If he'd been born in a different generation, Walter Childress says, he might have been a computer geek and spent his days dismantling hard drives or developing apps.
"I was always good with my hands. My mother said I took the hinges off the door when I was 3½ ."
But this natural-born tinkerer found his niche not with wi-fi or privacy settings, but with settings for precious and semi-precious stones. And he's developed useful products that have applications for jewelry wearers and repairers.
With the assignment being a Valentine's-related profile, a jeweler seemed a natural choice. But this reporter's knowledge of fine jewelry could fit on a Post-it note.
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It took a local recommendation to find Childress, whose shop is tucked away in Chevy Chase Place. Apparently, he's built enough of a following that being able to park right outside his door is more important than visibility.
"Everybody assumes my family was in the business," says Childress. "My father was a livestock buyer for Armour. Not many people remember, but there used to be a packing plant out on Old Frankfort Pike where they processed lambs and sheep." Childress was born in Lexington, but the family followed the livestock business before settling back down here. He graduated from Lafayette High School in 1966.
How did the boy who "was always fixing anything" find himself in the world of fine jewelry? Was he entranced by his mother's pearls at an impressionable age, perhaps?
No, it was pure happenstance.
Diamonds on his windshield
Through his scout troop, he heard the Fuller and Wilder jewelry store needed someone "to run the bank deposits and errands and sweep the floors." Childress started with a summer job at the store on the Esplanade in 1965 and soon became an apprentice to George Wilder. Then about six months in, Wilder moved to Texas. Suddenly, the apprentice was without a teacher. Childress found himself driving to an Italian jeweler in Cincinnati when he had questions. "That was a little far to travel, so I just had to figure pretty much everything out myself. And that is the best way to learn."
Childress became competent in sizing rings, setting stones and most any kind of repair. He stayed with Fuller and Wilder for 16 years. Then the business was sold and moved. It wasn't much later, in 1982, that he decided to open his own store, in the old Esplanade location.
"It was pretty scary, I don't know about other folks, but when you're responsible for all the bills and the work, well, you say, 'Nobody's going to pull my pants up anymore.' "
It helped that he'd made good friends in the industry. His confidence and clientele grew.
Among his early customers was designer George Headley of Headley-Whitney fame. Childress would help him from time to time with his jewelry and bibelots. He also had contact with another prominent resident, Secretariat, whose shoes he made into sterling-silver ashtrays.
The natural tinkerer has several inventions he markets nationwide. The University of Kentucky helped him develop a mesh basket that solves the problem of gemstones that get shaken loose and lost in the ultrasonic cleaning machine that jewelers use. A trademarked "ring slipper" formula worked up with a chemist in Louisville allows women to ease their rings on and off swollen fingers and knuckles. And his "bracelet butler" holds a bracelet on the wrist while it's being fastened. These are jobs you can't make an app for.
Kentucky blue ground
Childress's interest in gems has led him far afield. He's been to Sierra Leone in Africa to see diamond mining firsthand.
"That was an eye-opener," he says. "There were a couple times when I felt my life was in danger. But you do that, and you know the whole story."
He's been to Elliott County, too. When an acquaintance showed him a diamond he said he'd found there, Childress went and saw for himself that the right "blue ground" conditions do exist. (Oddly enough, a little Internet digging revealed a parcel for sale there that was once home to a diamond mine company. But prospector beware: diamond mining is not for the faint of heart, and no diamond finds in Elliott County have ever been authenticated, says the Kentucky Geological Survey Web site.)
Silverware, golden rules
Childress has been in his current location about 15 years, and it suits him. Customers can park a few feet from the door, his gentlemanly lease agreement is two paragraphs long, and the space is the right size for working alongside his daughter Angela.
He's trained her in the business and has turned over the buying to her. "I'm an old fuddy-duddy. She's got the style. I'll turn up my nose at something she's gone wild for, but it'll be the first thing that sells."
"We probably couldn't handle a whole lot more foot traffic. In the malls, after you pay off the extra labor and overhead, at the end, you come down to the same dollar in your pocket."
There's no such thing as a typical day. "It's so varied. I maybe shouldn't allow it, but people have brought in purses, canes, lamps, silverware, just anything." Even a zipper. Childress considers his specialty to be customer service.
"I guess I'm old school. I can't bring myself to charge like the folks do in the big city. But it gives me the right to say 'No, I don't care to do that.' I would like to say everyone who walks in the door is a pleasure to deal with. It's not so," he says, laughing. "But you treat everybody the way you'd like to be treated."
"When you come here, you're talking with the main man and main woman that do the work. There's no layers in between. A lot of people don't understand that when they go through the Internet, the fella may be sitting on a beach with his laptop and is not going to help you after the sale. I try to do as much local business as I can, and I hope everybody does the same."
Heart of the matter
In his spare time, he tinkers with monkey organs and music boxes. "That's my passion." Oh yeah, passion. This profile was supposed to relate to Valentine's Day.
Childress says the business doesn't really get much Valentine's traffic. But in late January, Cupid has clearly infiltrated the showcases. "Angela does a wonderful job with the displays," he says.
And that's the real Valentine's connection: He's taught his daughter the business, and they work together every day. "He's the best teacher in the world," says Angela. "We make a good team."
If that's not love ...