LOCALS | JENNIFER BLOT
“He can sell ice to an Eskimo,” says Eric Trabert of Gary Mureta, his next-door neighbor at the top of Fillmore Street.
But Mureta doesn’t hear his friend’s admiring endorsement. He’s busy juggling the demands of what appears, at first, to be a small and sleepy antique store. But the store phone is ringing. Then his cell phone rings. A customer comes in to pick up a massive — and heavy — bronze sculpture. His only employee is due to go on a break. And Trabert, owner of Trabert Goldsmiths, has popped in to say hello.
Mureta walks out the door to talk to someone on the street and leaves Trabert to hold down the fort. But Trabert doesn’t seem to mind. Inevitably he’ll spot something in the golden glow of the store he’s never seen before. There’s a massive vintage silver and enamel Margot de Taxco cameo pendant, a Scottish agate silver buckle bracelet and numerous Victorian gold insect brooches with semi-precious eyes and bellies. Beyond jewelry, the store is brimming with an eclectic assortment of decorative pieces, silverware, sets of pastel colored stemware and oil paintings by 19th century California artists.
Trabert’s shop next door is a contrast in both ambience and inventory. Brightly lit, with high ceilings, its cases sparkle with contemporary baubles: stackable rings, pieces anchored with unusual pastel sapphires, pearl chokers and thin gold bangles. Trabert offers his own designs as well as pieces from about a dozen contemporary jewelry lines.
In any other city, in any other neighborhood, two side-by-side retail shops both selling jewelry might only be that: just neighboring businesses, or even fierce rivals. But these next-door merchants on what Trabert calls “a family sort of street” have become like brothers — swapping tricks of the trade, entrusting one another with shop keys, hiking together in Yosemite and Tahoe or making their favorite day trip to Mt. Tam.
“He’s my little brother I never had out here,” Mureta says.
They met 18 years ago when Trabert was an apprentice at Tom Bergin Goldsmiths, then Mureta’s neighbor. In 2002, Bergin sold the business to Trabert.
Since then Mureta the antique hunter has lured Trabert to flea markets before sunrise, pointing a flashlight at potential treasures while providing the younger goldsmith with an education on what to look for. Although they both love jewelry from the past, there’s no competition. “He’ll find it first,” says Trabert.
Mureta has picked up a few things from his neighbor, too — primarily a better understanding of gemology and the kinds of old pieces worth saving through restoration. Trabert does jewelry repairs for Mureta, offers appraisals and sizes rings for his customers. “I make the sale happen for Gary,” he jokes.
Trabert says the two often play a game where he guesses what Mureta has paid for an object. “He’s trying to learn about the value of the antique pieces so he can compare them with what’s out there in the modern world,” Mureta explains. And the years of guessing have paid off. “He’s gotten better,” Mureta says, “and 90 percent of the time, he’s on the mark.”
Mureta’s childhood love of gleaning antique apothecary bottles from dumpsites proved profitable by the time he was a teenager, when he began peddling his wares — little wooden boxes, old spoons, glass vessels — at flea markets in his native Vermont. When it was time for college, a family friend told him he didn’t need a degree and was destined to be an antiques dealer. He gave college a try, but by 21 he was making a living as a dealer.
Trabert grew up in Los Angeles and, like Mureta, discovered his passion early. In his freshman year of high school, he took a jewelrymaking class and fell in love with metals and intricate detail work. His dad, an endodontist who had similar skills working in wax, encouraged him. Later, Trabert graduated from the metal arts program at Humboldt State University.
Mureta says he and Trabert found their calling early on. Then he reconsiders. “It found us,” he says. “And then we found each other.”
Trabert’s custom works are contemporary but, thanks in part to Mureta, he has grown to appreciate jewelry’s past. “When you talk about quality, you look back 100 years,” he says. “They just made pieces right back then.”
Trabert professes a love of old European rose-cut diamonds and has repurposed a number of Mureta’s finds. Recently, he transformed a pair of 1940s diamond brooches into a pair of earrings with a handful of leftover loose diamonds for future projects. Trabert calls this “upcycling” and says many customers are becoming more interested in eco-conscious jewelry.
Mureta’s store has long been the epitome of “green,” though the antiques business and Mureta’s focus have changed since he opened 32 years ago. In the early days, he sold a lot of antique china, including a full set of Limoges to Danielle Steel within weeks of opening. Today there’s a greater demand for estate jewelry. But one thing that hasn’t changed is Mureta’s love of the neighborhood.
“I think it’s better,” he says. “People are nostalgic. People cling to the past so they reject change sometimes. Look at the availability of stores and the availability of merchandise on Fillmore these days.”
Mureta experimented briefly with selling through the online auction site 1stdibs, but is again focusing exclusively on his store. “My business is very local,” he says. “I am part of the experience. I like to show my merchandise directly to customers.”
Trabert’s clientele is also local, but people around the world can view his merchandise through a well-designed website and popular Instagram feed. His bestsellers are engagement rings and wedding bands.
While both cater to a local clientele of jewelry lovers, they don’t see one another as competitors. “In many ways we’re in the same business,” says Mureta. “But we’re in such different angles of it that we complement each other.”
EARLIER: “People here love beautiful things“