Editor’s Note: Every custom jewelry designer has a memorable design or two in their portfolio, projects where opportunity, inspiration, and craft combine to create something that stands the test of time. We asked the members of the MJSA Council of Custom Jewelers for some of theirs, and over the next few months we’ll offer profiles of their choices. In this profile, David Holloway shows how important listening is when discussing details with a client.
One of David Holloway’s most memorable custom designs began with a conversation between himself and the client—a fairly typical way to start such projects.
Except in this case, he says, the conversation took place while they were both standing "on a sawdust-covered floor in a house that was, effectively speaking, nothing but two-by-fours."
"It was a really interesting dynamic," he adds, "and enlightening." The client and her husband were in the midst of building their own custom home, and Holloway says that meeting her on the construction site gave him the opportunity "to see her talking to the carpenters, describing how she wanted the staircase covered, discussing color schemes and wood. It allowed me to see who she was a little bit."
And, of course, understanding a client’s style and personality—who they are—gets to the heart of the entire custom enterprise. This is why Holloway has always taken pains to meet clients on their "home turf." Although based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, he’s traveled near and far to meet clients in their dining rooms, or favorite cafes, or wherever they’re most comfortable. And while a construction site might have been a bit extreme, it was still very much in keeping with his "concierge" approach to custom design.
"It’s important to meet with my clients in an area that’s all about them, rather than about me," he says. "It enables me as a designer to put on eyeglasses that are tinted to their life, as opposed to forcing them to put on glasses tinted to mine."
And by putting on those eyeglasses and meeting the client in her home (or soon-to-be-home), Holloway was able to tease out her interests and tastes, and—thanks to a random comment—create a design that turned several heirloom rings into something entirely new.
The conversation began with a few basics. The client was looking for a new engagement/wedding set that was "more fun, not traditional." She wanted it repurposed from seven rings—some inherited from her mother, some from her husband’s family, some that she had purchased on her own—which together contained nearly 30 melee and three diamonds of about 1 carat each (97, 104, and 120 points). She wanted the ring to be made from white metal. And she wanted Holloway to use all three of the large stones and as much of the melee as possible—without having the ring become "too awful gaudy."
When Holloway measured her finger and found it to be a size 6.5, his first thought was, "How am I going to put three 1 carat diamonds on that finger without it getting ’awful gaudy’?" He’s learned, though, that it’s best to simply give in to the creative process: "I let it take me where it wants to take me." That strategy has earned him multiple honors, including 10 CARAT (Creative Achievement Recognizing Arkansas Talent) design and craftsmanship awards from the Arkansas Jewelers Association. But the first step in the process was discovering as much as possible about the client.
"Every client is different—some are cagey, and it’s like pulling teeth; others are very open," Holloway says. This particular one, he says, was fairly open—"probably an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10.
"We started by talking about the house, and she told me what she planned to do with the fireplace, which morphed into a conversation about the colors of the brick," he remembers. "I had worked in landscaping from childhood until college, so I used that background to talk about the types of flowers she could plant outside. She liked lilies [and] their color, but she wasn’t a huge floral person, so I didn’t grab a whole lot there. But she did mention that she had seen that color once in a theme park, which seemed to come out of the blue."
As any psychologist will tell you, even seemingly random comments can reveal something about the speaker, and Holloway has learned to pay attention when they appear. "Anytime that happens, I like to circle back to that topic," he says. "I asked if she liked theme parks, and she said she loved riding roller coasters, so I delved into that."
That "random comment" led to the most animated part of the conversation. They discussed parks they had visited, and found they had both enjoyed Silver Dollar City in nearby Branson, Missouri. One of her favorite roller coasters was Silver Dollar’s Outlaw Run, a wooden structure with three upside-down twists. "She really had an affinity for those rides," Holloway says, "and all the while I’m making mental notes."
They talked for a while (Holloway usually allows at least two hours for initial meetings), and he continued to to compile those "notes." When he got back to his desk and reviewed them, he kept returning to the idea of the coaster. He knew a design with a roller-coaster-like swirl would enable him to include all the stones his client wanted to use. It would also emphasize that "fun" aspect she desired in the ring.
The design, as Holloway says, "just sort of fell into place" from there.
He chose a split-ring style that he turned into a swirl of diamonds, using all three of the large stones and a good assortment of the melee. When he went back to the client with it, she felt it still had a touch of the "gaudy" and asked for fewer stones. Holloway took out a pencil and sketched a tighter curve with the 120 pointer removed, a design she quickly approved. "She was very much a lady who knew what she liked," the designer says.
And, of course, it was important for Holloway to know what she liked, as well. His concierge model helps with that, allowing him to see clients in settings where they can most be themselves. But that will take a designer only so far. True success is found through the questioning, the probing, and, most important, the listening.
"I think two things help me," Holloway says of this process. "When I was growing up, my dad had a job [engineering water systems] where we moved quite a bit. I’ve lived in multiple states, cities of different sizes, different environments." That peripatetic lifestyle, he says, left him with the ability to connect with a broad range of people: "It’s pretty rare that I can’t relate to someone.
"Second," he continues, "I grew up in a family that was all about knowledge and expanding who you are—my mom is a songwriter with a master’s in education, and my dad became a dean of students at a college. That pursuit of knowledge, that inquisitive mind, carried over to me in what I do every day.
"I’m always curious to know what makes people tick," he adds. "I want to know about their lives, what they’ve been through. What’s their favorite pastime? Their favorite cars, or movies?"
And such questions, of course, can generate details—and even random comments—that lead to inspiration.