While the roots nourishing his soul are planted deep in the rolling hills of Fayette County, jewelry designer Richard Schmidt’s creative spirit soars in the wide open, sun-dappled skies of the Desert Southwest.
“I’m a fourth generation Fayette County native, and I’m very proud of that—I’d never leave here—but the Southwest has always been a part of who I am,” said Schmidt, who owns Richard Schmidt Jewelry in La Grange and began collecting Native American pottery when he was 15. “I don’t know where my love of the desert came from because it’s always just been.”
Find Schmidt Jewelry at its new location in Round Top: 601 N. Washington… Brand-new building.
While the origins of his fascination are unclear even to him, they likely were strengthened during his family’s annual summer trips to Creed, Colo. The getaways always included a stopover in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which marked the halfway point on the car trip from La Grange.
“I always wanted to stay in New Mexico longer, but my parents were always intent on getting to Colorado,” Schmidt said. Today, he and his wife, Janet, consider Santa Fe a second home—at least for their spirits. They try to spend time there twice a year at a minimum.
“I’m not sure whether it’s the architecture, the light, the air, the scenery, the food, the current group of artists who call it home—or a combination of it all, but there is an undeniable good energy that inspires and reinvigorates me,” Schmidt said.
Janet, who handles business operations, added with a laugh, “Yes, and since Ortega’s On the Plaza [an iconic Santa Fe jewelry shop] carries Richard’s work, we get to deliberately mix business and pleasure.”
The duo continues to travel throughout the Southwest to showcase the jewelry collections and buy materials.
“Janet has to hang on to the checkbook when we’re at gem and precious metal shows,” Richard said laughing. “I’d happily bankrupt the business buying all of the materials I love.”
Over the years, they have developed a wholesale trade that includes 30 retail stores across the country including Serenite Maison on the outskirts of Nashville, which is a favorite of music luminaries.
“One of the coolest—and most unexpected— things that has happened is that people have started collections of Richard Schmidt Jewelry,” Richard said. “They come back year after year to see my new designs and add pieces to their collections.”
Design trendsetter Mary Emmerling purchases her Richard Schmidt Jewelry directly from the source at the couple’s Round Top booth on West Mill Street in close proximity to Bybee Square during the bi-annual antiques shows. The couple has staked a claim on that location for the past 15 years.
Editor’s note: Richard Schmidt Jewelry will be at Arbor Antiques for Fall 2017.
“Round Top was really a launching pad for us,” Janet said, noting that their first wholesale accounts came from people such as Carley Seale, founder of The Gypsy Wagon, discovering them on the street in Round Top. “The show brings people from across the nation, around the world—and just across the county line.”
Customers, retailers and other artists have become close friends.
“Our jewelry is a piece of art you can wear every day,” Janet said. “Richard’s style, passion and craftsmanship have opened the door to relationships with customers, retailers and other artists. While the business is nice, it’s the relationships that we really treasure.”
An Indirect Path
Richard’s professional path meandered across the country before eventually bringing him back to the jeweler’s bench at Schmidt Jewelry that had been manned by his father since 1977.
“I graduated from La Grange High School in 1978 and went to Southwest Texas State [now Texas State University] where I majored in geography and minored in art,” Richard said. “In hindsight, I probably should’ve majored in art because those classes were the ones that really sparked my interest.”
The newly minted college graduate accepted a job with Lloyd’s Furs, a purveyor of fur coats. Being on the front lines of a luxury goods business taught Richard how to deal with customers of all ilks and made him acutely aware of the power of trends. During his tenure in the fur business, he was a regular at New York Fashion Week.
And while working at Loyd’s Furs, he met Janet, who as a University of Texas co-ed had a part-time job in the company’s Austin store. They married, and the company assigned Richard to El Paso. Living in El Paso strengthened his passion for Southwestern history and art.
“I was fascinated with Mexican history and art because its influences are still felt everywhere,” Richard said. And he be began collecting retablos, the humble tributes to saints and the Holy Family crafted by local artisans and monks who used tin, copper and wood to ornament their New World churches in the Old World tradition.
“The artisans expressed themselves with the materials they had,” Richard said. “Those pieces demonstrate how to tell a story exquisitely.”
Relocation was another part of his job. The company reassigned Richard to Denver and Colorado Springs. The young family, which had grown to four, willingly moved throughout the Southwest. Then the company raised the specter of Pittsburgh.
Janet said, “We really didn’t want to move to Pittsburgh.”
About the same time, Richard’s parents, Milton and Betty Schmidt, were getting ready to retire. They were quietly looking for someone to buy Schmidt Jewelry, a retail and repair landmark located on the square in LaGrange.
Richard said, “We weighed our options and decided we wanted our kids to grow up with their grandparents nearby. Family and community give people roots. Roots are important.”
Janet’s parents lived in Austin, so La Grange was ideal. Plus, a life in La Grange would allow the Schmidt children to enjoy the freedom Richard remembered from his own childhood.
“My most treasured possession was a 10-speed bicycle I bought for $98 from Sears,” Richard said. “I’d leave the house in the morning and come home at dark. My friends and I lived outside in the summer—and our parents didn’t worry because they were glad we weren’t underfoot.”
The move back to his childhood hometown brought both challenges and opportunities. Initially, Richard worked alongside his father to refresh his jeweler’s skill set. Then, he and Janet set out to build their own business. Right-brained Richard took ownership of the creative side, that includes jewelry design, construction and display merchandising, while left-brained Janet claimed business operations including purchasing, accounting, personnel and business development.
“There were some sacrifices in the beginning, but owning our own business gave me the opportunity to develop my own style,” Richard said. “I’m basically self-taught, and the only thing I knew for sure was that Janet and I both really liked turquoise. I’d make something, take it to Janet and say, ‘So what do you think?’”
A Handcrafted Vision
Janet’s keen eye not only helped refine the early designs, but the couple discovered she had a knack for spotting trends. Through hands-on experience and experimentation, Richard identified the metals and stones he preferred to work with—and what combinations and techniques showed off the materials to their full effect.
“Often Janet spots something in the marketplace and brings an idea to me,” Richard said. “We talk about it and work together to make it happen. Other times, I’ll see something like a stone or a coin and just immediately know what I want to do with it.
“Sometimes, though, I’ll buy something and it has to sit a while before its role becomes clear—I just know that I’ll be able to incorporate it into something that expresses my spirit.”
His inspiration comes from a wide variety of sources ranging from his expansive collection of vintage cowboy boots (he used to wear vintage boots daily until his “mature” feet indicated it was time to choose comfort over style) to history, art and pop culture.
“I love trendy stuff and pop culture, but I also love history,” Richard said. “My work reflects diverse influences. I like a lot of different things.”
Music is one of his passions. In fact, his ideal work environment is an uninterrupted Sunday afternoon in the studio with an eclectic musical mix including Cold Play, Adele, Switchfoot, Need to Breathe, Sting and Fleetwood Mac blasting from the iPhone doc.
His diverse influences have recently converged and resulted in a collection of embellished silver cuffs that Janet describes as “boho.”
“Yes, I agree that boho is in there, but so is Old World style,” Richard said. “My work is what it is.”
A defining moment was meeting fellow silver artist Kit Carson, who was (and is) on the Schmidts’ artistic pedestal. Initially, Carson sought Richard out at a show after the Arizona native had seen the Texan’s work. It was a watermark day for Richard.
“From the beginning, I had admired Kit’s work, and when he came looking for me, I had a star-struck moment,” Richard said.
Carson, who is now one of the Schmidts’ compadres, delivered a piece of advice Richard continues to share with younger artists including his own children.
“Kit told me, ‘Your process is your process. Don’t let anybody change the things that make your work yours,’” Richard said.
Son Tyler, handcrafts jewelry alongside Richard, and daughter Lauren is embarking on a career in art as a painter. She is part of a group of artists who recently had an opening at the Live Oak Art Center in Columbus. The legacy lives on.
“As an artist, whether you’re a painter, sculptor, photographer, jewelry maker or whatever, honoring your own vision is what keeps your heart and mind engaged in the world around you—and in your work,” Richard said.
A signature of Richard’s work is the handcrafting. Each piece is made by Richard and now Tyler. Every cuff bracelet, which Richard identifies as his favorite pieces to work on because the one-inch wide “canvases” are large enough to tell a complete story, is bent by hand despite the ready availability of technology that would accomplish the task quickly and easily.
“Every night, Richard takes home a pile of flat cuffs and shapes them,” Janet said. “Every piece of our jewelry represents many, many hours of careful and intensive work.”
Despite the investment of time, the family deliberately includes work at all price points in their offerings. They want everyone who wants a piece of Richard Schmidt Jewelry to be able to own one. With that said, they don’t skimp on quality or materials or design. They create art for the marketplace. People have responded.
Richard and Janet are happy that other families are choosing to mark milestones with their work. Mother-of-pearl pieces are often given to brides and bridal parties to commemorate that special day. A local dad purchases a piece of Richard Schmidt Jewelry for each of his three daughters on their respective birthdays each year. And the list goes on.
“People are honoring their memories with our work,” Janet said. “A legacy is how you’re remembered. We want to be remembered for our passion, for quality and for people—the foundations of relationships. For us, this is a relationship business.”
But according to Richard, the relationships are a big blessing among many others.
“My job is my passion and my hobby,” Richard said. “I get to do what I love in a place I love with people I love 24/7. Life just doesn’t get better than that.”
Photos by Dixie Ray Hamilton, Dixie Ray Photography