by Chris Tiessen

In the opening monologue of Anthony Bourdain’s brilliant web series, Raw Craft, the chef-turned-author-turned-television personality posits that the term ‘handcraft’ has in recent times been reduced to a vaporous marketing label that ‘can obscure the passionate folks who actually make things by hand.’ Bourdain’s mission, then, throughout the series, is to locate and highlight those individuals whose business it is to craft by hand the most marvelous (and, in many cases, most luxurious) goods.

Bourdain’s quest for craft takes him across the globe, from a master bladesmith to a metal caster; from a luthier to a team of publishers; from a master cobbler to a legendary ‘boxing tailor’ – each one an extraordinary, uncommonly talented artisan.

The creation of this inaugural issue of TOQUE (itself an act of handiwork) has had us in pursuit of true masters of handcraft – albeit those close to home. And it was during this search that, breathless with excitement, I stumbled upon the most incredible operation in the unlikeliest of places: a small group of craftsfolk tucked into a workshop nestled on the second story of an 1880s Tudor building sandwiched between two banks overlooking St. George’s Square in downtown Guelph.

The goldsmiths of Knar Jewellery.

photo: Chris Tiessen

Four artisans. Well over sixty years experience between them. International careers that have spanned Lebanon to Dubai, Germany to Canada. Working as individuals. And as a team. Each possessing specialized skills. Each at the top of their trade.

‘We pride ourselves in doing our own work in-house as much as possible,’ Knar General Manager John van de Kamer remarked during one of several chats we had about the business and its team of artisans. ‘While many jewellery businesses outsource custom jobs and repairs, we’ve always done it here.’ In the heart of the operation. With tools that – after so many generations – are perfectly fitted to the task.

‘We’re certainly not luddites,’ John observes as we tour past four worn wooden work stations piled with files, pliers, diamond-setting instruments and other implements that look like they’ve been around longer than either of us. ‘We’re not averse to using computer-aided design, for instance, and lasers and other high tech innovations. However, so often it’s the traditional artisanal methods that simply make the most sense – that are the most appropriate technology at hand.’

At hand for new builds. And restoring family heirlooms. And repairing broken jewellery. And creating a new piece (or pieces) out of something old. It’s a glorious process to behold – the Knar masters at work. During my time with them, I was lucky enough to have goldsmith Levon take me under his wing as he moved from station to station throughout the workshop, meticulously setting diamonds, polishing, hand forming, and more. Next to Levon, goldsmith Raffi showed me how he had cast a gold ring with an injection molding before beginning to work his file on the piece to refine its rough edges and surfaces. He, too, had diamonds on his workbench ready to be set. Little gems that he handled with the most delicate pair of specialized tweezers.  Bright treasures dazzling under the glowing work light.

‘Over a quarter of our business is custom work and repair,’ John says. ‘And so many of the pieces we bring in are from companies that also take pleasure in hand crafting what they produce.’ Respected companies like John Hardy, which uses 100% certified reclaimed silver and gold as well as gemstones sourced under best practices for every piece they craft. And the Italian brand, Fope, which in 2013 became a certified member of the Responsible Jewellery Council – the international non-profit that sets ethical standards for the entire jewellery production chain. And Henrich & Denzel, the German company whose production and manufacturing processes are in full compliance with the most stringent environmental protection standards – including the exclusive use of electricity generated by renewable energy sources. And Hearts of Fire diamonds, which are hand – not machine – polished by a team of expert (and mostly female) gem cutters.

John remarks that ever since Greg and Jeff Buzbuzian opened Knar in 1978 [in a 200 square foot shop on Macdonnell] the business has focused on gaining trust and respect through the quality products they craft – and sell. ‘We have customers who’ve been with us for over three decades, ‘ he observes, ‘so we must be doing something right.’ I’d say they’re doing a whole lot of things right – by hand – and right here at Knar.

‘Despite having Knar locations in Oakville and Toronto, at the end of the day we’re just a bunch of folks from Guelph,’ John says. To be sure. And with a world of experience.
Knar Jewellery