The showroom at David’s Jewelers is an exquisite, spacious shop with lovely, brightly lit wood-paneled display cases that seem to sparkle.
But as soon as you walk inside you realize the real sparkle is from the array of diamonds and precious gems set in breathtaking, one-of-a-kind designs of gold and platinum. And though David’s represents many different artists from the jewelry trade, it is David Clark’s own designs, creations and craftsmanship that have made the shop such a unique store among the many jewelry stores in St. Helena.
But owner and designer David Clark is now getting ready to retire. He’s selling his inventory, and then the business itself on Main Street and this prospect has created both sadness and concern for loyal customers who have come to love the store. That’s because Clark is such an engaging and talented artisan, who has worked diligently to create his own unique pieces as the only “bench jeweler” in St. Helena.
A bench jeweler, according to Clark, is someone who works directly with gold, platinum and gems. You might also call him a goldsmith. Other jewelers in town buy and sell the work of other artisans, and while Clark does in fact represent many other designers in his shop, it is his own designs that have made his reputation.
At his tiny work bench and with his various tools arrayed in close quarters behind the showroom, Clark is the epitome of the jeweler-as-fine-artist. He imagines, sketches, designs, invents and crafts each piece from the raw materials and cut gems from his workshop safe.
Clark, growing up in the Napa Valley, didn’t exactly start out to be a jeweler, and his path to jewelry-artist wasn’t a straightforward one. “My folks moved to the valley when I was 3. I went to UC Davis with the thought of being pre-med like my dad,” he said, “but decided I was more interested in art. I took architecture and sculpture and ultimately started tinkering with jewelry on the side … I didn’t want to be standing behind a drafting table; I didn’t want to be a surgeon. I wanted to be fiddling with my hands and making pretty things.”
Clark was soon channeling his artistic talents into a full-time career in the craft. “Jewelry enabled me to combine craftsmanship, art, inventions and all sorts of things,” he said. “As well as working with people: working directly with someone’s needs … what they wanted. And it gave me the opportunity to release my own creative energies. It’s about as challenging and meticulous as any of the arts can be.”
But now Clark and his wife, Bobbe, are ready for a change. “It’s time,” he said. “After 40 years of doing business successfully in the valley everything is going well for us. Our health is good. Business is good. We have a long-term lease on the building.” But he and Bobbe want to have the time to do other things.
“I have two sports cars sitting in my garage that have been disassembled for 20 years,” he mused. “One is an old bathtub Porsche, and the other an old Aston Martin. I also paint. And I sculpt … all the bronze sculptures in the front are mine. And I don’t do it nearly enough. We have focused so much on the business; we’ve put ourselves totally into it. And that’s OK when you’re moving your business along, but at this point in our lives there are some things that we want to do. And we’re not going to do those unless we close the business.”
Some in St. Helena have wondered if the armed robbery at David’s Jewelers a year ago by two men might have had something to do with the decision to retire. But Clark says no. In a separate email, Clark reviewed the question and its meaning to him.
“The robbery didn’t by itself motivate our decision to retire,” he wrote. “But it was a wake-up call. Having a gun in my face reminded me that we don’t live forever. We had been thinking of retirement in terms of a few years down the road, but then (after the incident) we asked ourselves, ‘What were we waiting for?’ We couldn’t come up with a good answer.”
Clark is hopeful that another artisan jeweler and designer will decide to purchase the business. “We’ve got a loyal clientele, people who return year after year. Mostly local people. They know our location, and they know the quality of our work.” But it’s clear that he will miss the customer contact.
He retells the story of three men who showed up outside the store after closing time. “They banged on the door, and we indicated we were already closed.” But the men were insistent, Clark said. And they said they could make reopening worthwhile.
“They were just back from deployment in Desert Storm, in Saudi Arabia,” Clark recalled. “They wanted to buy something to commemorate the occasion. And they became very memorable customers.” It is those special customer experiences that he said he will miss the most.
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