Texas Jeweler Crafts Wearable Art

American Artisans, People
on January 13, 2008

Sitting on a small wooden bench he built more than 50 years ago, James Avery, 85, dons safety glasses and picks up a thin wire to scratch out a pattern on a thumbnail-sized piece of silver. As his long, nimble fingers mark the piece of metal, he transforms from a man talking about jewelry to a man making jewelry. After hammering and filing, the metal begins to take on the shape of a cross. It’s a process Avery has honed through decades of handcrafting exquisite jewelry.

In his Kerrville, Texas (pop. 20,425), workshop, Avery meticulously fashions simple religious symbols into wearable art—a passion that netted more than $100 million in sales in 2006 for the company that bears his name. Known simply as James Avery to collectors of his timeless designs, his creations are destined to become heirlooms for future generations.

Early training
Avery’s interest in art and design began while growing up in Chicago, using simple playthings such as blocks, paper and crayons. He gained experience using tools as a youngster while visiting his grandfather’s Iowa farm. In 1940, following high school, he enrolled at the University of Illinois in the emerging field of industrial design—designing products to catch consumers’ attention. But when World War II escalated, Avery left college during his senior year to join the Army Air Corps. Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio brought him to the scenic Hill Country. “I loved Texas and the friendly people and found the surroundings inspiring,” he says.

After the war, he finished his education and then became a teacher in the newly formed Industrial Design department at the University of Iowa, later teaching at the University of Colorado, where he first investigated jewelry design with his students.

During this time, personal setbacks in Avery’s life led him to seek guidance and support through the church. “I became involved in the Episcopal Church and the Canterbury Club on campus—a turning point in my life. I made a silver cross for myself and wore it on a string under my shirt. When others asked me to make crosses for them, I knew I’d found something worthwhile.”

His renewed Christian commitment and desire to leave teaching led Avery in new directions. After marrying in 1953 and spending a short time on fellowship at the University of Minnesota, he sent some of his jewelry pieces to a religious bookstore in New York. Encouraged by sales and wanting to move back to Texas, Avery tried silversmithing, settling in Kerrville, where his in-laws offered him a place to live and work. He spent $250 purchasing tools, a small polishing machine, and some silver and copper.

In 1954, Avery sold his first piece in Texas to a counselor at a Christian girls summer camp, Camp Mystic, near Kerrville. One day a young girl attending the camp asked him to make a charm signifying a mouse that had streaked out from under her friend’s bed. Word spread of his silver charms, and sales spiked. Today, Avery’s company produces 200 charms specifically for 10 Texas Hill Country camps—tiny replicas of cabins and awards, as well as reminders of activities and years attended.

The empire grows
Avery worked alone, crafting all his jewelry himself, from 1954 to 1957. As orders increased, he began making patterns for popular designs, and in 1957 his first catalog was distributed locally, featuring 39 handmade items. That year, he hired his first employee, Fred Garcia, who was instrumental in the growth of the company both for his craftsmanship and his ability to teach specialized techniques. The company incorporated as James Avery Craftsman in 1965 (Craftsman was later dropped), and two years later, the 29-acre Kerrville campus, which today employees 400 people, was constructed. The site includes a visitor area adjacent to a workshop and a retail area, both open to the public, as well as an outdoor patio and gazebo suitable for group events. Also on the campus are a design studio, business offices and a distribution center—all closed to the public.

Today, more than 1,400 employees craft designs and market products from Avery workshops in the central Texas towns of Hondo, Fredericksburg (where the casting is done), Kerrville and Comfort. The company also maintains its own gem department—buying, grading and selecting stones—in Comfort. Of the more than 1,100 designs and 14,000 items handcrafted in white and yellow gold, gemstones and sterling silver, charms still comprise one-third of the company’s products. It is one of the few jewelry businesses that takes a piece from conception through production to retail, a process that can take up to seven months. Prices range from $30 for simple silver crosses to $10,000 for gold pieces with precious gemstones.

Personal touch
As Avery walks the grounds of his company, he stops to chat with customers. “They’re the bosses,” he says. Each employee has a nameplate at his or her workstation, and open windows allow interaction with visitors.

“I never intended to be here this long, but I like it,” says Beatrice Leal, an Avery employee for 33 years. “Mr. Avery is not just my employer, he’s my friend.”

Managers from 41 retail stores—most in Texas, but also scattered in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia and Colorado—learn about the process and appreciation for the pieces when Avery brings them to Kerrville.

“I can tell customers from first-hand knowledge how the jewelry is made,” says Eric Arrizola, an assistant manager at the company’s retail store in Austin’s Barton Creek Square Mall. “It’s all made in Texas, and it is high quality.”

The beauty and integrity of Avery’s designs don’t go unnoticed by his customers. “It’s just made with so much care,” says Esther Curry of Mesquite, who recently began collecting Avery jewelry.

Giving back
Sewn into a quilt hanging near Avery’s office is his creed: Giving is what life is about. “Everything in my life is a gift,” he explains, “and I’m committed to sharing the gifts.” Avery donates funds to hospitals, charities and other worthy causes and provides scholarships for American and Third World students. In his office, the master craftsman proudly displays photos of six children—three from the Philippines and three from Africa—whom he supports through donations to World Vision International, a Christian relief and advocacy organization.

Avery’s notable public accomplishments include designing and making the communion vessels used by Pope John Paul II during a Mass in San Antonio in 1987; recognition as San Antonio Entrepreneur of the Year in 1988; producing special charms for astronauts on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1996; and an honorary doctorate at the Seminary of the Southwest, conferred in May 2007.

Although retirement is far from his mind (“Retire. How do you spell that?”) Avery is pleased that two of his seven children—sons Paul and Chris—have joined his management team and will continue with the same faith-based principles that have guided the company for more than half a century.

Four principles—simplicity, integrity, meaning and universality—continue to define the Avery look, whether through religious symbols or sophisticated secular designs. Crosses from various countries are included in the product line, and he’s currently working on a Star of David that will be available by December 2008. “I want to keep coming up with good ideas and quality designs,” Avery says. “My biggest inspiration and passion is creating something meaningful and true.”