Farewell to a golden oldie

Michael and Diane Smith quietly close The Goldsmith after 30 years downtown

LORD OF THE RINGS <br>Longtime local jeweler Michael Smith chisels away inside his downtown store The Goldsmith, which closed its doors at 234 West Second St. after a 30-year history of making artistic local jewelry for generations of Chicoans.

Longtime local jeweler Michael Smith chisels away inside his downtown store The Goldsmith, which closed its doors at 234 West Second St. after a 30-year history of making artistic local jewelry for generations of Chicoans.

Photo by Tom Angel

Gone for the gold: The Goldsmith closed its doors June 29.

Today, the owners of The Goldsmith jewelry store can see their impressive handiwork carried through generations whenever an old customer comes in with a customized wedding ring and a new baby in tow.

It’s a feeling of community and continuity that comes only from staying in one place for a considerable amount of time, as principal jeweler Michael Smith and his partner and wife Diane have learned since starting their custom jewelry business in downtown Chico back in 1971.

The Goldsmith originally opened in a downtown that had a much different mix than it does today. Back then, small arts-and-crafts shops influenced by the hippie counterculture lifestyle proliferated. The Goldsmith was one of them, and in fact was located in the heart of Chico’s downtown crafts scene, Toad Hall, located at the corner of Third and Broadway. The hall was a two-story warren of small shops selling leather goods, batik clothing, handmade jewelry and such.

On Easter Sunday of 1975, however, fire broke out in the building, destroying much of its interior. Today it’s reincarnated as the appropriately named Phoenix Building.

The Smiths were fortunate to be among the few Toad Hall businesses that held enough insurance coverage to replace valuable tools. That enabled them to open a new store after the disaster at their current location, immediately west of the El Rey Theater and close to Chico State University. For a tiny storefront, it’s highly visible—perfect for a jeweler, thanks to low overhead and accessibility.

For these reasons, as well as Michael Smith’s reputation as a jeweler, the mom-and-pop venture has survived Chico’s fickle downtown scene for three decades.

“A lot of businesses have come and gone,” Smith says. “I don’t know if it’s because rents went up or what, but there aren’t too many of us small craftsmen around anymore.”

A Vietnam veteran with a thin graying ponytail, Smith is a self-taught jeweler. He began his artistic career as a teenager making horseshoe nail rings in high-school art classes in Santa Clara. A few years later he took a job building race bikes in a motorcycle shop, where he learned welding and other mechanical skills that would come in handy in future jewelry making.

“When I first soldered some silver and gold in high school and saw how well they all polished up, I thought, ‘This is nice, I like this material,'” Smith recalls, smiling.

During the Vietnam conflict, he increased his technical abilities further as a jet engine mechanic, finding inspiration in many different areas—some he is reluctant to discuss—but all of which, he says, were applied to his future artistic endeavors.

Today, from inside the small shop, he points to a few of his artistic creations beneath glass cases while wearing a magnifying glass/eye shield strapped around his head like a miner’s headlamp. The cases are full of intricately carved gemstones, opals, rubies, sapphires and, in one case, some beautiful gold rings, which he counts among his favorite work.

“For 30 years, I’ve made all the jewelry here, done repairs. … [This location] has been a good little spot,” he says. “I love the natural gold nugget work, where I use some of Mother Nature,” he says, comparing the process to rock wall work.

Smith says he feels a major key to his success has been providing an artistic alternative to commercial jewelry.

“I guess my signature is more free-flowing work. I try to make stuff that people will look at years later and still appreciate.”

Always a highlight of Smith’s year has been his annual journey to Tucson, Ariz., for an international gem show where all the big dealers and wholesalers go to size up and purchase material in the loose-gem, rough-materials market. Smith has been going to the event for the past 15 years and says it is always exciting to find out what’s new with global mining operations.

“There’s a lot coming out of Madagascar right now,” he informs me.

For now Smith is enthusiastic about spending his semi-retirement pursuing “art for art’s sake"—working on gallery pieces and whatever other possibilities become open to him in the future. He’s also glad to have time now to dedicate to one of his volunteer passions: working to help local fisheries and save endangered species.

A resident of Butte Creek Canyon, Smith is currently working with the Friends of Butte Creek, a group that splintered off from the Butte Creek Watershed Conservancy in order to address the fisheries issue, which Smith says he felt was “underrepresented.”

“A long time ago, when the Army Corps of Engineers came in here and drained and diked the area, it was believed that fisheries were not an exhaustible resource, but it turns out they were,” he says. “So I’ve been working to bring together interested parties to help restore the fisheries. These species are indicators of the health of our ecosystem.”

But both Smith and his wife say that they will miss the shop and the downtown atmosphere quite a bit when the store closes.

“We’ve had a wonderful go of it, and we’re really grateful to the community,” Smith says, sitting alongside his wife. “First and foremost, we have just loved this area and the community and the students—and we hope that it stays a fun downtown.”

Both say they hope that another jeweler, perhaps someone they know and respect from the community, will take over the shop’s location.

“Michael has made wedding rings for three generations now," Diane Smith says. "We’ve seen longevity in action when the babies come into the store in strollers. It really has been a great ride … but now Michael’s in a position where he can move and address that artist in himself—so in a way, our closing is a celebration of sorts."