By Melissa Glarner
Jeweler Larry Martinez remembers the old days of Taos—back when there were competing gas stations at the entrance to Taos Plaza, a different Holy Cross Hospital, and before Michael’s Kitchen.
To say that he is proud of his hometown is a bit of an understatement; Martinez absolutely adores the rich history, stunning landscape, and supportive community that Taos provides him. It is evident spending time with Martinez that he is a deeply contented man who considers himself lucky to have found his place and passions early on in life.
Growing up, Martinez’s first real interest was cars. “I have always been a car nut, with lots of projects and motorcycles,” he says. Being a gearhead—coupled with an artistic bent that was fostered through a high school arts and crafts class—led Martinez to want to study automobile design after graduation. So, off to California he went with the idea of studying at Fisher Auto Body at the Los Angeles School of Design.
As it turned out, car design was not in the stars for Martinez; it was jewelry that beckoned instead. When he returned to Taos in 1969 after a four-year stint in California, he found himself in his bedroom making silver and turquoise jewelry and doing repairs between shifts at his future in-laws’ restaurant. It didn’t take long before Martinez’s early Southwestern pieces garnered the attention of a big traveling art exhibit, “Hispanic Arts of the Southwest,” which later morphed into a book of the same name. Martinez’s inclusion as one of the craftspeople marked his foray into the professional world and stood as an affirmation of his artistic gifts.
The show of contemporary crafts traveled to more than a half-dozen major museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
“It was a shot in the arm to my career,” says Martinez. Quite suddenly, his occupational trajectory was laid before him in way that was undeniable.
Though his early years steered him more toward traditional Southwestern jewelry design, he eventually began incorporating elements of other cultures into his pieces. As a history buff and world traveler, Martinez often references ancient Mesoamerican, Oriental, and Scythian aesthetics in his work. Consequently, his creations possess an elegance that beg to tell a story. Martinez’s “Plumed Serpent Bracelet,” for example, is an intriguing interpretation of the Aztec god of wind and learning, Quetzalcoatl. From one perspective, the precious gem and stone inlay pattern is almost an abstraction; from another, a stunning snake-like creature dances across the cuff.
It’s easy to see why Martinez’s work has been exhibited at world-class museums. The skill he displays in gem cutting and inlay design is impressive. Although much of the technical component of his craft was honed through courses taken at the Gemological Institute of America, it’s Martinez’s tremendous curiosity and dedication that is largely responsible for his professional ascent.
“In studying the Mayan material, I got to the place where I became so engrossed that I wanted to read the hieroglyphs,” he says. “… So I bought a couple of books and began to teach myself.” It’s this level of commitment to detail and subject mastery that makes Martinez’s rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces rise above the rest.
His shop, Larry Martinez Jeweler—Fine Gems and Jewelry, on 822 Paseo del Pueblo Sur has been a fixture in the Taos community since Martinez acquired the business in 1971. In addition to custom work, the place offers a full array of Southwestern pieces, estate finds, and even raw stones. Jewelry repair, however, remains the cornerstone of Martinez’s business. Visitors and locals alike trust Martinez and his staff to fix their most beloved treasures. He jokes, “It’s just like the song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’—you can get anything you want here!”
And, he’s right. The shop’s selection is impressive, especially for a small-town establishment. Concha belts, bolo ties, modern engagement rings, antique diamond pendants—there is something for everyone. The showroom itself is filled with natural light and several of Martinez’s original drawings and paintings decorate the high walls. There are dozens of cases of jewelry to behold, and they showcase a broad range of styles and price points.
As true to Martinez’s instructive nature, displays of real turquoise stones juxtaposed with the fake stuff enlighten guests to the differences. It’s yet another opportunity for the shop owner to express his sincere desire to assist his clients. Martinez goes out of his way to provide good service and to be an informed resource for those around him. He says, “What I have in the store is just a fraction of what I have in stock. I’ll always do my best to help people if they are looking for something specific.”
When he is not helping others, Martinez delves into his custom work. It’s amongst his very favorite things in the world, along with family time, reading, travel, and cars. Martinez says he’s returning to where he once started by focusing more on Southwestern jewelry. He loves it, and it reminds him of his roots. One could say that Martinez’s path resembles that of the ever-evolving town he so proudly calls home: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
TAOS MAGAZINE | JAN/FEB 2017