Toni Cavelti’s Glittering Career

Golden touch.

There are many ways enigmatic people can draw you in—with Toni Cavelti, it begins with his voice. His cadence is steady and confident, and although his voice is gentle, it commands attention. It changes dramatically as he speaks of the things he loves the most: his family, his love for Vancouver, and his journey to becoming an award-winning, groundbreaking jeweller. In his studio on a bright Sunday morning, he looks back on a glittering career.

At the age of 11, in the small Swiss village where he was raised, Mr. Cavelti discovered his love for jewellery at the library, in the pages of glass-encased, historic handwritten books. As he peered into the displays, he found himself fascinated by the swooping calligraphy and artistic drawings of goldsmith creations. Immediately he knew he had found his life’s calling. He decided to dedicate himself to crafting fine jewellery.

At 15, he began his first internship, and by 19, he had earned a solid reputation among the goldsmith community. But the world beckoned and Mr. Cavelti moved first to Geneva, then to Vancouver, where he says he was happiest. That final move set the stage for the next several decades of success, which saw other jewellers imitating the unique Cavelti style.

Now 77 and retired, Mr. Cavelti frequently reinvented his style throughout his career. “Soon after I started my small jewellery company in West Vancouver, I met Bill Reid, a fantastic Haida artist,” he explains. “With his influence, my jewellery became more abstract and ahead of its time.” This inspiration led Mr. Cavelti to win the coveted New York Diamond International Award in 1957 for a diamond ring, which looked like skyscrapers along a skyline, when viewed from the top. As his reputation grew, Mr. Cavelti made jewellery for many famous individuals, including the Queen of England, who personally thanked him for his lovely work.

Using only the highest-quality diamonds, pearls and gemstones set mostly in gold, Mr. Cavelti took pride in his creations, working on a mix of commissioned pieces and his own designs. As he describes the creative process, his eyes sparkle. “I loved going to jewellery shows, choosing gemstones, and drawing pictures of timeless creations,” says Mr. Cavelti. “It was fabulous.” He worked patiently for hours on end with 30 or 40 tiny tools for soldering, cutting and bending the metals to bring his creations to life.

Mr. Cavelti flips through several books as he describes his hundreds of designs. The jewellery glitters, even on paper. There are brooches encrusted with hundreds of tiny diamonds; necklaces made of pearls or gold, with large tourmaline, opal, ruby and sapphire stones as pendants. Sometimes he made earrings and rings to match. He flips the page to a breathtaking set of gold triangles filled with diamonds and large emeralds (his favourite gemstone). “These earrings? Twenty-thousand dollars ,” he says. “The necklace was around $80,000.” On average, Mr. Cavelti’s pieces sold for between $2,000 and $5,000. His highest sale? A full set, $250,000.

He was insistent about selling his pieces at a price that reflected their quality, and as a result he single-handedly set the standard for high-end jewellery pricing in Vancouver. “I never had a sale,” Mr. Cavelti says firmly. “If anyone asked me why, I would answer, ‘Everything is on sale all the time.’ ” Despite his pieces being one of a kind, Mr. Cavelti still calls himself a craftsman, not an artist. “An artist creates for himself because he is compelled,” he says. “A craftsman creates with others in mind. I wanted people to stop, look at and hopefully buy what I made. That was the crux of it all.”

In his early 60s, Mr. Cavelti began to concentrate solely on designing jewellery and supervising the employees in his atelier. “Making jewellery does not allow for many mistakes,” he explains. “Reheating too much ruins the metal. A lack of patience can chip a very expensive stone and make it worthless.” And so as he found his hands becoming shaky and his patience wearing thin, he decided to put down his tools. In 1999, his workshop was taken over by Birks, though he continued to design and consult there until early 2008. Mr. Cavelti’s designs are still available at Birks, which has dubbed him a master jeweller who “mixes European craftsmanship with contemporary design”.

“I always hope when someone buys a piece of jewellery from me, they feel they have walked away with something that lasts forever.” Considering his legacy, he has nothing to worry about.


Post Date:

December 1, 2008