Special Report: Custom jeweler always had his sights on running his own business

2014-04-01T00:00:00Z 2014-04-11T15:21:04Z Special Report: Custom jeweler always had his sights on running his own businessBy TOM HOWARD thoward@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Throughout his extended training, Elichai Fowler knew that sooner or later he would own his own custom jewelry business.

He made his future career intentions clear during his apprenticeship with Bozeman jeweler Don Baide.

“When Don hired me, he knew right from the get-go that I wanted to run my own business,” Fowler said. “I trained and worked real hard for him, and went on to engraving school and gemology school and advanced training with a French designer.”

In the seven years that Elichai Fine Jewelry has been in business, Fowler has developed a reputation as an innovative designer and craftsman who goes to great lengths to please his customers.

The business, www.elichai.com, operates out of a storefront in Livingston. Fowler also has a design studio and a private workshop in Billings, where he lives.

Most people probably don’t realize that Fowler spends a lot of time reworking older jewelry into new pieces, a sort of high-fashion recycling.

“About half of my work is redos,” he said. “I have clients who have inherited stuff or have bought so much over their lifetimes that they have a fair collection of jewelry that they just never wear, but it’s still valuable. I sit down with them, interview them and try to figure out their style, what they like, who they are, what their lifestyle is like. Then I design things, sketch things for them.”

Architects and engineers retired their drafting tables and T-squares long ago with the advent of digital design software. Likewise, computer-aided design and manufacturing software is commonly used in the jewelry industry.

“When the job merits it, we’ll use CAD/CAM,” Fowler said, but he added that he still prefers designing by hand.

Hand-drawn sketches depicting different iterations of rings, bracelets and necklaces fill his sketchbooks and also appear on his Facebook page.

When he’s designing a ring, for example, Fowler will often draw two or three different styles as a way to get a sense of the customer’s style.

“We continue designing and drawing, even if it means sending them an email or a text with a photo,” he said.

Custom wedding rings make up a significant portion of Fowler’s portfolio. For customers who don’t wear a lot of jewelry, he’ll also do custom engraving on knives, pens or guns. A customer looking for a unique gift once asked Fowler to make him a unique gift for his wife. Fowler had Glock pistol powder coated pink. He boosted the bling factor by mounting a diamond on the gun’s slide.

Fowler has done a lot of work with palladium, the main product from Stillwater Mining Co.’s mine near Nye.

“Palladium is a fine metal, but my favorite silver metal is platinum,” another product of Stillwater Mining Co., he said.

One of Fowler’s recent signature pieces was created for a customer who brought in about a dozen pieces of jewelry that she had acquired over the years but didn’t wear anymore.

He reworked that collection into a stunning necklace studded with emeralds, rubies surrounded by a sea of around 1,200 white and yellow diamonds. It hangs around the wearer’s neck on a diamond-studded red velvet rope.

Fowler spent hundreds of hours perfecting the piece, which he calls Tropical Garden.

“It was a fun piece. But I didn’t sell her gold or gemstones,” he said. “We reused her own materials.”

The customer wore the necklace to a party recently and was “absolutely thrilled,” Fowler said. “She just wanted me to shorten the velvet a little. She’s so happy that she wanted me to sign it on the back.”

Fowler doesn’t sign every piece he makes. For example, if somebody asks him to design a generic piece, it goes unsigned. “And sometimes I just forget,” he said.

As a child, Fowler always displayed his creative side by drawing. He got his start in metal work in Ken Denning’s art classes at West High.

“I took a metals class and Mr. Denning was kind enough to let me stay after hours to teach me advanced techniques,” he said. “He gave me a high recommendation for Montana State and I attended there as an advanced student.”

In Fowler’s business, the design process is just as important as the final product.

“I love working with people on custom projects,” he said.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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