Six stories up, a boy no older than 10 sat on the window ledge of a Gaslamp office building, his back facing the open air. The window was clamped down on his thighs. A pedestrian below might have been forgiven for alerting the police.
But it was just Guy Matsuda, cleaning the windows. On the other side, his dad held onto his dangling feet.
“He would say, ‘Look, the windows are dirty. I’ll sit you here, and close the window on your legs. Then you clean it. I’ll hold you,’” Matsuda, now 48, said. “Can you believe that?”
It was just the sort of stunt his father would pull without a second thought. It was practical, after all, but it also raised eyebrows. Kazuo “Matt” Matsuda loved pranks, his son said.
They provided brief glimpses into Matsuda’s humorous side, which on occasion shone through the otherwise stern concentration with which he approached his life and work on that sixth floor. Matsuda was a talented jeweler who for almost 50 years designed and repaired necklaces, rings and pendants for a broad San Diego clientele. His company, Matt Jewelers, was respected among San Diego’s community of jewelers for the quality of its work as much as for the personal integrity of its namesake, his son said.
Matsuda died at his Serra Mesa home Dec. 6 from complications from pneumonia, his son said. He was 88.
Matsuda arrived in San Diego by way of Gila River, Ariz. where he and his Japanese-American family were interned by the American government during World War II. He was allowed to leave for a job in Chicago, where he learned his trade before moving to San Diego in 1955. In 1957, he opened Matt Jewelers in a Gaslamp office building, and in the 1980s was the first retail jeweler to move into the Jewelry Exchange building that still stands at 6th Avenue and E Street.
Kazuo Matsuda was born in Hemet, Calif. on Nov. 29, 1921, to Jiroichi and Misugi Matsuda, Japanese immigrants. His family worked as farmers in the San Fernando Valley.
At the outbreak of World War II, his family was forced to sell its belongings and sent to an internment camp southeast of Phoenix, along with thousands of other Japanese-American families who were detained over government concerns that they would collaborate with the U.S.’s newest war enemy, even if they, like Matsuda, were American born.
“All of a sudden, to all of their friends, they were the enemy,” his son said, “and they couldn’t figure it out.”
A provision of the government’s internment policy allowed camp residents to seek jobs in the country’s interior, where there was no coastal threat.
Matsuda secured a job in Chicago, and saw it as his ticket out. He boarded a bus that drove him across the South and through the Midwest. On the way, his son said, he was astounded when African-Americans who boarded the same bus were forced to the back.
“It was his first exposure to that kind of discrimination,” his son said. He somehow differentiated their treatment from his own. “It was a pride thing, a typical Japanese pride thing, but he always said the government put them in the camp to protect them, and that’s all he would say.”
When he arrived in Chicago, he skipped out on the job he’d arranged, and instead enrolled in a trade school, aspiring first to be a hair stylist. But the classes were full. So were the watchmaking courses. He settled for a course in jewelry design, and after graduating worked as a platinum smith for a local company. Chicagoans had trouble pronouncing his first name, Kazuo, so his friends called him Matt because of the alliteration with Matsuda. It stuck.
It was in Chicago that the clean cut, bespectacled 20-something met Frances Nakayama, a young woman who, they soon discovered, had been interned at the same Arizona camp Matsuda had just left. They married in 1948.
Wanting to escape the Midwest, they moved back to California, but avoided Los Angeles because, their son said, they wanted to start a life separate from their existing families’. He worked for Benjamin Jewelers, a large local company, before leaving to start his own business.
He involved his entire family. His wife kept the books and his four children helped around the office.
They did trade work. Large jewelry companies whose clients needed repair work passed the broken pieces on to Matsuda. He fixed them, for a fee, and sent them back to the company, which charged its customers more. “He was such a hard worker,” his son said.
His partnership with his wife ideally suited the business. She was logical and straight-headed, the business head. He was the artisan. She disciplined the children, and he pampered them, with gifts and trips to Disneyland. He felt guilty, his son said, for the amount of time his work demanded.
When Guy, his second son, reached adulthood and joined his father in the business, he encouraged him to transition to retail and sales, where there was more profit to be made.
They moved to the Jewelry Exchange Building downtown and opened a more visible store. His biggest customers were Portuguese and Italian fishing boat owners and Mexican high society, who would cross the border into San Diego. His son remembers fishermen and wealthy Mexicans coming into his store with bags of cash asking for custom designs.
The industry was dominated by respect then, his son said. If a customer came to him citing a friend’s prices, he wouldn’t undercut it. “He would say, ‘Go back to them, they’re good people,’” his son said.
But the jewelry business changed in the mid-80s, as the global economy suffered. The Mexican peso devalued severely. Tuna fishermen sold their boats as labor costs and other circumstances forced the industry overseas. Jewelry competed with other gift goods.
“Before, whenever you bought your girlfriend a significant present, it was jewelry,” Matsuda said. “But we started competing with vacations, and cars, and all sorts of other things.”
In 2000, seeking more visibility, Matsuda and his son opened a store in Little Italy.
“Right after, Sept. 11 happened, and we never recovered from that,” Guy Matsuda said. They closed the store in 2005, and his father retired.
In his retirement, Matsuda took more time to enjoy his hobbies. He watched sports religiously, and practiced his golf swing on his front lawn. He had a brown belt in judo. When his family took him to Las Vegas, he disappeared the moment he stepped into a casino, not to be seen by them until early morning. He could gamble for hours.
“But he always told me, very typically Japanese, ‘Don’t complain if you lose,’” his son said. “You come to have fun, and if you can’t lose money, you have no business being here.”
Matt Jewelers continues as a design company out of his son’s Eastlake home. Guy Matsuda still designs jewelry by hand, something fewer and fewer people do these days, he said.
“Real true artisans in the industry are a dying breed,” his son said. “My dad was one of them.”