If there’s one Torontonian who can be called a Fashion District survivor, it’s Claude Abittan, owner of Queen Street West, the staple of the beadery. But don’t let the store’s name fool you; He sells more than just wooden, plastic and metal beads.
In fact, the store offers an impressive range of gemstones, rings, necklaces and bracelets, some of which are available for customers who want to create their own jewellery. Other items are made in-house by Abittan. But what Abittan and his daughter Anastasia, who also works at the shop, are best known for, he calls “ancient and sentimental repair.”
“We can do any type of jewelry or watch resizing or repair,” says Abittan, who sometimes does up to 60 of these a day. “The best thing I’ve ever done was add a repair service to my business.”
Walk through the Beadery and there’s an entire back wall devoted to framed press clippings and photos of models flaunting its wares.
Queen West residents and others may recall that the Beadery closed its doors and moved from its original location three years ago. From 2001 to 2019, the store was located at 466 Queen St. W., just down the street from its current location at 516. “The landlord there wanted to sell the building,” says Abittan, “and he wasn’t interested in a new one Rent for us.”
Before opening the Beadery, Abittan was an experienced belt maker with a small shop in Richmond near Spadina. “I enjoyed working with leather,” he says, “and I had unique, one-of-a-kind belts back then.”
The city’s fashion or clothing district is framed by Bathurst to the west, Spadina to the east, Queen West to the north and King to the south. Many Jewish residents once lived here and the textile and fabric manufacturers they brought with them. After World War II, these huge warehouses moved to cheaper, cheaper locations near highways, mostly in the suburbs. However, you can still find remnants of this history along Queen West.
Being an entrepreneur was central to Abittan. “I’ve never worked for a boss and I like to do my own thing,” he says, noting that growing up in Casablanca and Israel, he always loved drawing and creating jewelry designs.
“I remember my father in Morocco, who inspired me with his drawings of birds on his cigarette packs,” recalls Abittan. “I was soon illustrating and was caught in class for making art when I should have been paying attention to the teacher.”
While living in Israel, he began painting in oils and sold his first piece when he was 21. “Then I got into fashion,” he says, “and never picked up a brush again.”
He has seen trends come and go and sometimes return in the Queen West fashion scene. And his business has benefited from these style changes. “Accessories were all the rage in the ’80s, they fell out in the 2000s,” he says. “Now they’re really trendy again.”
Abittan creates designs for its rings and necklaces, sold under the Abittan brand, sometimes doodling at home or at the shop during quiet times. From his sketches, he uses a software program like AutoCAD to create 3D renderings of his work, which he eventually makes by hand once he’s refined the details.
One thing that sets Abittan’s shop apart is that he sources rare stones and pearls that other shops often don’t stock. “No one has truly natural tanzanite beads,” he says, “but I always have them.”
Besides Anastasia, who often runs the shop, Abittan has six other children, one of whom is poised to succeed him. “Almog is only 16 but he’s a genius,” he says, “and already designing rings. He can just watch someone work on a piece of jewelry and then do it himself.”
Perhaps Almog does the kind of custom work that keeps the shopkeeper busy all day. Abittan tells me about a client who flew overseas to a mountainous region in Ireland and brought a piece of sea green stone for Abittan to use in an engagement ring. Abittan decided to recreate the stone by grinding it into powder and mixing it with the gold in the band of the ring.
“I didn’t do it for the money,” he says. “And to be honest, I’m happy with the way things are, with how busy I am, and I want it to stay that way.”