At first glance, Zoltan David’s jewelry store in the Hill Country Galleria, just outside Austin near Lakeway, is reminiscent of Bulgari: gleaming glass cases display millions of dollars worth of diamonds and platinum beneath Fortuny chandeliers and high barrel ceilings. But the massive ottoman upholstered in steer hide that sits in the middle of the gallery reminds us that we’re in Texas. “I could easily work in New York, Paris, or London,” says David, who was born in Hungary and immigrated to Vancouver when he was six. “I chose Austin because I like the vibe here. I like trees and dirt more than concrete.”
David also likes the independence of his own store and refuses to work for large design houses such as Cartier and Tiffany. Every piece of jewelry he makes is hand-forged, and he doesn’t make copies. Most pieces take about twenty hours from start to finish, although some of his more complicated work has taken nearly four hundred hours. He’s won fifteen industry awards and holds two U.S. patents—one on a shaped pattern of metal inlay, and the other on his “dangelier” earrings, hoops with a teardrop gem suspended in the middle. In an ingenious feat of engineering, fitting for the economic slump, the earrings can be taken apart and worn three different ways. But he’ll always remember the one that got away. In 2003, David was the first designer to decorate the metal underneath a ring’s center gemstone, but he didn’t bother to apply for a patent. The design appeared in jewelry stores nationwide the next year. He’s a trendsetter, although he disagrees with the semantics of the word. “I don’t like to call myself a trendsetter,” he says. “That’s just another egotist asshole trying to make a name for himself. But I will say that my joy comes from doing something original.”
Even though 40 percent of David’s business comes from custom designs, he won’t hesitate to turn down a customer who asks him to replicate another designer’s jewelry. “If someone hands me a picture and says, ‘Make this,’ I won’t even look at it,” he says. “You can’t come to Picasso and say, ‘Paint me this.’ There’s no reason to come to me if you want something that already exists. If it’s already out there, just go out and get it.”
An in-house designer of David’s caliber is a rarity, especially in Texas, and customers pay for the privilege. The store doesn’t sell anything under $1,500, even in silver. One of his signature pieces is the “Flowerfly,” an award-winning tanzanite pendant, on sale for $115,000, and he just finished crafting a custom diamond necklace for $800,000. The recession hasn’t dented his business yet. After a slight dip in sales in November, the store had an even better December than last year. “Everyone feels the squeeze, but people are still getting married and having birthdays,” says his wife, Patti, who handles marketing.
David loves working with colored diamonds, which are exceedingly rare. For every 100,000 carats of white diamonds, there exists only one carat of colored diamonds. In 2005, a red diamond less than a carat in size sold for $1 million. David’s blue eyes gleam like a child’s in a chocolate factory when he shows me his newest acquisition, a 20.98-carat brown diamond. He’ll eventually set the stone into a platinum-and-gold setting and turn it into a showstopping ring that someone like J. Lo would snap up in a heartbeat. In fact, Hollywood does come knocking. For the past ten years, representatives from the Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globe awards have invited David to “audition” his jewelry for celebrities to wear at the ceremonies. Every year, he’s turned it down. “I just never bothered,” he explains. “Maybe someday. It’s probably good for business, but I’m not much for kowtowing. Our work speaks for itself. It doesn’t require a celebrity endorsement to prove its worth.”
In April, David will display many of his pieces, including the brown diamond ring and the Dreamer’s Star, a twelve-point star pendant that David is still fine-tuning, at the Burj Al Arab Exhibition in Dubai. He was one of only two American designers selected for the showing. 12901 Hill Country Blvd, 512-372-8888