1991.
Jewelers of America, the nation's largest association for retail jewelers, consists of more than 10,000 members from coast to coast.
"It gives your confidence a boost," Leibel said of the award. "You tend to look at your jewelry as being maybe a little closer to where you want it to be, because it's never perfect."
Leibel did, however, nearly reach perfection in Billings, capturing two first-place awards and a second-place honor in the contest's three categories for custom pieces.
The 48-year-old jeweler's aquamarine stone set in a gold question mark design with a potato chip texture placed first in the under-$1,000 category. Her three-dimensional dragon pendant set with a Mexican opal in the belly, a garnet in the tail, diamonds in the eyes and breath of pink-gold fire took first in the $1,000-$3,000 bracket. Leibel's gold ring set with change-of-color Yogo sapphires placed second in the $5,000-plus division.
Leibel, who also owns a jewelry store in Glendive, has been creating custom pieces since 1971. She opened Heirloom Jewelers in 1989 after earning a graduate gemology degree from the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, Calif., five years earlier.
"I'm very impressed," Rebecca Berg, a salesperson at the Havre store, said of Leibel's distinction. "She's so talented, and what she's created is so unique. You won't find anything like her pendants, her rings, various pieces she's created, anywhere else in the world."
On her way into the convention, Leibel, president of the national organization's Montana/Wyoming branch from 1991-'92 and its current secretary, won a Bulova mantle clock.
"I was thinking, At least I won something,' because last year I didn't win anything," Leibel said. "I wasn't expecting a lot this year."
But during a meeting of past presidents later in the weekend, her peers maintained a reticent stance.
"They were all pointing at her behind her back when she wasn't looking," said Donna Ruff, the Havre store's manager who also attended the convention. "They kept waiting for her to leave the room so they could vote for her.I wasn't at the meeting, but they kept telling me about it afterwards."
Education in the jewelry field is the hallmark of Leibel's vocation. In two months, she will attend a Jewelers of America Inc. training session in San Diego designed to help increase the public's awareness of goldsmithing as a viable occupation. Closer to home, Leibel frequently trains apprentices.
"She's very patient," said Bonnie Blatnick, a saleswoman at Madagascar Imports Inc. in Laurel who studies with Leibel eight hours one weekend each month in the Glendive store. "She likes her proteges to have knowledge of the stones and their texture so that they know the hardness of the stones and the cleavage zones before they start working with gold and stones together. I've basically been calling her my mentor."
The work space in the rear of the Havre store contains a polishing machine, a work bench, a torch, and a wide variety of wheels and brushes. Roughly one-third of Heirloom's colored-stone inventory consists of pieces created by Leibel.
"She takes such care in everything she does," said Gildford resident Barbara Rathbun, an Heirloom customer who has purchased at least 20 pieces from and had more than 25 pieces repaired by Leibel in the past dozen years. "She has a great imagination for making new jewelry out of old stones. My wedding ring had worn through so badly that I couldn't have it repaired. She thought about it for a while and then made a lapel pin. She flattened it out, and now I have a beautiful lapel pin out of my old wedding ring."
Leibel's process of creating new jewelry begins with the choice of a stone, the drawing of a design and the construction of a wax piece. A burnout phase leaves a cavity in the plaster into which gold is deposited by centrifugal force. The final phase includes the setting of stones and polishing of the piece.
"Even if I just repair a piece, it goes out of the store with my name on it, and I want to know that I did the best job I could do on it," Leibel said. "That's why training has been so important to me: So I have the information, and if I don't, I know where I can get it."
Leibel recently decided to close the store in Glendive, as she wants to devote more time to her custom creations. One piece she recently designed took 20 hours to complete. A sign above Leibel's work bench proclaims in capital letters, "Sell jewelryBut remember to have fun."
"I want to have more fun, and that's why I'm going back to one store," she said. "I want to concentrate on the custom aspect, which is the most fun for me."