Exploding buildings, moon rocks and decadent heiresses.
Is it the script from the latest James Bond thriller?
No, it's an afternoon spent with Paul Haig, owner of .
Tonight Haig's is celebrating its 38th anniversary in downtown Rochester, but Haig's passion for jewelry and art started long before that.
"I got my first business license at age 14," Haig said. While most boys his age had paper routes, Haig had a stone route. "I would go from antique store to antique store in Washington, D.C., polishing and repairing stones and gems."
"I guess you could say I was a rock hound."
His avid interest, and membership in the Washington, D.C. Rock Club got him noticed by such influential experts as Paul Desautels, former head curator of gems and minerals at the Smithsonian, and Pierre Touchette, retired ambassador to France and Rhodesia and expert stone cutter.
Eventually he ended up working for Bill Walker, an opal expert.
"I worked for Bill for 14 years and after him I didn't work for anyone else. He was the best. I watched him sell $1 million in rough opal at one gem show."
Haig also saw a tire heiress buy $50,000 in rough opal to put on the bottom of her aquarium. (That's one pretty fish tank!)
Before his college career brought him to Michigan, Haig had one more out-of-this-world experience to enjoy in D.C.
"I saw the moon rocks when they came back," Haig said.
"They were very plain, like anything you'd find in a desert."
What was really impressive, especially for a stone cutter, was the machinery used to cut the moon rocks, he said.
"The Felker machinery was exact. It made sure none of the moon rock was wasted."
Deep roots in Michigan
With a father in the U.S. Air Force, Haig spent his childhood on the move. When it was time to go to college, Haig returned to where his family started — Michigan.
"My family has deep roots in Michigan. We started as farmers up in the West Branch area. My grandfather was the head of the Michigan State Bank, a pharmacist and landowner in Ypsilanti."
Haig graduated from Oakland University in 1973 and opened his first jewelry store in downtown Rochester, above the then feed-and-seed store, today's . That location was his showroom.
He also rented space over what is now , which he used as his workshop. He traded a gem/mineral collection for an old chemistry lab a school was getting rid of.
"It had beautiful oak cabinets and slate top counters," Haig recalled. "It's still up there, for all I know."
Eventually he consolidated both aspects of his business in what is now .
"One day someone dropped a diamond on the floor and we were all on our hands and knees looking for it when the building next door blew up. The windows imploded over our heads and the office I had just been sitting in, the ceiling fell in."
It was the 1992 fatal gas explosion that leveled the Crissman building.
The lost diamond — which was found — saved lives that day.
With his store also significantly damaged, Haig moved his business to his current location, 311 Main St., and began restoration.
"We used a picture from Armistice Day 1918 to base the storefront on," Haid said. "And we spent more on the restoration than we did on the actual building, but we did it right and we've never had a problem."
Their work, including lowering the basement by five feet and putting in a new foundation, was recognized and rewarded including an award from the Detroit Engineering Society for preservation and restoration design.
The thrill of the hunt
Combining his passion for art and stones, Haig offers a jewelry store like no other.
"I buy and sell a very diverse mix," Haig said. "My favorite part of the business is the hunt, finding a great piece and then finding the person who wants it."
Haig travels the country and the world for his unique collection. Auctions, estates and gem shows are part of his regular schedule and with Haig's reputation, sellers often seek him out.
The store's merchandise is one-third modern, one-third antique and one-third classic (wedding, engagement, gifts).
But no matter what the category, it boils down to this: "Our policy is that we don't sell anything we wouldn't want to own ourselves," Haig said.
Haig's of Rochester's 38th Anniversary Event is 5:30 to 8:30 tonight at 311 Main St. The event includes light refreshments and once-a-year savings on select jewelry. For more information, call 248-652-3660.