Local Jeweler Reflects on a Half-Century Immersed in Art and Business.
A 47-year career might seem like a life lived by design, but Tricia Ruppersburg, 70, says she discovered her passion by accident.
“I fell into it,” she says of her UGA bachelor of fine arts degree in jewelry and metalworking. “I needed electives, so I signed up for an art class and just waltzed in. Today, you have to apply to get into the art department. You can’t do what I did.”
One elective then led to another until Ruppersburg earned her art degree in 1974. Within a year of graduating, she was part owner of Aurum Studios, a downtown business that has been an Athens staple for designer and quality jewelry for nearly five decades.
In the beginning, Aurum was a three-person shop, and the owners made everything that went out the door. “As we grew,” says Ruppersburg, “we bought from other makers who had our aesthetic.” By 1993, Ruppersburg became sole owner.
“Over the years I had more and more jewelers on staff. All had been designers with a particular niche, but they all could do custom or repair work.” One of the elements of her success, she says, has been this stable of onsite craftspeople. “Most stores are lucky if they have one bench jeweler. We had as many as six at a time. Some were with us for more than 30 years.” In the industry, a bench jeweler is defined as an artisan who uses a combination of skills to make and repair jewelry.
As a custom designer herself, Ruppersburg typically featured pieces made in her shop, “We came at it from jewelry school, from the art design end,” she says. This allowed her shop to cater to changing trends and meet the differing tastes of her customers.
“The Aurum style has evolved over time,” says Ruppersburg. “We started out doing very asymmetrical design, but the public wanted symmetrical, so we went to more of that.”
When talking about the longevity of Aurum, Ruppersburg says that she doesn’t really have an answer for how the store survived the ups and downs of the economy. “We just plugged away. I can’t even tell you how. I’m not a planner. I deal with what happens that day and try to figure it out.”
What she’s dealing with these days is the transition of Aurum from her ownership to Lori Slayton Davidson, a former employee of 10 years. Davidson began working with jewelry in her 20s and Ruppersburg says she has plenty of experience to continue to offer customers the unique designs and service they expect from Aurum.
After some renovations, Davidson will reopen the Athens store in July although the Lake Oconee store closed permanently. Ruppersburg says she will be on hand to see that the change of ownership goes smoothly and expects that Aurum will move into its next 50 years without a hitch.
“Initially, I will be helping her out a good bit, but as time goes on, she’ll need me less and less.”
After working six days a week for decades, with limited time off, Ruppersburg is looking forward to spending more time with her family, working on her house and garden, and traveling. As she reflects on a half century of experience, she offers this advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “Make sure it’s what you want to do. You’ll work all hours. It never ends, and it’s hard work. You’re never caught up. You see your business associates more than you see your family. Know what you want to do and go for it. Do a good job and treat people right.”
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it,” she says, nothing that Aurum isn’t just merchandise. “It’s people. All the people I know come here. We made their wedding rings. I made their kids’ wedding rings, and now we’re making stuff for their grandkids.” It’s somewhat ironic that Ruppersburg doesn’t often wear much jewelry. “I love the gemstones and the metalwork. I love the art, but I’m not a bedecked and bejeweled girl.” But, she adds, “I’m glad many people are.”
Kelly Capers is a homesteader who lives with her family in Oglethorpe County. She is a 1984 graduate of the University of Georgia and recently finished her master’s degree in English from Georgia College.