SAN ANTONIO — When members of Kerrville’s Art in Public Places program went looking for an artist whose work would represent the city and the surrounding Hill Country, it quickly became apparent that the person they wanted was James Avery.
"His work is simple, elegant and timeless; and he’s well-known and respected in the community," says Peter Lewis, an architect and design committee member.
And so on this coming Mother’s Day, a 12-foot-tall replica of one of Avery’s most popular creations will be unveiled in front of the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center as the program’s inaugural public art piece.
"Mother’s Love" is a single, off-center heart that represents a mother gazing lovingly at her child. Countless daughters, mothers and grandmothers wear smaller versions of the design attached to charm bracelets, necklaces and as earrings.
Yet, while most everyone in South Texas is familiar with the work of James Avery, few know much about the man himself.
Avery, whose 63 eponymous jewelry stores span eight (soon to be nine) states, recently turned 90. And while he no longer runs the family-owned business, having surrendered the reins in 2007 to his son Chris, now the CEO, he remains closely involved in its operations. He still maintains his office at the company’s 25-acre compound in Kerrville, coming in almost every day to sketch ideas, attend design review meetings and act as the public face and ambassador for the $156-million-a-year business.
"I don’t want to micromanage the boys," he says of Chris and another son, Paul, who serves as executive vice president of sales. "I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how to do it better.’"
Then, with typical self-effacement, he laughs and says, "So I spend most of my time just dilly-dallying around, sketching, things like that."
To say that Avery is grandfatherly in appearance is unnecessary. Most nonagenarians are. But with a full head of gray hair and a confident, even regal bearing, he could easily pass for being a quarter century younger. He’s a natural storyteller and has a lifetime of tales to share, many happy, some sad.
Born Dec. 7, 1921, James Avery grew up in Detroit and the Chicago area. On his 20th birthday, while attending the University of Illinois, he heard an approaching commotion outside the window — drums banging, horns blowing. Heading outside to investigate, he asked what was going on.
"Someone said, ‘Avery, haven’t you been listening to the radio?’ I said no, I’d been studying. They said, ‘The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor.’ I thought, ‘Wow’ and knew things were about to change."
Within a few years he was based in France, piloting B-26 bombing raids over Germany. He flew 44 missions and is proud that only one of his six-man crew was ever injured, and then not seriously.
"I wanted to fly the B-26 because it was a ‘hot’ plane," he says, meaning it was fast enough to outrun any German fighters that might attack. "At that age, you think, ‘I can handle anything.’"
It was before he got his wings, however, during his military training at what later became Lackland AFB, that Avery first set foot in Texas. It was love at first sight.
"The people I met here were lovely, gracious and kind," he said. "I met a girl, Mona Pierce, in Lubbock, and she was lovely. Eventually I asked her to marry me."
After the war, Avery and Mona headed to the University of Iowa, where he helped establish that school’s design department. Although he’d planned on moving to Dallas to set up shop as a freelance industrial designer, the couple already had their first child, George, and Mona was pregnant with their second, Jimmy. Security won out over independence.
A few years later, the growing family moved to the University of Colorado at Boulder where he helped establish that school’s design department.
For a man whose life’s work is so intertwined with religious iconography — faith-based images such as crosses, chalices, doves and fishes make up about 20 percent of the company’s offerings — Avery had, since the age of 15, been an agnostic.
Then his wife left him for another man. Spiritually bereft, he turned to friends, an Episcopalian minister named Pat Patterson and his wife, Gingy, for guidance and support. They helped him return to the church and for years afterward played a vital role in his life.
Still, Avery maintains a surprisingly sanguine view of spirituality.
"I’m not the least bit concerned, at my age of 90, about my death or what comes after," he says. "I’m not concerned about having eternal life at all."
Tapping his desk he continues, "I think this is the place. Man has been here 50,000 years and man is destroying his environment. And man will be gone from this planet before too many more years. But while we’re here, let’s be kind to each other and help each other reach out and do whatever we can for each other."
Avery eventually got his chance to move back to Texas when he met his second wife, Sally Ranger, a University of Colorado student from Kerrville. It helped that sons George and Jimmy were living in Galveston with their mother. The couple married in 1953.
Offered a job driving a beer truck, Avery decided instead to try his hand at creating jewelry.
Working from an old double garage on his in-laws’ property and with a slim volume published in 1949 titled "How to Make Modern Jewelry" as his guide, he began creating pieces.
"I learned how to solder, cast, all that stuff," he says. "I’m self-taught, as far as the technique. The first piece I sold was probably a ring."
He soon opened a small retail shop in Kerrville and, because of the religious tone of so much of his early work, had immediate success selling on consignment through area churches. Eventually, however, he realized he had about $25,000 worth of merchandise out on consignment — an untenable position for any small business. So James Avery Craftsman, as the company was originally called, opened a store in Dallas in 1973, followed by stores in Houston and San Antonio.
Slowly, methodically, the company expanded across Texas and, eventually, the Bible Belt South, where its faith-based jewelry found ready acceptance. The low cost of silver, especially compared to gold and precious stones, kept prices reasonable and, within a generation, rare was the young girl in South Texas who didn’t own at least one James Avery piece.
When Pope John Paul II visited San Antonio in 1987, the commission to design and craft the communion vessels used during the Papal Mass went to James Avery.
Eventually, Avery’s second marriage collapsed — he readily takes the blame — and he remarried twice more. He and his fourth wife, Estela, recently celebrated their 20th anniversary. She is the executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation.
Avery has six sons of his own, including one, Steven, who had schizophrenia and took his own life. He also helped raise five more from two of his wives’ previous marriages.
"Quite a gang I’ve got," he says with a laugh.
Privately held and family owned, the company is unusual in the industry for being "vertically integrated," meaning it designs, manufactures and sells all its own products. It’s a strategy that has served the firm well.
"You can’t price-shop their jewelry," says Michelle Graff, senior editor of National Jeweler magazine. "If you want to buy one of their designs, you have to pay what they ask. You’re not going to find it cheaper on the Internet."
Avery credits the company’s uncomplicated, tasteful designs for much of its success. Pieces are passed on, and collections added to, from generation to generation, grandmother to mother to granddaughter.
"You’ve got to know when to stop with complexity. You can get carried away being cute and frivolous," he says. "It’s like architecture or writing. The most important things are those you take out. It’s the same with design; what we take away is important. But that’s tough to do. We humans tend to make things too complex."
One sign of the success of this "keep it simple" philosophy: The company continued growing even during the recent recession, when many jewelry companies contracted, or went out of business altogether. This year, it plans to open stores in Kansas City and St. Louis, its first ventures into Missouri.
This success has not gone unnoticed, and Chris Avery says they are approached "almost weekly" with offers to buy them out.
"Several years ago, we heard from an intermediary representing Berkshire Hathaway," he said, referring to the company headed by "Oracle of Omaha" Warren Buffett. "That was gratifying, but we told them no. We want to stay independent for as long as possible."
Which, Avery says, is just fine with him.