Sami Nakishbendi celebrates 20 years of crafting unique, handmade jewelry in Manayunk.
By Leo Dillinger
Photography By Susan Beard (susanbearddesign.com)
Some people view jewelry as just an accessory. For Sami Nakishbendi of Bendi Jewelers, each of his handcrafted pieces tells a story. From rings to necklaces to earrings, his work embodies those sentimental moments of life into physical pieces of art.
“Things in life inspire me to create pieces, whether it’s people or even places I visit,” Sami said. “I could look at a cable on a bridge and be inspired to come up with something that would look like that experience I have lived. What I look at and find in things, the inartistic person would not necessarily think twice about it. This is the beauty of my work. I see things differently.”
Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria from a family with Turkish roots, Sami came to the United States in 1983 to pursue a degree in pre-medical biology at Temple University. At 17 years old with no interest in becoming a doctor, he initially intended to study architecture. But coming from a family with a history in the medical field, Sami didn’t really have a choice.
Reluctantly, Sami switched focus on his studies toward dentistry. In his mind, the idea of using his hands to manipulate wax and precious metals for patients was the closest thing to being an artist within the medical field. After graduation, Sami spent two years as a practicing dentist before he decided to call it quits.
“I was miserable. It wasn’t for me,” Sami said. “It was just a bridge to get me to the art world. As a result, I decided to use what I had learned in dentistry and apply it to jewelry making. It was a long and costly way to get to the final destination, however I guess it made me who I am.”
In 1994, he started wholesaling gold and silver with his brother on Jeweler’s Row, but Sami could tell that he didn’t fit in. Once they got their feet wet in the business, he and his brother parted ways to open their own individual businesses. Sami searched for a place with a more cozy, artsy flair to establish his business.
Sure enough, he stumbled upon Manayunk in 1997 at the perfect time. Sami admired the artistic scene, the safety of the community, and the atmosphere around Main Street, which reminded him of towns in France and Germany. After relocating Bendi Jewelers three times around Manayunk, he finally settled for good and purchased the building at 4333 Main Street 11 years ago.
“I decided to pursue my happiness,” Sami said. “I really believe that you have to love what you do. Especially when you’re spending many hours a week doing something, you better like that field.”
Sami’s job never feels quite like a job. The freedom of working for himself and the opportunity to push his creative limitations never makes him feel bored. However, the most gratifying part of his business is the ability to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Sami’s pieces of jewelry are physical symbols of love, inspiration, and hope, and his craftsmanship has resonated with his clientele.
“I’m blessed that over two decades here, I can say with conviction that I have a good name,” Sami said. “You can’t buy a good reputation. It takes time to show and the challenging part is to wait until you hear it from others with conviction.”
No project is too big or too small for Sami to handle. Though he’s most notably known for engagement rings, wedding bands, earrings and necklaces, he also specializes in reproducing vintage pieces from past eras. Some of his projects have even become family heirlooms.
When Sami works on a new piece, he brings all of his skills to the table. First, it begins with an idea. He takes his client’s desires and passions and runs with it by sketching a mockup of the final product. Drawing has been a talent of Sami’s for as long as he can remember and it gives his customers the chance for a firsthand look into his scope of work.
Once the design is finalized, it’s time to get to work. Even though Sami hasn’t worked on teeth since 1994, he still applies the clinical side of his dentistry background when creating new pieces. To this day, he continues to use dentistry tools when working with wax, gold, silver, platinum, and sterling to craft his jewelry.
Sami prides himself in being transparent with his clients. By the time they stop into his shop to pick up the final product, they leave with a smile on their face knowing their dreams have come to life.
“I don’t have the salesman mentality,” Sami said. “When you walk in here, your stress level is really low. I’m far from pushy. I consider myself in it more for the artistry than just moving products. The whole designing process is a two way street. I’ve noticed over the years I’m a good listener. I know what people want and I give them what they want.”
In the last 20 years, Bendi Jewelers has become a Manayunk institution. Not only have several residents and business owners gone to Sami to make jewelry for their special occasions, he’s even given handmade necklaces to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Alicia Silverstone. His warm, open personality makes it easy for him to befriend many people around town and he likes to support the businesses that have been kind to him in return. Some of his go-to spots around town include Winnie’s, Chabaa Thai Bistro, Volo Coffeehouse, Armen’s Clothier, Latitudes and Longitudes, and LILA Fashion International.
Sami has watched Manayunk change over time and believes its resurgence has only just begun with even better things still to come. He values the contributions of the business community that make this district a one-of-a-kind destination for shopping and dining. To Sami, standing out from the rest is what has made him so successful.
“You have to find your niche and pursue it. That’s very crucial,” Sami said. “Nothing is going to fall into your lap. You have to do your due diligence so to speak. In order to draw business, you have to do things your own way to figure out how you fit into the equation.”
Most recently, Sami has made some simple, yet exciting renovations to his space. With bright colors on the walls and new hardwood floors, the open and inviting ambiance gives customers of Bendi Jewelers a welcoming feeling as they enter.
When he’s not crafting new jewelry, Sami enjoys cycling, Latin dancing, playing the piano, practicing Krav Maga (Israeli Martial Arts), and visiting his four daughters who live in Germany. Sami also likes to offer consulting advice for friends and customers who aren’t quite sure what they’re looking for or where to even start. He sees it as an obligation to provide his talents and services whenever possible.
Sami’s empathetic personality and attention to detail has truly made him a guru in his field. He focuses more on human interaction in a low-key, stress free way than on hard-selling products. Looking on to the future of Bendi Jewelers, Sami hopes to continue pleasing his clients all while reaching his full creative potential.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve for me because I couldn’t believe jewelry could have such an impact on people’s lives, especially with pieces that are specialized just for them,” Sami said. “I’m really taken by the reactions of some individuals. It feels good, like you’re curing someone. And it’s ongoing, which is fun.”