Shaking hands with David Iler for the first time at the door of his Alchemy showroom, I was surprised by his soft-spoken demeanor. He‘s not stereotypical of a guy you’d expect to find playing his guitar loud enough to shatter glass. He’s a details type of guy—a man who appreciates creative talent and quality and replicates it in his own work. Back in the eighties you would have found him welding steel during construction of the KGON Tower—that red and white pinnacle perched atop Portland’s West Hills. A decade later, he was designing jewelry for Zell Bros.—Portland’s extinct pinnacle jeweler. Today, it’s hard not to think that he’s at another pinnacle, running his own business turning precious metals and stones into heirloom pieces of art that will last for generations. David Iler embraces his artistry to the highest degree. And that has helped to make him an international expert in his field. But something tells me we are going to see a lot more from this humble jeweler. Even with the best of experience under his belt, I’d say that David Iler will never really stop reaching for the top.
How did you develop this passion for jewelry?
It actually started in junior high school. That’s when I made my first few pieces. I was doing lapidary and that sort of thing. It stuck with me, but it didn’t stick hard, and I later got into steel fabrication. I found myself helping construct the KGON Tower for a number of years.
I’m dwarfed by the mountain of amplifiers you have stacked against the wall. Are you the kind of guy who also listened to KGON a lot back then?
I guess that my full Marshall stack is a dead giveaway that I’m into hard rock.
It’s a dead giveaway that you play with the Big Boys. So you play guitar?
Right. I’ve been in several bands over the years. It’s no irony that one of them was called Alloy.
Are you in a band currently?
No current bands. I’m solo right now—free style.
So heavy metal, in more ways than one, led to you creating jewelry that Portlanders are now wearing?
It actually all fits together. The tower itself is mainly constructed of steel. And jewelry is mainly constructed of precious metals. Different kinds of metals have similar properties. Even steel and gold have similar properties. If you approach metals on their molecular scale, you can have a relationship with them. My music interest is all about the artistry that is involved when it comes to creating something beautiful. I want to be the best guitar player I can be, and I want to be the best jewelry designer that I can be.
What metals do you work with?
Gold, silver, titanium, platinum, palladium. Even aluminum. You name it.
Metal walls, metal guitar player, metal jewelry. You’re attracted to metal.
I’ve always been attracted to metals. My very first job, when I was 16, was working for a custom bolt manufacturer. We were making bolts for the military—things like props for submarines that can be 3 feet in diameter. It takes months to cut the threads for a piece like that. That began my fascination with metals.
Something tells me that you didn’t go straight from building 3-foot diameter screws and welding together the KGON Tower to crafting dainty custom engagement rings.
I had reached the highest level I could while working on the KGON Tower. I had really reached a pinnacle.
Literally and figuratively, I suppose.
Right. I was an expert in steel fabrication and I couldn’t go any further, really, without opening my own shop. I was pretty much maxed out education-wise and income-wise. It only pays so much, and at that time the wages in the industry had been frozen for years. As I was considering my future, I started to look around and I saw a lot of injury afflicting those in the industry. It was about that time that I linked up with some old-timers who were in a fishing organization—Northwest Steelheaders.
I was fishing for a story, not expecting a “fishing story.”
Well, they weren’t just fishermen; they were rockhounds, jewelers, and people in the industry too. And I let them know about what I was considering. They took me under their wings and they encouraged me to take all of those metal skills and transfer them into jewelry. So I started to listen to them, and I started an apprenticeship with one of them.
So you climbed down from the KGON Tower…
Not yet. I was still working on the tower, and then driving out to Oregon City to work with George Von Brant, a rockhound who ran V B Rock and Gems. I started working there on weekends and evenings for two years. George has since passed on, but I gleaned everything I could from him. He was what we call an “old salt” in the industry.
How did that process go?
I found that I was familiar with what was going on. I already had some stone knowledge—some lapidary knowledge. And I found that the metals would do what I asked them to do. Before I knew it my accounts started to increase. I started to pick-up wholesale accounts—one, after another, after another—until finally, I had to quit my steel job. It was a smooth transition from one industry to the next.
Did George get to see some of your major accomplishments before he passed on?
What was his reaction when he was able to reflect upon your initial conversations on the fishing boat and how it led to this beautiful showroom in The Pearl?
He was pretty proud of himself! (Laughing.) And proud of me, too. He had a lot to do with where I am today. Because I was doing most of my work on Saturdays and Sundays in the off hours, I didn’t have access to a lot of the resources from suppliers that are available regular hours. I’d say to George, “I need a head to set a stone. Now, what do I do?” He’d point to some metals. He’d point to the ingot box. He’d point to the roll and say, “You know what to do. Just make it!” He was absolutely right, and that’s how I learned the fabrication part of the trade.
I understand that you also worked for Zell Bros. I don’t think there was a Portlander around who didn’t shed some tears when Zell Bros. disappeared.
The Zell family sold to Zale Corporation, and Zell Bros. came under the Bailey Banks & Biddle brand. I had hired seven jewelers to work alongside me at Zell Bros., here in Portland. That’s a big shop for any city. Zell Bros. was going through some changes and I think the company became too focused on profits and they were shedding customers. I quickly realized what customers want from a jeweler, which is old-fashioned customer service. They want to rely on their jeweler. They want trust and honesty, professionalism, quality, fair price. Not to mention the artistry component.
Most of your pieces here are one-of-a-kind. Were you able to design custom jewelry at Zell Bros.?
Oh, yes. I was on the floor helping design jewelry almost daily. It was a big honor to be working at Zell Bros. It was terrific. I was taken to the highest level in my industry during my seven years there. I couldn’t have opened my own showroom without my experience at Zell Bros.
But looking around, I can tell that you are not under a corporate thumb here.
I am owner, president, secretary, treasurer… Artist and designer. Well, we are all artists here. All of my employees are artists, and we have our areas of expertise when it comes to designing jewelry.
Not all of the jewelry here in your Pearl District showroom is yours. How many other artists do you represent?
Close to a dozen.
Primarily from the Northwest?
We try to focus on Pacific Northwest artists, though we do have some national artists as well. We like them and they cross-promote us outside of Portland, so it‘s mutually beneficial. It brings people here from outside of Portland who become familiar with the other artists we work with.
What are the criteria for these artists that you represent?
We look for handcrafted jewelry artists. We try to avoid mass production pieces. We focus on artisan qualities. We have kind of an old-fashioned mind set, so we like to know the people who make it. We like to keep the money in the community, preferably. So we are artists, supporting artists, who are supporting artists.
I see how it can be mutually beneficial.
It really is. As you look at the work you’ll notice a common thread among them, though each artist is unique in how he or she approaches the designs. So a customer can have a wide selection of styles to choose from here. We all share a lot of the same philosophies, too. For example we are all recyclers. Most of us work with Hoover & Strong, which is the only “green” recycler of precious metals in the world right now. So we send our scrap metals to them to reclaim and refine, which they send back to us. They’ve developed a process to achieve zero output of pollutants, so it’s very earth friendly. We acquire our stones through known distributors who have a long history using high quality, fair trade gemstones. If there are any enhancements, it is fully disclosed to us, and we share that disclosure to our customers.
Is this a piece you are working on?
This is a vintage piece that a client brought in for customization.
It’s very beautiful.
Yes, well, if a piece is 50 years old or older, it is likely handcrafted the old-fashioned way. You can really appreciate the craftsmanship in this.
I’m not an expert, though it’s clearly not ordinary in its design.
I’ve taken a beautiful piece, and I’ve made a few custom changes based on what the client really desires. In this case, the client would like it transformed into a pendant. It takes a special skill to work with vintage jewelry. Many vintage pieces, like the one I’m showing you, are assembled, not cast. These rounded rondels were hand-wrapped pieces of metal that were attached to the shank, and then on the tops of those they created these channels in which to set the stones—all by hand. No machines, no quick casting process. That’s an art form that is being lost.
And that’s how you like to work?
I prefer working that way. The craftsmanship that went into this ring that is now becoming a pendant, is considered the top of the jewelers’ food chain. Very few people know how to do this.
Which is probably why your client has entrusted you with such an heirloom piece?
Jewelry is very personal and I’m aware of their trust when they bring in something for restoration or reconstruction. As an example, here’s another piece that clients brought in. It’s an ancient Roman coin that they acquired on a trip that they took, so it‘s very sentimental to the client already. I’m helping them chronicle even more memories. In this case I am using a cast process to create a ring, since it will achieve the results we‘re looking for. The wax cast is all hand carved, and I will include all kinds of custom designs for the client including diagrams of locations in Egypt on the sides. When this blue wax is melted away, everything that you see that is blue, will be gold. I work with all kinds of metals. For example, here’s another one of my favorite projects right now—in this case, using platinum.
That is absolutely gorgeous, David. Don’t show it to my wife; I’d have to give up my Lamborghini for that.
Luckily for you, then, it’s not for sale. It’s a special commission piece for a client. It’s a good example of the high level of fabrication I was talking about. It’s natural tanzanite in the center, 12 carats of diamonds surrounding it. Every single head for every single stone is handmade out of platinum. No two are alike.
Where did your artistic talent come from?
It’s intuitive. In some ways art has always been very easy for me—creating jewelry, creating music.
So, do your clients know exactly what they want, or do they come to you with their precious family jewels and just say, “David, do your magic.”
Both. I help customers who have a total vision of the completed piece, or those who need to start from scratch, even if they don’t have family jewels to start with. I also have completed pieces in the display cases if they are more comfortable selecting one that’s already completed.
I imagine that working with 12 carats of diamonds, a stunning piece of tanzanite the size of an Oreo cookie, and $1800 per ounce platinum, you don’t want to make any mistakes for the customer.
No mistakes are allowed. Period. Seriously, to get to the level that I am at, I have to have made some mistakes. But you reach the point where you pass a threshold.
C’mon, David, didn’t you have any really good mistakes?
One of the reasons that I am a leader in the industry is perhaps due to my extensive work using platinum. Platinum is a very high temperature metal. Mistakes in platinum are horrific; they are very expensive. They are dangerous as well. The equipment that is required to cast platinum rotates at very high speeds, with great inertia to get it started. You’re spinning very expensive, high temperature metal around, and with those speeds you can have disasters. And so, I had a few disasters initially. But then you learn what not to do, and you get very good at it.
Every artist has to pay some kind of dues. It looks like those dues paid off.
Currently I am a leader in the industry for platinum casting for my trade. I do it professionally. Which means, Gary—no mistakes!
The price of platinum is trading at a premium to gold, right?
It’s about $200 per ounce higher than gold, but relative to gold it’s a really good value right now.
But it’s more difficult to work with?
It is if you are unfamiliar with it. I have a relationship with metals. I don’t command the metals. I know what they want. I know what they don’t want as well. That’s how I get MY way. In the end I get what I want.
Do you have clients who want to use gold for a custom piece and you have to say, gold won’t work?
Yes, it depends on the project and what the application will be. Some jewelry needs to handle a high level of activity, and also carry fashion with it, and also timelessness. I hand sign every piece I create under a microscope, so my name is on every piece. It’s got to be right for the customer.
Do you have anything to say to someone who buys their jewelry at Costco?
Please don’t. You know, I understand how people may want to purchase from a discounter, which is essentially just a retailer rather than a jeweler. I am a genuine jeweler. If you’re looking for a deal, and you really need a deal, then discounters may fit that space. If you’re looking for something that’s artisan—something that’s handcrafted and has expression in the piece that might also include symbolism for a particular event—then you really want to consider using a genuine jeweler. A jeweler like me, whose hands might be a little bit grubby when he or she comes out to greet you.
Your pieces are each unique so no one else is going to be wearing the same design. But what can you do for a budget-conscious 20-something who wants to buy a wedding ring when gold has surpassed $1700 per ounce?
There are alternative metals that we can use and create a custom ring that says the same thing. I can get creative using old family stones if they’re in good enough shape and we can get them to do what we need them to do.
Grandma’s old wedding ring becomes something brand new for the bride or groom…
Absolutely! Grandma’s old diamonds really may be “forever,” though the gold generally gets recycled so that we can maintain quality. But I have options for young couples on a tight budget. They shouldn’t look at the price of gold and think that they’ve been priced out of a custom design by a professional jeweler. I can make it happen. Like I said, people are looking for personal service from a jeweler—an experienced artisan jeweler who can provide a quality piece at a fair price. I work face-to-face with clients, and I’m the one working behind the window on your jewelry, so I can create many options for you.
It sounds like no one should have to settle for mass production pieces.
For genuine jewelers, we have 5000 years of craft behind us. Mass production has less than 100 years. The craft has a solid footing, and people are drawn to art. Computer automated design technology allows me to work with any client in the world to design one-of-a kind jewelry—but the craftsmanship and attention to detail will always come from my hands, not from a machine.