It wasn’t easy growing up as a Harry Bear.
Now 74, the Philadelphia-based jeweler recalls the days of being teased by fellow students in school. It’s why people today know him by his nickname, Buddy.
Bear has operated his Merion Station shop for 46 years, but working six days a week for four decades has taken its toll, making it difficult to regularly attend synagogue. And after recently beating prostate cancer, Bear said the time has come to sit back, relax, retire and close his shop, which will shut its doors for good this summer.
“Everything comes to an end at a point,” Bear said. “I’m tired. Forty-six years is a lot.”
Bear graduated from Overbrook High School in 1963 and attended the College of Emporia in Kansas. He started work in the jewelry industry in Florida under his father-in-law from his first marriage. After seven years of learning the tricks of the trade, Bear moved back to Philadelphia, opening his own store in December 1973.
While the grand opening went smoothly, friends and family had a problem with the name. Bear wanted something formal, naming it Harry Alan Jewelers after his first and middle name. But his folks protested, arguing that his name was Buddy Bear and so the shop’s name should be too. While Bear was hesitant, saying it would sound like “a teddy bear store,” he gave in and Buddy Bear Jewelers was born.
Bear has specialized in crafting custom-made designer pieces, which make up about 80 percent of his inventory. It’s common for customers to bring in old jewelry to have him remake it into something else.
Bear said he thinks of himself both as an artist and an engineer. He doesn’t like to throw things away if he can help it. The ever-vigilant recycler works to reuse what he can, like some French enamel buttons from Bear’s mother’s old sewing box he turned into earrings. As long as he was able to support his family and stay in business, he was satisfied.
“I’m not motivated, and never was, by profit. I was motivated to make not just a nice piece, but [for it] to have a legacy,” Bear said. “They’re extraordinary pieces that were made with love and with absolutely no concern about how much it weighs and how many hours it took. As long as I had enough money to build the next piece, I’d be happy.”
Bear said he strove for practicality in his work. His “Transformers” pieces, like the giant fighting cartoon robots of the same name, are earrings and pendants that can be taken apart and turned into other types of jewelery. An earring can be turned into a pendant or a pair of dangling earrings can be made into studs. For Bear, it was all about crafting something memorable.
“If you just want something ordinary, I don’t have it. I don’t stock it. If I’m making you [something], why would I make something I could buy?” Bear said.
Over the years Bear has made a name for himself in the local jeweler community. He’s taken home several awards, including big wins at the Pennsylvania Jewelers Association 100th anniversary competition. He submitted two designs for judging, and both took first place.
Bear’s been an active member of the Gemological Institute of America, at one point serving as the Pennsylvania-Delaware Valley’s chapter president. Today, he’s its vice president, using it as an opportunity to meet others.
“We as jewelers, we don’t have to help each other, but we certainly don’t have to hurt each other,” Bear said. “So I know every jeweler in this neighborhood.”
One of those jewelers is John Anthony Jr., who runs a shop less than a quarter-mile away. Working at a shop started by his father in 1946, Anthony said he’s seen many area jewelry stores come and go.
“He was creative and romantic for the jewelery industry,” Anthony said. “It’ll be sad to see him go. I don’t mind the competition, and statewide we’re losing a lot of people due to age and the economy.”
It’s an industry-wide problem. In Philadelphia, longtime tenants are being pushed out of Jeweler’s Row to make way for a high-rise condo development by Toll Brothers. Diamond districts across the country have dwindled in recent years.
Buddy Bear Jewelers’ closing sale ends on June 30, and the store will close soon after. Once retired, Bear said he plans to enjoy life and continue celebrating Jewish holidays with his family, including his wife, three daughters, one son and five grandchildren, while making time to take long rides on his two motorcycles.