When Don Strzepek applied for a job at The Tucker Company, one of Chicago's most prestigious jewelry stores, he envisioned only working there for three months. He had been a school teacher locally and was applying for teaching jobs in San Diegothe Tucker gig was just to bring in a few bucks before he went west.
"I applied sort of on a whim, and by the time I got home, while living with my parents [at the time], they had already called three times [to further discuss the job because the company] needed someone immediately because [their staff] was short-handed."
Two months into the job, Strzepek was sent to his first diamond course, "and I was immediately hooked," he said. "The fascination with gem stones and the variety of people that you meet [attracted me, along with] the diversity and just making people happy. Every ring and every necklace [is enjoyable, plus the] custom designing appeals to my artistic side. Every day was different, and still is; and the fast-pace of the industry is enjoyable. It's just extremely fascinating to me."
Thirty years after first walking into The Tucker Company store in downtown Chicago, a store founded in 1935, Strzepek is still there. In fact, the openly gay 51-year-old is now the owner.
"I never envisioned it; I never thought this would happen," Strzepek said. "When Sherman Tucker was 90, he decided that it probably was time to sell the company. I eventually put together a business plan, ultimately got the loan [needed] and, in November 2006, signed the check and bought the company."
Former owner Sherman Tucker, the son of the founder, died April 12, 2012, at age 95.
"It was a little overwhelming the day [I bought the company]. My boss became my employee," he added with a laugh. "Now, it's challenging, but fun. Shortly after taking over, the economy struggled and I've seen major technological advances in the industry over the years, including Internet shopping, and new designing, etc. That's not all a bad thing, but challenges."
Is it a fun job?
You bet, he said. "Every day is a challenge; you never know what it's going to bring," he said. "I still love the inter-personal contact when people come in [to the store.]"
Strzepek has quick ability to put customers at ease, especially since "buying jewelry can be overwhelming," he said, "but it doesn't have to be. Buying jewelry should be enjoyable. I'm a believer that every single person who comes through the door is my first customerand that's how I treat them.
"Jewelry is a lifetime expression, and I'm here for you."
Strzepek, who lives in Lakeview and is dating a culinary chef, hasn't forgotten his teaching roots. He is now a part-time educator for the Citywide Colleges of Chicago, teaching English-as-a-second language, which is fun and fascinating, he said.
The Tucker Company is a full-service jewelerfrom watch repairs to custom designing jewelry, and everything in between, including diamonds, semi-precious gemstones, creating men's bracelets, women's earrings and more.
"I never do a hard sell; that's not my style," Strzepek said. "I'd rather a person sleep on the decision [to buy or not,] and be secure in what they're purchasing, knowing what they're purchasing is being made in the U.S., made properly and with integrity."
Strzepek has designed jewelry for same-sex couples for years, if not decades, he said. If and when same-sex marriage is passed in Illinois, Strzepek is convinced his business within the LGBT community will spike.
But a ring from The Tucker Company is more than just any ring.
"I often tell my employees, 'Would you let your mother or father wear this?'" he said. "I want my employees to make an item as if they're making it for a close, dear family memberbecause that's how important it is to our customers."
Strzepek has worn a gold cuff bracelet daily for years; it was one of his first designs he made when he started at the company.
He also has his favorite lion's-head cuff links.
"I really wish there was a resurgence of cuff links," Strzepek said. "The one thing I hear from men is, 'Cuff links are such a pain in the neck to put on.' I laugh, because it's very easy to put cuff links on.
"The trick is simple, and it makes your life so much easier. All you have to do is leave the shirt on the hanger, fold the cuff, put the cuff link in, and then put your arm straight through. That's all it takes.
"They are quite enjoyable."
Tucker Company is located at 5 S. Wabash Ave., Suite 507; the phone number is 312-263-3315 and the website is www.tuckercompany.net .