Zoltan David’s Precious Milestone
The acclaimed jewelry artist celebrates 40 years of crafting extraordinary treasures
Tucked between Milk + Honey Spa and All Star Burger at the Hill Country Galleria, the Zoltan David gallery is easy to miss—but that’s by design. It’s a luxury destination—like a Ferrari showroom, David suggests—the casual shopper stopping for a quick bite won’t likely wander into. The gallery’s owner and namesake is confident his showroom of fine art jewelry, spanning four decades and surviving recessions and cross-country moves, will outlive COVID-19; in fact, he thinks this year might end up being one of its most lucrative.
A small sign by the locked door reads, “Please ring bell to enter,” a pre-COVID feature that seemed destined for social distancing. The space is intimate, with fossil slabs lining the dimly lit walls, a humble backdrop to the cases of glittering jewels underneath.
Unlike chain store jewelers, the designer and goldsmith is always in residence and available for consultation. David designs, crafts and sells each piece. Alongside his wife, Patti—also a goldsmith—he produces his jewelry in an intimate and innovative studio at the back of the shop. New and old collide here, with traditional tools and a 3D printer working side by side.
When COVID-19 shuttered businesses in the spring, David continued to work alone on commissions while his shop remained closed. In May, he welcomed customers back again with masks, and it’s now business as usual.
Despite its twists and turns, 2020 marks a milestone for David. In four decades, he’s established himself as a prominent name in the industry and collected many an accolade, from patenting his own inlay technique of combining multiple metals to showcasing a moonstone necklace at the Smithsonian. Throughout his career, he has continually looked for the “next mountain to climb,” always afraid of losing his drive to innovate. Along the way, he discovered the key to his longevity in business: “I’m my biggest challenge.”
Growing up, David recalls how constant curiosity compelled him, whether uprooting his mother’s house plant for examination or dismantling a clock to understand how it worked. By the age of 16, he was certain of his life’s purpose: While carving a piece of stone in his backyard, David was struck with a call to creativity. He started business school to appease his father’s hopes to one day take over the family trucking business, but soon dropped out to pursue his own dreams.
Drawn to working with metals and stones, he explored goldsmithing and pursued an apprenticeship with a renowned goldsmith in Vancouver, enamored with the craft. His childhood drive to not only create but understand and manipulate his creation lent itself naturally to a career in goldsmithing. After winning a De Beers award, David branched out on his own; he opened Zoltan David Precious Metal Art in 1980 and soon transferred the growing business to Laguna Beach, California.
After marrying a sixth-generation Texan and falling in love with Lake Travis on a visit to Austin, he moved the business to the Lone Star State in 1994. Though he’s moved his storefront from the Arboretum to the Galleria, he stayed in the Hill Country, content to carve out his reputation away from the coasts. “Usually someone like me isn’t in Austin,” David says.
“Usually someone like me is in New York or L.A. I don’t like concrete … I know it well enough to know if I lived in New York, my single goal would be to get the hell out of New York.”
This mindset of blazing his own path has guided his business for the past 40 years. Before selling directly to consumers, David sold his jewelry wholesale. After years of competing with other designers, he found a new competitor in himself. His storefront allows him to interact directly with customers and customization now drives his innovation, instead of the demands of other stores. Just as he’s resisted moving, he’s intentionally refused to expand. “My growth has to be in my art, not in my volume,” he says.
“My growth has to be in my skill set, in my creativity, not in the size. I do what I’ve always done. I follow my instincts because they serve me well.”
His intuition and persistence have fueled each defining achievement. Besides being known for his patented shaped inlay technique, he also helped develop an erosion-resistant black steel. Nonexistent in nature, black metal is usually produced with a plating prone to deterioration. David’s process took more than a year to develop, leading to a line of inky-black jewelry with a variety of inlaid precious metals, from platinum and gold to mother of pearl.
Each time he develops a new technique or takes on a challenging commission, his next goal is to surpass himself. A surface glance at his jewelry and success might make it all seem easy, but David points to one bracelet in his showcase. While it took two weeks to make, he explains, the piece represents 40 years of knowledge and craft.
With his eyes set on outperforming himself, he’s confident his passion and drive won’t fizzle: “When you love what you do, it just gets better.”