Hopes to stay in U.S. to run business

By Gigi Wood

NORTH LIBERTY – Everyone has a story.

Harold van Beek’s is one of the more interesting ones.

Mr. van Beek opened his own jewelry store in April at 365 Beaver Kreek Center in North Liberty, near the Brown Bottle restaurant. The bulk of his business comes from custom design and repair projects, although his showroom features his own designs and products from Pandora and Pure.

His store hosts special events with jewelry line representatives, as well as barbeques, art appreciation days and wine tastings. A native of the Netherlands, Mr. van Beek often serves Dutch coffee and cookies at his store, Jewelry by Harold. A significant portion of his jewelry is hand fabricated, a rarity in the jewelry industry.

“I see my store as an extension of my living room,” he said. “That’s how I want to treat it and the people. Don’t expect me to wear white gloves or a high hat or come in here with a carriage and horses. That’s not what I’m about.”

For Mr. van Beek, jewelry design is a passion, whether it’s a photo charm for a single customer, or a collection of pieces for the Finnish Olympic gymnastics team.

“We work in a kitchen-table environment,” he said. “I don’t need yards and yards of showcases. What we make is exactly how you want it, not like what we think you should have.”

He moved to the United States from the Netherlands in 2005 with his wife and son, first to Massachusetts and later to Missouri. A long-time connection with the Iowa City area brought him to the Corridor and he pursued his master’s degree in art and art history from the University of Iowa.

While in school, he interned for Mark Ginsberg at M.C. Ginsberg jewelry store, 110 E. Washington St. in Iowa City, where he helped Mr. Ginsberg augment his design department. Immigration laws made it difficult to keep Mr. van Beek on staff.

“Immigration law is very difficult on people who want to hire jewelers from out of the country,” Mr. van Beek said.

Mr. van Beek learned of retail space opening up in North Liberty, and decided it would be easier to go out on his own. He received his master’s degree in May and when he hosted the grand opening of his new store, UI President Sally Mason came to cut the ribbon.

“In March, I got a phone call from the previous owner and said she still had the lease going on and asked if I was interested,” he said. “I thought, I’ve been doing this for so many years. I had a big jewelry store in the Netherlands before we moved here. So we moved here and opened our store.”

Immigration laws are easier on Mr. van Beek as a business owner than they were as an employee of another store.

“It’s a little bit easier owning your own business,” he said. “You need to write your own business plan, you need to show them what you think is going to happen and then you get a visa for two years. But commercial leases are for five years.”

Now an instructor at the UI as well, 49-year-old Mr. van Beek has a long resume from his time in the Netherlands. When the master goldsmith started in 1984, he was the youngest self-employed jeweler in the Netherlands. He was a board member to the Dutch Jewelry Association and the Dutch Federation of Gold and Silver and a member of the region’s diamond exchange. He was on the exam committee for the country’s jewelry school, as well as a board member of the local chamber of commerce.

Customers began asking him for more and more of his own designs.

“I got more and more people asking me for designs and I did some intricate designs and some simple designs,” he said. “Then I was asked to design jewelry for the world championship gymnastics in 2010 in my hometown. And it was very successful. Then they asked me to do the same for the European championships in 2011, which I did. Then the Finnish gymnastics department came my way and asked me to design something. And then the Finnish, Dutch and the Germans were working with me on all sorts of designs. The Olympics of this year is coming up and they asked me again to design jewelry for the 2012 Olympics.”

Last year, he completed a line for Julie Fryer, while she competed on “Dancing with the Stars.” And he was recently asked to design a jewelry line for the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Perthshire, Scotland. He designs pins that are awarded to Xerox sales staff when they reach a certain sales goal.

He sold his last jewelry store in the Netherlands in 2005.

“We had a lot of crime going on,” he said. “Everyone thinks of the Netherlands as the place with the windmills and where you wear wooden shoes and have tulips in your yard. But the Islamization is picking up in the Netherlands.”

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a car was driven through his storefront window.

“It crushed my whole store, the whole inside collapsed and we had a huge amount of damage,” he said. “They weren’t able to steal anything because we had put everything in the safe. Shortly after that, we had an armed robbery. Shortly after that, they tried to kidnap my wife and my son. That’s when we decided to look around and we decided to make a move to the U.S.”

Netherlands-North Liberty connection

Mr. van Beek’s journey to the Corridor began long before 2005. His story reaches as far back as the days following World War II, when his mother wrote a thank you note to Iowa schoolchildren for sending aid packages to the Netherlands.

“At the end of World War II, there was the American Youth Red Cross and they sent aid packages to different countries in Europe who were very distorted, crushed under the force of the Nazis. The Netherlands were also severely hit, leading to the starvation winter,” he said. “The Germans had left and they robbed and raped the land and the livestock were killed and so there was no food. The only thing people could do at that time was get on their bikes and travel around the Netherlands, which is about a quarter size of Iowa. They would try to ask farmers to see if they could go out into the fields to see if they could find leftover potatoes or sugar beets or things like that. That’s what my mom was doing. She was the oldest of the family. My grandma was very ill during the war.”

His 16-year-old mother was the oldest in the family and took care of the cooking, laundry and other chores.

“The aid packages that they sent for Christmas with Christmas gifts, they sent from U.S. schools to Dutch scouting groups,” he said. “My mom came late to the scouting house. Turns out they had given out all the Christmas gifts. We’re talking 1945. My mom got a ballpoint pen, which was brand new back then. Nobody cared much about it. All the packages were unwrapped already.”

There were letters and pictures sent with the care packages. Not knowing who was responsible for giving her the pen, Mr. van Beek’s mother sent thank you letters to the 36 addresses she could find in the pile. That’s how decades of correspondence and friendship began.

“A schoolhouse was located on Highway 6 and it’s probably about 1 1/2 miles east of the Iowa City limits,” he said. “The owner of the farm house, she had two daughters and two sons. So the correspondence started with her and a child from the class. But since my mom was so much older than the child in the class, the correspondence proceeded with the mother of the child in the class. So she had two correspondences going on in Iowa City.”

Aid packages arrived in the Netherlands once again when the country experienced severe flooding during the 1950s.

“In 1955, the old schoolhouse was sold to a farmer on Napoleon Street,” Mr. van Beek said. “The farmer’s son got engaged. In 1949, he married the oldest daughter of the owner of the school building, who was also a school teacher. They picked up the house and posted to set it up on Napoleon Street and it’s still there. Our correspondence went from the mother of the school house to the daughter of the school house, Barbara Barnes.”

Ms. Barnes died Dec. 28, she was 82.

“She was a remarkable lady,” he said. “It was 66 years of friendship.”

Mr. van Beek and his siblings were all named after those Iowan friends.

In 1977, Mr. van Beek’s older brother was sent to Iowa City to work on their farm. The brother would later attend the UI and become a well-respected radiologist. Mr. van Beek was sent to work on the farm in 1979.

“He was sent out from the Netherlands when the world was still large and still big and traveling from the Netherlands to the United States was an undertaking,” he said. “My parents said, ‘when you’re 17, we’ll send you to our friends in Iowa to stay with them and work on the farm for two months.’ So, it’s like family.”

In 1997, Leny van Beek, his mother, was invited to Iowa City. The city dedicated Sept. 9 of that year a day in her honor because of the connection.

“The whole family had always been very attracted by Iowa City; every year or every other year we were traveling back and forth to Iowa,” he said. “That’s also why I know so many people around here. That’s always why we think this is the best place for our son to grow up.”