May 6, 2015
Having worked part time at a James Avery Jewelry store during the holiday season while in college, I became familiar with the Texas Hill Country craftsman’s mission of celebrating life through the beauty of design.
Countless customers came in to buy special-occasion gifts in sterling silver and gold, such as First Communion crosses, commemorative charms and heart-shaped pendants honoring a mother’s love. I’d frequently hear heartfelt stories from purchasers about everything from a daughter’s sweet 16 to a new mom’s first baby or a granddaughter’s graduation, and there were handcrafted James Avery pieces made to honor each of these cherished moments.
Today the time-honored jeweler, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, still pulls at the heartstrings of its loyal customer base, as proved through the hundreds of fan letters that arrive in the mail each year.
Some of these sentimental notes are on display at James Avery’s new visitor center, a mazelike museum of historical exhibits that opened in November at the company’s 42-acre headquarters in Kerrville. Though James Avery has grown substantially over the past six decades, now encompassing more than 70 stores across the South and Midwest, a visit to where it all began illustrates why this Texas institution continues to win new fans, generation after generation.
Following a winding Hill Country drive amid blooming spring wildflowers, I arrived at James Avery’s tree-lined corporate campus, which is dotted with limestone buildings housing administrative offices and manufacturing facilities. Inside the visitor center, I perused Avery’s original wooden work benches, rustic jewelry-making tools, vintage sketches and black-and-white family photos while being transported to a time when jewelry was fashioned by hand with purpose.
“A lot of our designs have a lot of meaning for people,” says James Avery’s son, Chris, who runs the company’s day-to-day operations with his brother, Paul. “They may tell a story or mean something very personal. Other designs are just beautiful and nice to wear. They may complement your outfit and speak to you artistically or creatively.”
James Avery, a Wisconsin native and World War II bomber pilot, was inspired to create jewelry while teaching industrial design at the University of Colorado. He started the business in 1954 in his mother-in-law’s garage in Kerrville, having returned to the church after years of being agnostic. His first piece, the Plain Latin Cross (shown on Page 58), was based on a Pueblo Indian cruciform and is still available today in sterling silver or 14-karat gold.
Avery sold his pieces to local churches, bookstores and camps via a multi-drawer wooden jewelry box he built, which is on display at the visitor center. Avery officially passed his CEO reins to Chris, a former anesthesiologist, in 2007, but at age 93, he still visits his sprawling headquarters weekly to check the mail, visit with customers and even sketch a design or two.
“When Paul and I came on board years ago, we realized that Dad was the foundation and the principal designer, but someday he’s not going to be here,” Chris says. “We very actively started building a very robust design department and started fostering the culture he created.”
While charms and faith-based jewelry still account for a large portion of James Avery’s following, customers also are drawn to the brand’s simple, high-quality gemstone pieces and everyday wear. About 120 to 150 new designs are introduced each year, the company says.
The company is marking its 60th anniversary, appropriately, with a few nips and tucks to its collection and store design.
The anniversary line features popular pieces from the past, including the Peacock Pendant from 1982, the Twisted Wire Heart Ring from 1979 and the French Flower Pendant from 1971. Each vintage design features a distinctive 60th anniversary mark and will be available for a limited time.
In new stores, such as the jeweler’s latest location inside North East Mall that opened in April, customers will find brighter interiors, in-case lighting, vertical presentations and even pieces exhibited outside the cases that are available to touch and feel.
These vivid displays greeted me upon my arrival to the headquarters’ on-site store, which is adjacent to the visitor center and overlooks the green, parklike property thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows. I examined smooth glass art beads, a newer, multihued offering available as pendants or earrings.
Also new are braided leather bracelets in shades of lavender, turquoise and pink, each closed via textured silver clasps in various designs, from hearts and sand dollars to butterflies and flowers. Glossy enamel pendants and sterling silver pieces incorporating authentic turquoise add more color to the line.
“We took an honest look at where we are and realized we hadn’t really done much for many, many decades,” says Chris with regard to updating the James Avery concept both in store layout and product offerings. “We knew there was a lighting issue. We always had the old ambient lighting over the cases. Our jewelry really didn’t show as much as it needed to. We needed to give our jewelry more justice, and our stores were a little antiquated. And we didn’t have much color in our line until a few years ago. It makes for a better visual presentation and adds to the collection.”
Paul, who studied horticulture and is responsible for planting many of the headquarters’ towering oak trees, says the new, vibrant store look also adds femininity to the brand’s previously dark and rustic merchandising.
“Everything was kind of flat and spread out,” he says. “Realistically, we thought we were a little too masculine and a little too outdated.”
James Avery Jewelry has built strong brand recognition throughout Texas, but expanding to outside markets can be challenging, the Averys say. Opening a new store where nobody knows the name is costly, as a healthy advertising and marketing budget are required to create awareness.
That’s why Chris and Paul recently partnered with Dillard’s, which began carrying a selection of the brand’s jewelry in 43 stores across 15 states last fall. Chris says the partnership will help build brand awareness in untapped markets where standalone James Avery stores might later follow.
“That’s how James Avery grew the business initially — through wholesale accounts,” Chris says. “There were up to 900 accounts in the first 20 years. We didn’t really have many retail stores back then. So, we’ve really come full circle.”
But rapid growth is not on the radar for the company, which employs about 3,000 businesswide during peak seasons and more than 400 at its Kerrville corporate headquarters. James Avery has manufacturing sites in Fredericksburg, Hondo and Comfort, and all operations take place in-house, from marketing and merchandising to design and sales. The company dynamics provide a healthy regulation on expansion, Chris says.
“Even if we wanted to grow 20 or 25 percent each year, we would suffer on quality. And huge, rapid growth can bring a lot of stress,” he says. “I want to be able to keep the same culture, the same environment, the same ethics and the same attitudes.”
As I ended my visit in the jewelry store, gracious, unpretentious staff members kindly assisted with my eventual purchases, which included the anniversary Peacock Pendant, an enamel cross pendant and a turquoise ring. While later exploring the picturesque property, where white-tailed deer have been known to frolic, I was met with friendly waves from employees maintaining the campus landscape and was asked if I needed assistance in locating my destination — even more evidence of the welcoming company ethos.
“James Avery started with really good designs that resonated with people,” Chris says. “We have to keep that design base and then keep fostering a culture where you treat people well, care for them and follow the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Freelance writer Celestina Blok has a variety of James Avery rings and pendants collected since high school, including her new favorite, the re-released Peacock Pendant from 1982.