In 1972 I started making jewelry from glass African trade beads that my sister gave me. She told me, "Why don't you put these together with brass wire and I will see if I can sell them in my store." I had just been discharged from the Marine Corps in July and was planning to go back to college in the fall. I needed to earn a little money while I waited to begin school so I took her up on the offer. By September she was selling all the jewelry I could make. I was so encouraged by the sales that I decided to put off college and make jewelry for awhile. Awhile turned into a lifetime career.
In time I learned the art of lost wax casting and direct metal fabrication at the Southwest Craft Center in San Antonio. These new skills enabled me to turn sketches into pieces that reflect my interest; wildlife and nature. In 1974 after my redemption through Jesus Christ many of my designs reflected my new found faith.
In the early years Dana and I traveled on weekends to arts and craft shows all over Texas to sell what I made during the week. Later we sold to resellers, and in the early 1990’s we opened our own stores in major Texas cities. This was an exciting time; we had over a hundred craftsmen making jewelry in our Fredericksburg workshop; our lives were at a fast pace.
Today life is simple, the stores are all closed and we make jewelry in the old tin house on the ranch, very much like the log cabin of my mother’s where I started. We sell from our website and by phone. The downsizing has been a blessing for us. In addition to making jewelry, Dana and I are involved in several Christian ministries, taking care of grandchildren, raising cattle, and growing vegetables.
A Brief Biography
In the beginning
Soon after World War II, my mom and dad came to Texas from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. They bought a ranch in the Texas Hill Country near the town of Medina with the intention of ranching. The ranch was beautiful, clear springs gushed from the rocky hills of their ranch and formed the headwaters of the west prong of the Medina river. Rocks were plentiful, but grass was scarce. My father wanted to raise cattle, but the brush that grew among the rocky crags was more suited to browsing sheep and goats.
Both had a background in art; my mother, Enid studied fashion design at TWU in Denton. My father, Frederic, did sculptures of horses. He had been an engineer student at the University of Michigan until the family fortune was lost in 1929, and he had to drop out of school to help support his family. After a couple of years struggling in the ranching business they turned to better known skills and began making leather handbags. My mother designed the bags and my father sculpted ornaments that were cast in brass to use as fasteners and decorations.
They named their new company Collins of Texas, and began to develop several styles of bags. Their first customer, other than individuals, was Neiman Marcus. This account gave them excellent exposure which led to other stores wanting the line. As the demand for their bags grew they hired local rancher’s wives who drove the 14 miles of the dirt road to the ranch to “help out”. My sister, Cynthia came along in March of 1946, and I followed in December of 1948. We grew up in and around the workshop. There was no fine line between business and family. When our parents were busy the employees looked after us. Cynthia and I never felt neglected because we were always together. As we got older we were put to work and loved earning our own money.
As the business grew and our parents went out of town on business we stayed with the employees families. Every summer that I can remember, we would go to New Mexico and Arizona for sales trips and vacation. I grew to love the culture of this area and it was a treat for Cynthia and me to stay at hotels with swimming pools. In the mid 1950’s cynthia and I learned to make enameled jewelry at an arts and craft show in San Antonio. We liked it so much that we used some of the money we earned at Collins of Texas to buy a small kiln, and supplies to make it at home. Soon we were selling it from our own small table in the booth where our parents sold their leather bags and belts at art shows. We had our own bank account and considered ourselves successful.
As demand grew for my mother’s new line of leather trimmed fabric “jeweled totes”, the business moved from the ranch to Medina. This enabled more people to work. They started by renting two old buildings and in the early 60’ my dad built a modern factory with air conditioning. He was a natural engineer and designed jigs and methods to increase production. Cynthia and I both worked in the new factory in the summers; Cynthia mostly in the retail showroom and I worked in every area of production. My beautiful sister became the model for “Collins Girl” ads that were run in the New Yorker magazine. Collins of Texas continued to grow. My dad, always looking to do things more efficiency bought an IBM computer. It was big and required an office of its own. It was very mechanical and made cards to control inventory and production. The IBM contact was a young man named Hector Pedregon. Hector became a good friend of my parents, and when the they decided to open a plant in Puerto Rico they hired him as the plant manager.
After two years at the University of Texas, Cynthia went to work in the newly established factory in Puerto Rico where she fell in love with and married Hector. After three years of dock strikes and other problems in Puerto Rico my father built a new factory in Fredericksburg and moved the production back to Texas.
A year or so later my parents sold the company to Tandy Corporation and eventually left the business. Hector followed suit the next year and he and Cynthia opened “The Peach Tree Gift Gallery.” Cynthia loved to cook and create her own recipes so they later added a tea room to the gallery. Cynthia cooked by feel and did not know the exact amount of ingredients in her recipes. When she began to write her three cookbooks, she had to become scientific and get the ingredient quantities right so others could follow them.
Cynthia fought cancer for 10 years before going home to her Lord in 2012. Today her daughter Tina Sawtelle owns the Peach Tree and Hector is still actively helping her.
After high school I went to college. I wanted to get my degree so I could be a Marine pilot and go to Vietnam, but I was concerned that I would miss the war if I waited. After a year of college I enlisted and became a helicopter crew chief and gunner. Besides Vietnam I spent 13 months at sea on two different ships, the U.S.S. Guam, and the U.S.S. Tripoli; helicopter assault ships. I saw a lot of water and some wonderful places in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and the South China Sea. While on board the Guam in the Caribbean there was an earthquake in Peru. We passed through the Panama canal and down the coast to Lima. This was the best experience of my four years in the Marine Corps; instead of guns and troops we carried supplies into the Andes to the people affected by the earthquake. After the Marines I had planned to come home and go back to school and eventually live on the ranch where I grew up. My parents had divorced and my father had stayed on the ranch for a couple of years, and then sold it. I was brokenhearted about the ranch, it was remote, beautiful and I was tired of living close to people. After selling the ranch my father remarried, and moved to Santa Fe to pursue his lifelong love of sculpting western bronzes. He lived there a number of years and created several sculptures, mostly of horses before he died in 1985.
When I had a little over a year left in the Marines I connected with my high school sweetheart while home on leave. We wrote during my year away and when I was discharged we were together constantly. Dana was living and working in San Antonio so I got a job there and lived at my mother’s town apartment. We wanted to get married and live in Fredericksburg so Dana went to work for Cynthia and Hector at the Peach Tree and lived with her mother in nearby Kerrville.
When the factory was moved to Fredericksburg my mother bought an 1892 rock house to be close to Cynthia and her grandchildren. I lived there with her and worked at odd jobs while I tried to figure out how I could go back to school, get married, and make a living.
One of only two gift galleries in Fredericksburg at that time “The Peach Tree” was doing well. Cynthia was always looking for handmade items to sell, so she gave me some African trade beads and suggested I make some jewelry to sell in the store. With a ball pean hammer, a small anvil, beads and brass wire I started in the jewelry business. I created a half dozen items and took them to Cynthia. She sold them all in just a few days. This was great; I had forgotten how much I enjoyed working with my hands.
I found new sources for beads. There were Africans who brought beads direct from Africa and I bought them in bulk. My mother let me use the 1884 log cabin next to her house for a workshop and I hammered out brass and bead jewelry. In addition to The Peach Tree I sold to a couple of stores in San Antonio. After six months of small success I thought I was established enough to have a wife so Dana and I married in January of 1973. Now that we we were married we traveled on weekends to Arts and Craft shows all over Texas to sell my jewelry. Dana was a terrific salesman; we made a good team. She continued to work weekdays at “The Peach Tree” and I made jewelry all week to supply my wholesale accounts and do art shows on weekends.
The following fall I took two night classes at the Southwest Craft Center in San Antonio. There I learned the “Lost Wax” casting process, and how to create jewelry by fabrication; cutting with a saw, soldering, creating designs in metal with chasing tools. This enabled me to make whatever I could sketch. At first I combined simple pieces with beads, and as my skills increased I began to make stand alone pieces.
I was enjoying my work but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it all my life so I drove to San Marcos and attended classes at SWTSU two days a week. I wanted to get a degree, but didn’t have a clear direction as to what to study. In time it became clear that I should study art, so I took art classes, but I always credit my mother as my best art critic and teacher. Over the next two years I worked and studied hard, then family and the growing jewelry business became so demanding that I quit school short of a degree.
Dana and I attended, and were active in our church. In the summer of 1974 my pastor asked me to help him at a youth camp he was directing for a week. It sounded like fun so I went. I was very impressed with the faith of some of the counselors; one young man in particular. One afternoon we were talking and he asked me about my faith and if I knew for sure that I would go to heaven when I died. I had no idea where I would end up; I knew I had done a lot of things I deeply regretted so I accepted the Romans 3: 23 passage he read to me. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Then he followed that with Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. He clearly explained the rest of the gospel, and then asked me if I wanted to pray to accept Jesus Christ as my savior. I thought about it, and then told him I wanted to think more about it. I thought about it all afternoon. That night when everyone had gone to bed and the camp was quiet, I went out to the open air chapel. It was a warm, moonlit summer night. I sat on one of the benches and talked to God. I asked Him to forgive me for my sins and then I asked Jesus to come into my life and be my Lord and Savior. After I prayed I felt a cool breeze and looked up at the banners that hung behind the altar waving, and I knew that something had happened.
When I returned home after that week Dana greeted me with the news that she was pregnant. Then I told her about my experience and a short time later she joined me in our new found faith. This was also the beginning of my new faith being reflected in my work.
In the spring our son Christian was born. Like me as a child, he grew up in the business. As a baby he traveled to art shows. When he was older he made jewelry in the workshop. After graduating from Baylor University he came back and in time ran every aspect of the business from overseeing production to negotiating retail space leases, to creating our website. While in college he earned extra money by creating simple websites for businesses. Two of his first clients were the City of Fredericksburg, and Hill Country Memorial Hospital. In 2012 he left the company to pursue a career of building websites. He has the unique talent of both the technical aspect and the creative design in his projects. Christian lives in San Antonio with his wife Angie and their four year old son Jeep, born in 2011. This summer, 2016 they are expecting a baby girl.
A little bit of trouble - gets polished out
In the late 70’s Dana and I had troubles that ended in divorce. This was the lowest point in my life. Now single I formed a partnership with my brother-in-law Hector. He was a great help in preparing a simple three man workshop to grow into a viable small business.
While working hard to build my business I began to search for the truth to questions that were bothering me. I was a believer, that was true, but I never bothered to find out what that meant; I was not a follower, a disciple of Jesus. My mother had studied the Bible in “Bible Study Fellowship” and recommended it to me. I traveled to San Antonio on Monday nights to meet with the men’s class. The book of John was the study that year. For the first time God’s word by the power of the Holy Spirit, came alive in me and I realized that there were changes I needed to make in my life. Change started from the inside out; I began to see things from God’s perspective. I shared this with my ex-wife one day and she seemed interested in BSF. In time she rode with me to San Antonio where I dropped her at the women’s group at a church on the way to my study. We both grew closer to God and each other through His Word. Three years after our divorce we re-married.
Shortly after we remarried, Hector and I dissolved our partnership, and I was back on my own. Then God blessed us with two little girls, Rachel in 1984, and Lara in 1986. When the girls were young Dana focused on being a homemaker and mother. As they got older and started school Dana got more involved in sales. We opened our first retail store in downtown Fredericksburg and she was instrumental in making it a success. In the years that followed we opened stores in San Antonio, Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Dana’s sisters lived in those cities and all four of them managed stores. We also expanded our wholesale business, with accounts all over Texas and other parts of the country. The all-time best of these was “Heart’s Delight” in Houston. The owners Carol and Edith were great fans and did a wonderful job with the jewelry.
Demand grew for the jewelry; the use of brass combined with silver gave the look of gold and we could not make enough to keep up with demand. I have always shared my father’s love of adventure so we opened a workshop south of the border in Villa Acuna, Mexico. After two years of problems similar to the ones my father faced in Puerto Rico, we closed it and expanded our shop in Fredericksburg. The business grew and by the mid 90’s we had eight stores, including a visitor center at the workshop.
By the end of the 90’s business began to slow. I attribute this to several things. Mostly I think it was the use of brass. Brass is beautiful when it is newly polished, but unlike gold, it tarnishes rather quickly. At the beginning of our rise people bought it because it had a rich look and had the look of gold for a fraction of the cost. Our pieces were recognized all over Texas, but when it tarnished they put it in a drawer. In time we decided to use only silver and 14k gold making generally smaller pieces and using brass and bronze only in certain pieces like key rings, and buckles.
There was another factor in the change in our business. In 2001 I went to Cuba to evangelize door-to-door. I had never done anything like that before, but after that trip it was the main thing I wanted to do with my life. I will post stories of that trip and the 60 odd others I have taken since that one. I was not interested in missionary work full time, but leading people into a relationship with Jesus Christ became my passion; making jewelry my profession.
In 2014 I was ready to give up making jewelry for good to follow another lifelong dream of writing which I am doing and will share regularly on this website. Dana and I have discovered that there continues to be meaning and value to others in what we have done for the last 40 plus years, so for now we will continue to produce quality handmade jewelry.