Durham Magazine interviews Linda McGill:
Durham Magazine: Durham is your hometown, and I’m sure you’ve seen it change drastically. Can you briefly describe the changes you’ve witnessed in your business and personally?
Linda McGill: When I went into business in the mid-1970s, Durham—my hometown--was waking up from the doldrums of an economy that revolved around tobacco and textiles and a culture of racial and economic segregation. Duke had just begun to really grow, and the Research Triangle Park along with it. In my first 10 years of running Jewelsmith, Durham went from a town whose majority had been born here to a small city where natives were outnumbered several times over by newcomers. What I love about this place is that it has held on to the best parts of itself—hospitality, authenticity, homegrown arts and culture such as blues music, cooking, and baseball—while opening itself to new ideas and attitudes. I don’t know if a custom design business could have succeeded in this town in 1960, but by the time I got started, I felt free to create and explore without worrying about matching what was in the windows of more traditional jewelry stores and trust that customers would come.
Durham Magazine: Did you choose to open Jewelsmith in Durham because of the growth it was experiencing at the time, or because it was your hometown?
Linda McGill: Jewelsmith is in Durham because this is where I was born and raised and where I have family and friends. And it’s here because Durham—lucky for me—is a good place to be from. Here I can be at home as an artist and as a businesswoman: comfortable when that’s what I want and challenged and stretched when that’s what I need.
Durham Magazine: You could describe Durham as a sort of diamond in the rough. I was wondering if, in your experience, you have discovered certain styles and trends that Durham customers appreciate more than others in terms of their jewelry. Does Durham have its own sense of style?
Linda McGill: Durham is not a diamond in the rough. It’s a necklace of beautifully cut diamonds and precious stones of every hue. Durham has nothing to apologize for. We’re cool, just like the mural downtown says, and we trust our choices. Something I’ve noticed—and especially among Jewelsmith customers from all over the Triangle, not just Durham—is the creative way people dress and their freedom from the bondage of labels. It’s fun to walk up Main Street on a Friday night and see the verve and panache of what people are wearing. And of course, because Jewelsmith’s specialty is custom design, the store attracts customers who appreciate pieces that are beautiful, meticulously crafted, and one-of-a-kind.
Durham Magazine: What has been the hardest part about being a woman-run business since the ‘70s? What has been the best part? What do you look forward to in the future for Jewelsmith?
Linda McGill: In the jewelry business, honesty and ethics are the cornerstone of the relationships among store owners and the vendors who supply the diamonds, gemstones, and precious metals that are our stock in trade. From the beginning, I’ve felt a sense of acceptance and fellowship in the community of my peers, and this has made doing business an enterprise free of the concerns of gender. I didn’t have to prove myself as a woman; I had to prove myself as a trustworthy member of an ancient guild. A big honor for me early on was being invited in 1990 to join the American Gem Society, the trade organization that sets the standards for business ethics and professionalism for the U.S. jewelry industry. My membership in AGS is a signal to customers of Jewelsmith’s integrity and commitment to service. The store’s gemologist is president of the North Carolina guild of AGS, so our ties to the organization are deep.
The best part of running my business is watching Jewelsmith’s talented staff in action. Their design solutions constantly amaze me. Here’s an example. A customer may come in with a pendant—a piece she loves because her mother willed it to her but can’t wear because it doesn’t suit her own style. Our team swings into action—talking and sketching. Out of this intimate and collaborative conversation, we create something new from something old: a ring, let’s say, that speaks of memory and also of a new day. Or you can come in and choose a fabulous piece of jewelry right out of the case—designed and made in the store by one of our master jewelers.
Looking ahead, I see us continuing on this path: staying current with new techniques and materials, using our broad and deep artisanal knowledge to make vibrant and flawless work, and having fun doing it. I think our customers have fun in the store, too. That’s important, because even though we make museum-quality jewelry, we aren’t a museum: we’re the shop around the corner, glad to see you when you come through the door.