“It’s been a long journey,” says Mathew Gross, who puts on tefillin weekly with Chabad’s Friday Boys at his Berkley jewelry studio.
In February, Matthew Gross and his wife, Elena, decided they needed a break from Michigan’s brutal winter. So they booked a two-week trip to Mexico.
And that’s where Gross, “a nice Jewish boy,” jokes that he found Jesus.
There, in San Miguel de Allende, about 170 miles from Mexico City, Gross did, indeed, find Jesus. Jesus Villaverde Fuentes.
“For years, my customers have told me about this amazing artist’s colony in Mexico on a mountain top, where it’s 75 degrees all year long,” says Gross, a jewelry designer whose studio has been based in Berkley for the past 26 years. “It sounded too good to be true. So, as soon as I had the chance, I went. And they were right; it is a magical place.”
An adventurous world traveler, Gross researches each country beforehand and contacts jewelry designers, usually through Instagram, to meet. Always staying at Airbnbs, the Gross family maximizes their trips by taking part in Airbnb Experiences, which are unique activities hosted by local experts. While Elena took cooking and Spanish classes, Matthew took drawing and saw a listing that advertised “Make a Ring in a Day.” He reached out to jeweler Jesus Villaverde Fuentes who was running the class and asked to visit Fuentes’ studio.
Gross took a cab outside of the historical city, along a rubble road, to Fuentes’ tiny home. Inside the home was Fuentes’ studio where he teaches kids and adults about jewelry making. Jesus, his wife, Alejandra, and their 1-year-old daughter, Aliah, tend to their beautiful garden and grow and sell produce as an additional source of income.
“Jesus had horrible tools. I couldn’t imagine how he was making jewelry with the tools he had,” says Gross, who graduated from the Gemological Institute of America in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1992. “He asked me for help on a project that needed a special tool that he would have to take a bus to go to his friend’s house to borrow — a whole production for a 10-minute project.”
Gross promised he would send the tool to Fuentes once Gross returned to Michigan. The cost of the tool: $35.
The Power of Networking
Hearing Fuentes’ incredible story, Gross’ friend offered to donate a $1,000 rolling mill, a type of metal-forming machinery. Gross began making calls to fellow jewelers and started a GoFundMe account for the Fuentes family. Once the story of Gross’ mission to help the Fuentes family hit a jewelry trade publication, calls started coming in. The first call came from Mark Tapper of Tapper’s Jewelry in West Bloomfield, Troy and Novi.
“Mark called and said that they had a bunch of equipment that they were going to sell but, after reading the article, Tapper’s decided to donate it to Jesus’ jewelry business. It was pretty amazing,” says Gross, who plans to go back to San Miguel de Allende in February for a month this time.
Gross’ suitcase is already packed with tools to donate. And the plans have been finalized for Gross to take a small group of fellow jewelry designers on an inaugural culture and architecture tour of the area. By 2024, Gross plans to officially launch a new touring business.
After the article came out, calls started coming in from all over the country. Gesswein Jewelry Tools in Bridgeport, Conn., donated a large number of discontinued items. Soon, Gross had received over $7,000 in equipment, tools and gemstone donations. That’s 500 pounds that Gross had to figure out how to get to Mexico.
“I use my power of OCD to get things done,” Gross laughs. “I use it for good, not evil. In a normal world, this logistically would have been a nightmare.”
Gross sought out philanthropic Jewish Americans who have ties to or homes in San Miguel de Allende, like Linda and Chuck Soberman of West Bloomfield, who helped Gross lay out a charitable path.
As more-than-luck would have it, the Fuentes family sells produce from their garden to an American family in San Miguel de Allende, who owns the ZOOMALO Moving and Storage company. ZOOMALO safely and expeditiously shipped a 4 ft. x 4 ft. crate, which was also donated, from Michigan to Mexico in May.
“Before, Jesus could only teach one person at a time. Now, with these new tools, he can teach three or four people at a time, which helps to bring in more money for the family. He used to use Dollar Store reading glasses, and now he has a microscope and much better equipment and tools,” says Gross, who lives in Huntington Woods with his wife and their three kids, all in their 20s.
“It just feels good to help them,” he adds. “If we’re able to help their daughter have a better life, she could change the world because of this opportunity.”
Thank You, Mom
Gross had a paper route when he was 14 and living in Southfield.
“My mother, Mimi Gross, was trying to figure out ways for me to be sparked to a career. She said, ‘Why don’t you contact my friend’s brother who has a jewelry store and see what it’s all about?’ and I said, ‘Sure,’” says Gross, who wound up working at that store until he was 16.
He swept the floors and learned to clean and polish jewelry.
“In the meantime, I would use the money I earned at the jewelry store to buy jewels and set up shop in my mom’s basement and teach myself how to make jewelry — or, at that point, how to ruin jewelry,” he laughs.
After the jewelry store in West Bloomfield closed, Gross started working for another jeweler where he would work in the back doing jewelry repairs. His senior year of high school, Gross switched from Southfield-Lathrup High School to Berkley High because they had an excellent jewelry casting program. And that’s where Gross met his future wife.
“I gave her my business card. I started my own business when I was 17, renting out studio space three days a week in the Magic Touch Hair Salon in Oak Park for $400 per month,” Gros says.
With the money he earned from making and selling jewelry, Gross earned enough money to buy a car and put himself through gemology school.
“It’s been a long journey,” says Gross, who puts on tefillin weekly with Chabad’s Friday Boys at his Berkley jewelry studio.
“I hope that people will be inspired to donate to the cause. I have a pipe dream of raising $1 million from some expats who live down in Mexico for a school in San Miguel de Allende. I plan to have a conversation with people after I’ve proven myself with this project. It’s pretty amazing,” Gross adds.
“When I’m dead and gone, this philanthropy could snowball and go on forever.”