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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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Creating the world’s most valuable poker chip

Tags: Canada
Poker chip has been appraised with a value of $450,000.

TORONTO — All that glitters is not only gold. There are also diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, pink diamonds – even solid silver looks pretty good in the right setting.

Tastefully combine these elements, pile on the carats, give them a casino motif, and voila, you have a line of merchandise that even the Sultan of Brunei would find appealing.

One piece in particular in Gerald Lewy’s collection is noteworthy for its value. It’s a hand-made “casino disk,” known more commonly as a poker chip, made of 22-karat pink gold, framed by 5.13 carats of pink diamonds, with a rim consisting of 17 one-carat diamonds, bearing on one side a diamond-encrusted lucky seven and, on the other, a lucky eight made of 62 small round diamonds. The numbers alone weigh in at 2.5 carats.

The disk – really a work of art – was appraised with a value of $450,000 – leading Guinness World Records to designate it the most valuable casino chip in the world.

Costing more than a house in many parts of Canada, it’s no wonder there have never been chips worth that much. Lewy, its designer/creator, proudly displays the certificate attesting to his entry into the rarified realm of world records.

The disk, he said, is the culmination of 2-1/2 years work and is the centrepiece of a line of glitzy jewelry and tchatchkes that he’ll soon market to those inhabiting a world of luxury most of us can only dream of.

Though it’s appraised at nearly half a million dollars, the chip can be had for much less, more like $275,000. The appraised value for insurance purposes doesn’t exactly match its market value, Lewy said.

Still, it’s the higher price that the Guinness people relied upon, and Lewy isn’t complaining, especially considering all the time, effort and expertise that went into its creation.

Lewy has been a diamond setter for 53 years. His father, Maurice, had been in the diamond business in London, England, supplying the British government with industrial diamonds. He was also in the jewelry business, manufacturing and wholesaling product that showed up in the city’s prestigious Hatton Garden, the centre of London’s jewelry trade.

When the family moved to Canada in 1947, Maurice continued to sell industrial diamonds. An NFB documentary narrated by Lorne Green looked at the business and featured his father, Lewy said.

Part way through high school, a learning disability attributable to dyslexia led Lewy to realize the academic life was not for him. His father advised him to learn a trade, and Lewy chose diamond setting. He entered into a nine-year apprenticeship under Stan Levine.

“You learn everything about diamond setting. It’s like learning to be a brain surgeon, there’s so much to do,” said Lewy.

He developed a particular aptitude for more difficult work, such as setting half-millimetre stones.

Eventually he went into business on his own, setting diamonds in all kinds of jewelry. He also served as a consultant to other jewelers on the mechanics of setting stones.

“It’s like [being] an engineer,” he explained.

Over time, the industry changed. Stone-setting was outsourced abroad, where skilled craftsmen would work for a fraction of the cost in Canada.

A career change followed. Lewy began training young people at George Brown College, while continuing to freelance for private customers.

Three years ago, while attending a trade show in Tucson, Ariz., he was shown a standard plastic poker chip. He said to himself, “There’s something wrong with this. It has no flair. It’s boring.”

He began to experiment, giving new looks to the old chips. In his earliest effort, he embedded a couple of plastic dice in the chip. He went on to experiment with metal chips, using simple designs that incorporated the number seven on one side, and eight on the other.

Eight, he said, is considered lucky in some Asian cultures.

“Every few weeks, I’d come up with something else,” he said. He’d wake up at 4 a.m. with an idea and jot it down.

Lewy believes his dyslexia may well have helped him. To make sure no mistakes crept in, he double-, triple- and quadruple-checks his work.

“The nice part is, I’m dyslexic and I created it. It came out of my head. There’s nothing similar. Nothing comes close to it,.”

Lewy proudly displays the prototype chips that preceded his record-setting one. They get progressively more intricate, with more and more glittery stones. For the models, he uses cubic zirconia instead of diamonds, imitation sapphire and imitation emeralds, to give them colour. For the final sale product, he substitutes the real gemstones.

His efforts culminated in the record-breaker, but all the while he worked on other items, like diamond-encrusted bracelets, featuring the four card suits using different precious stones. He has a diamond encrusted money clip, pendants, rings, gold-plated or solid gold dice with precious stones for pips – glitter that wouldn’t look out of place on the  Las Vegas strip.

His next step is to complete the line and market it to those looking for the best in luxury items.

Not bad for a guy who gave up academics to work with his hands.

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