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People

Joliet woman restores, transforms crystal keepsakes

For 45 years, Mary Lou Gates of Joliet has been repairing crystal pieces.
For 45 years, Mary Lou Gates of Joliet has been repairing crystal pieces.

Just recently, a woman called Mary Lou Gates, told her she had found a business card from 1973, and asked Gates if she still repaired crystal.

Of course Gates, who not only still restores crystal and porcelain to pre-chipped conditions but also can identify patterns and the company that produced them, was still in business, still charging low prices for her work, and still advertising mainly through “word of mouth.”

If Gates can’t repair it, she will turn the item into something else: a paperweight, an ornament, and jewelry. Broken goblets become bells with the addition of a sterling silver chain and a crystal clapper, she said.

“Someone just bought five extra goblets and asked me to make them into bells for the bridesmaids,” Gates said. “I mainly fix things that are chipped and broken. People are so happy when they can put them back on the shelf.”

Gates, now 66, of Joliet, was 21 and working at a veterinary clinic when her parents, Mary and John Gates, who owned M & J Antiques on Ruby Street in Joliet, bought a lapidary machine at a garage sale. Their intention was to repair broken items in the shop.

John Gates (now deceased) had trouble with the machine so he asked his daughter to “fool around with it.” Gates experimented with fitting  mismatched stoppers into wine decanters and found she had a knack for it.

As news of Gates’ skill spread, she became so busy with client orders in her basement and working on site in department stores, antique stores and crafts shows, she let the veterinary job go.

Eventually, Gates’ husband, Bob Mahalik, became involved, too. At shows, Mahalik often dons the apron and repairs the items while Gates, who “gets to dress up,” talks to customers. Mahalik also experimented with different grades of belts, increasing Gates’ efficiency because, yes, Gates is still using the original lapidary machine.

“He did one vase for me that would have taken me half the day,” Gates said. “A harder, tougher, smaller grade of belt cut right through it.”

Sometimes, Gates said, clients will comment that the younger generation does not appreciate the effort taken to preserve family heirlooms for future generations.

Gates feels the passage of time will eliminate their concerns.

“I tell them, ‘Keep it in the family. If it was grandma’s,’ ” Gates said, “ ‘They’ll appreciate it when they get older.’ ”

According to marylouscrystalrepair.com:

• (Crystal repair is) an art that can remove chips so well that it is virtually impossible to detect any repairs.

• Glass cannot be added to or re-fired.

• Process removes the chips by grinding and buffing.

• It must also be re-beveled and highly polished to perfection before it is returned as restored.

• Repairable items: goblets, vases, bowls and pitchers, including the reshaping of spouts. Bases and stems can be reattached.

• Broken goblets can be turned into bells by removing the bases and adding a crystal bead for sound.

• Rates: The average price for chips begins at $12 a stem. Re-styling goblet into bells is $10. China prices vary.

Work credits include items in the National Museum of Archives, Washington, D.C. (from President Jimmy Carter’s administration) Governor’s Mansion, State of Illinois (under James R. Thompson’s administration); and Bergner’s (with over 20 locations in Illinois and Wisconsin);

Gates has discussed her work on TV and radio shows. She has appeared at numerous Chicago-area antique shows and art and craft shows around the region. Contact Gates at 815-726-5554 or crystalrepair1001@sbcglobal.net

How to send glassware to Gates for repair:

• Package glass at least 4” from all sides of the box.

• Use a box within a box.

• Pack newspapers in this 4” space and place well wrapped glass in the center of the box. 

• Return shipping: A service charge is added for postage, handling and insurance.

• Ship to: Mary Lou Gates, 1001 Oakland Ave., Joliet, 60435

Drop off crystal needing repair at the following location:

• David Anthony Jeweler’s, 1876 E. Lincoln Highway, New Lenox 815-463-4653, www.davidanthonyjewelry.com

Visit marylouscrystalrepair.com for show schedule and additional drop-off locations.

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