Symmetry of Art and Fashion_lowres

Jewelry designer Alan Hill carefully sets a diamond into a custom setting at Symmetry Jewelers in the Riverbend.

Treating jewelry making as a fine art, the Mathis brothers display creations of their own craftspeople as well as the works of hand-picked artists in a gallery posing as a jewelry store.

Symmetry Jewelers (8138 Hampson St., 861-9925; opened in 1976 as a store that focused on the whimsical engraved pieces of jewelry designers Thomas Mathis and Alan Hill as well as the work of other jewelry artists, many of whom have established national reputations in the succeeding years.

"Symmetry was the first local jewelry gallery in the city to feature artists" as opposed to standard lines of mass-produced jewelry, says Mathis, who owns the store with his brother, Richard, a designer and gemstone consultant. "We evolved into fine jewelry. For a long time after we started Symmetry we went into a fantasy thing." During that period, the shop became known for its graceful necklaces with fairies, intricately detailed marijuana leaf earrings -- it was the '70s -- unicorns and other popular emblems of whimsy.

Although you'll still find a fairy necklace or two -- some of the old designs are popular again -- most of what you'll find are handcrafted, highly articulated and uncommon jewelry in a range of designs from antique estate pieces to contemporary smooth lines to playful gems and beads. What you won't find is anything ordinary.

Although the idea of presenting jewelry in a gallery setting has caught on among other entrepreneurs, Mathis says Symmetry's in-store jewelry design team and expert engravers sets them apart. In fact, Symmetry's craftspeople often are called on to bring other jewelry artists' concepts to life.

"We still remain unique in that we're a gallery and store that still produces the jewelry," Mathis says. "Designers are on staff all the time, except for Saturday when I play golf. When a customer has a piece of jewelry made at Symmetry, it is totally made by hand every single time. I believe that Alan (Hill) and I are the only jewelers in town that, from the sketch to placing the stone, can do every stage."

Customers can choose from prototype designs already produced by Symmetry, have a custom-design made or ask the designers to reinterpret an antique or classic design. Other artists in the jewelry gallery include Toby Rhinehart, Vitrice McMurray, Barbara and Andrej Bielak, Carol Taylor, Zoli, Gerrol Benigno, Soren Pedersen, Timothy J. Cook and others. In their own designs, Symmetry offers rings of all sorts, unique bracelets and a new reversible slide necklace that is gold with gemstones on one side and silver with different gemstones on the other and is available with a chain that also is gold on one side and silver on the other, like having two pieces of jewelry in one.

"Our finished work is up there in quality with Cartier, Tiffany and the master jewelers," Hill says.

Mathis says one of the things that sets his design team apart is that he and Hill are a rare breed of jewelers who still do their own engraving and even apprenticed under an internationally known gun engraver who also made money plates for Australia. The two have honed those skills over the past three decades and now are in demand by other jewelry makers seeking fine workmanship. "We don't send our own stuff out to be done by anyone else, because it's too hard to find people who can meet our standards," Mathis says. "There are almost no hand engravers anymore; they're dying out. And people don't want to apprentice anymore; they want to learn it in a day."

Learning the skill is a long and tedious process, but once mastered it can make all the difference in controlling the outcome of a jewelry design. Customers may not know what makes the difference at Symmetry, but once they examine pieces of jewelry they are aware there is a big difference between this gallery and jewelry stores that carry mass-produced merchandise that is available in a number of different stores.

"We're still doing handmade originals, even when we're making copies of designs customers have brought in," Hill says. "Most are one of a kind."

Symmetry's business has not only survived but grown and matured substantially over the years, mostly by referrals, Mathis says. "We don't do a lot of advertising," he says. "Most of our business is by word of mouth. But once they come in and see the store, that's it."

Because the jewelry designers at Symmetry are constantly creating and refining new designs, the store doesn't publish a catalog, but instead keeps a well-maintained Web site for shoppers who want to browse from afar. "Our things are so constantly changing with custom designs and reinterpretations of antique designs, etc., that a catalog would be outdated by the time it's printed," Mathis says. "We refer people to our Web site, or we can give them a CD of images."