By Darron Kloster
Owner of new establishment tied to Emperor Haile Selassie I
The owners of a new jewelry shop downtown are continuing a family tradition that has spanned four generations, half the globe and nearly a century — not to mention one heck of a regal twist.
Natasha Prinz's family traces their roots in gold, silver and gems to Armenia and then — on the run from war and persecution — to Ethiopia, where her great-grandfather was a goldsmith for Emperor Haile Selassie I, who ruled the North African country for 44 years and is considered to be part of a dynasty that began with King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
“It's a proud history that we have in the business,” says Prinz, who relocated Armeni Jewelers to Victoria from Salmon Arm with her husband, Zech Prinz, and father Hratch Baghdassarian, this year.
Baghdassarian's grandfather, Ghevont, was an aspiring goldsmith when he fled Armenia in 1929 after the Turkish annexation. He and his wife made their way by foot and camel train to Ethiopia, where his work with gold caught the attention of the emperor.
Ghevont went on to spend more than two decades making ornate rings, necklaces and crowns for Selassie, who died in 1975 but remains a huge historical and controversial figure. His legacy includes a belief by the Rastafarian movement that he was a messiah who was to lead the people of Africa and the African diaspora to a golden age of enlightenment.
The family doesn't have much of Ghevont's work. Almost all of it stayed with Selassie, although they managed to hold on to a pair ornate golden crosses fashioned just prior to Ghevont's death. He was poisoned by a jealous co-worker at age 42.
It's easy to see from the family's newest designs that a careful hand and eye for design have made it through to the newest generations.
Baghdassarian and Prinz design and manufacture almost all of the jewelry in their homes and store, which is on the ground floor of the new Aria condominium building on Humboldt Street. Retail pieces range from $20 gold chains to the $20,000 Polar Bear Diamond.
“We want to develop the same relationship with customers here as we did in Salmon Arm,” said Baghdassarian, 55.
“We want to get to know people, have them come to us when they want a memorable piece of jewelry. That's why we settled on our store here, in a new neighbourhood, and not on Government Street where all the tourists are.”
Baghdassarian came to Canada in 1976, settling in Vancouver with $200 in his pocket and working various jobs to stay afloat. He met his wife, Brenda, and they managed to borrow and scrape enough money together to buy a home, then flip it before the real estate market crashed. They settled in Sorrento and later Salmon Arm, where they opened Armeni Jewelers.
It was apparent that Natasha had her father's — and great-grandfather's — touch with design at an early age.
“I had just painted a room in the house all white and I noticed one day what I thought were little holes about a foot up the wall … I thought they were ants or something,” said Baghdassarian. “I had a closer look and they were minute little daisies drawn so perfectly and so small. Natasha was about two years old. I knew she would follow in our footsteps. She had these fine little fingers and so much talent at such an early age.
“When I asked Natasha if she wanted to be a goldsmith, it was the biggest joy of my life”.
Source: “Victoria Times Colonist”, 03 December 2009