Thirty-seven years ago, Albert Lee left his home in Hong Kong to embrace a major life change in the United States. It was the one and only move he’d need to make, as he connected with the man who would become a “surrogate father” and establish his protégé’s presence in the Chicago jewelry scene.
Albert’s wife, May, made the overseas move with her husband in 1980, when Albert - who had learned his trade in Hong Kong - started working for Charles Selon as a bench jeweler.
“Through the years, Mr. Selon acted as more or less a surrogate father for my dad,” says Zion Lee, who has been working full-time with his father at A.M. Lee Jeweler for the past 11 years. “Mr. Selon was a businessman, and this was predominantly a wholesale shop.” Mr. Selon started his business, then called Charles Selon and Associates, in Jewelers Row on Chicago’s North Wabash Avenue in 1958. When the building was purchased and converted to luxury condos, he moved his business to the affluent Chicago suburb of Northbrook.
When Mr. Selon retired in 1993, Albert took ownership of the business, moving once again to a more heavily trafficked strip mall. “It was only natural that my dad step in to keep the business running,” Zion says. “We then moved from strictly wholesale and jewelry manufacturing to a kind of hybrid wholesale and retail business, and we still do some trade work with other stores. We sell to the public, but we’re not buying, so we’re cost effective on the tail end. Because we were manufacturers to begin with, we don’t have to go through a wholesaler or third party.”
A.M. Lee’s custom jewelry services include redesign and repair, along with handcrafted, one-of-a-kind jewelry and engagement sets.
Growing Up in the Business
Zion, the second of three children, was born four years after Albert and May moved to the States. “On Saturdays, we’d go to the office with Dad while he caught up on work,” Zion remembers. “I’ve been around the business all my life, helping out where I could.” A Northeastern Illinois University marketing major with GIA training and certification in diamonds and colored stones, Zion started working full-time at the store when he was about 20 years old. “Everything that is bench or jewelry related, I’ve learned on the job, side by side with my father,” he says.
“Because of how closely I work with my father, I think we approach designing a piece from a similar stance,” he says. “When my dad was working for him, Mr. Selon knew how to streamline and keep only a certain amount of bench jewelers. So he sat the jewelers down and put them through an obstacle course or skills test, grading them on both time and accuracy. You take something as common as a jeweler’s saw, the vast majority of jewelers hold the saw with handle down in America. My father was taught to hold the saw upside down, which allows you to peer over the piece and saw on the down stroke. I guess he was picked on because he did it backwards, or opposite, but because of his skill he clearly excelled ahead of everyone else.
“We hold other hand tools differently. I see the way a lot of jewelers hold the oscillating tool, they grip it in the palm of their hand, like a hammer, whereas we’ll hold it as though it was a pencil.”
Family Design Team
A.M. Lee is now basically a three-person operation, Zion says. Remounts account for the vast majority of the store’s custom work, with designs by Albert, Zion or Cindy Sloan, who has been with the business even longer than Albert, working with Mr. Selon since she was 16 years old. Zion calls her his “office mom.”
“Either my father, Cindy or myself will be sitting with a customer and sketching out ideas” for remounts, Zion says. “From that we move to a hand-carved wax, so the bulk of what we do is still a one-of-one remount piece, or a one-of-one design piece. Everything but the casting work is done inside the store. I work with casters within the city, but other than that we do production from setting to finishing.
“My uncle comes in on weekends to help with restringing or changing a watch battery here and there. As a family owned and operated store, we do everything from sales to production, everything.”
Zion says the family operation is “challenging and rewarding all the same. My favorite part is seeing the transition of a piece. Customers will come in with something very specific in mind, or have no clue whatsoever; they’re a blank slate. I’ve seen everything from yells, cries, tears, hugs - they say, ‘This is so wonderful!’ Being able to be part of the transition is the best.”