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Longtime Sanibel jeweler creates masterpieces made of gold, silver

By Staff | Aug 26, 2009

With more than 45 years in the jewelry business, you might think that Bill Wilson has seen it all. But, in fact, he hasn’t.

Instead, he creates it himself.

The proprietor of William E. Wilson Fine Jewelry Design, located on Sanibel for the past 14 years, Wilson is a registered diamond broker and master goldsmith. He started his career in the industry in 1963 at a department store in Columbus, Ohio. However, he recalls his interest in jewelry going back to his childhood.

“I think I’ve always been fascinated with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and gold,” he said. “I used to walk to the store with my mother and I can remember pressing my face up against the window and looking at all the jewelry. It was all so beautiful.”

Wilson started as a salesperson at the jewelry counter at Lazarus Department Store, then became manager of Rogers Jewelers. After only a year, he was promoted to vice president of the five-store chain before moving on to New York City. There he worked for Baumgold Brothers, a world renown diamond-cutting business. He traveled across the United States, selling loose diamonds after becoming a certified GIA gemologist in 1969.

In 1981, Wilson encountered trouble after being targeted by jewel thieves. A SWAT team was assigned to protect him and his family at their home.

“They set up shop in my house to protect us because I would have more than a million dollars in jewels in my possession at any one time,” Wilson explained. “It was a little nerve-wracking for my family, but I didn’t mind it. One of the SWAT guys told me, ‘You have to be the hunter, not the hunt.'”

Not too long afterwards, Wilson moved to Southwest Florida, setting up a jewelry business initially in Cape Coral before finally settling on Sanibel.

Throughout his career, he had picked up quite a bit of knowledge about goldsmithing and jewelry design, so Wilson wanted to be able to offer a line of unique creations to his customers.

At his business, a large majority of the products he sells are made by Wilson himself. Sometimes, the designs are suggested by his customers. But often, the one-of-a-kind rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, brooches, charms and pendants you’ll see offered for sale come from the mind of the jeweler himself.

“Just about everything I have here is one-of-a-kind,” said Wilson. “And if you don’t see it, I can create it for you.”

Last week, one of the current projects he is working on – a pendant shaped like the mask of El Dorado – is an original design inspired by a postcard he received from Columbia. To begin the jewelry-making process, he uses a special wax and carves the object to the desired shape and size. The carving may take up to three or four hours.

Once completed, the carving is stacked on a “tree” – along with other rings, charms or pendants – and placed inside a cylindrical tube called a flask. A mixture called “investment” (comprised of 60 percent investment and 40 percent water) is poured in and is allowed to harden, which takes about 10 minutes.

Ready for the kiln, the flask is fired for eight hours, until the core temperature reaches 1,350 degrees. At this point, silver or gold – from 24 karat “pure” gold to alloys of 22, 20, 18 or 14 karat – is poured into the flask, which instantly replaces the wax with liquid hot metal.

Once the flask is debubblized and cooled, Wilson removes the tree, cuts off each piece of jewelry and places the items into a magnetic tumbler. A 20 minute “ride” in the tumbler removes any fire scale left on the pieces and smoothes the surfaces.

Typically, it will take approximately three days to create one of his unique jewelry items.

“Sometimes, I’ll just look at a stone and dream about what kind of piece it would look good in,” said Wilson of his creative process. “Other times, the ideas will just come to me. I like the idea of being able to create something different.”

Visit William E. Wilson Fine Jewelry Design for yourself in The Village Shops, 2340 Periwinkle Way, Tuesday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. In season, they are open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 472-8590 or visit www.wewgems.com.