He peers through a microscope, his hands moving instinctively to the appropriate instrument among the smorgasbord of delicate tools purposely arranged on his workbench.
With precision, the 52-year-old uses them to fashion a block of wax into the shape of an elaborate ring shank, which he will later use to cast his next masterpiece.
“Jewelry is an emotional thing,” said Cancel, originally of Brooklyn, N.Y. “It brings back memories of engagements, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and even funerals. … For me, it’s not about making money. I have a passion for what I do. I am an artist. My joy is putting a smile on someone’s face.”
In a world of computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) technologies and production lines, Cancel said his skill set is a dying art.
After plying his trade in New York, Florida and Arkansas, the artisan recently settled in Spartanburg, where he hopes to continue to carve out a niche and maybe one day pass his knowledge on to a new generation.
“I make people scream and cry,” Cancel said, smiling. “I have a gift. You can tell me what you want and I can picture it in my mind and then make it. In 22 years, I haven’t had a redo.”
Cancel began learning to make fine jewelry at age 16. He started at the bottom, helping out in a shop off New York City’s 47th Street, referred to as the “Diamond District.”
He said he would sit for hours watching jewelers set diamonds and fabricate pieces. One day, one of the jewelers asked him if he’d like to give it a try.
“I sat down at his bench with his tools and started working,” Cancel said. “I picked it up quickly. I just had a natural skill for it.”
He continued working and learned from some of the top jewelers in the country, such as Harry Winston and Harold Freeman.
After a few years, Cancel followed in the footsteps of his brother, José, and opened up his own jewelry store in Tallahassee, Fla.
He earned a good living, but owning and operating the store was a major commitment that eventually started to take its toll on his marriage. He realized that he could work independently without sacrificing income or time with his family.
“A jewelry store is a never-ending investment of time, money and energy,” he said. “I realized it wasn’t my cup of tea. … I enjoy what I do now. I don’t have to be married to it. I don’t need to be a multi-millionaire to be happy.”
After spending 13 years in the Sunshine State, Cancel received an offer to partner with Sissy’s Log Cabin in Little Rock, Ark.
When that partnership reached its end, Cancel said he made the decision to move with his family to Spartanburg. He said they already had friends here and liked the local amenities.
He said he regularly travels to shows all over the United States. He has crafted pieces for celebrities, including the Judds and Steve Spurrier.
“I love Spartanburg,” he said. “I wish I would have been here from the start. I could do this anywhere, but I choose to do it here. There are only about 100 true master jewelers in the U.S. It’s a dying art. I always get worried when I hear a shop say that they have three or more master jewelers on staff. That’s just not feasible. It’s pretty easy to spot a fake. The quality and workmanship is not as high. The litmus test is whether they can hand-fabricate a ring.”
Cancel said his commitment to Spartanburg was solidified during his first few months here.
An avid bowler, Cancel received surgery in another town to repair his knee. He developed a staph infection. He credits doctors at Spartanburg Medical Center with saving his life.
He also partnered with Skatell’s Jewelers at 217 E. Blackstock Road.
Cancel currently splits time between his workshop and the store. He has continued to perform the duties of a master jeweler, as well as growing one of his specialty services, which he refers to as “Re-bling your Ring.”
He said he can take old, ordinary jewelry and transform it into something extraordinary for his clients, who come in from all over the Southeast.
“(Cancel) showed me what he could do and I was so blown away,” said Beth Owens, who owns and operates the Spartanburg Skatell’s store with her husband, Doug. “Everything they can do in New York or Los Angeles we can do right here in Spartanburg. Watching him create is magical; it’s remarkable. … He doesn’t need CAD/CAM. He is his own CAD/CAM. We’re very fortunate to have him here.”
Cancel said it takes a special talent to hand fabricate jewelry. With training, it takes about five years to become proficient. And it takes a lifetime to master.
“The guy who doesn’t ask questions is in trouble,” Cancel said. “I learn something new every day. You have to be willing to learn. I would love to find someone to mentor so I can pass on the tradition. … Not everyone can do it. … Experience at the bench is everything in this business.”
For more information, visit www.reblingyour ring.com.