Peter and Judy Aylen with their son, Jesse. They moved to their first ground level story on Main Street in 1983 and added “& Son” to their name. After 38 years, they're now passing the soldering torch to a new jewelry-making couple. PHOTO COURTESY OF AYLEN FAMILY

Aylens bid farewell to Main Street

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — After almost four decades of gracing Main Street with their handsome displays of fine handcrafted jewelry, Peter and Judy Aylen are hanging up their jeweler’s loupes and soldering aprons.

Peter Aylen did not break the molds he has used to create his signature style of handcrafted jewelry, such as this necklace, but has instead sold them to the shop’s new owners. ISLANDER PHOTO BY NAN LINCOLN

They are selling the business, inventory and even molds to Rob and Maddie Coppage. The Coppages are young jewelers who plan to keep the name of the shop “Aylen and Son” and carry on many of the Aylens’ traditions.

Since they first set up shop in town 38 years ago, the Aylens have counted 60 businesses that have come and gone. Art galleries, bookstores, toy and gift shops, clothing and carpet stores, a deli, a pizza parlor and café have blinked on and off over the decades. Even some longtime Main Street businesses — the A&P, the post office, Vines Electric, the Somes Store, the drugstore— have either disappeared or moved off the main drag during their tenure.

Their story begins in the 1960s in San Francisco, where a tall, bearded young man fresh out of the Navy walked into his apartment to find a strange young woman in a vinyl mini dress and matching high-heel boots staring into his closet.

His first words to his future wife were, “Who the hell are you?”

Judy Aylen picked up the story.

“I’m a cat lover,” she explained, “and Peter’s neighbor told me he had a Margay cat [they look like small leopards.]. She said it would be fine for me to go right in and see it, even though the owner wasn’t home. She said I’d probably find it perched on the top shelf in the closet. So, there I was, staring at this marvelous cat’s eyes, like mercury, when I heard … well it was pretty embarrassing.”

In 1970, they moved as a couple to Paradise in Northern California, where they shared a house with a young man named “Billy Dyer” who, in his spare time, made jewelry.

“He taught me how to solder and bend wire, and that was the beginning,” Peter Aylen said.

With precious little money to buy materials, the couple scoured the local beaches for abalone shells to make pendants and earrings.

“I sold my first earrings to a woman for $1.80, because that’s what she had in her pocket,” said Peter Aylen. “The materials cost me two bucks.”

“That’s when I took over the business end of things,” Judy Aylen said.

A few years later, in full hippy mode, the couple moved to Puerto Rico with Dyer and his girlfriend and continued to make and sell jewelry. When the other couple left, the Aylens inherited the jeweler’s tools they had shared, along with the business. Peter Aylen created a casting machine from an old compressor and started creating the natural plant, animal and insect forms in silver and gold for which he has become known.

Life in Puerto Rico was pretty idyllic, they said. They only worked about three days a week, spending the other days fishing and sailing.

But Judy Aylen said it was a bit too idyllic.

“It just seemed like we were too young to be living that laid-back sort of life.”

On a visit back home on the East Coast, they took a side trip to visit a friend in Steuben and quickly fell in love with Maine.

It was fellow jeweler Sam Shaw, then working at Willis’ Rock Shop in Bar Harbor, who introduced them to Southwest Harbor and Mount Desert Island’s quiet side, which convinced them to make the move from Puerto Rico.

Peter Aylen also had become enamored of the boatbuilding trade and thought he might try his hand at that. When he got a job at Rich’s in Bass Harbor, Judy Aylen flew home to Puerto Rico to pack up their stuff and joined him six weeks later.

But when he greeted his wife at the Trenton airport, it was with the news that he had lost his boatbuilding job.

“I only lasted six weeks,” he said.

But instead of hopping on the next flight back to their laid-back life in Puerto Rico, the Aylens used their small savings to pay rent on an apartment in Bass Harbor, and Judy Aylen virtually begged Annabelle Robbins at the Seawall Dining Room to give her a job. Starting that winter, she worked full-time for Robbins, and her husband, who had conceded that perhaps boatbuilding was not his destiny, created an inventory of jewelry.

On April 15, 1980, they rented a small space on the second floor of the Southwest Harbor Odd Fellows Hall, beginning their 38-year tenure on Main Street.

“We were told right from the start that there was no way people were going to climb the stairs to buy jewelry, but at that time, the police station and town offices were up there,” said Judy Aylen.

She said folks would pay their fines or fees and then stop by P&J Custom Jewelry to look at –  and often buy – something pretty.

Defying the naysayers, they did well enough to take over the police department when it moved; then they went to their first ground-level shop at the Southwest Harbor Shoppes for a year and back to Main Street in 1983, taking over the old Farley’s Carpets. At this point, they changed the name to Aylen & Son Jewelers to include their son, Jesse, who had been born the year before.

Peter Aylen called the 11 years following the move to Main Street their “coming-of-age period,” during which they honed their skills as artisans and entrepreneurs. He believes his lack of formal training freed him from other design influences and allowed him to develop his own signature style, which, along with Judy Aylen’s sumptuous beadwork, has proven popular with customers ranging from local fisherman and boatbuilders shopping for their wives or girlfriends on Christmas Eve, to movie stars and summer folk ordering custom-made pieces for tens of thousands of dollars.

Even on the cusp of their retirement, and despite some wheedling, the jewelers decline to reveal the names of their famous customers.

‘You know, we never really had a plan,” Judy Aylen said, deftly changing the subject. “We have had such good luck all along the way.”

Like when their landlord decided in 1997 to sell the Main Street building they were in for a price way beyond their means, but another, more affordable space just a few doors down came on the market. The Aylens bought the former deli, toy store, gift shop, etc. at 332 Main St. and have stayed put since.

By this time, they also had built a new home in Hall Quarry. Later, when Jesse graduated from MDI High School, they bought a bungalow on the Gulf Coast of Florida where they now spend most of the winter months, guilt-free, fishing and sailing and engaging in other such laid-back endeavors.

Well, almost guilt-free.

“We appreciate all of our customers and our extended year-round community,” said Judy Aylen. “We loved being available to them all year and stayed open all winter for 20 years. When we found ourselves paying more to heat the store than it brought in, it didn’t make sense.”

But even when they left town, the Aylens made their presence known by gorgeously decorating their shop windows for the holiday season.

This is a tradition they expect the new owners will continue.

In fact, this couple of young jewelers with a baby on the way will carry on many of the Aylens’ traditions, including keeping the name of the shop and many of the jewelry motifs Peter Aylen has created over the years.

“We sold them our inventory and even our molds,” Peter Aylen said. “Eventually, I imagine their own aesthetic will evolve, but this should give them a good head start.”

As a thank-you and farewell to their customers and friends on Main Street, the Aylens are running a storewide sale from Thursday, Oct. 5, until closing on Saturday, Oct. 14, with a 5 p.m. reception on Wednesday, Oct. 11.

For those who are beginning to panic about their Christmas gift options, the Coppages plan to reopen Aylen & Son Jewelry soon after.

As for the Aylens, they said they are looking forward to having many years of getting to know their former customers as friends, neighbors and fellow Main Street shoppers.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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