By Jim Obert
PERRYVILLE -- Sandy and Kevin Hilderbrand recently returned from Antwerp, Belgium -- the diamond capital of the world. Before they started their jewelry business almost four years ago, they went to California every week -- for years. That was when they were long-haul truckers.
For 11 years, the Hilderbrands drove a truck for Gilster-Mary Lee, the Perry County manufacturer and packager of cake mixes, stuffing mixes, hot cocoa mixes and popcorn. But the miles piled up and so did the back injuries, especially to Kevin Hilderbrand.
"That job just didn't suit us anymore," says Sandy Hilderbrand. "The jewelry business looked interesting. Kevin thought that bench jewelers had cool tools and doing jewelry repair would be fun, and I always liked gemstones."
The transition from over-the-road truckers to jewelry business owners was gradual. Sandy enrolled in a home study course offered by the Gemological Institute of America. For more than four years she studied topics such as jewelry essentials, diamond essentials and colored stone essentials. She became an accredited jewelry professional.
"There's a certain level of understanding you have to have to be accredited," she says. "For example, when you learn about colored stones and how to identify them, you have to pass the test 100 percent."
While Sandy was studying gems and stones, her husband was developing his talents for jewelry repair and restoration. They began creating sculpted wire and sterling silver jewelry.
In September 2000, they quit their full-time jobs and opened Hilderbrand Jewelers.
"Most jewelry stores are either inherited or bought," says Sandy. "They are very seldom started from scratch, but that's what we did. We bought as much inventory as we could, then bought some more. It's taken almost four years to have the right mix of inventory that sells in this area."
Sandy says their store probably has more loose diamonds to show than any other jewelry store in the area. "At any one time there's never less than 300. From what I understand, the average jeweler starting out has about a dozen."
The Hilderbrands' recent trip to Antwerp was their second. They go on behest of customers who want to buy specific diamonds or diamond-related jewelry. Sandy says she sometimes call her customers from Antwerp and informs them of special deals she's found.
Three employees work for the Hilderbrands, and another is in training to help Kevin as a part-time bench jeweler. When jewelry is taken in for repair, it is photographed. Kevin does 99 percent of the repair work. Mechanical watches need special expertise, so they are outsourced.
Several years ago, the Hilderbrands bought a German-made laser welder. It allows them to make the most difficult of repairs.
"We can fix things now we couldn't fix before," says Sandy, watching her husband repair an engagement ring. "This is better than soldering where you put a piece of flowable gold between the breaks. This takes the existing metal and puts it together for a stronger joint.
"The laser welder can get into places where it would be difficult to get a torch. Less metal is used and it's a time saver."
Hilderbrand Jewelers sells clocks, gold chains, earrings and more. Custom designs of jewelry is a specialty.