Florida Keys Business
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Rock star
Marathon jewelry shop is unlike the rest

In the old "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral" game of 20 questions, Jerry Kranz has all categories covered.

He collected tropical fish in the waters of the Florida Keys in the late 1950s. He cultivates rare ferns from spores and was the first to discover a particular species of colocasia, or elephant ear, plant in the Caribbean that he named Nancy's Revenge. Finally, with regard to the mineral category, Kranz turns semi-precious stones that he often digs himself into polished, eye-catching jewelry.

Kranz and his business partner Jacquie Hulen have owned J J Jewelry Repair and Gifts in Marathon since 1988, but Kranz has been digging up stones and making jewelry since the 1970s.

It all started with a fun, family gold-panning outing, a popular outdoor activity in California in the 1970s.

When no gold was found, "we started collecting any good-looking rocks, and took them to a shop to see if we'd found anything exciting," said Kranz, now in his 70s, who still gets a glimmer in his eye whenever he talks about any of his favorite topics: fish, stones, plants and adventures.

The first rock-finding expedition had turned up mostly stones of the "leave it where you found it," variety, Kranz said laughing. But he and his family had uncovered some rare howlite stones in the California ground.

The rest became history.

"We started hand-grinding and polishing the stones, making jewelry and then sent a neighborhood kid door-to-door to sell the stuff," Kranz said. "We gave him 25 percent, and he'd come back with an almost empty box."

Kranz, a native New Yorker, had fallen in love with the Florida Keys during his career as a tropical fish collector and aquarist in the 1950s, and he returned to Marathon in 1976 to open his first jewelry shop.

"From 1976 to 1984, I was here in the shop making stone jewelry and doing my own silver work," he said from the shop whose walls are lined with jars of iridescent and captivating opals of all shapes, sizes and colors.

"When I first came back here, I was the only silversmith in town," he said.

Kranz returned to New York for awhile in 1984 and started selling and repairing jewelry up there.

"But I lacked $300 to open my own shop," he said.

That's where the second "J" of J & J Jewelry Repair and Gifts comes in.

"My oldest son was going into the Peace Corps, my youngest was getting married and my ex-husband was fighting me for money," said Hulen, who happened to have $300 to loan Kranz, her friend and one-time boyfriend.

"I made her a 50/50 partner in 1988, and we came back down to the Keys and re-opened the shop down here," Kranz said, pointing to handwritten sign that hangs on the wall.

The sign explains that there are thousands of jewelry stores all over the world, but cautions people that they aren't in one of those.

Jars of Australian and other kinds of opals line the back wall, while boxes of rough-hewn stones invite admiring glances in the front of the shop.

Kranz happily explains each semi-precious stone, and eagerly mists the "box of rocks" with water to demonstrate their potential shine and polish once he has his way with them.

There's brilliant blue lapis, Kranz's own hand-picked, marbled howlite, varying shades of turquoise and hundreds of other color combinations.

"Most things people buy are manufactured and mass-produced, but Jerry does everything here himself," Hulen said proudly. "You can come in here and draw a picture of the ring, bracelet or pendant that you want, then pick the stones you like and Jerry will create it perfectly. No two pieces are alike. He doesn't use molds, so everything is unique."

The business partners recalled clients who have designed their own wedding rings, pendants and other keepsakes.

"When he cuts into a stone, it's like his child," Hulen said while Kranz turned over a piece of howlite to demonstrate the unpredictability of the marbling inside.

As one of the Keys only lapidarists, or stone cutters, Kranz can turn any stone into any size or shape.

The shop specializes in Australian opals, as the sign out front declares, but there are also emeralds, amethyst and every other birthstone imaginable that can become a family heirloom.

Kranz will create the piece in a matter of days using gold and or silver, as well as other types of metal.

But he hasn't abandoned the animal and vegetable categories either. A nursery behind the shop is packed with ferns and other plants of all sizes -- and he jumps at any chance he gets to join the guys aboard Sea Dog fishing charters. Only now, he uses a rod and reel and most of the fish he catches are destined, not for aquariums, but for the dinner table.

"Jack of all trades, master of none," Kranz says modestly.

But one look at the catalog of jewelry he has created proves otherwise when it comes to this Marathon "rock star."

mmiles@keysnews.com

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