Robert Keith, founder of the Hoorsenbuhs jewelry line, polishes a sterling… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
Some people wait years before their creative talents are recognized. Robert Keith waited less than 24 hours.
It was 2005 and Keith, a fashion photographer looking for a new challenge, had just made his first piece of fine jewelry: a gold ring that looked like a miniature version of a ship's anchor chain.
"I was so proud of it, I put it on my finger and I went down the street the next day to a Starbucks," Keith said, "and a lady tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Excuse me, where did you get that ring? Is it vintage?' 'No,' I said, 'actually, I made it.'"
Keith landed his first sale that day, using a drinking straw sleeve to size the customer's ring finger. He was stunned when she readily accepted his price of $3,000, the cost of a ring he had seen at a jewelry store a few days earlier.
Today, Keith and his business partner, Kether Parker, are the primary names behind the rings, bracelets, earrings and other high-end items in the Hoorsenbuhs jewelry collection favored by starlets and rock stars. Despite the Dutch lineage of its name, the jewelry is designed and made in Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles.
Hoorsenbuhs, which Keith and Parker expect will do about $2.5 million in sales this year, is just a small corner of a big source of manufacturing jobs in the state.
California jewelers export more diamonds than any other state, except New York, in a trade that reached $4.8 billion in 2011. Through the first six months of 2012, exports of jewelry were running just slightly behind another well-known California line of products — aircraft, spacecraft and aerospace parts.
There are about 12,000 jewelry businesses in California that employ as many as 50,000 people, said James M. Orloff of Fresno-based Orloff Jewelers, who wears a second hat as the president of the California Jewelers Assn. Orloff said California is one of the world's most important contributors to the jewelry world, with much of the state's industry concentrated in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"New York is the heartbeat of the jewelry industry. France and Italy start a lot of the trends, but in terms of design and manufacturing, the best comes out of California," Orloff said. "Everyone wants to see what the celebrities are wearing. Because so many of those celebrities are here, people want to know what the jewelers in California are doing."
In just seven years, Keith's jewelry has won over celebrities including Kristen Stewart, Kanye West and David Beckham.
The Hoorsenbuhs line is available in many metals, including gold, platinum and silver, and in any color of diamond, not just clear stones but also black, brown, red and blue. Hoorsenbuhs sells only diamonds that have passed through the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, an international standard set in 2003 to prevent "conflict diamonds" from war-torn areas from reaching the marketplace.
Even after seven years, the Hoorsenbuhs brand is considered quite young in an industry in which staying power is measured in decades. High-end retailers such as Barneys New York are betting that Hoorsenbuhs will have that kind of long-term marketability.
Farrah Katina, buyer for the Just One Eye shopping site, which operates a boutique in Hollywood, said the Hoorsenbuhs line "has an edge, but it is also very sophisticated."
"Having a modern appeal and sophistication at the same time is a very rare thing," she said. "As a brand, I see it lasting for a very long time."
Hoorsenbuhs — named after a 16th century Dutch trading ship sailed by some of Keith's ancestors — had an unusual beginning.
Keith was born in Sacramento and raised in nearby Roseville by his father, an art and music teacher, also named Robert, and his mother, Sandra, who ran a nonprofit that helped the mentally disabled. Keith never attended college and received no formal training or apprenticeship in jewelry making.
Keith says it started about 10 years ago as he scoured swap meets, estate sales and yard sales for items to serve as props while he helped out another fashion photographer before taking up the camera for his own work. He was always fascinated by the jewelry.
"The jewelry commanded more respect than almost any other item," Keith said. That was when he began to teach himself about fine jewelry.
"We really don't learn much unless we want to," said Keith, 43, "and I really wanted to learn this. Education is really an easy thing if someone is willing to open their mind to it."
The second ring Keith made went to his old surfing buddy, Parker, a former actor and fashion model who was working as a salesman at a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Santa Monica.
That job didn't last long after Parker noticed that a lot of the prospective Mercedes buyers were asking about his ring. Parker was soon carrying photos of Keith's rings to the dealership.
"We actually started selling quite a bit that way," said Parker, 40. "And to me this was starting to make more sense than what I was doing."