When Keith Stewart got married, the pastor held up two rings and said they were a symbol of the couple’s commitment. The moment helped Stewart realize that jewelry is more than just a piece of metal.
The rings Stewart and his wife, Gay, still wear meant even more because Stewart had made them himself.
Stewart, master bench jeweler at Danenberg Jewelers, has been repairing special tokens and creating custom pieces for customers at the store since 1989. Jewelry allows Stewart to work with his hands and gives him a creative outlet, but he’s also realized during his career how much a special piece of jewelry can mean to someone.
“A lot of times I think it’s just jewelry, but to the person that owns it, it can be one of the most important things in their lives, what it symbolizes,” he said.
Stewart grew up in Waterville. He worked with his hands on the family farm and did some welding and construction, but working with jewelry never entered his mind. Stewart received a degree in accounting from Emporia State in 1981 but soon realized it wasn’t the right fit.
“I didn’t have the heart in it,” he said. “I wasn’t passionate about accounting as much other interests I had.”
Stewart said he enjoyed art classes when he was in school and during his college years he was always making things, so friends encouraged him to explore artistic opportunities.
“People were always telling me I should be an art major.” he said. “That’d be nice but I didn’t know how practical that would be.”
Despite his reservations about job opportunities in the art world, he started taking art classes at the University of Kansas. An instructor suggested Stewart take a jewelry design class and he was skeptical, but the class fit into his schedule. Once he tried it, it came naturally.
“I remember looking at him thinking, ‘Why would I want to take that?’” Stewart said. “It was kind of doing a lot of the kind of work I was doing before so it seemed natural for me, where as a lot of the other students seemed more intimidated by it.”
Stewart’s interest in working with his hands also shows up in his hobby of restoring antique bicycles. He appeared in a Hallmark ad a few years ago riding a penny farthing he worked on.
“I like to make them rideable,” Stewart said.
Stewart said he likes a challenge and his instructor found ways to test his limits when it came to creating a new item of jewelry.
“I’d have an idea but I wasn’t sure if it could be done,” he said. “He’d look at it and say, “That’ll be very difficult, but you could do it.” That was a great way to challenge me.”
Stewart joined Danenberg Jewelers in 1989. Mike Danenberg, whose children Brian Danenberg and Kate Narrow now run the store, hired Stewart and said Stewart is calm and methodical and called him “an absolute perfectionist.”
Stewart said he and Narrow developed a saying when she and her brother took over the store: Strive for perfection but accept excellence.
“He’s one of the most even-tempered people I’ve ever known,” Danenberg said.
Danenberg said at previous jobs sometimes customers would bring an item back because of problems with a repair, but said Stewart gets it right the first time.
“Nobody ever wants to do their work twice, and he never has to,” Danenberg said.
Stewart said he’s the “shop guy” for the store and spends much of his time at his bench in the back of the store with his tools.
“As a last resort they call me out,” he joked.
Stewart said he enjoys both the more practical task of repairing jewelry and the more creative task of creating custom designs with a customer. Doing both brings a nice variety to the job, he said.
When he is creating a new piece with a customer, they might have an idea in mind or Stewart might suggest a way to make it work.
“Every customer is different and unique,” Stewart said.
Recently a pair of sisters came to the store and wanted their late parents’ wedding bands turned into a new item. The rings were broken and bent out of shape, so Stewart helped them design a pin that intertwined them.
Making unique pieces that often are given as gifts highlighted to Stewart why jewelry can be special to people. Stewart said hearing the reactions of some customers brought home to him that a piece can be a keepsake and a reminder of a loved one.
Stewart said one of the first custom pieces he designed was a ring a woman had made for her boyfriend. He was a drummer in a band, so they came up with a design that featured the band’s logo and a drum set and drumsticks on the sides. The woman came back later and said he liked the ring so much it brought him to tears.
“It has so much meaning behind it, where it came from,” Stewart said. “It just made me realize how important a piece of jewelry can be to somebody.”