The showroom of Sohn & McClure glistens in the late afternoon sun as light dances across the pristine glass counter tops covering a sea of display cases. Their precious bounty reads like masterpieces in a museum. Antique coins and favorite stones from the proprietor’s personal collection are showcased among finely finished jewelry and one-of-a-kind creations custom-made on the premises. The jewelry boutique is new to this lo cation on Charleston’s East Bay Street, but the names Sohn and McClure are not. This family of artisans is a mainstay of the city’s fine jewelry market, servicing both clients and the trade for over two decades.
Rex McClure’s passion for his craft is evident at first glance. His energy, his inten sity of focus—both of eye and of mind—are reflective of a lifetime poised over the work bench of a jeweler. Raising a three-dimen sional wax model up to the light, he speaks about the setting of a ring he’s designing around a stunning emerald.
“The scale model helps customers visu alize what we’re making so there are no surprises. I also do watercolors to illustrate what a piece will look like. When I under stand what they want, I can carve it for them.”
Pointing to the tiny nooks he plans to fill with precious stones, he describes a trio of long, thin diamond baguettes he’ll use on each side of the shank. “I haven’t decided whether or not to add some yellow diamonds,” he muses. “Sometimes less is more.” He explains that a project like this begins with a plan that tends to evolve: “You work things out as you go.”
Holding the stone, a round brilliant cut, in the palm of his hand, McClure adds that when the ring is finished, he will probably submit it for the AGTA Spectrum Award, a national competition of the American Gem Trade Association. Recently, an engagement ring he designed won Best of Show and People’s Choice Award in the 2013 South Carolina Jewelers Association Design Competition. The luxurious design featured a large oval diamond surrounded by a halo of smaller diamonds, and a shank decorated with additional diamonds and ornamental Old World engraving.
Naturally artistic, McClure realized his affinity for gems as a young boy growing up in Wichita Falls, Texas. “My best friend’s family had a rock shop called Lovelace Lapidary,” he recalls. “We were in there all the time. His father showed us how to cut stones. An old Choctaw Native American named Ray Childress worked there and taught me a few basics about jewelry making. And I loved to draw—that translates well into jewelry making.”
McClure went on to work for Krugers Jewelers, a highly respected establishment where he continued his journey, learning his craft from masters in jewelry making and eventually becoming lead goldsmith.
“I came up through the Old World apprentice system, without any formal training, [a method of learning] I continue to foster in my shop” says McClure. “People come to me with degrees, and perhaps I can learn something from them. My strength is in execution—I can make anything.”
McClure adds that his apprentices can be found in jewelry stores throughout Charleston. “I’m passing on my skills—that’s kind of cool.”
After six years at Krugers, and following an attempt at running a shop of his own, he relocated to Georgia for an opportunity to do trade work at Excalibur Jewelry. He continued to expand his skill set, jumping at the chance to learn hand engraving from Bud Yancey. “I learned to engrave from an old school master engraver—it’s a rare skill,” says McClure. “I trained my wife, Kristina, to do it, and now she’s better than me!”
Like Rex, Kristina McClure’s love for the craft blossomed at a young age when she worked in her father’s Georgia jewelry store. “You have to be kind of obsessive-compulsive,” she says with a laugh. “Engraving requires intense attention to detail—you’re drawing very tiny images and have to be meticulous.” The bulk of her work is hand lettering, which she says is even more painstaking (and gratifying), but she also draws ornamentals and flowers when requested.
“If you bring me a picture, I can draw it,” adds Kristina, who is completing a graduate degree in appraisals in the gemology program at the industry-leading Gemological Institute of America.
The McClures are among only a few hundred artisans in the entire country performing the highly skilled technique of hand engraving today. As a result, they are in high demand and handle projects for other jewelers throughout the Carolinas and Georgia. “We draw the design with a very fine mechanical pencil,” explains Rex. “The technique involves coating the piece with a Chinese white watercolor that enables you to draw on metal.”
When Sohn & McClure were established in Charleston in 1992, the store dealt exclusively with the trade. Its team of expert craftsmen custom designed and repaired upscale rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings and pins for other jewelers. According to Kristina, longtime staffer Chevis Clark, a graduate level gemologist and stone cutter, is one of the few if not the only one in town with the ability to recut a stone that’s been damaged—a risky operation.
Within a decade, the enterprise expanded into a retail operation and opened its doors to the public. Sally Sohn, Kristina’s mother, handles all the bead stringing and design work. Husband Bill Sohn runs their James Island location in South Windermere.
“Our primary focus today is bridal and engagement jewelry,” says McClure. “We carry numerous bridal lines, and a large selection of antique jewelry, from the Victorian era to retro, and everything in between.” Both the design and cost for handcrafted pieces may be customized to suit the customer’s aesthetic and budget.
“It’s fun. I love what I do,” says Mc-Clure, who became president of the South Carolina Jewelers Association this year. “It’s an honor, and it makes me a better jeweler, enlarging my vision of possibilities.”
They say the best things come in small packages. In Sohn & McClure’s beautiful new showroom, the best awaits.