Silver Belles

South Hero is the unlikely (or not) home of a thriving little jewelry business

by Rosalyn Graham

The sun comes up very early in South Hero in the summer, but the lights are already on in Tish Chamberlain's jewelry studio. The seven weeks from the beginning of July to the third week of August are the busiest time of the year at Silver by Tish, and keeping ahead of the orders has her on the job from 4 in the morning till 10 or 11 at night many days. "It's a short season out here. That's why we pedal fast," jokes the talented lady with the creative vision, the deft fingers and the big, welcoming smile.

Tish Chamberlain, the owner of Silver by Tish, has been making jewelry for 28 years. For the last 22, she's crafted and sold her creations on South Street in South Hero in a building that used to be the town clerk's office.

For 22 years Silver by Tish has been attracting customers to the little shop on South Street, just a few doors from U.S. 2 in the heart of the village. What began as a hobby to keep herself busy when her children began to grow up has grown steadily, fueled by the loyalty of local customers who know her as a good friend, neighbor and excellent solver of gift-giving puzzles, and summer visitors who double the population of the island community and return year after year for their "Tish fix."

Letitia Chamberlain, as she is formally known, first took jewelry lessons from Al Trono when she was a student at Burlington High School, then she took classes at Shelburne Craft School. It was when she was a young mother, living with her husband, Bart, in Huntington that she began to get serious, making pieces that went to shops in Cape Cod and New Hampshire.

Moving to the islands in 1983 (a homecoming of sorts, since Bart's mother grew up there), Chamberlain opened a retail shop in the 100-year-old farmhouse they bought, turning the space that had housed the South Hero town clerk's office into her studio.

Chamberlain's daughter, Melinda Metcalfe, works part time as her apprentice five days a week. Metcalfe's specialties include anklets and necklaces with dragonflies in various metals combined with colored beads and silver tubes.

If location is everything in the real estate business, it's pretty important in the jewelry business, too. Being on a main road toward Camp Hochelaga and Eagle Camp quickly established a devoted clientele who made a stop at her shop an integral part of their summer traditions. "Kids who were campers bring in their kids now to shop," she says of Eagle Camp, the family camp started 105 years ago and attracting 150 campers to its tents and cottages every week of the summer season. "They are very loyal."

There are two powerful attractions that bring customers to Silver by Tish, and bring them back year after year. One is the jewelry and the other is Chamberlain's personality her "drop everything" commitment to leaving her work bench to help a customer find something in the handsome antique display cases that fill the shop, or discuss a repair to a broken treasure, or brainstorm an original creation.

The shop has grown over the years to include not only original designs by Chamberlain, imaginative blendings of metals, semi-precious stones and gem stones into necklaces, bracelets, earrings, brooches, anklets and decorative items, but also a wide range of jewelry she orders from suppliers all over the country to meet the demands of customers of all ages, tastes and budgets. She has responded to the demands of her clients, and to the changing times. "I've gone more into gold and gold-filled," she says. "Charms are going very well again; there's a big insurgence of interest in charms." She says that although she does do some of the new-fangled items like toe rings, "I don't do any of the funny body jewelry, though I have had requests."

A big help in handling the volume of business during the summer season, and a source of new ideas, is Chamberlain's daughter, Melinda Metcalfe, who is working for her part time for the second summer. "She comes up with lots of good ideas and they are selling," Chamberlain says, reflecting on the tendency of a lone craftsperson to keep on making the things that are selling. "Dragonflies were Melinda's idea, for example." Dragonflies are hot these days, and Metcalfe loves to do the beaded work, combining the dainty insects rendered in various metals with colored beads and silver tubes to make popular anklets and necklaces.

Metcalfe says she enjoys working with her mother, learning a lot from her about the business, the craft of jewelry making, and especially about how to help customers. "I picked up what Mom does," Metcalfe says. "She helps people while they are here, not telling them they have to come back. If someone sees a design they like, she'll make little changes to suit them better while they're here. She really cares about helping people."

Metcalfe lives only a few minutes away in South Hero. "We have a great relationship. We laugh and joke and know what each other is thinking," Metcalfe says. "She's always in a good mood. She has a positive outlook."

Tish with Samantha, one of two cats on the premises.

That opinion is echoed by neighbors, friends and customers who rely on her shop for gifts for others, treats for themselves and that extra touch of creativity that makes a piece of jewelry a treasured keepsake. Judy Duval, who lives across the street and has lived in the islands all her life, has known Chamberlain since she moved to South Hero. She says, "She is the type of person who can come up with the perfect solution for every occasion. You go in without an idea and she asks what the person is like and comes up with something that's perfect; and she has a way of making you feel that she's only dealing with you."

For Duval, that knack for finding the perfect solution was demonstrated when she went to see Chamberlain, distressed that soon after her husband died she had to have her wedding band cut off because of a swollen finger. "She knew I was upset, and she said, 'I have an idea.' She made the ring into a heart that I can wear on a chain around my neck. It was a surprise it's beautiful, and I was so happy."

Isabel "Izzie" Hayes, who moved to South Hero from Maryland eight years ago, found a kindred spirit in Chamberlain. "She's a free spirit," Hayes says, "barefoot in the shop in January or August." She admires her friend's enormous sense of accommodating others, her consistent kindness and her ability to quickly establish a relationship that has customers coming back from long distances year after year. "When we have guests, I say, 'Where would you like to go Stowe, Manchester, the Country Store?' and they say, 'Well, we want to go to Tish's.'"

Chamberlain's shop hasn't moved but it has expanded to meet the demands of that clientele. Twelve years ago, she and Bart expanded the shop/studio space into the former garage. It features a cathdral ceiling, pretty decorative borders defining the interesting ceiling line, and big windows overlooking the charming front yard with its sunflowers, daisies, impatiens and a bike rack where local children park while shopping for gifts for teachers or parents. The back yard has a big swimming pool where Chamberlain's five children (all of whom live close enough to come for visits) and her 13 grandchildren love to swim, though Chamberlain doesn't get in very often.

The long hours and the physical stress of the close, exacting work, have sparked occasional thoughts of retirement for Chamberlain. Bart is retired from his electrician's career and keeps busy, she says, as her "go-fer" in charge of "honey do's." They did explore the possibility of moving the business closer to Burlington, but Chamberlain realized she'd miss the people. "I'd have to find something else, and if I'm going to do something, I might as well keep doing this."

"My Mom goes above and beyond," says Metcalfe. "I don't want her to retire, and the people in town don't want her to retire, either. I'd like her to be able to not work such long hours and have time for the special projects she loves to do." That sounds like it might appeal to Chamberlain, as well. "My favorite thing is to chat with the customers and to take something that is special to them and find a way to preserve its meaning so they can keep on enjoying it. That's my fun."

Originally published in September 2004 Business People-Vermont