A Toast to an Unusual Partnership

Once upon a real time, a theologian and a winemaker met in the woods. They quickly discovered a mutual passion for art and antiquities and thought it would be fun to make beautiful jewelry together. And so that’s what they did.

A strange little tale, for sure, with no fairies, goblins, or witches who spin straw into gold. And the tale is far from over. In fact, it’s only just begun.

Oregon jewelry designer Liesl Karin Wilhardt has a master’s degree in theology from Harvard University. Obviously, she’s studied the meaning of life and destiny a bit more than the average person. Even so, she still could not have guessed she’d discover her own destiny on a wooded running trail where occasionally she would stop to chat with another regular jogger. He turned out to be Ed King Jr., president of King Estate Winery. The estate, a 550-acre vineyard outside Eugene, Ore., has been touted by wine critics from the Wall Street Journal, “CBS This Morning,” and Quarterly Wine Review magazine as one of the most up-and-coming wineries in the United States. Its pinot gris, pinot noir, and chardonnay are considered prime jewels of the burgeoning Oregon winemaking industry.

Ed King is an entrepreneurial visionary, with degrees in both law and business. Not content to stop at the success he’s achieved thus far, he envisions King Estate expanding beyond winemaking into a world-class luxury goods firm, à la the great European houses like Bvlgari and Hermès. Though the estate has already made a logical expansion into gourmet fruit jams, herbs, potpourri, and other gifts from its gardens, King – rather like an all-American Bernard Arnault – sees room to grow into other product categories of an upscale lifestyle. (Arnault, chairman of French-based Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, successfully parlayed an old-line luxury leather maker and an upscale purveyor of fine champagne and liquors into a global conglomerate of luxury products including apparel and giftware.) King feels areas such as fine leather goods and fine jewelry are a good fit, with one condition – that they be made in Oregon.

Enter Liesl Wilhardt. When King discovered the young theologian’s true passion lay in art and design and that they both shared an interest in unusual antique jewelry, one thing led to another. The two became partners in Wilhardt & King Jewelry Design in 1997. A scant year later, Wilhardt & King was named New Designer of the Year at the July 1998 Jewelers of America Show in New York.

King encouraged Wilhardt’s idea to develop a line of jewlery inspired by classical art and architectural forms as well as floral and geometric patterns. Her initial concept rapidly grew into groupings of rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and cufflinks, in both literal and figurative interpretations of architecture. For example, a series of stacking rings can change from “Old World” to new world with a simple change in ring combinations. Some, worn together, create an actual miniature Greek or Roman column. In combination with other rings in the series, the look is sleek and modern. And, of course, each ring is a design complete within itself and can be worn individually, Wilhardt says.

“I began with the same single-minded purpose that the King family had for its winery – to produce a high-quality specialty product in a little-known location not yet famous for its wine or jewelry!” She now has her own workshop of goldsmiths, located not far from King Estate, in the lush hills overlooking the Lorane Valley.

Wilhardt’s designs are primarily 20k gold, an unusual alloy that she favors for its feel and color. She often uses platinum as well. Each piece is handmade, frequently incorporating cabochon-cut colored gemstones, pavé diamonds, and pearls.

“The foundation of my design is the platinum or gold and the patterns in the metal, enriched by the use of fine gemstones and pearls for color, highlights, and variety.”

Partner power. Wilhardt acknowledges that she has little interest in the business and marketing side of jewelry. This is where the King part of the partnership comes in. King Estate is very involved in its own community, providing wine and its estate grounds for fund-raisers and service events. As part of Wilhardt & King’s promotional plans, the winery is interested in participating in jewelers’ in-store holiday parties, charity events, and other promotional or goodwill activities. Wilhardt, in addition to making personal appearances, will host product launch and training seminars for store sales associates, and provide 4 in. x 6 in. color postcards for retailers to mail to customers. Consumer catalogs are slated for this fall.

The firm’s biggest promotional plan is a sales contest it hopes will excite store sales associates. The contest runs through the fourth quarter of 1998 until Jan. 15, 1999. Associates of participating stores who sell the most Wilhardt & King jewelry will win a weekend getaway for two at the guest cottage on the King Estate Winery grounds. All airfare and travel accommodations will be free.

The two-story lakefront guest cottage looks out over the winery and gardens, and the guests will have all meals prepared by the estate’s on-site gourmet chef – accompanied, of course, by plenty of King Estate wine, especially the pinot noir, pinot gris, and chardonnay that made it famous. The second prize will be a case of King Estate wine.

To participate, jewelers must sell a minimum of $5,000 of jewelry during the contest period, and send copies of all sales receipts to Wilhardt & King by Jan. 29. Contest winners will be announced the first week of February.

“Both King Estate and Wilhardt & King are companies that appreciate and promote the finer things in life,” says Wilhardt. “Fine wine enjoyed at quiet dinners or special events, and beautiful jewelry given as tokens of love, contribute to the traditions and memories that enrich our lives.

“I’ve noticed that when people mention a bottle of good wine, there’s often a story that goes with it – a remembered place, party, or person who shared it. Likewise, part of the magic in heirloom-quality jewelry is the spirit in which it is given, held, and handed down.”

Even without witches and goblins, it makes for a good story.