Zack Johnson, son of Jane and the late Bob Johnson, might look a lot like his father and share the same talent for designing beautifully matchless pieces of jewelry, but he is not walking in his father’s footsteps per se; instead, he’s creating a style that’s distinctively his own.
“I would define my style as natural or organic in nature,” Johnson said, vice president of R. M. Johnson and Sons, a family owned jewelry store located on College Avenue in Salem.
Many of his designs contain what he calls “drips,” which are basically created by dripping liquefied metals that cool into unique shapes and designs depending on the method of cooling. “Drips are naturally formed,” Johnson said. "It just forms itself, and you have to work with what you get.”
Johnson then takes the stalagmite-shaped pieces and fits them together and adds gem stones or other adornments to create one-of-a-kind designs uniquely his own.
Johnson learned to create drips while spending time in the shop with his dad after school and on weekends. “When we were in the store across the street, I would come to the shop after school and we’d make things,” he said.
One such piece, a silver sword with a blue stone at the base of the handle, is one of many castings that Bob created. Zack proudly showed off the boxes of wax molds that his dad had uniquely designed and carved to create perfect custom pieces for his customers, which are still used today. “I’m glad that I can carry on the tradition and follow in his footsteps, so to speak," he said. "Just like my dad, I work during the day but come down to the shop at night to be creative.”
Being jeweler wasn't Johnson’s first career choice. “I wanted to study criminal justice,” he said. After taking classes for a while at Virginia Western Community College, he knew that that field of study would not be his path. He had already been working part time in the store and wanted to learn how to do what was required as a jeweler. For a year, he studied as an apprentice under master jeweler Mark Overfelt and quickly picked up the necessary skills in addition to forging a great friendship with his mentor.
Johnson has discovered that he is passionate about making custom pieces out of existing “junk” that would otherwise be tossed or hidden away. “It’s fun to be able to make something new out of melted down metals or old parts to broken things,” Johnson said. Computer parts, copper wiring, silverware, old watch faces — all these and more can be upcycled into something new that is distinctly individual.
“I love custom jobs, especially when it’s not my material that I’m using but sentimental pieces that have been handed down ... but not otherwise worn,” he said. Often, jewelry is inherited only to sit in jewelry boxes or family safes because the style may be dated or perhaps it’s missing a stone or two. “People drop off old rings and bracelets and when they come back say, ‘There’s no way that’s what I brought in,’” Johnson said and laughed. “It’s rewarding to be out and about and see people wearing pieces that I’ve made.”
More often, divorce leads to orphaned bridal sets. One such set was brought in recently by a woman who requested that Johnson melt down her rings and remake them into something new and beautiful for her daughter. “There’s a certain stigma to bridal jewelry after a divorce,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to be able to take something from a tragedy and remake it into something happy.” The daughter, Taylor Duncan, was so thrilled with Johnson's design that, after receiving it, she came into the store to personally thank him for making such a stunning pendant for her.
Just where does Johnson see himself in a few years?
“Obviously, progressing,” he said. “I can see myself maybe moving toward a more traditional style.” Of course, serving the community is also a Johnson family tradition. “Bob was so well respected within the community and within the jewelry industry across the state, earning accolades and winning design awards,” Jane, a Salem councilwoman, said of her late husband. “I’m encouraging Zack in that same way.”
One of the many ways that R.M. Johnson and Sons gives back is by each month presenting a watch to the Salem Red Sox player who completes the most community service for that month; which is especially fitting since Johnson's first job was working as a bat boy for the then Salem Avalanche. Johnson will also have the honor of presenting the Salem Education Foundation’s Bob Johnson Memorial Scholarship in memory of his father to chosen Salem High School lacrosse players at a banquet later this month. Bob, a coach and avid supporter of the lacrosse community, passed away suddenly in June 2005.
“It’s such a blessing; it’s like a dream come true,” Jane said about having Zack join her in business. She admitted that she will come around the corner and see Zack wearing his eye protection while intently focused on his work and at that moment, he is the image of his father. “It’s like keeping his memory alive,” she said, smiling.