His studio was a two-car garage tucked into the Texas Hill Country, his techniques learned from a library book, and his designs inspired by a hard-won faith. From that humble start, James Avery created a signature jewelry line long recognizable for its handcrafted quality and now known throughout the United States.
Avery died Monday at the age of 96.
The company that bears his name, James Avery Artisan Jewelry, announced his passing and stated that the enterprise’s success is a testament to Avery’s early leadership and foundation based on faith, creativity, hard work, and perseverance.
With jewelry designs inspired by Avery’s first works and created by skilled artisans at its headquarters in Kerrville, the iconic Texas brand last year produced 4 million pieces and stood as an equal among prominent names in jewelry such as David Yurman and Tiffany.
The company currently employs 3,500 people and operates five manufacturing plants and 80 stores throughout Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. One 20-year employee, who asked not to be named for this story, described Avery as a force of nature.
“Jim was very inspirational, but he had a vision of where he was going and what he wanted to do artistically, and he used us to make those things become a reality,” he said. “And each one of us had a different skill set he would use to create the variety of designs you have now. He was one of those larger-than-life kind of people. You definitely knew when he came in the building.”
Born in 1921 in Milwaukee, Avery served in the U.S. Air Corps and was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He commanded a B-26 bomber during World War II, surviving 44 missions over Germany. After the war, he earned a degree in industrial design from the University of Illinois.
Later, while teaching at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Avery learned jewelry-making techniques from a library book, eventually crafting cross pendants at students’ request.
It was during a visit to Kerrville in 1954 that Avery decided to launch the namesake business. He once said, “I worked alone for three years. Ideas, plenty of hard work, and prayers – not necessarily in that order – were the rule of each day.”
Avery’s first big break came when his mother-in-law began selling the items he designed at a local summer youth camp where she worked.
David Reed, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, first met Avery when the jeweler’s sons attended one of those camps and Reed worked as a camp counselor. By that time, he already owned a James Avery cross ring and silver bookmark gifted to him, as many of the Episcopal women’s church groups sold the jewelry to raise money for charity work. Reed later received a custom James Avery cross to wear with his priest vestments and a ring when he was named bishop.
“His artistry was his ministry,” Reed said. “He was very successful, but he also experienced, like anyone who lives long enough, pain and disappointment. He turned often to his faith, and his jewelry expresses it. The nuances in his crosses over the years is pretty remarkable … Before he was a commercial success, he was very much putting together and creating things that spoke of his life of faith.”
Avery hired his first employee in 1957, mailed out the first jewelry catalog – 16 pages featuring 39 handmade items – that same year, and began an artistic legacy of craftsmanship that would gain a devoted following and national recognition.
The first James Avery store opened in North Dallas in 1973.
A statement from the company upon James Avery’s passing said that he “designed with purpose and meaning with the hopes of creating a piece of jewelry that would have a lasting and timeless connection for the wearer. His passion for design, craftsmanship and his artistic vision will continue to be a source of inspiration for many years to come.”
Avery retired from the business in 2007 but continued to pursue his passion of designing jewelry and serving as chairman emeritus on the board of directors.
Survivors include Avery’s wife, former San Antonio River Foundation Executive Director Estela Avery who announced her retirement one year ago. Together, they donated $1 million in 2016 to an education endowment for the recently opened Confluence Park.
James Avery Artisan Jewelers remains a privately held, family-owned business. Avery’s son Chris now the leads the company as president and CEO, and son Paul serves as executive vice president.
The company is also widely recognized for its generosity to the community, in health care, the environment, education and the arts.
“Philanthropy runs in my family,” Chris told the Rivard Report in a December interview. “We were always taught to be mindful of the needs of others. My dad started his business in our garage. We didn’t have much money growing up. It was a modest upbringing, but we were taught that what you had, you shared with others.”
Upon hearing news of Avery’s passing Monday, employees began sharing memories of working with him.
“Everyone’s got their ‘Jim story,'” said the longtime employee. “I was with him on and off for 20 years, but other people have been there as long as 30 years. There are literally over 100 years worth of experience working with Jim still in the building, still producing the designs. His legacy is very much intact.”
Other tributes from fans of James Avery, both the jewelry and the man, are pouring into the company website.
From Melanie: “It is with joy I look upon my James Avery pieces! From my first pinky ring of Texas (from my father) to the I Love You ring from my husband when we were just 1st dating. My 1st piece was given to me on my 16th birthday in 1982 and we are proud to say that we continue to purchase James Avery pieces for our daughter and even our future daughter-in-law just recently for her 21st birthday!”
Sheila Hambrick wrote: “Thank you for inspiring us with your beautiful craftsmanship and your commitment to integrity – both in product and in service. Although we never met personally, I feel a tremendous connection to you, in Spirit, and I’m saddened by your passing.”
Survivors include Estela’s daughters, Tracy Hollin Avery and Lindsey Hollin; sons George, Jim, Chris, Tim, and Paul Avery; Sally Ranger Avery, (mother of Chris, Tim, and Paul, and co-founder of the company); stepchildren Paco Espinoza, Diana Espinoza Robuck, and Sergio Espinoza; 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Private funeral services are planned, according to a company spokeswoman.
The company is inviting customers, friends, and employees to share a remembrance of James Avery by email to JAtribute@jamesavery.com, and in lieu of flowers or gifts, to make a donation in his memory to the charity of their choice.