One of a Kind
By Kathryn Purcell
A self-proclaimed “non-artistic type” who spent her
childhood as a tomboy, Heather Whidby never saw herself as becoming a jewelry designer.
“I grew up catching crawdads and tadpoles,” Whidby said.
However, on the way to obtaining her diploma from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), Whidby, who owns and operates downtown Madison’s Whidby Jewelers with her husband, Ben, found herself sketching designs.
And, after successfully seeing her first piece of jewelry through the custom-design process – drawing the piece, talking to the customer and calling her caster in New York, who “somehow makes it work,” Whidby said – her designs started to become a reality, and a bit of a local trend.
“People began to see things I did for others,” Whidby said.
She has custom-designed many pieces of jewelry for Morgan County residents, and is working on perfecting that art. She admits that much of what she does involves asking the right questions of the customer.
“There are things that people who don’t work with jewelry all the time don’t think about,” Whidby said.
The jewelry she custom-designs is typically born of a combination of people’s older, sometimes junk, jewelry. And, while it might be older, much of what she works means something to the customer.
“Most everything I’ve done so far has been sentimental,” Whidby said.
One of her custom-designs began as junk gold and became hoop earrings, while one creation combined the gems from engagement and wedding rings, creating a pendant.
One Madison resident brought Whidby a necklace and three rings, all family heirlooms, and, after explaining what she was looking for and showing Whidby various renderings of ideas, she ended up with a sentimental piece of jewelry. Whidby, on the other hand, ended up with a lifetime customer.
“We just have a very meaningful piece of jewelry now that’s like the past, present and future,” the customer said. “If I have anything else to ever design, I’m definitely going to her.”
The ring constantly on the finger of Madison resident Susan Hallman is another example of the success of Whidby’s designs.
Hallman’s mother-in-law gave her a cocktail ring, made with old, mine-cut diamonds. While the stones were beautiful, the ring wasn’t exactly the kind of jewelry Hallman was used to wearing.
“I’m just not a cocktail ring kind of girl,” Hallman said. “I took it to Heather, and said ‘What can you do to this to make it look like me?’”
After a trip through the store and giving her time with the cocktail ring, Whidby came up with a design and, later, a ring that seemed more like Hallman.
“It’s simple, but elegant,” Hallman said. “It suits me very much.”
After Hallman’s sister saw her ring, she too took a trip to visit Whidby.
Her reputation for custom-design has gotten around town, and her sketchbook is now practically full.
And, while she has certificates from the GIA in “Pearl Grading,” “Colored Stone Grading,” “Colored Stone Essentials,” “Gem Identification,” “Diamond Essentials” and “Diamonds and Diamond Grading,” she hasn’t even taken the school’s “Quick Design” course yet, which will teach her to draw her designs to scale and enable her to determine whether her designs will work without having to call her caster in New York.
Eventually, Whidby plans on designing a Whidby Collection to be for sale at the store.
For now, however, she continues work on her custom-designs, and prove her childhood self wrong.
“This is the most fun thing I do,” Whidby said. “Every day is gratifying because we deal with happy stuff.”