By Robert Downes
Business has literally been an adventure for Becky Thatcher, who has roamed the world in search of gemstones and pearls which drape the counters of her jewelry stores around the region.
Its this dedication to tracking down the best of the best -- even going to the far side of the world -- that earned Becky honors as best jeweler in Leelanau County.
Creating dazzling works of art in jewelry has been a lifelong quest.
Im a metalsmith as well as a jewelry designer, she notes on a sunny day at her studio and shop in Glen Arbor. I did my first piece when I was 10 and started taking classes when I was 16. I loved working with metal and all of the different ways you can manipulate it.
Family vacations led her to Glen Arbor as a child, followed by a stint as an artist here in the 70s which ended with getting starved out. She returned to Glen Arbor in 1983 and established Becky Thatcher Designs in a small bungalow just off the beach. She -- and the town -- have been on a roll ever since.
Glen Arbor was still kind of a sleepy place when I got here, she recalls. People tended to stay here for the whole summer, or for a month. Today, we have a lot of people who visit for the weekend.
In the summer months that means a lot of traffic, with upscale tourists from Chicago and the Detroit suburbs. The regions tourist boom led Thatcher to open a new store in Leland in 1988; then one in Harbor Springs; a location in Key West; and a new store in Traverse City six years ago.
But its the quality of her creations that has made Becky Thatcher Designs a success, complemented by her hunt for precious stones, beads and pearls in far-flung Sri Lanka, Hong Kong and Bangkok.
Ive been going to Asia for the past 25 years, she says. I still go to Asia every year to find (gem) cutters who work with unusual materials.
Those materials include boulder opals, tourmaline, sapphire, tanzanite, Mandarin garnet, rubies, zircons, pink spinels, beryls and rutilated quartz. Pearls (which Thatcher prefers for herself) come from Indonesia, Tahiti and Australia. Theyre cultured pearls, but all natural colors, she notes.
At first, navigating the complexities of tracking down cutters and doing business in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand was rough going, but Thatcher persevered despite civil wars and regime changes to consider.
Going overseas was intimidating and kind of scary at first, she recalls, but adds that some early advice prompted her to take the dare.
I had a wonderful accountant who told me to have some goals, write them down and dream big. And once you have the dream, its kind of like, why not?
Today, she has strong business connections overseas. My main cutter is a Cambodian refugee Ive known for more than 20 years, she says. He buys rough stones close to the source.
Shes also helped some Asian communities to clean up their acts -- for example, by pointing out that water pollution can harm a thriving pearl bed, and by insisting on ethical standards and organizations for buying precious jewels. We work hard to be very green in our work.
Her Asian connections have also led her further afield: Last year, she and her husband David Watt traveled to Mongolia for a three-week camping expedition on horseback along the Siberian border. Theyve also hiked to a base camp on Mt. Everest in the Himalayas and, of course, have been all over the rest of Asia.
Closer to home, Thatcher has a staff of at least nine full-time employees, adding seasonal help as needed. With five stores to supply, she and her staff have their work cut out for them, literally.
What are her favorites to design and wear?
I love opals, she says. I love their color -- I like the blues and greens because they remind me of water.
She also has a weakness for pearls, and her stores are filled with standout collections. Some of us consider ourselves pearl girls -- theres something about the way they feel on your neck, she says. I grab a string of pearls almost every day.
And what a fine selection to choose from...