The art and evolution of jewelry making is intrinsically linked to the origins and evolution of mankind itself. Our earliest ancestors adorned themselves with feathers, bones, shells, and teeth strung on cords.
Over the millennia, the discovery of precious metals and gems and the development of new jewelry-making techniques led to a proliferation of styles and increasingly elaborate wearable pieces for nearly every part of the body. These adornments invariably offer many insights into their particular cultures and wearers.
With the industrial revolution of the 19th century, jewelry was no longer the exclusive domain of the socially elite. The development of gold plating techniques and the production of metal alloys and imitation stones meant jewelry could be produced in greater and more affordable quantities for the middle class.
In recent decades, jewelry has taken on a whole new art form as designers utilize a blend of ancient techniques and new technologies to create custom pieces that are as varied and unique as their wearers. Today’s artisans are as adept at hand fabricating a raw piece of metal plate or wire, hammering, forging, and setting gemstones as they are proficient in computer-aided design (CAD).
The software, coupled with 3D printing, is an efficient tool for developing a design and creating a resin or wax cast model that clients can see and try on. Gemstones can be set into the piece, giving clients a replica model of the finished product. The process allows clients and designers to make any final adjustments before the piece is cast in metal and set with the chosen gemstones. Some highly skilled artisans forgo CAD and hand carve wax models to achieve more intricate detail on some custom designs.
Vero’s Gems of Jewelry Design
Diamonds and pearls are timeless, but can they be incorporated into something more modern and uniquely personal? The bejeweled brooch you inherited from Aunt Beatrice isn’t your style; can it be repurposed into other wearable pieces? That gorgeous shell you found on the beach—could it be crafted into a contemporary necklace? Yes, yes, and yes! That’s where the talents of custom jewelry designers shine!
Recently, we visited designers at four Vero Beach jewelry stores to learn what makes them and their custom creations sparkle.
If diamonds are your best friend, you might meet your BFF at this Beachland Boulevard jeweler, which has been serving the Vero Beach community for 35 years. Owner John Michael Matthews and his wife, Carla, just returned from their 43rd trip to Antwerp, Belgium, where they hand pick the finest-quality diamonds from the diamond capital of the world. A trained goldsmith and diamond setter, Matthews relishes the opportunity to create one-of-a-kind gold and platinum pieces featuring diamonds and other gemstones, as well as modern and traditional wedding and engagement rings.
When he ventures beyond his loupe (jeweler’s magnifier), Matthews— a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Marine Corps—is active in the Veterans Council of Indian River County. Having earned his black belt, he is also passionate about martial arts and teaches karate and Japanese sword arts.
Victoria Kerkela, the other force behind the John Michael Matthews creative team, joined the firm as a design apprentice when she was 19 and has worked there for 18 years. During that time, she has received formal training in diamond setting, gemology, and jewelry design. “I’ve always been an artist,” says the Vero Beach native, who dabbled in jewelry making at age 10, served as a docent at the Vero Beach Museum of Art in high school, and took bronze-casting classes in her teens. “For me art is compulsory. Being able to make jewelry for someone is such a personal, poignant form of self-expression.”
Custom pieces don’t always have to be made from expensive gems, she points out, showing off the fashionable earrings she created from shells found at the beach. “I just finished handcrafting a piece for someone that is literally made from a rock that is very special to her. I added a diamond from another item of hers, and now the custom rock piece is a treasured heirloom.”
When Michael Legg began working as a bench jeweler doing watch repair 14 years ago, little did he know that one day he would be designing custom pieces in a bustling jewelry store of his own in his hometown’s Treasure Coast Plaza. “I enjoyed it. It was fun creating something with my hands, and I caught on quickly,” says Legg about his early days as a design apprentice.
Legg, co-owner of 6th Avenue Jewelers with his wife, Allie, is one of a team of four designers creating a variety of custom pieces—from engagement rings and one-of-a-kind items to re-creations of customers’ heirlooms into something brand new. He and Ray McGuinness, whose career in the jewelry business spans 37 years, specialize in computer-aided design (CAD), while Gabe Cardenas is one of a select few artisans who hand carves models from a block of wax. Jordan Bruce, the store’s manager, especially enjoys the satisfaction of designing custom engagement rings for couples.
“We use CAD when the design is relatively straightforward, as with a traditional engagement ring or pendant,” says Legg. “The design is then 3D printed and a wax model is created for customers to view for size and texture before it is cast into metal and set with stones.
“When someone brings in a stone and wants a more intricate, one-of-a-kind design, Gabe hand carves the wax around it to create the model,” Legg explains. “He’s made beautiful handmade bangles and jeweled sea creatures such as starfish. Anything you can imagine can be made, including repurposing heirloom stones or engagement rings into new pieces.”
Recently, the 6th Avenue design team created an engagement ring out of a 10.3-carat diamond. “It was fantastic,” says Allie Legg.
“We work closely with customers to transform their ideas into creations,” says Legg. “If they have tears of joy when they pick up the finished piece, that’s the ultimate compliment.”
Debra Levasseur-Miller was an art history student at Nova University in the 1980s when a part-time job at Mayors jewelers in South Florida inspired a lifelong passion and the trajectory for a distinguished career in the world of fine jewelry. While studying at the Gemological Institute of America in New York City and taking art history classes, she worked at Fred Leighton, where she immersed herself in assisting the team in all facets of the high-end jewelry business. She outfitted designers, celebrities, rock stars, and dignitaries
from all over the world for fashion shows and red-carpet appearances. “I was only going to stay a year or two, but I ended up staying a decade,” says Levasseur-Miller, who also began dabbling in jewelry design at the time.
Although the connections she made at jewelry shows and conventions led to her eventual recruitment by other luxury jewelers to open stores throughout North America, the jewelry store that’s closest to her heart is her own. “As a child I was fascinated by jewelry,” reflects Levasseur-Miller. “When my great-grandmother and grandmother, whose name is Jewel, emigrated to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia, they brought many garnet brooches with them. That’s how they survived. Throughout my studies and career, my mother, whose middle name is Jewel, and my grandmother were very supportive.” That was the impetus, she says, for naming her store Royal Palm Jewel.
Her collection includes Bulgari-inspired 18-karat gold Slinc bracelets, embellished with diamonds, that she co-designs and manufactures with her partner in Vicenza, Italy. Other standout items include a selection of royal palm trees adorned with gems, starfish and coastal-inspired pieces, turquoise, and signed one-of-a-kind vintage pieces.
Most of her custom designs, Levasseur-Miller says, begin with a stone selected by the client around which she designs a beautiful mounting and adds other gems. A pendant, for example, might be versatile enough to wear with a string of pearls or a chain the customer already owns. “I do the design and concept and the piece is manufactured by fifth-generation Italian and Latin artisans.”
Many items can be designed around family heirlooms, she points out, holding up an exquisite bracelet made exclusively from gold pocket-watch cases. Levasseur-Miller emphasizes that there is something at every price point at her store. “Jewelry should be accessible to anyone who wants a beautiful piece to treasure forever.”
Although Juli Morgan comes from a family of physicians, her interests are rooted in the arts rather than the sciences. After graduating from Jacksonville University with a bachelor of fine arts, she pursued a graduate gemology degree from the Gemological Institute of America. Along the way, she honed her jewelry design skills at several luxury Florida jewelers before landing at Leigh Jewelers in 2018. The family-owned jewelry store has been serving the Vero Beach community for over 32 years.
“I’ve done all aspects of jewelry design and manufacturing,” says Morgan, “from fabrication and stone cutting to hand carving wax models, casting, and CAD/CAM. My familiarity with all these aspects gives me a better perspective on how well the piece is constructed and will withstand average wear and tear.”
When it comes to modern technology, she says, “The advantage of CAD is that we can produce a 3D rendering and resin sample that the customer can see at every angle and try on. I work with someone until they are perfectly happy with what they have and produce multiple layouts and designs from which they can choose.”
Some people have an idea for something and they’ll bring in a sketch, adds Morgan. Others come in with family heirlooms that they’d like to repurpose into something more useful. “Recently, a customer brought in an ornate family heirloom necklace, which she rarely wore. From that one piece, we were able to create six modern, wearable pieces.
“My job is to find something that suits each individual and create a piece that they can enjoy. When customers send their family members and friends to us, that’s the ultimate compliment!”