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James Cantrell, Unlikely Master Jeweler 

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

James Cantrell was nearing the end of his senior year in 1975 at Field Kindley high school in Coffeyville. He had made no plans nor had he any desires to do anything after high school although there was one thing he knew he didn’t want to do—attend college. 

Yet today, James and wife Sonya own “Cantrell’s Fine Jewelry” stores in both Coffeyville and Independence. James is the only certified Master jeweler in Kansas, achieved in 2002, and one of fewer than 200 world-wide. Had anyone asked his teachers about James’ prospects for a successful life in 1975, they would have expressed concern. Not in 100, wait, 500 guesses would they have associated James to becoming a jeweler. 

What To Do After High School 

James’ parents, instead of forcing him to go to college whether he wanted to or not, were patient and flexible with him. On a business trip flight, his dad struck up a conversation with a representative of a jewelry repair school. Knowing that James loved making things with his hands, especially model cars, Dad came home and said, “Hey, you like making things with your hands, what do you think about going to jewelry school.” Until now James had not considered “jeweler” as a career choice, but it was time to make some kind of life decision. After some thought he decided the jewelry idea sounded interesting and three days after graduation, he headed to Paris, Texas to enroll in jewelry school. The studying was easier and went faster than James was used to because he was interested and eager to learn the craft. He was graduated from the 12-month program and a 3-week gemology seminar on his 18th birthday. 

He worked as a bench jeweler (Wikipedia: A bench jeweler is an artisan who uses a combination of jewelry-making skills to make and repair jewelry.in several area stores eventually coming back to Coffeyville in 1978 working for his dad. James went to work for Boles Jewelry in 1982 staying at that job for 25 years. Six months into the 26th year, he felt the desire to have his own store. He approached the owner, telling him he was considering going out on his own; the owner responded, “Why don’t you just buy this store?”  

On October 1, 2007 James Opened “Cantrell’s Fine Jewelry.”  

In one fell swoop he went from bench jeweler to store owner, adding the daunting tasks of business, cash and inventory management to his daily duties. Sonya was all-in supportive. She worked full time in the school district office, her job, their safety netLike most other business start-ups, there was no big financial loan package, however the couple did obtain some bank financing and added their “cruise fund money” from a shoe box under the bed. The previous owner financed the inventory until after that first Christmas season. Sonya helped with business management after-hours of her full-time job until 2014 when the business had grown so much that she took early retirement to join James full-time. 

James takes great pride in the repair work he does and the custom jewelry he designs. His inspiration comes from analyzing the customer’s parameters for a repair of custom piece and then adding his own spin always to the customer’s delight. On numerous occasions he’s repaired heirloom jewelry pieces that other jewelers said could not be repaired. It is common for those customers to tear up with emotion when they see their piece restored to its original splendor. 

Give Youth Tools To Discover Opportunity 

We live in a society that pushes our young (younger and younger all the time) to decide “what they want to be” when they grow up. How many James Cantrell’s are out there right now, struggling in school, our society making them feel inferior because they don’t know what they want to do with their lives? 

Yet with an iceberg of opportunities waiting we show them only a tiny portion of the tip of the iceberg of career possibilities; we can’t possibly figure out how to show young people the whole iceberg. Entrepreneurial mindset and the art of making things will help them become life-long learners, and show them how to discover their own opportunities, waking up their innate curiosity so they can observe and analyze the problems they see in the world around them and figure out what problems they want to solve as their life’s work. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu or Twitter @jimcorrellks. Archive columns and podcast at jimcorrell.com. 

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