James Avery, Creator of a Southern Jewelry Empire, Dies at 96

James Avery, a self-taught jeweler who built a Southern empire selling his creations, the best known of which were religiously inspired, died on Monday. He was 96.

James Avery Artisan Jewelry, the company he founded, confirmed the death in a statement but did not say where he died.

An agnostic for much of his early adulthood, Mr. Avery became a regular church attendee only after the dissolution of his first marriage, though he remained skeptical of some aspects of religion.

He started designing jewelry shortly after marrying for a second time, and by the end of his life religious items like crosses and chalices made up approximately 20 percent of his company’s output, The San Antonio News-Express reported in a 2012 profile of him.

What began as a one-man operation in Kerrville, Tex. — about 65 miles northwest of San Antonio — now employs more than 3,500 people in 80 stores across the South. The pieces are also sold on the company’s website and in Dillard’s stores in 28 states.

Mr. Avery began fabricating jewelry in his in-laws’ garage in Kerrville in 1954, and he quickly found success selling his products through churches on consignment. To keep prices low, he worked primarily with silver in his early designs.

He continued manufacturing pieces by himself for three years but eventually hired more help as demand for his rings, bracelets and other designs grew. After years of relying mainly on consignment sales, he realized he had tens of thousands of dollars in unsold merchandise and decided to open a storefront.

He opened his first store in Dallas in 1973, with locations in Houston and San Antonio following soon after. The business expanded methodically over the years, opening stores in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia.

In 1987, Mr. Avery was commissioned by the Archdiocese of San Antonio to design and craft four vessels used by Pope John Paul II at the Mass he said while visiting the city. Mr. Avery also created replicas of the items, which he took to Oklahoma City to exhibit in his store there.

Mr. Avery turned over control of the company to his sons Chris and Paul in 2007, but continued designing pieces for years after. The company, which remains private and family-owned, continues to perform all the steps of production, from design to manufacturing.

Homer James Avery was born on Dec. 7, 1921, in Milwaukee. He earned a bachelor of fine arts in industrial design from the University of Illinois.

Not long after Pearl Harbor was bombed, on his 20th birthday, Mr. Avery joined the Army Air Forces and eventually commanded a B-26 bomber. He flew in 44 missions over Germany, but the most lasting impact of his military service may have come from his basic training.

Stationed at what became Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, he developed a fondness for the Texas hill country and met the woman who would become his first wife, Mona Pierce, in Lubbock. The couple had two children.

After the war, Mr. Avery taught at the University of Iowa and the University of Colorado, where he began experimenting with jewelry-making techniques.

In 1953, he returned to Texas with his second wife, the former Sally Ranger, with whom he later founded his company.

Mr. Avery is survived by his fourth wife, Estela;five sons, George, Jim, Tim, Chris and Paul; five stepchildren, Tracy Hollin Avery, Lindsey Hollin, Paco Espinoza, Diana Espinoza Robuck and Sergio Espinoza; 10 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. A sixth son, Steven, committed suicide, according to The News-Express.

Although his work was known for its religious influences, Mr. Avery himself was something of a skeptic.

“I’m not concerned about having eternal life at all,” he told the newspaper, adding: “Man will be gone from this planet before too many more years. But while we’re here, let’s be kind to each other and help each other reach out and do whatever we can for each other.”