I've been in Boise less than an hour — I haven't even checked into my room — and already I'm bumping into R. Grey Gallery. It isn't a total surprise to see an arrangement of art-glass flowers on the hotel lobby counter, bearing the jeweler's name on a placard. After all, the gallery is just a block away. But it sets the tone for the rest of my stay in Idaho's capital.

"This is really a small community," owner Robert Grey Kaylor and his wife, Barbara, will tell me several times while I'm there. On a quick coffee run, he bumps into an acquaintance. That evening, while the Kaylors are showing me the previous location of the store, five streets up from the current spot, two more friends hail them cheerfully and stop to chat.

But there's also something just plain welcoming, and, well, friendly about the Kaylors and their store.

The gallery exudes pleasant energy, lots of warm browns, golds, and reds, spotted with the remainder of the spectrum here and there. You can't miss the lit half-staircase, gleaming like a long lantern, leading up to the second level. To the right as you enter, a wall of weathered exposed brick runs the length of the showroom. When the Kaylors bought the space, it was covered in unattractive white paint, which resisted attempts to remove it without damaging the soft masonry. "They said it couldn't be done, and I said no, it could be done," Robert tells me. "So I bought a scraper, came down on a Sunday, and in, I don't know, a half hour, scraped a section about like this down to the original brick." He stretches his arms out, showing me.

Day laborers were brought in to finish the rest. The point is, though Robert is so low-key and quiet he can seem shy, he has an assured, even assertive, individual sensibility when it comes to his work.

CRAFTING A FUTURE

"One weekend I went to this outdoor flea market," he says. "I saw this beautiful turquoise bracelet that I couldn't afford, so I decided to make it myself."

He pulled it off — what he'd learned about working with art metals in high school had stuck. "Friends liked it, and they wanted me to make the same bracelets for them, or rings, or whatever. So I started making silver and turquoise jewelry, at the peak of the silver and turquoise jewelry market."

He did so well, he soon quit his job at the sawmill and entered the student-work program at Northern Arizona University, taking metal classes. When the market for silver and turquoise collapsed, Kaylor moved to Boise, in 1978. The choice was fairly random.

"I picked a place on the map, quite honestly," he says. He arrived on a Tuesday, had a job at a warehouse by Thursday, and had relocated and started work on Monday.

And it proved serendipitous. The warehouse owner's father-in-law was Hal Davis, namesake and owner of the town's Hal Davis Jewelers. Once Kaylor found that out, he applied for an apprenticeship there. He spent the next two years learning the fundamentals of goldsmithing.

Then he struck out on his own, doing trade work on the bench for area retail jewelers. For many years, the trade work funded the original R. Grey Gallery, where he showed off his own custom designs.

"I don't miss those days!" says Barbara, who met him in 1984, when she dropped off some jewelry for repair. By 1985 they were partners and married by 1986, dropping off jobs around Boise at the end of each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

That time is long past. Since then, Barbara and Robert have raised three kids — his daughter Lindsay and their twins Nick and Lauren — and R. Grey Gallery has outlived plenty of the jewelers Robert used to do work for, particularly the national chains. But his skills as a craftsman remain an integral part of the business.

Behind the showroom, the store's small kitchen and restroom, and the Kaylors' offices lies a tidy two-room work shop full of top-of-the-line equipment. About 20 percent of the gallery's jewelry inventory is Robert's own work, all of it hand fabricated.

"So every piece is a little bit different. We don't have molds of any of it," he says. "I have all the casting equipment. I just don't use it. Casting is, it's too — what would the word be? It's too common, maybe, to cast a new rubber mold and do the same repetitive design over and over."

He has tried to stay away from using CAD, too, he says. There's something not quite as special when an average salesperson can learn the software, design a piece of jewelry, get the customer's approval, and send it off to be made at a trade shop.

"I think everything's already becoming so cookie-cutter," he says. "People are going to want something they can wear that they're not seeing 20 or 30 of. There's always going to be a place for one-of-a-kinds." They're full of art glass. "They'll just be walking by, and they'll see a piece of glass that catches their eye."

Green came from Portland, OR, by way of Spokane, WA, where she went to school. "I was applying for jobs, and I knew I wanted to go somewhere in the art world, but I wasn't sure exactly where. I drove out here I think the day after graduation, interviewed, sat in a park by the river, and thought, 'This is a pretty cool city!'"

She and the Kaylors work to keep themselves and the gallery's other employees up to date on the more than 130 artists whose pieces fill the store. "Because of all the different techniques, I would say the learning curve is two years before somebody's real comfortable and they know a lot of the gemstones being used, or the metals," Robert says. "It's a whole process."

ART OF THE SALE

Of course, the store's own uniqueness is a function of more than jewelry. Though most of R. Grey's revenue comes from jewelry sales, much of the floor is taken up by the artwork on sale. Art glass — vases, bowls, the aforementioned flowers — vies for space with wooden boxes, frames, wall hangings, and furniture, much of it vibrantly colored. 

The gallery started carrying small art objects at its second location, in about 1989, and expanded its collection to larger pieces when it moved. The Kaylors began selling furniture when they came to the current location in 2007 and finally had enough room. 

One benefit is that all the art makes the store a lot more fun to wander through than an ordinary jewelry shop. There is surely no intimidation factor at R. Grey.

QUICK FACTS
 

Location: Boise, ID
URL: rgreygallery.com
Owners: Robert Grey Kaylor and Barbara Kaylor
Founded: 1986
Opened Featured Location: 2007
Cost of buildout: $500,000 (not including building)
Area: 5,200 square feet
Employees: 2 full-time, 3 part-time
Tagline: "You imagine it. We create it!"
ONLINE PRESENCE:
Alexa Traffic Rank: 14,561,757
Facebook Likes: 82

 

 
     
   
   
     
   
   
 

An outpost of music club the Knitting Factory sits right across the alley behind R. Grey Gallery, and bands frequently mosey over, often befriending amateur musician Robert. He's hung with Joe Walsh, Keb Mo', Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, among others. Jimmie Vaughn traded him a guitar for jewelry. And Pat Benatar's drummer invited the Kaylors to a show in Nevada.

 
     
     
   
 

"Earthworm Farm," an early effort by Robert's band the Busy Digits, which he formed with his brother and two friends about 40 years ago. It's sludgy and trippy and kinda awesome, and might have been composed after polishing off a 12-pack with the rest of the group, the owner confesses. "Sometimes it comes on, and everybody is like, 'What is that?'" says manager Emily Green.

 
     
   
   
 

"Zat you, Santa Claus?!" — The title of the Louis Armstrong Christmas classic is frequently exclaimed by Robert Kaylor, when he decides to share his Satchmo impression with the gallery crew during the holidays.

 

“We have always tried to offer price points for everybody,” Barbara says. Though some of it ranges well into the four figures, the art and furniture offer customers more options, especially in a market where the price of gold, silver, and platinum continues to rise.

“At one point, more furniture was being sold — there was a little peak — because everybody was kind of hunkering down and staying home and buying accessories for their home instead of the higher-end jewelry,” Robert says. (He adds, “That seems to have reversed a little bit.”)

“The front windows catch a lot of people,” says Green. They’re full of art glass. “They’ll just be walking by, and they’ll see a piece of glass that catches their eye.”

Green came from Portland, OR, by way of Spokane, WA, where she went to school. “I was applying for jobs, and I knew I wanted to go somewhere in the art world, but I wasn’t sure exactly where. I drove out here I think the day after graduation, interviewed, sat in a park by the river, and thought, ‘This is a pretty cool city!’”

She and the Kaylors work to keep themselves and the gallery’s other employees up to date on the more than 130 artists whose pieces fill the store. “Because of all the different techniques, I would say the learning curve is two years before somebody’s real comfortable and they know a lot of the gemstones being used, or the metals,” Robert says. “It’s a whole process.” 

STEELING HIMSELF

But the latest thing in process is a step beyond retail. Last year, Robert won the Mort Abelson New Designer of the Year Award at the JA New York show with his RealSteel collection. Now he's gradually preparing to enter the wholesale world, too. The RealSteel designs are almost quintessentially Boise. Crafted from square head nails, set off against gold, silver, and colored stones, they're ruggedly elegant. Just based on the short while I've spent with their maker, I see a connection to him: The look is understated but singular, and magnetic. Right now, Robert and one assistant, Rick, handle all the bench and design work. "Now we're starting to acquire accounts, so I'm probably going to have to hire someone else," he says. "And who knows where it's going to go?" Despite benefiting from the counsel of friends like designer Todd Reed, Robert is still — not nervous, maybe, but bracing himself. "Here we are again, 26 years into our business, and now we're stepping out and taking a little bit of a risk again. But I think it's all about risk and reward. If you don't step out, then you're just not going to expand." It's kind of like hopping into your station wagon and heading west to Arizona. The next day I'm at the airport, checking in. As part of my carry-on, I have an R. Grey shopping bag containing art-glass flowers for my wife and a wooden toy for our son. "Oh, what did you get at Robert's store?" the woman behind the airline counter asks me. Yep, she knows the Kaylors too. And so my visit to Boise ends much as it began. She hands me my boarding pass. "It's really a cool store, isn't it?"


Small Cool No.1 R. Grey Gallery

FIVE COOL THINGS

1. A STEP UP - "We wanted something that, when we're not open, would catch people's eyes when they're walking past and draw them in," Robert says. Thus, the wide flight of steps leading up to the store's second level, lit from within with a golden glow.

2. AN ARTFUL AESTHETIC - Once you're lured inside, it's hard to escape the pull of R. Grey Gallery. Every corner is neatly provisioned with colorful objets d'art or jewelry from the unconventional likes of Alex Sepkus, George Sawyer and Anne Sportun, among numerous others. The showcases were designed by local Idaho woodworker Gary Shue, including a massive circular case holding many of the higher-end lines.

3. WHERE IT'S AT - For snagging passersby, it would be tough to beat R. Grey Gallery's location in Boise's recently revitalized BoDo cultural district. Nestled along a stretch of businesses including other galleries, a baby boutique, vintage shops, a candy company, and an independent Apple retailer, it's steps from dozens of restaurants, the convention center, and the city's bustling Grove plaza.

4. SHOW TIME - Because R. Grey Gallery stocks work by more than 130 artists and jewelry designers, the store holds about two trunk shows every month. The gallery hosts touring exhibits like Thomas Mann's "Storm Cycle: An Artist Responds to Hurricane Katrina," design-it-yourself jewelry and art events, as well as an annual fundraiser for Boise State's metals art program.

5. HEAVY METAL - The roots of Robert's RealSteel collection lie in an art show he was once a part of. "The nails just struck a resonance, because you can work the steel hot and do things with it that generally you couldn't with silver and gold," he says.

QUICK HIT Q&A WITH ROBERT KAYLOR

What was it like to win the Mort Abelson award? I had no idea I was going to win. I got my certificate for the American Jewelry Design Council runner-up award and kinda wandered to the back of the room.

You didn't realize you were nominated for the Abelson award? No. I kept hearing my name, and I said, no, I've already got my certificate!

Do you do much bridal business? Not like some of our competitors. I love bridal, but I don't love it as much as one-of-a-kind pieces and creating from scratch.

Most significant mentor and why:John Poznanovich — he was a true master goldsmith

Advice for a new store owner: Have a sound business plan, a large imagination, and never give up.

Pitfalls to watch out for: Business partners

What question do you wish customers would not ask you? "Do you fix eyeglasses?"

Tell me about your perfect day. Golfing with my son and then dinner with my family

Toughest thing you've ever had to do professionally? Fire an employee

If I weren't a jeweler, I'd: Be a welder/blacksmith ... and musician

Current career goal: To distribute my new jewelry line to 30 galleries or jewelry stores.

 

WHAT THE JUDGES SAY

Maeve Gillies: Everything about this store feels unique. It is colorful, homely, artistic and comfortable. The historic building contributes depth and heritage, but it has been fitted with great warmth and welcome. Every piece featured appears quality controlled and carefully selected to offer something unique. The balance of other art in the store adds to the tapestry effect without overwhelming the jewelry focus. Music and history, hiking and golf, culture and craftsmanship, nationally-acclaimed jewelry by the owners as well as the selected artists ... you just want to be a part of it!'

Stephanie Maxey: Urban and colorful. A passerby would be intrigued by the view through the full height windows dramatically presenting the interior's varied and colorful artwork. The concrete floors are a nice contrast to the textural brick walls. Stylish logo. The advertisements capture your attention because they highlight various artist designs.

Larry Johnson: What a great concept in a unique location. I can see the customer just moving throughout the store exploring every area. A great presentation package and definitely a very cool store.

Ellen Hertz: Love the exterior and the clear sightline the passerby has to what awaits inside. It is not easy to merchandise a very large selection of items in a way that is inviting and isn't cluttered, and this gallery gets it! I love the tie-in with other jewelry designers — not just for trunk shows, but for workshops as well. It is clear that every detail has been considered but, at the same time, does not appear to be over-designed. This clearly is a cool place to be!