One of Mark Loren’s numerous donations to local charity events has been “A Day with the Jeweler” in the workroom of his Fort Myers gallery. Winning bidders later enter a cathedral of quirk that must surprise them, not to mention the jewelry art lions whose accolades have made him an industry celebrity. This McGregor Boulevard back room is where Loren’s elegant pieces begin their journey to elite national and international honors that include American Gem Trade Association Spectrum Awards—a jeweler’s equivalent to Oscars.
It would be a perfect setting for a game of “I Spy for the Eclectic.”
A partial checklist for players:
- 1 Rocky Patel cigar, 10th anniversary commemorative
- Iraqi paper currency (25,000 dinar)
- 35 or more gemstone skulls
- 1 small plastic bag of iridescent beetle wings
- 1 antique toy jet
- 1 Alaskan mountain goat head (donated by a happy client), wearing shades
- 2 struggling potted plants
- 1 child’s candy necklace, hanging from a drill
- 1 light string with purple, green and gold skeletons
- 1 desktop bobblehead of Mark Loren
“We’re kind of in his man cave back here,” explains Liz Miller, who has built jewelry according to Loren’s designs for four years. “He likes vintage things. Tools. Buttons. There’s a whole bin of antique toys over there.” She points, then turns back to the piece she’s working on. It’s a pendant of some age with an engraved bee in the middle. Following a color drawing Loren has made on the outside of a small manila envelope containing the unfinished piece—and this is the way he assigns projects—Miller is replacing a worn pearl below the bee with something new: a beautiful, shimmering thing of blues and greens that turns out to be a beetle wing.
“We both seem to have a big love of iridescents,” she says. “Things that light up, twirl and sparkle.” Even beetle wings. “He makes things you’re not going to see everywhere.”
Production manager Jim Malone says that what Loren has created for the team is a petri dish. “We’re like one mind back here, composed of different people with various ideas and disciplines. He creates the environment and entices you to try something new.” And to learn. Malone was vacationing on Sanibel some years ago and came in to the shop. Loren gave his visitor a tour, and soon Malone was working there. “He attracts people who want to do things like this.” And those who want to learn. Malone has since learned computer-assisted design.
Often, what emerges from that dish combines the ancient and modern, matte and sparkling, objects found and precious.
“He’ll take an ancient Roman bronze and turn it over and over, looking at the angles and thinking about what kinds of gems would go with it. He’s a very organic artist,” says Andrea Dickinson, who graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Florida Gulf Coast University last year and started a couple of years ago as an intern.
That happened in a very organic way as well.
“I walked in one day and asked if he did internships,” she recalls. “And he said ‘No, not really. But come back and I’ll interview you.’
“He started me out up front (in the gallery) so I understood what I was doing. Then he slowly brought me back here, and I learned stringing, casting, sizing. It’s different from working with most other jewelers. They’re usually just buying and assembling parts. Here, people bring in antiques and he figures out what he can do with them.”
The results are both beautiful and surprising: a small bronze piece of armor from about 200 A.D. to which he adds sparkling pink kunzite; shark teeth, arrowheads and ancient coins that he pairs with pearls, gems or coral.
Clients often seem to have that willingness to be surprised, too.
“Let’s make something!” says one man as he comes through the door carrying loose gems and a vague idea.
He’s never been to the gallery before—and it is neat, polished and elegant, the yin to the workroom’s yang—but he’s heard about the work Loren does. He found it by keying on the vintage armored car parked outside with Loren’s name and logo on it.
Once they’ve decided what kind of piece the man wants—and we won’t spoil a surprise by naming him or the type of jewelry—the men talk for a few minutes about armored cars and shared geography.
Michelle Grothe has come in with quite a few pieces: some to melt down, some to change stones, and no firm idea except a color for this or that. “Can we do something with this?” she asks Loren. “I just don’t like it now. It’s too small or something.”
“Well, can we combine these two?” Loren asks, choosing two pieces from Grothe’s pile.
“Yes!” she says, peering through Loren’s reading glasses, which she is wearing because she left hers at home.
He stops very quickly to answer a call from his 15-year-old daughter, Haise. “Teenagers!” he says, hanging up. She was the youngest at home with Loren and his wife, Sheri, until they made room for their 2-year-old granddaughter for a while so her mother—an older daughter—could focus better at a career-critical time.
“He’s got more irons in the fire than anybody I know,” Miller says.
A certain energy level, fueled by green tea, gym time, curiosity and spontaneity, seem to make that possible.
“We’re not a walk-by place here. We’re a destination,” Loren says. “People are coming here for a reason. So I’m thinking moment to moment along with every person who comes in the door. That’s the attention they deserve. It’s all about the relationships.”
As a result, he estimates that he knows 60 percent of the customers who come in to the Fort Myers shop on any given day. He’s getting to know just as many at the gallery he opened at Mercato in Naples in 2012.
Loren is open and friendly, so it’s not hard to imagine that he knows each person after just a visit or two. He’ll squirrel away a coin he thinks might work for one client’s pendant, a stone the right color for another. If it’s not perfect, no pressure. He’s been dealing with the same vendors for years and can send it back. It’s all about the relationships there, too.
Local businesswoman Gail Markham met Loren, who is originally from Chicago, years ago when he was starting out on his own in jewelry repair and design and needed a CPA. “It became apparent very quickly that he was a very creative and talented person and a genuinely very nice person,” Markham recalls.
She has since collected a piece or two a year of his designs, over decades of friendship. One of her most treasured pieces was completely unexpected.
“This is Mark,” she begins. “He knows I love peacock feathers. So a couple of years ago he made me some very beautiful earrings out of peacock feathers and called me up and said, ‘I’ve got something for you.’ And he brought them over. Just because he knew I liked them. Mark has always been so generous with the community, too, giving his designs away for charity. For the PACE girls. The Grande Dames. Love That Dress! Many more.” He also donates his time as a board member of several nonprofits.
For a WGCU radio pledge drive last month, Loren and Norman Love combined their talents for a chocolate and jewelry event. Loren designed a ring with a heart-shaped natural ruby for any donor who gives $5,000 or more; Love is offering chocolates for other amounts. The two are frequent collaborators.
Philanthropy can’t be bad for business. But Love would say it’s more than that with Loren: It’s an essential source of his creativity.
To illustrate, he recalls a Mother’s Day promotion they did together. Love donated baskets of chocolate and Loren created necklaces. People nominated their mothers for a special award. “There were hundreds and hundreds of papers submitted,” Love says. Five winners were chosen. “And Mark thought, ‘I have this armored car. Let’s deliver them.’ And it was like the thing Ed McMahon used to do. We had tears, heard unbelievable stories, from Naples to downtown Fort Myers to Immokalee. We met grandmothers … and sometimes it was the grandchild who answered the door.
“It was the most heartfelt, warming, soul-cleansing experience. And that’s Mark in a nutshell.”