If there’s one Torontonian who could be called a Fashion District survivor, it’s Claude Abittan, owner of Queen Street West, the Beadery. But don’t let the name of the store fool you; he sells more than just wooden, plastic and metal beads.
Indeed, the shop has an impressive range of gemstones, rings, necklaces and bracelets, some of which are available to customers who want to make their own jewellery. Other items are made by Abittan itself. But what Abittan and his daughter Anastasia, who also works in the shop, are most famous for is what he calls “antique and sentimental recovery.”
“We can resize or repair any kind of jewelry or watches,” says Abittan, who sometimes does as many as 60 a day. “The best thing I ever did was add a repair service to my business.”
Walk through the Beadery and there is an entire back wall devoted to framed newspaper clippings and photos of models with his wares.
Residents of Queen West and others may remember that the Beadery closed its doors three years ago and moved from its original location. 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,” Abittan says, “and he wasn’t interested in a new one. rent it out for us.”
Before opening the Beadery, Abittan was an accomplished belt maker with a small shop in Richmond near Spadina. “I enjoyed working with leather,” he says, “and I had some unique belts at the time.”
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. It was once home to many Jewish residents and the textile and fabric manufacturers who brought them with them. After World War II, those huge warehouses moved to cheaper, more convenient locations near highways, mainly in the suburbs. Along Queen West, however, you can still find remnants of that history.
Being an entrepreneur was central to Abittan’s life. “I’ve never worked for a boss and I like to do my own thing,” he says, noting that growing up in Casablanca as a child, he always loved drawing jewelry designs and blueprinting.
“I remember my father, back in Morocco, inspired me with his drawings of birds on his cigarette packs,” recalls Abittan. “I was soon illustrating and was caught making art in class when I should have been watching the teacher.”
While living in Israel, he started painting with oils and sold his first piece when he was 21. “Then I got into fashion,” he says, “and never really picked up a brush again.”
He’s seen trends come and go, and sometimes return, in the Queen West fashion scene. And his store has benefited from these changes in style. “Accessories were hot in the ’80s, but they fell off in the 2000s,” he says. “Now they are really trendy again.”
Abittan invents designs for its rings and necklaces, sold under the Abittan brand, sometimes at home while drawing or in the shop at quiet times. From his sketches, he will use a software program such as AutoCAD to create 3D renderings of his work that he will eventually create by hand once he has refined the details.
One thing that sets Abittan’s shop apart is that he buys rare stones and beads that other shops often don’t have. “No one really has natural tanzanite beads,” he says, “but I always have.”
In addition to Anastasia, who often runs the shop, Abittan has six other children, one of whom is ready to succeed him. “Almog is only 16, but he’s a genius,” he says, “and he’s already designing rings. He can just watch someone work on a piece of jewelry and then do it himself.”
Perhaps Almog is taking on the kind of customization that keeps the retailer busy all day. Abittan tells me about a customer who flew overseas to a mountainous area in Ireland and brought a piece of sea-green rock for Abittan to use in an engagement ring. Abittan decided to reconstitute the stone by grinding it into powder and mixing it with the gold in the ring band.
“I didn’t come in here for the money,” he says. “And to be honest, I’m happy with how things are, how busy I am, and I want it to stay the same.”