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Band Bond

Marriage works for jeweler couple Doug and Marty French

by and

Published February 11, 2009 at 6:59 a.m.

Thirty-eight years ago, Marty and Doug French opened their Burlington jewelry store, Fire & Metal, in the North Winooski Avenue spot currently occupied by Radio Bean. Curious about the new business, a reporter stopped by for an interview. As Marty remembers it, “She came back to us and said, ‘They won’t let me run the story, because they think you’re . . . operating on a shoestring and you’ll never make it longer than a year.’”

“They were right about the shoestring,” Doug comments with his characteristic dry humor, “but not about our longevity.”

Though the store has moved since 1971, the Frenches, now both 61, are still selling their handmade jewelry at Fire & Metal — and their personal partnership has lasted even longer than their business one. Twenty at their wedding, they joke about their last 41 years together. “We’re on our sixth or seventh wedding rings,” Marty says, extending her hand to display the latest one Doug made for her, a charcoal-cast band set with a single sapphire.

The multiple rings are for multiple marriages — in a manner of speaking. “You know, marriage is change,” Doug explains, only half joking. And by that definition, “we’ve had seven or eight marriages. Every so often you look down and realize that the ring you’re wearing is from a marriage that is no longer operative. So you’ve got to sort of mark the new one. And, being in the business,” he adds, “it’s a lot easier to do that.”

Jewelry making was the only skill the Frenches had when they came to Burlington in 1971 in a VW bus with their infant son — the first of two children — a dog, a cat and all their possessions. The little knowledge they had came from working for three years in a store in Cambridge’s Harvard Square owned by a start-up jeweler Doug describes as a “hustler.” “Nobody who went to work there knew anything about making jewelry; they just sort of learned on the job,” he recalls.

Opening a jewelry store, they decided, would free them from bosses and allow them to raise their children without daycare. And, as Marty puts it, “We were entirely responsible for our own income; we could choose how much or how little we worked.”

The couple’s improvised career is a testament to the idealist era in which they met. The year was 1965 — the perfect time for a socialist Quaker to found the Friends’ World College on Long Island, where Doug and Marty met as freshmen in its first year of operation.

The pair have no trouble recalling how they met. “Actually, the truth of the matter is — we have to tell the truth here, Douglas — that I noticed you the minute I arrived at school. He was this lovely, shy, blond-haired, tall, skinny guy who looked very out of place,” says Marty. She attracted Doug’s attention when, itching for a forbidden cigarette, she began to fold her paper napkin into an origami crane — a moment she recreates by making one while she’s talking. “And the first words out of Douglas’ mouth to me were, ‘How did you do that? What is that?’ And so I made another one and gave it to him.”

“I had been checking out the girls,” Doug explains, “and she really was the best-looking one. There was some serious competition for her right at the beginning.”

“Yup,” Marty affirms. “But, nah, they weren’t in the running.”

The college’s first class of 30 students was expected to leave campus and spend most of their four years learning experientially through travel. Instead, most simply dropped out — including Marty and Doug, who made it through the first six and four months, respectively. Says Doug, “The ’60s were happening!”

They did stay long enough to participate in the class’ first excursion, a six-week road trip through the turbulent Civil Rights-era South. Crammed into “five VW buses and a ’56 Cadillac,” as Doug recalls, the mixed-race group traveled with almost no changes of clothing, lived on peanut butter, and slept on floors and in tents. They stayed in a hayloft belonging to Pennsylvania farmer William Hinton, a famous target of McCarthyism, and reached Selma, Alabama, six months after the murder of civil-rights supporter Jim Reeb. In Kentucky, they visited coal-miner organizers, stayed in a house in Knoxville that had received threats of violence, and saw the Rolling Stones on one of the band’s first tours.

“It was an amazing time,” Marty says, summing up the trip. “But the long and the short of it is that it was a little too experimental, even for us. We didn’t thrive in the self-focused environment.”

The pair ended up in Cambridge, working with other “hippies” at the jewelry store. In 1968, Doug opted for conscientious objector (CO) status, which took him to Maryland for two years as a hospital orderly. When the couple moved to Vermont and opened Fire & Metal, they were both 23 and “had a 4-month-old in a basket in the back room,” Doug recalls.

The story behind their shop’s name sparks an affectionate marital disagreement. “Should we tell her why we named it Fire & Metal?” Marty asks Doug.

“I don’t remember. Did it have something to do with ‘Fire and Rain’ [by James Taylor]?”

“No. You said, ‘I think Fire & Metal would be a good name, because if you say it fast, it sounds like environmental.’”

“No, I never said that,” Doug retorts. “That would be embarrassing.”

“Yes, I remember it perfectly,” Marty insists, adding with a note of pride, “This was back before there was ever such a thing as an environmental movement.”

One part of the name proved dangerously prophetic. Less than a year after the shop opened, a gas leak in the laundromat next door caused an explosion, shattering Fire & Metal’s storefront windows and burning much of the store. When the Frenches reopened, just in time for their second Christmas season, the laundromat exploded a second time. “My stepmother gets all weepy when she thinks of that time,” Marty says. “She says, ‘You just went back in there. You were so young, and you just went back in. I can’t believe how courageous you were.’”

“The fact is that we just didn’t know any better,” Doug adds.

The couple hired one of Doug’s CO friends as a partner for the first 12 years, freeing up one spouse at a time to stay home with the kids and thus “saving” their marriage, they say. Only in the 13th year did they work side by side. “This was work,” Marty says with a laugh.

Doug admits that he “had to learn not to give Marty advice without asking first whether she wanted to hear it. I’m kind of picky,” he explains.

“Terrifically picky,” Marty amends.

“It took a long time,” he continues, “but many of the skills we learned to help our marriage work help us here, too.”

Since they moved to their current Cherry Street location in 1980, Marty and Doug’s business — and marriage — have been relatively explosion free. Unlike most other local jewelers, the pair makes everything in the shop. Marty designs and crafts most of the silver pieces in the display cases, which include hinged earrings, hammered bracelets, pins, intricate hairpieces and, for Valentine’s Day, heart-themed items.

Doug makes custom gold and silver wedding and engagement rings, offering his clients drawings and prototypes to help them choose. “He has a really good gift with people in terms of figuring out what it is they want, and he’s gotten better and better at this over the years,” says Marty.

As we talk, one repeat customer — who first came to Fire & Metal in the ’70s — stops in to chat about the Obama inauguration. The Frenches have attended the weddings and civil unions of more than one couple whose rings Doug made — including Peter Harrigan and Stan Baker, of Vermont’s landmark civil-union ruling Baker v. the State of Vermont.

Happy couples are unmistakable, says Marty: “They listen to each other; they really defer to each other. You can already tell there’s going to be a nice, long future for them.” The jewelers love it when couples they met as fiancés bring their children to the store years later, she adds.

“Because, you know,” Doug jokes, “we’re partly responsible for their existence.”