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A Jeweler's Story

by Jim Sweaney

After graduating in 1971 from Cal State Fullerton with a BA in English Lit and finding little opportunity in the teaching field, I discovered a knack for jewelry making. Having no money, I soon was selling "hippie" jewelry.  My first products were spoon rings, silver roach clips, and various original and custom designs I could make with silver and inexpensive gem materials. One of my more successful early designs was this "Bug Ring", fabricated from silver and set with agate "Beggar" cabs from India, which cost all of 2 cents apiece wholesale. I sold many of these little critters.

I've always loved bright colors, so early on I taught myself to enamel jewelry, using propane can torch and a self-built muffle furnace (made from tin cans).  My first design award was for an enameled "Necklace in the Egyptian Manner" of silver, glass beads, and carved jet scarab.

Soon, I came to love colored gemstones. Realizing the need for better skills, I enrolled in the GIA Graduate Gemologist in Residence program, passed with flying colors and was hired in 1976 by GIA as a Staff Gemologist. In 1978, I challenged the diploma examination of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain and was passed as a Fellow "With Distinction" (means I aced it!). Since then, the GAGB doesn't allow people to challenge their diploma exam—they need the fees from their gemology course!

After a couple of years in the lab, GIA asked me to teach their jewelry repair and diamond setting classes. I was part of the team that developed the first Jewelry Arts Program. Later, I became one of the Diamond Grading Supervisors at the GIA Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles lab. We were so busy grading in those days of rampant inflation and frantic diamond speculation that my team had the night shift—we graded diamonds from 4 pm to midnight, after the first shift had left! The scopes were still warm when we started our workday!

I left GIA in 1981 to work in Camden, Tennessee for John Latendresse as Executive Vice President of American Pearl Creations.   John was developing freshwater pearl culturing in Tennessee at the time, which interested me greatly. I managed his jewelry factory and created a line of jewelry that featured his American Natural and Cultured Freshwater Pearls.

John and I co-authored an article for "Gems and Gemology", Fall 1984, titled "Freshwater Pearls of North America" that won the G+G annual competition for best article of the year. We also participated in the First GIA Gemological Symposium, and I published a progress report on John's freshwater pearl culturing in the Symposium "Proceedings". John and I presented a seminar on American Freshwater Pearls at the 25th Anniversary AGS Conclave in New Orleans.

Working in Tennessee was lots of fun and hard work, but corporate management just wasn't for me. In 1984, my family and I moved back to Riverside, CA, where I began working for Don Harris' Mardon Jewelers as Appraiser/Gemologist and Jewelry Designer.  My wife and I bought Mardon Jewelers from Don in 1999 and continue under that name as a family business of independent retail jewelers. Daughter Jenny and her husband Scott joined the firm in 2003.

Besides abiding by the Golden Rule, part of our business philosophy and overall strategy has been to stay on top of the game by constantly improving our skills and connections and developing our business around the latest technology. That's why we belong to progressive professional organizations like the AGS and AGTA, subscribe to Gems and Gemology, the Polygon network and the Gem Guide pricing publications, and attend workshops like Kate Wolf's advanced wax carving seminar in Portland, Maine and the 2008 ArtCam User Group in Denver, CO. We are regulars at the Tucson gem shows in February and the Las Vegas Jewelry shows in June.

Each year, we try to add or upgrade to one new item of significant state-of-the-art technology. Since 1999, we've added ArtCam JewelSmith and Art2Part CAD/CAM design software and ModelMaster CNC mill; a Canon Digital SLR camera with Macro lenses and ImageDome lighting stage; 2 GIA gemological microscopes, digital scales and measuring devices to go with our new Gem Guide Appraisal Software; a vacuum assisted wax injection system; and several new Mac and PC computers, printers and software.

In 2008, my son-in-law Scott Christiansen completed a fabulous redesign of our website, and for 2009 we've just introduced our Mardon Colored Stone Grading System and Gallery of Gems.

I finally got around to becoming an AGS Certified Gemologist in 2000, and then an AGS Certified Gemologist Appraiser in 2004. I currently am dividing my time between jewelry designing with daughter Jenny and wife Kaye, buying, selling and appraising jewelry, and promoting the business by working with our advertising consultants, Blog writing and developing our website.