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Caribbean Beat Magazine

I got it at the Goldsmitty

Bridget van Dongen digs up a jewel of a store in Antigua

  • Australian opal naturally cut and set in gold with diamonds and pearls. Photograph courtesy the Goldsmitty
  • A blue-green tourmaline crystal from Namibia is set in a gold “bubble” nest. Photograph courtesy the Goldsmitty
  • Cut and polished larimar in Smit’s distinctive organic settings. Photograph courtesy the Goldsmitty
  • Smit emerges from the primitive larimar mine in the Dominican Republic. Photograph courtesy the Goldsmitty
  • A rare conch pearl is set in a gold “cup” to appear as if it is floating. Photograph courtesy the Goldsmitty

In Antigua’s duty-free shopping area you’ll find many big-name jewellery stores, filled with sparkly baubles that all look alike.

Situated at the bottom of Redcliffe Street in St John’s, in an old powder magazine, is a store that dares to be different. Its name is the Goldsmitty and the man behind it is an inimitable, dapper artist named Hans Smit.

Smit studied jewellery-making at the Academy of Modern Art in Holland in the early Sixties, and had never even heard of Antigua when, in 1965, while painting and sculpting in Spain, he met a couple who were running a hotel on this tiny Caribbean island. He thought it sounded like an interesting place, so he found a yacht that was sailing in the right direction. When he reached Antigua, like many other expats, he says, “I fell in love with it and never left.”

Smit worked in the sailing industry, eventually getting back into painting; ran a bar in English Harbour for a while; and then found the premises for his current store and opened a studio making jewellery on commission.

That was in the early Eighties and since then, the store has gone from strength to strength. His one-of-a-kind pieces are bought by everyone from cruise-ship passengers to vacationers at the high-end hotels, who return year after year to get something special to commemorate their holiday.

All of the jewellery is made on the premises, in a small workshop upstairs, reached by a rickety gilt spiral staircase. Smit has trained some young local apprentices in the art of jewellery-making and although he does the bulk of the designing, they make the actual casts. Most of his small staff have been with him for years and are as enthusiastic about the process as he is.

As with most hand-made jewellery, Smit uses the lost-wax method to cast his pieces. “Individual designs are carved into wax,” he says, describing the process. “The wax is covered in plaster of paris. Once this hardens, it is heated, melting the wax and leaving a hollow cast that is then placed in a centrifuge, injecting molten gold into every crevice and forming a perfect copy of the original design.”

What makes the Goldsmitty’s jewellery so different from the cookie-cutter masses? The designs have been called organic. “I take my influence from the shapes I see in nature – stones, leaves, fruit,” he says. “The texture is unique, not mass-produced.”

Smit travels a lot to source his own stones, usually going to the mines and getting down and dirty, but he buys most of the stones cut and polished. He is extremely passionate about the gems, taking a lot of time to explain the origins of each one.

When I visited the Goldsmitty, he had just returned from the Dominican Republic, where he had been exploring the only mine in the world that produces larimar, a soft blue-green stone. He described the mine as “very primitive,” and showed photos of his visit. “The mine itself is up in the mountains,” he explains. “About 400 people are employed to go down hardwood-shored tunnels to the larimar seam, which is dug out by hand. The resulting stones are cut and polished on the most basic equipment.”

Smit also travelled to Namibia a few years ago, where he bought a supply of raw blue-green tourmaline crystals, which were specially heat-treated and laser-cut for his store. “Most gems will change colour when heat-treated,” he says. “Heat-treating also stabilises the structure, making the crystal less liable to shatter while being cut.”

He buys gems from all around the world, but prefers to buy directly from the mines, because he eliminates the middle man that way. He gets opals from Australia, and imperial topaz from the only mine in the world, in Brazil. His diamonds are certified conflict-free.

His latest fascination is amber. He brought out a large bag of uncut, unpolished amber that he had bought at an auction. Amber is fossilised tree resin, often found with petrified insects inside, and has long been prized for its colour and natural beauty. Smit’s enthusiasm is infectious as he speaks of working with it as well as natural corals and petrified wood to make new and beautiful jewellery designs.

He’s in the process of setting up a “Caribbean Corner” in the store, which will focus exclusively on Caribbean gems, “A lot of people come into the store seeking a memento of their trip to the Caribbean and they want something that comes from the region”.

Obviously larimar will feature, as well as amber from the Dominican Republic, and conch pearls (which are not true pearls but calcified deposits formed by the queen conch). “It is estimated that only one in 10,000 conchs produces a pearl,” he says. “Less than ten per cent of those are of gem quality, so they are extremely rare and valuable.”

Smit is constantly updating his training and had recently returned from a course in the US, where he learned to cut agate. But his interests extend beyond just jewellery and he is well known in Antigua as a philanthropist as well. He was heavily involved in community football in Antigua, and his store sponsored a local team for 23 years, though he said with regret, “The recession has hit hard and I was unable to continue with that sponsorship last year.” He’s determined that when things pick up, he will be giving them his support again.

He is also one of the founding members of the Hourglass Foundation, which hosts a famous Christmas champagne party in the Dockyard each year. Last year that party raised over $15,000, which was distributed to local charities.

In November, Antigua and Barbuda celebrated its thirtieth anniversary of independence, and the Goldsmitty marked 30 years on the same day. Smit observed the occasion by donating a selection of rough and polished fossilised wood and coral – the national gemstone – to the national  museum.

If you’re travelling to Antigua, a visit to the Goldsmitty is a must. It’s more than just a jewellery store – it’s akin to an art gallery, and the artist is an amazing man.