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Sunday, March 12, 2023

The very first workshop of James Avery in 1954 -- a Kerrville success story

The garage of James Avery's in-laws in 1954,
where he started making jewelry locally.
Click on any image to enlarge.

I ran across some items from James Avery in my files this week, and it brought back memories of Mr. Avery and the company he founded here in Kerrville in 1954.

James Avery's 95th birthday party
The last time I visited with James Avery was at his 95th birthday party, in late 2016, given by his wife Estela at the Alegria Barn, near their home on the Fredericksburg Highway. It was a fun event, with music, good food, and a crowd of well-wishers. Jim, though frailer than the previous times we'd visited, was kind and thoughtful. I brought him a copy of a late 1960s-era James Avery Craftsman catalog my father had printed.

I first met Mr. Avery at our family's print shop, when I was a boy. He was a focused printing customer, who knew exactly what he wanted, and several generations of my family worked hard to make sure we met his expectations. He was always kind to me, and to everyone at our print shop, and I have fond memories of him.

Homer James Avery first arrived in Texas in 1943, as a 21-year-old Army Air Corps Cadet, when he traveled by train from Illinois to Lackland AFB in San Antonio. As a child, Avery had moved around a lot, between Michigan and Illinois, and after a false start at Michigan State, and a year living with his grandparents in Iowa, he enrolled in the ROTC program at the University of Illinois. He learned of a new department at the University of Illinois, "Industrial Design," and it was Avery's "entrance into the field of design," according to a talk he gave in 2007.

Avery and air crew
During World War II, in March, 1943, Avery was sent to Lackland. Later, he went to Fort Stockton for primary pilot training, San Angelo for basic training, and on to Lubbock, where he earned his wings in January, 1944.

After Lubbock, Avery was sent to Laughlin Field in Del Rio, where he learned to fly the Martin Marauder, the B-26. The B-26 had a bad reputation, since there were a lot of accidents, especially on take-offs and landings.

Avery met his crew in Shreveport, Louisiana, and they were assigned a new B-26, which they flew from Florida to England, by way of the Caribbean, South America, Ascension Island, Liberia, Dakar, Morocco, and then Wales. The trip took nine days.

Together they flew 44 bombing missions in Europe from bases in France.

After the war, Avery returned to the University of Illinois to complete his degree.

Avery designs on
a lovely notepad
After graduation, Avery was offered a position at the University of Iowa to set up a new Industrial Design program in the Fine Arts department. He was only 24 years old.

Two years later, he moved on to the University of Colorado, where he taught in the Fine Arts school for five years.

During this time personal issues caused Avery to become very involved with his church, and with campus youth ministries at the University of Colorado. While in Colorado, he met a young woman from Kerrville, Sally Ranger, who became his second wife in 1953.

Together they moved to Minneapolis, where Avery taught at the University of Minnesota. A very cold winter there helped them decide to move back to Texas.

The couple arrived in Kerrville in June, 1954. In his in-laws' garage, James Avery built a workshop, putting up Celotex on the interior walls, building a workbench, and setting up a polishing lathe. It was there, with a few hand tools, pieces of sterling silver and copper, James Avery started making jewelry.

Page from Avery catalog
my father printed
He'd had some experience making jewelry during his days at the University of Colorado, where some of his students asked if they could design and make jewelry. Avery went to the library, found a book, and he and his students learned how to make jewelry together.

"Designing was not a problem" Avery said, years ago. "Fabricating was."

For the first three years of jewelry making in Kerrville, Avery made every piece himself by hand. He even had a catalog printed, by General Moran, who'd set up a print shop at his house on Jackson Road. Francis "Fuzzy" Swayze took the photos for that first catalog. Prices for the pieces ranged from around $2.50 to $10.00.

"Since I had to make by hand every piece shown in the catalog," Avery said, "I fortunately didn't get swamped with orders."

The first year's sales were around $5,500; the second, $7,500; the third, over $10,000.

In 1957, Avery hired his first employee, Fred Garcia. "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for Fred and the wonderful people who have helped me these past almost 55 years," Avery remarked in 2007.

The first store outside of Kerrville opened in Dallas in 1973. Today there are around 110 stores in four states, James Avery jewelry counters at 240 Dillard’s locations, and at 37 Von Maur locations, and over 3,500 employees. The jewelry is even available at several H-E-B Grocery stores.

Not too many years ago I stopped by Mr. Avery's office in Kerrville. It turned out to be the last time I saw him there. He was in his nineties at the time. 

I stepped into his office and did not see him, but I heard a quiet tapping in a small adjoining room. There I found him at his workbench, a small hammer in hand, working on a piece of silver jewelry in a vise. Hand tools and a small saw were on the worktable. Before him there was a piece of paper with a pencil-drawn design. A bright light shone on the piece, and was reflected on Avery's face. He was smiling.

That's how I'll remember him: At work, alone, at his workbench, quietly making jewelry.

James Avery passed away in 2018, at the age of 96.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who remembers lots of interesting people and their stories. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times March 11, 2023.

1 comment:

  1. As an employee at James Avery it is wonderful to hear such a positive story about a wonderful man who has over the years made multiple people smile when they receive or put on an amazingly well crafted piece of jewelry.


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