Rocking Away The Retirement Years


George and Vicki O'Brien never planned on rocking away their retirement years, but that is exactly what they're doing.

Rocks, and the tools to turn them into original jewelry, almost fill more than half of what once was a two-car garage. Plus, George built a separate shed expressly for the purpose of cutting slabs from the rocks and cabbing -- making the cabochons or finished stone pieces -- for the jewelry Vicki makes. They also have done a lot of landscaping with their rock collection.

Vicki took up jewelry-making first.

"My neighbor was taking a class at the college and invited me to come along," Vicki said. "I was bored, so I went with her and decided it was something I could do."

Vicki enrolled in the class, which is taught by Steve Brookhart at Gila Community College.

"After the first semester, he didn't think I'd come back," Vicki said. "It was a disaster, I melted everything I touched."


George O'Brien shows off one of the many treasures in the rock collection he and his wife, Vicki, have created over the years.

She admits she was very frustrated, but she was also determined to master the craft. Brookhart was a good teacher, too, she said, and kept things very relaxed.

About midway through the second semester, things finally came together for her and she was able to make bracelets and money clips for the attendants in her daughter's wedding.

That was seven years ago and now Vicki is ready to do her first show. She will demonstrate silversmithing at the Seventh Annual Gem and Mineral Show this weekend at the Tonto Apache Tribe's gymnasium. She also plans on selling her jewelry. The show is sponsored by the Payson Rimstones Rock Club. George is the club's president.

A couple of years ago, when she felt confident enough to start selling her jewelry, Vicki told George her hobby would be much less expensive if he did the lapidary work for her.

George looked into it, and with the help of mentors Ed Condit and John Colbert, he has become very knowledgeable about rocks and minerals and an expert cutter -- all in just about 18 months.

"They are just beautiful," Vicki said of the slabs and cabochons George makes. In fact the cabochons are so beautiful, George has found a market for them among other jewelry makers.

He made the equipment he uses and even developed his own formula for polishing the finished cabochons.

Retiring from high-rise construction in Detroit, George has also been the one to remodel the garage for Vicki's jewelry work, and has built display shelves which fill an entire wall to house their rock and mineral collection.

While the couple participates in the Rimstones' field trips, very little of what they find can be used in the jewelry. Most of their display and the pieces they use for the jewelry have been bought from other collectors. Some of the rocks were also given to them.

"The majority of the sites are gone now," George said. The caves and mines are closed or the ground has been picked over or gone into development."

The silver Vicki uses is purchased from an Indian jewelry supply house in Gallup, N.M. Some jewelry makers use findings, silver already fashioned into bezels -- the metal piece that holds the stone in place -- chains, bracelets, etc., but Vicki makes her own.

"If it is a finding, it is not an original. There will be another 100 out there. I make my own," Vicki said.

"She stamps it with a dolphin," George said.

Vicki's process for making jewelry starts by looking at the rock collection in George's workshop.

"She comes in and picks the rocks she wants me to cut," he said.

"The rocks tell you what they need to be (made into)," Vicki said.

George cuts the slabs, traces the cabochon designs on the slab, cuts those out, smoothes and polishes them.

Next, Vicki wraps the bezel around the stone to shape the metal, removes the stone and solders the bezel. She puts the stone on an ultra thin sheet of silver, traces the shape, removes the stone, saws out the shape and solders the backing to the bezel. Then the metal is filed and polished.

The final step is to place the stone and crimp the bezel over it to secure it.

If the stones have a translucence to them, the backing is not used.

George can make about 16 cabochons in a day, unless he is doing a free-hand design, which takes quite a bit longer, as do heart- and cross-shaped stones.

Vicki can make about six pairs of earrings in a day. Her largest pieces are the bracelets.

Besides creating her original designs, Vicki will also do special orders.

"That's harder because you really can't be sure what the customer has in mind," she said. Vicki will be taking orders for jewelry at this weekend's show too.

The seventh annual Gem and Mineral Show, presented by The Payson Rimstones Rock Club is 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 9 and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 10 at the gymnasium on the Tonto Apache reservation. Admission is $3 for adults, but $1 discount coupons can be found around town, reducing admission to just $2.

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