Meet Oregon Custom Jewelry Designer Mark LaJoie

When Mark LaJoie, custom jewelry designer for Margulis Jewelry in Portland, Ore., created Sunrise, a necklace centered on a Brazilian lemon citrine so luminescent it almost looks battery-operated, he wasn’t thinking about sales.

“I made it because I had to…for me,” says LaJoie, who’s been creating jewelry for 42 years. “I kept drawing the same thing over and over. I wanted to apply everything I knew into this one piece, then make it come alive in the end as though it was never difficult to make at all.”

Mark LaJoie’s winning Sunrise necklace

LaJoie’s single-minded attention to craftsmanship paid off. The striking piece, which includes an intricately wrought 14k yellow gold setting marked by four fleur-de-lis, recently nabbed a top prize in Designer Jewelry Showcase’ annual Designer Jewelry competition.

LaJoie won designer of the year in the gold/platinum jewelry above $3,000 category, earning him a “modest cash prize,” a cut-crystal trophy and prominent placement of his portfolio on the company’s website, which strives to promote independent designers. LaJoie’s work will also be featured in the company’s annual yearbook of top jewelry designers, which is distributed to more than 6,000 retailers.

As a jeweler whose name “you’d enter into Google and nothing much would come up,” LaJoie was stunned by the win. “I almost threw [my entry] out there like a message in a bottle. So when I got this generic email saying the winners had been announced, I thought, oh that’s nice. Then I clicked on the link and was very, very shocked.” It was the first time the jeweler had ever entered a competition.

Mark LaJoie (photos courtesy of Mark LaJoie)

“We have all sort of jewelry magazines in the store, and I saw the announcement for the contest, and thought, I should be in this,” says LaJoie. “It was just $35 to enter the piece, so I went out and had it photographed. Then I sent it in and forgot all about it.”

LaJoie found the 25 ct. citrine on Ebay and was instantly beguiled by its unusually deep yellow hue. He started playing with the shape of the stone, unsure what kind of piece he wanted to make, when “I decided to be as blank as possible and just draw,” he says. “I kept adding the fleur-de-lis motifs and no matter how much I tried to do something different, I kept coming back to them.”

Then, on his way to work one morning, his motorcycle nearly steered itself off the road. “There was this incredible sunrise,” recalls LaJoie. “It just stopped me in my tracks, it was so fantastic. It triggered the whole process of the piece for me. I thought, let’s try to harness the light in the best possible way in a small piece.”

The inside of the dome-shaped gold piece backing the citrine is finished “as perfectly as possible,” says LaJoie, adding “It’s curved and high polished to harnesses the light and direct it back at the center stone.”

The result: a halo effect around the stone that’s a blend, color-wise, of the gold’s hot yellow and the greenish yellow of the gem.

Though LaJoie’s talents are only now being widely recognized, he’s been working on the craft side of the jewelry business for most of his life. He got his start in high school, when a part-time job at a local manufacturer stirred his verve for design.

“It was a place where all these people were crammed in elbow-to-elbow working,” he recalls. “And I was the only American. I was no threat, so they took me under their wing, and allowed me to ask questions. A guy from Scotland would tell me how he did something, and a guy from Sicily would tell me he does it a completely different way. I was able to glean all the best thinking about how to do things.” Stints working at the helm of manufacturing and repair establishments followed.

Creating Sunrise “was a spare time type of endeavor when I was off the clock,” he says. It’s currently in the hands of a good friend who “looks phenomenal in it,” says the designer, who is considering selling it to her for the cost of supplies.

LaJoie estimates that it took around 100 hours to create the piece, but notes, “I didn’t allow commercial pressure to enter my head space. Maybe I could have made it faster. I don’t know. I don’t care. It was for me.”

JCK Magazine Editor