October 25, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
48°F

Metalworker makes his case

John Gladden | The Gazette

MEDINA TWP. — Say you accidentally break Grandpa’s heirloom pocket watch or your favorite piece of jewelry. You take it to a shop where they examine it and say, “Yeah … we’ve got a guy who can fix that.”

Well, Don Mathis is the guy.

In 29 years in the jewelry business, he’s tackled it all — repairing delicate hinges, carving replacement springs, recreating missing pieces. He recently fixed a commemorative coin for a Pearl Harbor survivor who received the award from President George W. Bush. Mathis made a bezel for the coin and filled a hole that had been drilled in it — free of charge in recognition of the veteran’s service.

“He’s paid his dues,” said Mathis.

While shops still send him their toughest repair jobs, Mathis has made a move from behind the scenes into the spotlight — earning a pair of first-place finishes in case-making and engraving from the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. The awards were presented following a competition at the NAWCC’s annual convention in June in Grand Rapids, Mich.

To Mathis, 47, the word “jeweler” is like a verb — an action, not just a profession. It describes not only someone who fixes things, but one who creates.

Watch cases are a favorite canvas for Mathis, who was trained in art at Southern Illinois University, studying metalsmithing, sculpting and painting.

“When I got out (of college), I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” he said.

Mathis works from home — a 19th-century farm house he shares with his wife, Tina, and their daughters, Corrina, 12, and Katie, 5. They moved in at Thanksgiving and are knee deep in refurbishing the house.

Creating custom jewelry offers him the chance to pursue his passion for art and earn a living. When a customer asks him to do an engraving, they sit down together and Mathis creates a sketch.

“If he can draw it, he can engrave it,” said Tina.

The piece that earned him top place in the engraving competition belongs to a customer who gave Mathis a photograph of a train and asked him to create an elaborate motif on a 14-karat gold pocket watch case.

In the case-making competition, Mathis made — starting from a piece of stock metal — a custom case for a pocket watch movement. He fashioned it from sterling silver, detailed it with ruby buttons, and engraved an image of Diana, the goddess of war. Every bit was done by hand — taking more than 200 hours.

“It’s not exactly a cheap date to have a case made,” he said.

When he can’t find the right part for a project, he makes it. Mathis recently needed a piece of tempered glass for a high-end vintage watch. After exhausting all his suppliers, he went to a neighborhood discount store, bought a candleholder made with the right kind of glass, and cut the watch crystal himself.

In hard times, owners sometimes remove the movements from prized watches and trade the gold or silver cases for cash. Later, collectors and families bring such heirloom movements to Mathis to build new cases for them — sometimes with a twist. One case he’s at work on now began as an ornate silver candy dish.

“The customer said, ‘I want you to take this and make me a case out of it,’ ” Mathis said, and so he is.

To the rest of us, metal may seem an unforgiving, even intimidating, material to work with, but Mathis sees it as just the opposite. It’s far more pliable than wood or marble. Once you master metal, you can do anything you want with it, he said.

His case-making style is “beefier” than others. Mathis describes his cases as resembling old-fashioned pin cushions. They are handmade and solid, not mass-produced in a factory or engraved by a computer. They are meant to last — like the vintage movements that go in them.

“They didn’t make chintzy stuff,” he said. “I don’t make chintzy stuff. It’ll last for generations. It’ll last their (the customer’s) lifetime, their children’s lifetime, and their children’s children’s lifetime. After that, it may need some work,” Mathis added with a laugh.

Contact John Gladden at gladden@ohio.net.