Columbia jeweler Ron Koenig is one of those lucky people who can savor his passions on and off the job.
On workdays, Koenig operates Michael’s Jewelry at Trenholm Plaza, selling high end designer jewelry, restoring family heirlooms, and creating treasures of his own design.
Weekends, he transitions to a dedicated rock hound (“miner” is the term he uses), swapping his jeweler’s loupe for a geologist’s pick seeking amethysts, emeralds, and other gemstones in some remote dig in the Upcountry. Many of the better finds make their way into his showroom.
At age 60, Koenig is a happy combination of entrepreneur, artisan, historian, and geologist whose interests were kindled by a 1975 summer short course at the Institiuto Allende, Mexico’s most respected art school.
“I studied silversmithing and pottery. I really enjoyed the pottery but mixing heavy sacks of clay and hauling pottery to the kiln was hard work,” said Koenig, at the time an art student at the University of South Carolina.
When silversmithing struck a deeper core, Koenig returned to Columbia and persuaded his college roommate, Michael Tarlton, to collaborate in a jewelry store in Columbia’s Five Points. Michael consented to put his name on the business, and the store opened in 1976. Koenig was 21 at the time.
The current store has been at Trenholm Plaza for ten years, tucked away in a cul-de-sac near the Forest Acres Post Office. The showroom is an eclectic mix of jewelry that includes pieces from well-known Italian designers Roberto Coin and Marco Bicego and Koenig’s own work.
“Brand names in jewelry are as important as they are in the fashion industry,” he said.
One case is full of Koenig’s collection of antique jewelry. It’s a favorite conversation starter for him to tell customers about the history of the pieces.
Noteworthy is his collection of mourning jewelry, last popular in the Victorian era when the hair (and even other body parts) of a deceased loved one were incorporated into rings, bracelets, and lockets.
The artisanship of the mourning items is remarkable. In some pieces, long-ago jewelers incorporated the hair locks into a design one strand at a time.
Koenig says the items are a bit morbid for contemporary tastes. “I haven’t sold one of them in a long time, but people still find them fascinating.”
The store’s showroom is elegant, with muted colors enhancing the sparkle of hundreds of precious stones set in polished gold and silver.
The back workshop is another story. Koenig’s high tech laser welder shares wall space with drawers of antique jewelry molds from Afghanistan. There’s a kiln to melt precious metals, a centrifuge to cast molds, and a battered workbench with enough picks, drills, pliers, and polishing tools to make a dentist blush.
Koenig says his business model is where profits lurk in today’s economy. There are a handful of major players in the $61.8 billion fine jewelry industry, but smaller independent stores offering artisan services is the future of the trade. “You treat people right, deliver good work, and you’re going to rise to the top,” he said.
One good example, he says, is wedding bands. Most of the bigger jewelers are happy to sell you a big diamond, but with little thought to an accompanying wedding ring. One reason is that bands must complement any of a bewildering number of stone settings and finger sizes.
“I probably sell more (custom) wedding bands than I do wedding rings,” he said.
Online orders are an increasingly important part of jewelry sales, Koenig admits. He’s not enamored with computers, but the store is working with a consultant to develop a website and establish a presence on the World Wide Web.
Michael’s Jewelry is open 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday.