Imagine being born with a healthy left hand but a disabled right one—mainly just a palm and a thumb.
Then imagine falling in love with jewelry-making at just 13 years of age.
For Lee Elliot, it all started in a one-room apartment in Woodmere, where he lived with his father, Morris, who ran a hardware store, and his older brother, Stephen, after their parents divorced.
Having crossed into his teenage years, a young Mr. Elliot visited Sam Kramer’s store during one of his visits to Manhattan to see his mother, Shirley, who worked as a dressmaker. Kramer was one of the “gods of contemporary jewelry, particularly of the art of wax jewelry,” Mr. Elliot now recalls, describing the design technique that involves layering wax for future casting. The Museum of Contemporary Crafts, located across the street from The Museum of Modern Art, featured some of Kramer’s work.
“He would take medical glass eyes and set them into his settings. I was blown away when we visited him,” he said, seated in the realization of his childhood dream, Lee Jewelers in Sag Harbor. “I bought some sterling wire and tumbled stones. I wrapped the stones in the wire. It was abstract and obtuse, but I soft-soldered them together, put them in the coin shop where I was hanging out. Nothing ever sold, but that’s where I started.”
He fell in love with Manhattan and, at age 16, moved in with his mother full time. He landed a job at a pawn shop, where he mingled with fine jewelry when he wasn’t working his second gig as a leather sandal maker for Britton Leather Shop.
As the story goes, he walked into the shop wearing a leather jacket he had made himself, and Dick Whalen, the owner, hired him on the spot. Mr. Elliot was a junior in high school.
Down the block, Bernie Kelly owned a jewelry store in the tight-knit community of Greenwich Village. It wasn’t long before Mr. Elliot found it. He ordered a custom belt buckle from Mr. Kelly and, essentially, never left the store—even when John Morrison purchased it.
“John taught me how to make rings of wax to be cast,” Mr. Elliot said. “I made two waxes, very original and unique. John said, ‘I want them.’ I said, ‘What’s in it for me?’”
Mr. Morrison said bluntly, “I want you to give me the waxes.”
Mr. Elliot declined and went home.
At this point, he was living on his own after his mother had accidentally set their apartment on fire. He was forced to grow up fast in order to make ends meet. And he had to hone his craft, despite his disability.
He has never known obstacles to his work, other than fine jewelry-making being a very tactile experience. From creating the design in wax or wire, to casting, to hammering and finishing, Mr. Elliot sits patiently at his bench, transfixed on the details, not unlike a sculptor soldering metals or chipping away at stone. He appears mesmerized, transfixed on the details, allowing the tools to guide him, because, he says, the “tools have a mind of their own.”
“I started to make the jewelry in my home,” he recalled. “I made enough pieces that there was a Greenwich Village show on West Broadway and Bleecker, where I was able to have my own booth.”
He opened his first jewelry shop in Southampton in 1988, in what is now the Herbert & Rist Liquor Store, before quickly moving to Main Street in 1990. By 1991, he was next door to Hildreth’s Home Goods.
His life changed again after 15 years, when he discovered his love for Sag Harbor. Its quaint mom-and-pop shops reminded him of Bleecker Street of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, his 800-square-foot store there is located on Main Street with two aisles of fine jewelry that sparkle when the natural light streams in through the front windows.
Jewelry by his daughter, Dori Elliot, takes up at least half of the space. She is a vivacious and capable foil to her father. Her work gives a sharp nod to his style while capturing a youthful modern element that is unique in her own right, all under the watchful eye of their white standard poodle, Sandy, whom Ms. Elliot refers to as their “guard dog.”
“She brings in more customers than the jewelry,” she said, giving the dog a kiss on her ebony nose.
Mr. Elliot took a seat on his bench and swiftly delved into what weighs on him whenever he meets new people—his hand—though he has never seen it as a barrier. He explained that children often stare at his handicap and he allows it for about five minutes before he gently confronts them, explaining that it has never stopped him from pursuing his dreams.
“When I was 5 years old, I learned the word ‘ambidextrous,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘That’s me.’”
“He can do a handstand,” his daughter added. “He’s taught me to roof, to spackle, tile. Therefore, in my life, I’ve always said that there’s nothing that can stop you. There’s just different. Different isn’t disabled. When they gave him a prosthetic hand, he said, ‘Nope.’”
“It was a cosmetic hand and I would put it in my desk at school,” he said. “I would have people go look in my desk to give them a scare.”
“That’s what the hand was for,” she said, giggling with pride.
“I do have a little difficulty with clasps,” he admitted. “But when you’re not here, who do you think does it?”
Mr. Elliot’s intensely personal approach to jewelry making, which is created with hammers, saws, chisels and more, is akin to watching a sculptor. He takes out a large, circa-1965 ring from a jewelry case. “I did sell one of this ring. A couple bought this ring in blue topaz and 14-karat gold,” he said. “When he left my shop, he mentioned that he was a curator at MOMA. He had no reason to tell me or to lie to me. But that’s what he said, and I’ve carried that with me for more than 50 years.”
Mr. Elliot has exhibited in all of the best craft shows, from Rhinebeck to Baltimore and the world renown Wholesale Jewelry Show, he said. He has created a legacy, a deep stroke of creativity that artists pass through generations of their own.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I love the interpersonal interactions with my customers, because I think I’m funny. The bench work. I love the creative process. I’m 69 years old. I won’t retire. I won’t.”
His method often starts with elaborate sketches in notebooks that he returns to. He points to a drawing and explains the story of the piece. One ring is being upgraded from its original 25th anniversary band to its current 50th anniversary band, and will include a stone this time. Another ring is a layered wave, modern yet classic, for a surfer’s wedding band. Every piece in the notebook has an individual story that “touches” his heart, he said.
Ms. Elliot pulled out a silver necklace from under her shirt, a peace symbol that her father created in 1965. She placed the hammered, delicate piece over a tattoo on her wrist—a perfect rendition.
“It is 2015 and it is still one of our bestsellers,” she said, hugging the piece to her heart. “It resonates, and I never take it off, the tattoo or the necklace.”
Above Ms. Elliot’s desk hangs a rudimentary drawing of a face, one she drew in the first grade, and on its head sits a pair of glasses with a jeweler’s magnifying lens attached to it—exactly like the one Mr. Elliot wears today. He can see it every day from his desk, directly next to hers.
“Look here, it says, ‘The person I admire the most is my daddy,’” Ms. Elliot said, smiling, pointing to scribbled text.
“Our father-daughter bond in every way possible is the most important part of my life,” Mr. Elliot said.
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One fine body…