If there was an Academy Awards for jewelry making, the American Gem Traders Association (AGTA) Spectrum Awards would be it. And these days, Charleston’s Sohn & McClure Jewelers has the equivalent of an Oscar statuette sitting in their East Bay Street jewelry store: The jewelers won Platinum Honors in the Classical category at this year’s Spectrum Awards.
Their winning submission was an emerald-and-diamond ring designed and made by Rex McClure, who owns Sohn & McClure with his father-in-law, Bill Sohn. (McClure has also served as president of the South Carolina Jewelers Association and is currently on the group’s board of directors.) “It’s a very special ring—it has one of the finest emeralds we’ve ever seen,” McClure says. “I’m proud of it.”
McClure has cultivated his craft over a lifetime. Growing up in Texas, he was best friends with a boy whose family owned what they called “a rock shop.” It was there, when McClure was about 15, that he first learned about jewelry making. “There was a man there named Ray Childress, and he was a Choctaw Native American,” McClure says. “He made the silver and turquoise jewelry and the squash blossom necklaces. We were in there all the time playing chess and throwing rocks at each other, so I picked up my first jewelry making skills from Ray Childress.”
When he was 16, McClure began a series of apprenticeships with jewelers, learning everything from how to cut gemstones to jewelry design to hand engraving, which today is a highly specialized skill. “There aren’t many jewelry makers anymore who can also engrave,” says McClure. “In ages past, that was part of the apprenticeship. Today, you’re either an engraver, a jewelry maker or a stone cutter. Everything’s specialized.”
Not only is McClure all of those things, he’s also a true and dedicated artist. When it comes to designing pieces— which is what he loves to do most—he focuses on what’s beautiful, not what’s easy or expected.
In that large emerald ring, for example, the 4-carat emerald is flanked by diamond baguettes (a type of cut that creates a long, thin diamond), with smaller yellow diamonds between the shank and the center stone. McClure had to spend months looking for baguettes long enough—8 mm—to fit his vision.
It’s that willingness to cheerfully confront and overcome obstacles, the mark of a truly creative mind, that makes McClure such a successful designer. Sohn & McClure does a great deal of custom work, and lots of people come in without a clear idea of what they want. McClure can work with that easily. “When somebody wants a design but they’re not quite sure what they want, I’ll offer three designs for them. I do little watercolor drawings,” he says. “We try to do things that are unique, that haven’t been done before, which isn’t always easy because everything’s been done before, it seems. So sometimes we borrow from the past—the art deco period, the retro period.”
Currently, he’s working on a necklace for a client that is presenting some interesting challenges. The piece is a beautiful, romantic pendant, with a design that’s not only striking but also incredibly intricate.
In this case, McClure didn’t do the artwork, but he is the one figuring out how to carve it and transform it into a piece of jewelry. “After I sculpt it out, I’ve got to cut it in half. It’ll be a little testy,” he says. “I’ll figure it out. My Zen philosophy of jewelry making is this: If you’re not quite sure what to do, then do what you know how to do, and as you get closer to the goal, what’s distant becomes more clear. … That’s always worked for me.”
Elizabeth Pandolfi is a writer and editor in Charleston.