It all started with turquoise. That was Robert Grey Kaylor's bread and butter when he was a sideline jeweler and busy college student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., in the early '70s. The market for the precious stone was booming, and Kaylor could barely keep up with both his business and his schooling. Something had to give.
"I started getting so busy making jewelry for people that I had to quit going to school and take on the full-time job of making turquoise jewelry," said Kaylor. He worked for a few years at it. Then the boom went bust.
"The big box stores flooded the market with fake turquoise, plastic inlay, just really, really cheap junk," he said. "It just killed the market." In 1978, Kaylor packed up shop and moved to Boise.
"It was total culture shock," Kaylor said. "It was just not very mature as a city." But the entrepreneurial young artist looked around at the Boise jewelry market and knew exactly what kind of store the town needed.
"There was a lot of mom and pop average jewelry stores that [sold] diamonds and watches, but nobody that was specializing in designer jewelry at that time. It was a wide open market, so I just took that opportunity," Kaylor said.
That opportunity became the R. Grey Gallery, and nearly 22 years later it has become one of Boise's premier spots to find one-of-a-kind pieces to dress up some decolletage or adorn a home. Kaylor caught the attention of the Boise community again this July when he moved his gallery from its Idaho Street home of 14 years to its current BoDo location at 415 S. Eighth Street.
The new gallery is a kaleidoscope of designer jewelry, blown glass objet d'art and even hand painted furniture. But it's not all beautiful art; Kaylor's newest business venture has expanded to include developing the cluster of condos above the gallery, spaces which he says are about 80 percent finished. The R. Grey Lofts, 18 in total, are priced from $299,000 to nearly $1 million and range from about 900 square feet to just over 2,000. The lofts are not yet for sale, but a few have been reserved, according to the real estate company's Web site.
The gallery owes its historic flair to the Peasley Transfer and Storage Company, Kaylor said, who built the space in about 1902. Rotting timbers and other problems rendered it nearly condemned a century later, however, so Kaylor pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovation. The building's face alone set him back nearly half a million dollars, but Kaylor said he felt the historic preservation was important. "The cost was around $400,000 to build a steel structure behind [the brick facade] and make sure it didn't fall down," Kaylor said. "Anything historic we could keep, we kept."
That same strict attention paid to the gallery's outside aesthetics was also applied inside. Vaulted ceilings anchor dozens of lights that illuminate opalescent glass jellyfish and ranks of sparkling jewelry cases. Everywhere you turn, art and color are incorporated into the design, including the stained-glass staircase that looks more like a showcase than a means of conveyance.
Kaylor said he's seen the jewelry trends shift away from what he calls a "Scandinavian" style—bright and shiny—to having intricate etchings and designs because of techniques like sandblasting, diamond scratch brushing and stamping. "I find it exciting because texture adds dimension; texture adds interest in jewelry," he said.
Kaylor is just as particular about what he displays as whom he displays. Of the 100-plus artists exhibited in Kaylor's gallery, most are American and use only American-made pieces.
"Ninety or 95 percent of our artists are American," he said. "Everything's made in the United States; even the parts for most everything are made in the United States," he said. "We do have a German line, and we do have a couple of artists from Canada. But we don't have any imported slave-labor-type jewelry. Nothing from Bali, nothing from Mexico; and we never will."
Kaylor said he felt it was important to support the domestic economy and that America was "shooting itself in the foot" by importing from third-world and emerging industrial countries such as China. "We're taking away lots of opportunity for us as a nation to stay on top," he said.
Kaylor says he loves the success of local events such as First Thursday, which he helped start 17 years ago as a member of the Downtown Business Association board of directors. He says he hopes a compromise can be found to allow galleries to serve alcohol on First Thursdays, because the number of visitors declined sharply after the policing started. "When we stopped serving alcohol, the number of people that came in went down considerably. It was amazing," he said. "It's hard enough in retail in Boise to stay afloat."
And he should know. He remembered early days of 80- or 90-hour work weeks that yielded only a mere $500 in take home salary each month. "I can remember getting excited about a $100 sale," he said. But Kaylor said that's the way for most artists. "They start out making a pittance, and it's very humbling."
Kaylor just kept persevering. Soon after he arrived in Boise, he continued his abbreviated studies by apprenticing with a Yugoslavian man he called a "master" jeweler, though he said he does not use the word lightly. According to Kaylor, a master jeweler is one who can do almost anything you throw at them, "and do it well." Kaylor also took classes at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, commuting every few weeks to take a series of intensive classes while someone else ran the gallery back in Boise.
Though he never completed college, Kaylor says that his project with the lofts has taught him a lot about developing, and what not to do.
"It's been an interesting process," he said of the new gallery and loft project, and then, "I'll never be a developer."
Kaylor hints that it will be interesting to see what happens in the next few months with the project. "It ain't over yet."
415 S. Eighth St., 208-385-9337, RGreyGallery.com.