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A Kerrville Keepsake

Iconic jewelry designer James Avery celebrates 60th anniversary with destination showroom

Travelers attracted to the picturesque Guadalupe River hamlet of Kerrville by the promise of wildflowers, homegrown music, arts and crafts or exotic wildlife sanctuaries such as the Y.O. Ranch can now add the James Avery Visitor Center & Store to their itinerary.

Housed in a handsome, 4,300-square-foot limestone building that anchors the company’s pastoral, 43-acre campus less than a mile from Interstate 10, the center combines a retail outlet and exhibit hall. Both are full of Avery’s creations as well as artifacts dating to the jeweler’s early days in his mother-in-law’s garage, where the budding artist began fashioning crosses and other creations.

The center’s opening in late 2014 marked James Avery’s 60th anniversary of creating iconic Christian-themed and nature-inspired necklaces, pendants, rings, bracelets and other keepsakes.

Customers who visit the Avery campus just off FM 783 (Harper Road) and make their way past cases displaying handcrafted works of sterling silver, gold, turquoise and other gems will discover the visitor center, which tells the James Avery story through six exhibits. A design studio exhibit includes a drafting table, sketches and tools used by craftspeople. The exhibit details the artisan’s career through vintage photographs on panels describing Avery’s guiding principles: integrity, meaning, simplicity and universality.

A visit to the Avery campus today brings memories for Stacy Larrazabal of Kerrville.

“I would accompany my mom and grandmother on a shopping trip to Kerrville to pick out a piece of jewelry,” Larrazabal says. “I can spot James Avery jewelry from 20 feet away because of its special look and character.”

Avery, 93, reminiscing one time about his first year of designing furniture and jewelry, says he loved playing the 19th-century craftsman. Visitors learn that the Wisconsin native, who earned a degree in fine arts and industrial design from the University of Illinois, considered himself more a craftsman than artist.

Several Avery design team creations command attention: the four papal vessels made for Pope John Paul II’s visit to San Antonio in 1987; the 14-karat gold pins worn by Apollo 12 astronauts on their 1969 flight to the moon; and a tiny astronaut charm commissioned by an Endeavor crewmember in 1996.

The evolution of Avery’s jewelry style unfolds through a half-century timeline. In the 1950s, the artisan created a plain sterling silver Latin cross (still produced today) that’s emblematic of the quest for simplicity and quality. In the 1960s and ’70s, the company designers embraced a minimalist yet nature-inspired aesthetic. Contemporary designs incorporate more color and new materials.

A series of videos explain Avery’s em-brace of community and his commitment to his employees. The display also depicts the three fabrication methods employed: hand, tool and die, and lost-wax modeling.

Here, too, are handwritten letters from Avery aficionados and a touch screen that reveals the meaning behind various popular Avery designs. Miniscule charms of horses and cabins illustrate the Kerrville jeweler’s affection for nearby Hill Country youth camps, such as Waldemar and Kickapoo.

As impressive as it is, this facility isn’t the end of Avery’s growth. The family-owned company’s leaders plan to build and equip a production facility near Kerrville’s municipal airport. The craftsman center’s workforce will include 180 employees from the current north Kerrville campus.

The legendary days when Avery traveled back roads, peddling his creations from a wooden jewelry cabinet, belong to a bygone era. But as James Avery celebrates its 60th anniversary, customers can rediscover the enduring quality craftsmanship.

Rob McCorkle is a Kerrville-based writer.