By Stephen J. Kotz
Every year about the time of HarborFest, David Lee, a retired Sag Harbor jeweler, has announced that the gold, gold-plated and sterling silver Sag Harbor whale charms he has been selling for decades are “almost extinct” and will soon no longer be available.
While that claim has always been true in the sense that the charms have not been made for years, Mr. Lee, 87, says his annual warning carries a little more weight this year now that he only has about 20 of the charms remaining. “There are very few of them left,” he said this week, adding that he is already planning to give some of the remaining pendants to his children and grandchildren.
The charms, which are less than an inch long and are designed to be worn on a necklace, have a special feature: when you hold the whale up to the light and look through its tiny quartz eye, you see a map of a portion of the East End, including, of course, Sag Harbor.
Mr. Lee, who came to Sag Harbor from his native Sheffield, England, in 1948, admits the charms were not his idea. Soon after his arrival, Mr. Lee, who had apprenticed as a watchmaker before coming to America, landed a job at Fritt’s Jewelers. When the owners sold the store to Robert and Patricia Esslinger, Mr. Lee came with it, “as part of the furnishings,” he said this week.
The charms were first marketed by Robert Barre, a Frenchman, who worked at the store in the 1950s, Mr. Lee said, and they proved to be popular graduation and Christmas gifts.
Mr. Lee eventually acquired the molds and after leaving the store to join Rowe Industries had the pendants made first in France and later in Pennsylvania.
“I only made them as I needed them,” Mr. Lee said. Eventually, though, he lost the molds, and sales slowed to a trickle. “Once in awhile I’ll get a call from someone wanting to buy one for their daughter or granddaughter,” he said, noting that buyers knew where to look for them “by word of mouth.”
The solid gold whales cost $500, while the gold-plated and sterling silver models go for $275.
“It’s a little bit of Sag Harbor history,” Mr. Lee said of his charms.
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