Jeweler Larry Stark didn’t start winning awards for his custom creations until he “retired.” The man who once owned a business with a staff of 15 in the Pavilions shopping center on Fair Oaks Boulevard has downsized to a space near Ettore’s European Bakery, where he is the sole employee.
Now that he’s on his own at Stark Jewelers at 2372 Fair Oaks Blvd., he told me, he actually has time to coordinate and complete contest entries.
“If you took some of these pieces out and you laid them in a pile of things from the ’40s done by Cartier or Fabergé,” Stark said, “they would fit right in there. That was always my goal.”
Stark, 61, spoke with reverence about the breastplate that Louis-François Cartier made for the Sikh maharajah Bhupinder Singh in 1928, with diamonds the size of walnuts. That particular legend, he said, also made the invisible clocks with golden hands that seemed to float in the air. And Peter Carl Fabergé? Although most people know him for the eggs, Stark said, he did art pieces with gold, precious stones and diamonds.
This wasn’t a career avenue that most people would have predicted for Stark. He grew up working around his father’s store, Jerry’s Paint and Supply, on Fulton Avenue. When Stark was 8, he said, his father wanted to buy an old Ford Model A and fix it up, so he assigned his son the task of scouring the newspaper classified section to find one.
“I would call these people up and grill them on the phone about their car because my dad was only going to spend 150 bucks,” Stark said. “I found one, but the guy wanted $250. I told my dad I thought it was a good car. ... I was just a little kid, but by then I’d talked to 50 or 100 people.”
His father bought the Model A pickup, Stark said, and when they got it home, he taught his son to weld so that he could fix all the holes in the truck bed. He would work away with the blowtorch while his father was at work.
At age 10, Stark said, he got a job at a music store repainting and refinishing electric guitars for the professional musicians who would drop off their weathered instruments. They didn’t know a kid was doing the work, he said.
Then, in junior high, Stark’s father put him to work at his shop. Back in those days, Stark said, heavily tattooed members of Hells Angels would come in to get special paint jobs: pin stripes, metal flecks, candy apple red gloss.
They would ask Jerry Stark whether he could do the work, and he would say, “Yeah, we have a guy that does that.” The then-12-year-old Larry Stark was the guy, and he vividly recalled one biker towering above him, asking, “You want to paint my bike, kid?”
Stark knew a lot more about automobiles than he did about jewelry when he started working for Luis Maldonado in his jewelry shop. Initially, Maldonado told me, he wondered whether Stark would ever learn the trade. But the young man persisted for two years, Maldonado said, and he became a great jeweler and later built a very successful store in Folsom.
Stark also worked five years with Hamilton Jewelry before he struck out on his own. He maintained his store in Folsom for nine years before moving to Pavilions. Today, he also sells pieces of his jewelry and art at shops in La Jolla, Santa Barbara and Santa Fe, N.M.
He focused solely on the custom jewelry business, he said, because customers would ask whether he had made any of the pieces at his shop. Stark would point out his work, he said, and invariably, those were the pieces people wanted to buy or they would ask him to make a custom piece.
After his first year of business, he said, he removed the diamonds from the jewelry he’d bought and melted down the gold and silver. He used all that material to make new jewelry, a decision he now regrets because it was a costly way to get raw materials. He should have had a discount sale, he said.
Most of his business today comes from customers such as Azolla Farm’s Scrivner Hoppe-Glosser who wants him to create a custom engagement ring. Hoppe-Glosser and his fiancée, Leila Ansari, supply heirloom vegetables to restaurants such as Taylor’s Kitchen, Localis and Magpie. They both love the classic simplicity of the white gold bands that Stark designed.
“Two cousins of mine, when they saw it, they couldn’t believe how thin the band looks from the top,” Ansari said, “but when you see it from the horizontal view, it looks thick and sturdy. The band works with the stone so well. It delivers the focus right to the gem piece.”
While most of his customers come for jewelry, Stark has won awards for his larger art pieces. His wolfhound walking cane, for instance, won a Niche Award for excellence in craftsmanship for Niche Magazine. It was a finalist in the national jewelry competition, the Saul Bell Design Awards. Retailing for $44,000, it features sterling silver, gold, rubies, amethysts and ebony.