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Treasure Hunt

Forty-one shells from a tiny mollusk unearthed in Blombos Cave in South Africa bear little resemblance to the stunning custom jewelry designs of 2008, but many archaeologists are convinced that more than 75,000 years ago, someone pierced the shells and strung them together to form the world’s first known piece of jewelry.

Having done much the same thing as a child with Froot Loops and fuzzy red yarn, I felt uniquely qualified to offer my services in exploring the process behind—and the personalities of—some of Southwest Florida’s finest custom jewelry designers and purveyors. I prepared carefully, mostly by applying every piece of interesting jewelry I owned in the hopes that one of the jewelers would gasp in delight at my whimsical, yet clearly superior, taste.

I have, after all, grown far beyond Froot Loops necklaces.

While I received woefully few compliments, I did discover that since that fateful Day of the Mollusks in the Stone Ages, jewelry has come a long way. Custom design was recently summed up for me by José Aragón of José Aragón Inc. Naples, who said that it is, "… to the taste and specifications of a particular person, made with love and enthusiasm."

Aragón: "If it’s already beautiful, I won’t change it."

Upon first introduction Aragón is a quiet, self-possessed man, but as we discuss his long career in custom jewelry design, his own love and enthusiasm for the art become evident, and within moments he is remembering designing his own toys as a child, his entry into art school as a teenager, and his year spent in Paris studying sculpture. It was in the Louvre that his fascination for jewelry design was born, and he honed his craft in Barcelona, making miniatures in gold and platinum studded with precious gems, particularly influenced by the Art Nouveau period.

He pulled some items representative of that phase of his life from the back room, and his fingers returned to them time and again as I asked my questions. The pieces are astonishing in their detail, and I couldn’t help but put my pen down occasionally to inspect the delicate precision of an eagle’s feathers, or to marvel at the careful reproduction of the pattern in a turtle’s shell in coral.

Aragón has a lovely sense of humor, but I resisted the urge to slip a tiny, Fabergé-style, hinged egg in my pocket. I had a feeling the tentative rapport we’d established might just fly right out the door, quickly followed by me, then my car keys, then my adorable little leather notebook. I envisioned him keeping my pen as punishment.

Besides, I wanted Aragón to trust me, because it’s his key phrase. It comes up when we discuss how a customer should find a designer (ask people you trust for a reference), how to know the designer is the right one at the first meeting (trust your instincts, look for precision in both design and execution), and his own part of the process (trust his own instincts for shape, color and scale). Aragón has never declined to work with a client, but he has refused to alter heirlooms brought in to be incorporated into a new piece.

"If it’s already beautiful, I won’t change it," he said firmly.

That confidence shouldn’t be mistaken for arrogance. Aragón believes that his craft is an ever-evolving process. Each piece he designs and makes is a fresh opportunity to sharpen his already considerable skills, though he is quick to point out that perfection is elusive. It can be sought, but once the jeweler believes it has been achieved, motivation diminishes and designs grow stale.

Looking at some of the exquisite pieces he has designed and made—95 percent of the work is done on the premises—it’s clear that growing stale isn’t something José Aragón needs to worry about. He should, however, keep a close eye on me the next time he lets me get near that little egg.

Phelps: "It’s sacrifice the stones, or sacrifice the metals."

John Phelps of Wm. Phelps Custom Jeweler in The Village on Venetian Bay is another skilled designer and benchman, sketching designs by hand, mixing alloy with gold himself to form 10K to 24K gold pieces, and delicately setting gemstones gathered from around the world or from the customers themselves.

Phelps learned his craft from his father and brother almost 20 years ago. After being lucky enough to watch a casting process, I could see what would attract a young man to this profession. Starting with a blue wax model of a loggerhead turtle (the newest addition to their popular "Florida Nature Collection"), Phelps made a mold of plaster, snipped pure gold off a bar the size of an Andes mint, melted and mixed it with an alloy in a crucible shaped like a miniature bassinet until the flames turned green, and then let the centrifuge loose to spin its precious metal into the mold.

Suddenly I wanted to be a jeweler. Blowtorches spewing fire? Molten gold flying? Surrounded by shiny, sparkling things all day? Sign me up (and then stand back; I’ve never been good with fire).

Phelps is animated and, I swear, his eyes actually twinkle when he talks about his favorite part of the business: thrilling his customers. Working with master goldsmith Tom Morrison, Phelps takes pride in designing the old-fashioned way. Everything, from the sketches, to carving the wax model, to polishing, is done by hand. High standards earn credibility, and a jeweler’s custom market lives or dies on their credibility.

"Custom" itself is an overused term, according to Phelps. Much of what is seen in jewelry stores these days could be considered customizable or even one-of-a-kind. But if it’s not made for a specific person, with each component lovingly crafted, then it’s not really custom, and Phelps is all about lovingly crafting a special piece for a specific person.

He admits that he finds it difficult to take a saw to a customer’s existing piece, but, as he says, "It’s sacrifice the stones, or sacrifice the metal." Only a true artist feels that much angst over giving the death blow to beauty.

As we finish up with the loggerhead, customers enter the store and greet Phelps like an old friend.

He inspects a woman’s emerald and diamond ring under a microscope, projecting an enlarged image onto a flat-screen TV in the showroom. This is how he allows customers to view their custom pieces.

Current trends (more yellow gold than white gold or platinum, colored main stones with diamond accents, micro-pave settings) are reflected in some of the more impressive pieces in the cases, and a sapphire and diamond ring draws my eye. As he slides it onto my finger I begin to understand the difference in custom and mass market jewelry. Though the ring was not made specifically for me, it could have been. Its heft, its workmanship and even the way it slips over my skin make it clear that this is a work of art.

Yamron: "We hope they trust our experience."

Bruce Yamron and his staff at Yamron Jewelers approach custom jewelry design from a different angle. When a client arrives to discuss a new piece, whether they’re toting grandma’s pearls and hat pins to be reset, or if they’re bearing only an idea and a credit card, he knows that the skill he’s going to rely on first is listening.

As a third-generation jeweler, Yamron has developed relationships with fine-jewelry designers around the world. Annual trips with key members of his staff to exclusive jewelry shows in Switzerland and Las Vegas keep him abreast of current trends (lots of layering of chains with pendants, specialty pearls, chandelier earrings) and the freshest new talent, and he brings all of that knowledge back to Naples.

"If a client wants wire work, pearls incorporated, needs stones cut a certain way, I know the best person to perform that particular type of work," Yamron said. That confidence in his ability to satisfy sometimes means reassuring a client that time spent on realizing a vision is well worth it.

One pendant requiring vivid pink diamonds took four months just to gather the perfect, matching stones together. (I was engaged to my husband in less time.) Pink diamonds are rare enough, but to find this particular shade in eight stones was a labor of love. Yamron grins widely remembering the client’s delighted reaction when the finished piece was finally presented.

Trust crops up again when discussing what clients should look for in their search for a jeweler to bring their idea to fruition. "It’s a collaboration," he said. "We listen to what they want, and we hope they listen, too, that they trust our experience." When asked what drives him to maintain such exacting standards, he replied thoughtfully, "When we can duplicate a vision to perfection, exceed expectations, and do it at a lower cost than anticipated? Well, that’s gratifying."

Loren: Setting large stones gives him a thrill
Mark Loren has been around long enough that I remember being a high school freshman when I first heard his name. And I don’t even want to think about how long ago that was. There are enough customers at 10 a.m. in his new location on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers that I get to wander around and inspect every case before he’s able to tear himself away.

He’s a gregarious man with a clear passion for his work and a lot of great stories. I got the feeling that if there weren’t a constant stream of clients waving for his attention, he’d sit and talk design all day. And I’d sit and listen. He focused on his art at a young age, and was fortunate to meet mentors who encouraged and taught him enough about his craft that by his early 20s he was interviewing with the likes of Cartier, Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels.

But Loren wanted to be in control of his own destiny, and, influenced by designers such as Rene Lalique (jewelry designer long before he moved to glass) and the Art Deco period, he fulfilled his dreams. I can barely control my dog, so seeing that someone controlled his destiny was, indeed, inspiring.

Also inspiring is Loren’s incorporation of ancient relics in his jewelry. And we’re not talking about your crazy great-aunt Edith’s Victorian hair work brooch, either. Roman, Egyptian and Viking artifacts are surrounded by platinum and gold and accented with precious stones, and the results are stunning.

When asked about the future of custom jewelry, Loren turned to that all-important demographic: the baby boomers. The boomers are coming into their own, but their parents are passing away. While the boomers’ grandparents might have had only one or two heirlooms to pass down, their parents likely accumulated larger collections, and the boomers want those pieces refashioned.

Like the other jewelers I spoke with, Loren cited trust and communication as the main ingredients that ensure a satisfactory experience. And, boy, has he had some interesting communications! One of his more unusual requests came from a woman bearing a box and an appeal that he fashion the contents into a bracelet. In the box was something Loren couldn’t identify on sight, but that looked suspiciously like year-old bacon.

It wasn’t. In the spirit of motherly love, the woman had brought in her daughter’s umbilical cord. Precious cargo, certainly, but Loren declined the commission, and I was left wondering where, exactly, one wears an umbilical cord? A Mother’s Day luncheon, perhaps? Is it even appropriate for daytime? Or does one save it for special occasions? Could I get a Miss Manners ruling on this, please?

Another time a woman brought her mother in to commission something a little more heart-wrenching. The mother’s hands shook as she pulled a box from her purse and removed what appeared to be a very old button. As a child in Poland during World War II, she and her own mother had been transported by train to concentration camps. While being separated she clung to her mother, then just had her by the coat, and then the only thing left in her hands was one of the coat’s buttons. Loren crafted a support of platinum and diamonds for that very special piece.

Listening to clients’ stories and extrapolating their needs are obviously a source of joy for Loren, but when I press him for a more technical favorite part of the process, he confesses that setting large stones gives him a particular thrill.

"It’s a feel," he says reverently, closing his eyes briefly as though envisioning nestling a 10-ct. emerald into its setting. It’s the way I imagine I look when I daydream about making The New York Times bestseller list.Of course what we all really want to know is, just how much are we going to pay for a fabulous custom piece? Like so many questions in life, the answer is a maddening, "it depends." Loren has done pieces for as little as $300 for an imprint of a child’s thumbprint in a gold pendant, to more than $3 million for a ring with a 4-ct., fancy, intense, pink diamond.

Availability and value of the materials as well as the time and complexity involved in the design and labor will all factor into price, but expect to leave a deposit once a design is agreed upon.

We’ve come a long way from those mollusks in the cave and the Froot Loops on red yarn. As civilized adults, custom jewelry says as much about the wearer as it does about the artist who designed it, and it is truly a special person who is willing to wear her soul for all to see. Go. Make your statement.

If this article influenced you to have a custom piece made, Kristy wants to know and wants to see! Send a jpeg to kristykiernan@netzero.com along with information on the designer.

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