An adventure in art

To say Bernard Reller has had a colorful career is an understatement.

From college physics major and pilot, to anti-war activist and treasure diver he’s been involved in enough pursuits to conjure a lifetime of stories. But it’s his work as a jewelry designer and second-generation gold worker that’s earned him his real fame.

An award-winning jeweler, Reller has developed one of the largest collections of nautical-themed jewelry in the world, even crafting some pieces from sunken treasure itself.

He learned the business from his father, Marcus, a master craftsman in Vienna who escaped Austria after the Nazi occupation. Marcus eventually settled in Miami where he developed a reputation for fine gold work.

“My dad was a consummate professional and he took his role as a jeweler very, very seriously,” Reller says. “His specialty was as a case maker: cigarette cases, little boxes with tiny hinges and locks that have to fit together precisely.”

Reller got involved in the business because his father needed someone to do the business’ lost-wax casting, a process through which jewelers craft a wax pattern then replicate it with precious metal.

Very quickly, Reller expanded his casting business by doing work for emerging avant-garde jewelry designers in the Miami area, and he began to come up with his own designs, which were often nautically themed.

“So I made a nice reputation for myself … in Miami, and I got a lot of this business because I could sort of speak the same language that a lot of these young jewelers were speaking. [They] were doing outrageous things,” he says of their non-traditional designs.

In addition to producing cutting-edge jewelry for clients, Reller was experimenting with his own style, including his first commercial success: a shark head reminiscent of the movie poster for Jaws.

But, he says, “My dad didn’t like the notion of detailed, difficult-to-finish art castings.” So Reller amicably decided to strike out on his own, first working in Miami and eventually establishing a studio in Gainesville, where he had earned his bachelor’s degree in physics.

The Move to Marine Themes

Reller settled in Gainesville 28 years ago and quickly took several steps that helped expand his business. A significant one was his concentration on nautical-themed jewelry. Reller had spent time in the Caribbean as a diver and explorer and he decided to develop a full line of nautical-themed jewelry to market to his friends in that area.

In addition, after the discovery of several treasure-laden shipwrecks, including Mel Fisher’s Atocha, Reller was commissioned by some well-known treasure salvors to create unique settings for some of the gold and silver coins found on the wrecks.

His nautical collection has continued to grow over the years and now includes a new wave of pirate-themed jewelry that can be marketed to both motorcyclists and pirate fans.

“They’re something a lot of people gravitate to, because they’re a symbol of personal freedom, and outrageous behavior, and serious partying, and manly adventure,” Reller says.

In another smart marketing move, Reller decided to capitalize on Gainesville’s own treasure by creating Swamp Gold, a collection of licensed Gator-themed jewelry, which is a marketed on the Internet.

He also developed ForeverFit, a patented self-sizing ring that accommodates a woman’s changing ring size as well as helping people with arthritic joints wear rings.

Multi-Channel Marketing

Reller uses a variety of channels to market his work. He sells to fine jewelry retailers, department stores, boutiques and gift stores, markets through galleries and most recently added direct-to-consumer sales over the Internet. He operates a general website—rellergold.com—and also has set up a Gator-specific site.

“A few years ago I decided to reach out to the Gator Nation with Swampgold.com,” Reller says.

In addition, Reller has parlayed his various interests into new niche markets. He became interested in sport aviation in high school, and now creates extremely detailed renditions of aircraft and other aviation-themed accessories to market to aviators.

“I understand the marketplace and imagery a little bit,” says Reller. Indeed, he understands it so well he won the Daedelus Award for Excellence in Craftsmanship at the 2003 aviation art competition at Kitty Hawk’s Wright Brothers’ Centennial Celebration for his 14K gold sculpture of a futuristic Wright Flyer.

Finally, close observation of changes in the market has helped Bernard to adapt. For example, gold prices have increased dramatically in the wake of the recent recession and a new kind of jewelry is taking off: charm beads. These small silver beads have various themes, with Reller creating ones for UF, various Florida cities and now different Caribbean destinations with nautical-themed elements.

“Charm beads. That’s my really big growing area right now,” he says. “That has put the business into a growth phase again even while the economy has been contracting.”

“By focusing on a small niche of [of nautical-themed jewelry] we’re able to make our own luck,” Reller says. “And by being nimble, we’re able to adapt to the marketplace relatively quickly.”

New Direction But Old-Time Quality

Though Reller has embraced new technology, he still holds tightly to the traditions his father taught him.

As a member of the Vienna goldsmith’s guild, Marcus impressed upon his son the importance of ethical practices, which Reller has continued.  “I now have a 75-year family reputation to maintain,” he says.

In addition to creating quality products, Reller tries to remember his father’s advice that “it is easier to maintain a relationship with an established client than to try to start a new relationship.”

This is why he often travels to the Caribbean to maintain relationships with his customer base there, including several month-long sail-boating excursions to meet with clients and market his jewelry.

With silver taking off and the growth in his various lines, Reller says his business is at a stable point where he can focus on maintaining his customer base in the Caribbean and developing his designs, which are his first love.

“In fact,” he says, “it is pretty much to the point where I’m not really required for the day-to-day operations, and I can just concentrate on design. It’s become kind of play for me.”

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