YUMA — Using chisels, torches and wax molds, Lorenzo Chavez transforms metals and jewels into symbols of love, precious gifts and the cherished heirlooms of tomorrow.
Most people may just see jewelry, but Chavez sees what those creations will mean to the person whose hand or neck is destined to receive his wearable art.
And although people pay good money for this Yuma jeweler's work, his favorite form of payment comes from customers' thrilled faces when they see the little black jewelry boxes flip open for the first time.
"Money is not as important as the gratitude of a customer," Chavez said, "that hug or smile or little scream of 'Oh my goodness!' That is beyond the feeling that money can give."
Chavez owns Lorenzo Jewelers, the longtime Yuma jewelry store that moved to a new location in old town Yuma earlier this month.
In a day when so many jewelry stores only sell the work of other artists, Chavez has always preferred to sell creations from his own imagination. In fact, he estimates that at least 98 percent of the pretty things on his shelves were born right there in his shop.
Although he works with all kinds of materials, he especially likes 14 karat gold, white gold and platinum accented with everything from diamonds and opals to South Sea pearls.
"It's kind of sad because I get so attached to them by the time they're done and I hate to let them go," Chavez said.
He estimated that he designs and fabricates about 10 rings in the $200 range each month. The more luxurious pieces, such as a $3,000 ring, number about three or four a month.
Chavez discovered jewelry making in his teens, but by that time he was already used to expressing himself in all sorts of ways.
"At the age of 10, I was writing music, singing, painting and sketching. The abilities were always just there."
While he was attending Kofa High School, a cousin got Chavez a job engraving trophies at a jewelry store.
"That's where I could see this old jeweler working at his bench and I was just fascinated by how he used his tools, his mechanical abilities."
Eventually he was given the chance to polish a few pieces for the jeweler.
"From that point on, it just grew on me," Chavez said, adding that he quickly graduated to fixing jewelry, too. "The jeweler was amazed by my natural abilities. By the end of high school, I was already a jeweler."
Chavez went to a trade school in Phoenix and studied to become a technical illustrator. But he chose to stay with the prior calling, which he realized he could not abandon.
"I put myself through college working at jewelry stores designing and fabricating jewelry."
Chavez eventually attended a gem and jewelry institute in California. He also worked for some of the top stores in Southern California, including in San Diego, where San Diego magazine once hailed him as one of the city's top three jewelry designers.
He moved back to Yuma and opened his own store 12 years ago partly because he was tired of mass-producing pieces of jewelry for stores.
Chavez said he prefers designing custom pieces for customers, who find him locally through the shop and nationally through his Web site. He also makes jewelry for various national vendors.
"Once they start describing the item I'm already fabricating it in my mind," he said.
But Chavez never stopped with his other artistic pursuits. Several of his paintings cover a small wall in his shop. He has hosted several art shows over the years and he has studied with artists in Baja California. Chavez also sculpts in metal, with a good example being the interesting canopy over his shop door.
Chavez also makes wood furniture and sings in a band called Latin Picante.
"I am also a fourth-degree black belt in karate," he said.
But making jewelry is still this man's primary passion, even if he does admit to dreaming about chucking it all for something very different. Chavez says he sometimes thinks about driving a truck, working at Circle K or going for a career in law enforcement.
But then his father points to Chavez's jeweler's bench and says in Spanish: "Zapatero, a tus zapatos," or "Shoemaker, to your shoes."
"He reminds me that I am a jeweler and jewelry is what I need to make," Chavez said. "There is a lot of satisfaction in what I do. So I guess I am exactly where I need to be."