The Bert in Bert's Jewelry bent solicitously over the small, elderly customer. The rose quartz was nice. So was the onyx. And "look at that glitter," Bert said.
But the customer at the Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda had a more specific interest on a recent Wednesday: Could Bert put a new pin on her favorite brooch so she could wear it again?
It didn't matter that the piece of jewelry was barely worth a few dollars new. To the owner, it was a precious thing, an irreplaceable bit of sentiment. And Roberta (Bert) Urso understood.
"I don't care what it is. Whenever I take it, it's worth a million dollars," said Urso, 65, of Wheaton. "I like to do the things other shops won't fool with anymore."
There is something pleasantly old-fashioned about Bert's Jewelry. Although Urso has a store in the old Air Rights Building in Bethesda and another in Silver Spring (operated by her sons Douglas and David), her Wednesday and Saturday appearances at the Wisconsin Avenue market for the past 20 years have perhaps best showcased her work.
Inside the market's white frame building with its green striped awnings, Urso sets up shop against the far wall. Her booth is located between "The Flower Lady" and a bakery, not far from where the Watkins family of Damascus has been selling homemade jelly and smoked sausage for 46 years.
"It's not a commercial thing in here," Urso said. "People like to talk with you and that's how they get to know you and give you work. It's the only way I advertise."
The sign overhead proclaims Urso's services: ring sizing, pearl stringing, stone setting, watch designing and jewelry repairs, precious and costume. In a cream-colored vanity case behind the displays of pins and earrings, she stores her completed repair jobs -- several dozen small white bags neatly stapled closed. There are pierced earrings converted to clip-ons, a small china plate that had been broken in several places, rhinestone pins with freshly glued stones. The repair bills: $4, $4.50, $7.
"Every job is different," she said.
Urso, a widow, has honey-colored hair; she wears bifocals, a couple of gold necklaces and small gold earrings. She uses the expression "gee" quite often.
Her interest in jewelry began as a child, she said. She remembers sitting patiently, fascinated, as she repaired her mother's pins and necklaces. But her entry into the jewelry business about three decades ago can be traced to a bowling alley.
"When I lost my little boy 32 years ago, I started to go bowling," she said. "I was so upset. He was 7. He had leukemia. It just seemed I needed to do something . . . . "
She started making pin-and-earring sets for the women she bowled with -- gold- and silver-colored duckpins with a bowling ball alongside.
"I'd carry my little jewelry case to the bowling alley, and the girls would put in orders for different colored pins to match their bowling suits," she said. "Then one day, one of the girls said, 'Gee, Bert, I need a pin for evening. Can you make me one?' And the girls kept saying, 'Gee, Bert, if you had a store and you were open on Mondays and Tuesdays . . . . ' "
One day, Urso noticed a neighborhood drugstore going out of business. She went in, bought five showcases for $10 apiece and put them on her back porch in Wheaton. When the Air Rights Building was built on Wisconsin Avenue, Bert's Jewelry moved in.
"I worked from 9 in the morning until 11 at night. It was really dead. You had to put the hours in."
Her husband Joe, a bricklayer who died five years ago, helped her with the goldsmithing and the repairs, but Bert was the jeweler in the family.
"It does take a lot of patience, but I always found it satisfying," she said. "A lot of times it's difficult. You have to carve a stone down to fit, make your own parts. One woman brought in a piece of real good jade broken in eight pieces and I glued it back together and it was perfect. That made me feel good."
While jewelers welcome repairs of gold and silver jewelry, it is often difficult to find someone to fix an inexpensive item. "It really isn't worthwhile to do the costume pieces," said Rita Salins of Capitol Gem & Jewelry in Rockville.
"If something has to be soldered, it's difficult. It becomes discolored," Salins said. "People do bring in old things that mean a lot to them and we do do it -- but not because we want to."
Urso owns hundreds of pairs of earrings, dozens of necklaces. But her personal favorite is not her most expensive or ornate piece, she said.
"It's a round gold locket my husband gave me years and years ago," she said. "One thing I could never replace."