Lester Lampert's Museum-Worthy Gems
by elle eichinger
In the Field Museum’s Grainger Hall of Gems, there’s a ring with breathtaking organic design: More than 50 diamonds climb, leaf-like, up its yellow-gold sides to a blooming three-carat flower of demantoid garnet. The ring is one of 27 pieces in the Hall of Gems designed by Oak Street mainstay Lester Lampert, Chicago’s four-generation jewelry powerhouse. The so-called “Garnet of Eden” ring was designed by the jeweler’s youngest gemological craftsman, David Lampert, who—in addition to his innumerable one-of-a-kind designs—can customize versions of the unique piece for his clients.
“We’re artists,” David says, referring not just to himself but to the Lamperts who came before him—great-grandfather David, who in 1920 opened an eponymous company from which Lester Lampert derived; grandfather Seymour; and father Lester, who still comes to his store daily. (David’s sister, Fradine, is also involved in the company.) “We’ve always looked to create art in jewelry; it’s what separates us and our store from a lot of the others around.” The family is involved in every step of the creative process; the boutique occupies a four-story building in the Gold Coast, and nearly every piece is created onsite from start to finish.
Given that the business is steeped in nearly a century of tradition, the methods David uses to create custom jewelry are surprisingly innovative. He obtained his first patent a decade ago, and a peek into his office reveals a computer running high-tech design software and a brand-new 3-D printer tucked into a corner. The relatively new computer-aided design (CAD) software he uses to design a piece of jewelry allows David to work in fractions of a millimeter. “I’ll spend an hour on an angle or a curve to make it the way I want,” he says. “But I’ve always said that in computer-aided design, the focus is on the ‘aided.’ You still need to be a designer.”
David’s abilities as a designer have been honed beyond a carat of a doubt: professionally for 25 years, and unofficially for even longer. Beginning in his early teenage years, he was helping his dad, Lester, at the store. “I was designing jewelry when I was 14,” he says. A graduate gemologist, David is able to translate his ideas to paper or screen with vivid realism; now, since acquiring the 3-D printer less than a year ago, his designs are no longer subject to the interpretation of a hand-carver. Instead, David designs a 3-D file using his CAD program and sends it directly to the printer. Roughly 20 hours later, he is holding an exact wax model of the piece he envisioned, be it a ring, brooch, or necklace charm. The model is then used to create a mold and, eventually, becomes an impressive bauble.
“My designs don’t just come from anywhere,” David says. “They’re inspired by having a conversation with a client. I sit down with them and try to figure out their style, what would make them happy in a piece of adornment. From there, I start sketching, typically right in front of the client. Both my father and I do that.” Some clients—including celebs Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Kanye West, and even President Obama, who wore Lester Lampert cuff links to his inauguration and commissioned a diamond brooch for Michelle—are looking for bold, attention-grabbing designs. “But the majority of our clients are local,” David says, “so the jewelry is going to reflect the tastes of Chicago—it’s Midwestern-inspired. It’s wearable.”
His biggest design inspiration isn’t just any client, though; it’s his wife, Julie. The most memorable piece he created for her was a hamsa, a Middle Eastern hand-and-eye symbol, sometimes called the Evil Eye or the Lucky Eye (David’s, of course, features a gorgeous hand-carved, natural stone eye). “[My wife and I] were on a trip to Israel and saw a lot of art featuring the hamsa,” he says. “It was when we came back that I knew I wanted to create one for her. That was the start of this whole collection, which has really taken off.” In fact, though David first created the hamsa for his wife nearly six years ago, it’s the timelessness of the symbol that still makes it the perfect Valentine’s Day gift today. “You’re telling someone you love her and you want to protect her,” he says. Although the jeweler makes the piece in a dozen colors of stone, for Valentine’s Day the most popular by far is ruby.
Even though he has outfitted other elite Chicagoans like Michael Jordan, David wears very little jewelry. “I wear my wedding bands, and I wear a poker watch because that’s what I enjoy,” he says. “But design is not just about jewelry. I want to make a solid gold hat clip that could hold a cigar.” Lampert also outfitted his car with a custom cup holder that he made in the jewelry store’s shop; and he owns a prized collection of pieces created by each of the Lampert elders—though not necessarily for use. Ultimately, he adds, “I think I prefer that my wife wear the jewelry.” Somehow, we imagine she’s all right with that. Lester Lampert, 57 E. Oak St., 312-944-6888
Photography by Tim klein; ron sachs-pool/getty images (obama); andreas rentz/getty images (jolie)