When Rhonda Bell-Ames was young, she collected more than 100 bubble-gum machine rings.

When Rhonda Bell-Ames was young, she collected more than 100 bubble-gum machine rings.

Now, she is the matriarch of Lloyd's of Leavenworth, and in charge of a vastly different collection of jewelry.

This Leavenworth family business has been operating for 44 years. Bell-Ames has been part of the business for almost 35, putting her life-long love of jewelry to work appraising heirlooms and working with customers to design their perfect piece.

"I was born liking jewelry," says Bell-Ames.
Lloyd's started as the L & M Rock Shop, opened by Lloyd Bell and his son in 1969 and situated just down Spruce Street from the current location. After earning her first Gemological Institute of America credential, Bell-Ames took a job at the Rock Shop as a young woman. As the Rock Shop grew, expanding from a hobby store to a competitive jeweler, the original location became insufficient.

In 1982, the now-married Bell and Bell-Ames moved their operation to its current location at the corner of Spruce and 5th Street and changed the name to Lloyd's of Leavenworth, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the famous British insurance market, Lloyd's of London.
While the shop still displays and sells a few mineral specimens, jewelry has become the focus — obvious from the packed display cases lining the walls — with rings, earrings and pendants tucked into every available corner.

Bell-Ames, her husband, John Ames, and daughter, Heather Ames, attend rock and gem shows around the country to find new jewelry trends and to stock up on gemstones and beads for their custom jewelry designs.

"I'm always looking for new ideas and things that other people don't have," says Bell-Ames. "I want to be different from everybody else and most people want their jewelry to be different."
Diamonds fill the cases, but clearly it is the colored stones that spur Bell-Ames's creativity.

"I do like working with customers in loose colored stones, and showing them things they've never seen before, because we have a lot of unusual things here," says Bell-Ames. "You know, things that a lot of jewelry stores don't carry …like an alexandrite or a stone called apatite. There are just all kinds of stones that you don't see all of the time."

Custom design work and repairs are a big part of Lloyd's business now, as are the appraisals Bell-Ames does. As gold prices have increased in recent years, she's seen an uptick in the number of appraisal requests.
"Because of the high price of gold, all of the appraisals people had are (now) wrong," Bell-Ames says. "So a lot of people are having me update their old appraisals, or they are just now realizing, 'Hey, something I had that was worth just a few hundred (dollars) is worth a thousand or more now.'"

One memorable appraisal was a solid gold pocket watch, with a case that opened up like jewel-encrusted ladybug wings. Bell-Ames frequently has to do intensive research, consulting Christie's, Sotheby's or Tiffany to determine an item's provenance and worth.
Another pocket watch, one the family kept, was made in Leavenworth in the 1880s, by a jeweler on Delaware Street.
Listening to Bell-Ames, it is clear that to her every piece they appraise or repair has a personal story behind it.
"We do a lot of re-setting of Grandma's jewelry or saving it," says Bell-Ames. "And I've had a lot of people cry in the store when they see it re-done — it means a lot to them."
John Ames, Bell-Ames's husband, does the actual repair and custom jewelry-making work in the shop – but the whole family pitches in on design consultation.

Bell-Ames says the key to good design is "communication with the customer. So you understand what it is they like, and you make it come out the way they have it in their head."
One common design challenge is a request to combine several pieces of jewelry, or stones from different pieces, into one new design.
A frequent request comes from recent widows, who want to preserve and even wear their husband's wedding ring.
Bell-Ames and Ames often design custom pendants incorporating both rings, as well as any diamonds or other stones, and use the original metals.

"Jewelry is very personal," says Bell-Ames, and Lloyd's strives to commemorate the personal events in their customers' lives.
"There was a piece we made years ago — I got a big kick out of doing it. This lady was up in age and she was in Karate class here in town, and she had got her black belt," Bell-Ames recalls.

The woman's husband commissioned a custom necklace that included a gold pendant with an engraved Karate fighter and colored beads that matched the colors of every belt his wife achieved.
Listening to Bell-Ames talk about her life's work, it is clear that as much as she loves jewelry, it is the personal relationships she develops with customers that keep her rooted in the shop (so much so that she rarely leaves for lunch).

"My favorite thing in the store," says Bell-Ames, "is selling jewelry to couples who have been married for many, many years and it is their anniversary — and maybe all of her married life she wanted that big diamond, or something like that, and finally she gets it. And they know me already and they are so happy and it is so exciting to sell them something like that, and see the enjoyment. That's one of my favorite things."

Heather Ames, Bell-Ames's daughter, has been working in the shop full-time since she graduated high school.
"I grew up here," she says, and she plans to keep the family business going, following in her mother's footsteps by starting her first gemological certification program this year.
Heather Ames also maintains the business' Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lloyds-of-Leavenworth/173839519340472 – where you can see custom work and new pieces available in the store.