This time in semiretirement
by Sally Mitani
Matthew Hoffmann presses one of his designs into the hands of a customer with such intensity that if you didn't know he was a jeweler showing his wares, you might mistake him for the kind of nineteenth-century seducer who led good girls astray. "Look at these earrings," he says, breathlessly. "Aren't they beautiful? Black opals."
Hoffmann, fifty-three, is Ann Arbor's most gossiped-about jeweler. While other custom jewelry designers also work in the rarefied world where single pieces can cost in the middle five figures, Hoffmann is notorious not only for his high-priced jewelry but also for envelope-pushing concepts and materials (one of his lines used actual insect carapaces mounted in gold). More recently, he says, "I did a whole series of jewelry based on the Iraqi War, and it all sold-shapes like shields, spears, stealth bombers."
The operatic swells and troughs of his personal life have added to the attention. He speaks candidly of his bipolar condition, and his business has been through some spectacular and well-publicized booms and busts. At one time he had stores in Chicago and New York. For the last twenty years, he operated Matthew C. Hoffmann Jewelry Design on Maynard. It quietly closed last July, when, just as quietly, a small shop named Ten opened in Nickels Arcade.
"In the early part of 2008, I became deathly ill," Hoffmann says of the change. "My chest cavity filled with fluid. I had holes drilled into me and had fluid sucked out of me with this electric machine. I was in the hospital for months." What was the underlying problem? "They're not really sure," he shrugs.
When he recovered, two of his closest friends, Kris Keller and Jason Bourland, took things into their own hands. Keller and Bourland, who had worked with him on Maynard, started Ten to showcase his work. "They said to me, 'We want you to do what you do best. We don't want you to have the pressure of the everyday business,'" Hoffmann
says. "So I'm in semiretirement. All I do is design." Keller handles the sales floor and consults with clients, while Bourland executes Hoffmann's jewelry designs in a basement workshop.
"This is the first store we've ever had with big display windows," Hoffmann says. Most of his work is still custom, but he says that in his new space he's worked with a lot of students, who have been attracted by the window displays. While students don't come immediately to mind as luxury-jewelry consumers, Hoffmann says they do buy engagement rings.
"We wanted to put some of the more affordable pieces out for Valentine's Day," Kris Keller said in early February. In this world, of course, affordable is still a relative term: the example Keller pointed out was a $500 pair of earrings.
Ten, 10 Nickels Arcade, 665-6792. Mon.- Fri. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Closed Sun. Also by appointment with Matthew Hoffmann. tenfinejewelry.com.
[Originally published in March, 2009.]