I Want to Rock

Jewelry artisan Laurel Baker digs deep for inspiration from Florida’s minerals


In today’s modern artisanal movement, the hottest buzzword is “terroir.” Derived from the French “terre,” for land, terroir is defined as the set of special characteristics that geography, geology and climate impart on an agricultural product — in short, a product’s sense of place. Think of the peat moss that infuses a distinctive Scotch whisky, the naturally occurring molds used to craft a good heritage cheese, or the soil and microclimate that imbue complex layers of taste on a fine red wine.

Believe it or not, terroir can apply to jewelry-making as well. And St. Augustine’s Laurel Baker represents one hell of a link between her finished products and their senses of place. Baker, 30, uses a variety of gemstones in her elegant necklaces, cuffs and rings. But it’s her embrace of agatized coral that’s allowed her to build a successful brick-and-mortar presence with Anchor Boutique and a thriving online business that ships worldwide.

Culled from the wilds of Florida, agatized coral is formed when silica-rich groundwater percolates through Florida’s limestone foundation and hardens, leaving quartz formations called chalcedony. The process by which the fossilized coral, often called the Sunshine Stone, is formed takes roughly 30 million years and began during the Oligocene Epoch, when Florida’s landmass rose out of a shallow saltwater sea. But the state didn’t get wise to its natural wonders, naming the mineral its official state stone, until 1979.

Today, Baker embeds vibrant orange Sunshine Stones into leather wrist cuffs, which put an ironically elegant spin on a “rock band” and have earned the attention of Southern Living and Terrain, an outdoor-inspired offshoot of upscale lifestyle brand Urban Outfitters. Equally impressive are the circle-cut pieces of white agatized coral that Baker subtly wraps in wire, or the teardrop-shaped crystals that, when added to a simple metal ring, turn a basic accessory into a bold statement piece.

Baker comes by her agatized coral honestly, too. Her father, John Baker, is a third-generation Floridian and lifelong treasure hunter who’s been professionally excavating, processing and selling the stone, along with countless other artifacts and gems, since the early ’70s. As a child in the ’50s, he first fell in love with hunting agatized coral while exploring the phosphate mines around his native Lakeland. Later, he says he remembers agatized coral being blasted from the ground and piled in trash trucks to make way for the explosion of roads that covered the Tampa Bay area during its mid-century building boom.

After returning from several tours on the front lines in Vietnam, John Baker met his wife, Jeannie, and dived headlong into the treasure-hunting lifestyle. He spent long stretches exploring in South and Central America, satisfying his lust for adventure, learning the metalsmith trade from indigenous peoples, and profiting from what he jokingly calls the “rock ‘n’ roll economy” that predated a crackdown on international smuggling in the 1980s.

After that, with three daughters at home — Laurel has an older sister, Molly, and a younger sister, Danielle — and his wife holding a steady job as a hospital administrator, John re-embraced his Florida roots. Purchasing property in the Florida Panhandle, he emerged as a recognized specialist of the relatively rare and underappreciated agatized coral that abounds in the limestone riverbeds of the Econfina, Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers.

The Baker family lived in Madison until Laurel was 9, when they moved to a modest ranch home on a big piece of property outside Starke. The vast backyard allowed John’s operation to blossom, and he and his wife began working trade shows around the country, including the internationally lauded Tucson Gem & Mineral Show in Arizona.

With literally tons of rocks filling up her backyard, Laurel Baker’s creativity ran wild. She made her first piece of jewelry, a pair of Mexican turquoise earrings, when she was 17. A year later, she enrolled in the University of Florida’s photography program, but after finishing in three short years, she felt uninspired and adrift, disconnected from the resources and support system built into the academic lifestyle.

While working a summer job on the Ocoee River in Tennessee, she fell in love with a musician, joined his band, Smoked Mullet, as a bass player and backup singer, and toured the country, settling down only temporarily in music-centric cities like Austin and Nashville.

“That was fun,” Baker said. “But I was just going where the wind took me.”

After ending the relationship and moving home to Starke, Baker drifted back to jewelry-making, finding comfort in hours spent culling, cutting and cleaning rocks with her father.

“Nothing else really clicked at the time,” she said. “I wasn’t exploring photography, and I had never taken any formal jewelry classes. But I learned from my dad, made the rest up, and once I started making jewelry, I felt self-motivated again.”

In addition to her dad’s influence, Baker acknowledges the help of her mom.

“She always knew I was an artistic, creative person,” she said. “And she really supported me through my 20s while I was figuring out my medium. When I thought I was going to have to go work at Shoney’s, she wouldn’t let me; she said, ‘Laurel, you’re going to do something with this — you just have to keep going.’ She really believed in me and is a big part of my success.”

Jeannie still fawns over her daughter, asking if Laurel disclosed that she graduated summa cum laude from UF and is also a great painter. But more than just being a good mom, Jeannie helped Laurel with some prudent business moves, landing her gigs by showing her jewelry work to some of Starke’s more well-to-do women and urging her daughter to embrace agatized coral.

“It’s not a very well-known stone, even among mineral collectors,” Baker said. “And it comes in endless variations of color, texture and sparkle. It really keeps me on my toes as a designer — what inspires me is working with that material. I’ve never been a sketchbook person — I design things as I make them. Once I start, I’ll know what to focus on.”

Taking a cue from her dad’s own do-anything attitude, Baker began dabbling in amber, agate, amethyst, ametrine and other naturally occurring gemstones. In addition, she developed a passion for metalsmithing, taking particular pride in updating the traditional wire-wrapping method for today’s artisanal world.

“People see wire-wrapping and think, ‘Oh, old women,’ ” she said. “But rather than having the setting dominate the stone, I instead showcase the stone. It’s all about making an old craft new again and having the two materials mesh well together. If wire-wrapping is subtle and understated, it can almost look like moss growing up the stone in a real organic, Florida way.”

Even as she began embracing her role as a “rockhound,” spending several months in Mexico with her father and attending the Tucson gem show with her parents, Baker began tiring of life in Starke. Her jewelry was taking her to Tampa, Gainesville, Miami — even as far away as New York, where she placed her work on the shelves of high-end boutiques. Yet every time she visited her younger sister, who was attending Flagler College, she fell a little more in love with St. Augustine’s bustling cultural and artistic community.

So in 2009, Baker moved to the Oldest City, immediately falling in with other local artists, designers and women business owners. But her most fortuitous connection — both professionally and romantically — was with Ryan Dettra, founder of what is now the Original Café Eleven and former general manager of St. Augustine Amphitheatre.

“He’s really inspirational as far as entrepreneurship goes,” Baker said. “He and I discussed what I wanted to do with my jewelry and how to maintain as a designer and business owner. He made me think, ‘How can I do this and make a living?’ That really helped me build Anchor Boutique.”

Dettra and Baker found an empty retail space on St. George Street, just north of King Street and across the cobblestones from Trinity Episcopal Parish Church. They renovated the entire interior, adding hardwood floors, minimalist shelves, antique fixtures and vintage fashion sketches on the white walls, to turn the space into an elegantly cosmopolitan antidote to downtown’s often-cheesy tourist vibe.

Within months of Anchor’s opening, First Friday Art Walk events in the striking space became one of the hottest tickets in town. The first, in December 2010, combined an exhibit of punk-rock artist Heather Gabel’s macabre visual work with a rare solo musical performance by her partner, Laura Jane Grace of Gainesville punk-rock band Against Me! Over the last three years, Anchor’s combination of sophisticated retail space and intimate, candlelit back courtyard attracted other nationally known artists — illustrator Mai Ly Degnan, painter Susan Steele Meyer, taxidermist Ryan Hanley — along with musicians like Matt Pond PA and Ritual Union.

In addition to gaining experience in the event marketing field, Anchor provided Baker with a workspace, a retail presence and, surprisingly, increased online success. Today, she ships her agatized coral, along with pieces made of leather, yarn, lace, vintage watches, clock components, antique coins and even Spanish buckles, to Canada, England, Spain, Australia and Japan.

“If I hadn’t done the shop, I don’t think I’d be where I am design-wise or have the clientele I now do,” she said. “Having that presence and getting to see people’s reactions to your work firsthand is invaluable.”

Anchor has also cultivated a brisk custom business for Baker, particularly with brides and their parties.

“I feel like I’m really good at judging what people want and either creating or recreating that,” Baker says. “But, at the same time, I don’t stray too far from my own taste. People come to me for custom work because I do what I do well.”

Gabel, who in addition to exhibiting her solo work at Anchor, collaborated with Baker on last year’s Seventh House Collection, agreed.

“When you’re doing visual art, you don’t have to worry as much about people understanding or appreciating your intent,” she said. “You can get away with being vague. But Laurel is in a position where she has to make things that people like, all while doing it in an honest, uncompromising way. And she pulls it off.”

For Baker, the Seventh House collaboration with Gabel, which combined quartz crystals and arrowheads with snakeskins and even animal vertebrae, bore many creative fruits. “Heather pushed me out of my comfort zone, introduced me to her larger audience, and helped me tackle a new process for me: casting.” Essentially the creation of a metal mold, casting allows a one-of-a-kind piece to then be reproduced with its intricate quirks intact.

“I’ve had a lot of success lately with metal pockets made of brass and silver,” Baker said. “Some are boat-shaped, and some are tulip-shaped, but I can make the molded metal pocket over and over again while filling them with different kinds of gems each time.”

Developments in Baker’s life facilitated a relocation and realignment for Anchor Boutique. Pregnant with her and Dettra’s second child (their son, Stetson, turns 2 in August), she decided not to renew the lease on her immaculate St. George Street address, opting to rent a far cheaper studio space on West King Street.

“As a business owner, you have to evolve,” she said. “And for me, being an artist first and running a retail shop every day was becoming too much. Plus, I raised Stetson in the shop, and I can’t imagine doing that again. So I had to downsize. But I’ve got an established clientele, a good following, and so much work lined up — I can’t stop making stuff.”

How she makes that stuff is perhaps the most compelling aspect of Baker’s story. After a Sunday-morning drive to her parents’ house outside of Starke, she came to their expansive backyard, which resembled the bustling innards of a geological museum. Baker’s mother jokingly called it “The Boneyard,” though the ragtag collection outside was balanced by meticulously arranged cabinets of rare relics and extraordinary artifacts inside. Baker pointed out a massive rusted anchor, salvaged from a 19th-century warship off the North Carolina coast and traded to her father for a diamond, and said, “Now you know where the name comes from.”

Next to the anchor was a car-door-sized piece of intact Mexican riverbed, with hundreds of piles of rocks in every color, shape and texture stacked nearby. Closer to the house, scattered among a collection of workshops, sheds and lean-tos, were her father’s lapidary machines: industrial-sized tile-cutters, grinding wheels, trim saws, wet-blade setups, flat-top polishers and pressure washers, all modified to withstand the rigors of regularly cleaving raw chunks of rock.

Baker said she drives to Starke at least twice a month to peruse her dad’s constantly fluid inventory, choosing 20 or so large stones that she then cuts into hundreds of smaller pieces. Baker’s usual bearing — refined, classy, fashionable, put-together — is at odds with the image of her hunched over a terrifying tile-cutting blade, whirring loudly while soap and water, integral to the blade’s use on rocks, flies through the air.

Baker’s father, gruff and genial with a thick drawl and a perpetual cigarette between his lips, hovered over her shoulder, checking water pressure gauges and offering his leather apron for protection. But she shooed him away with a slightly annoyed, “I got this, Dad,” even though later, on the drive back to St. Augustine, she said, “Any time I have a problem, I call him up and say, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ”

But while combing through gemstones and operating industrial-strength machinery that would make most grown men cower, “wrong” didn’t seem to exist for Baker. She admitted to making things up on the fly — and thriving on that spontaneity.

“My intentions emerge when I’m cutting,” she said. “It all happens in the field, and it’s all about that material: how much surface area a stone has, what can be cut away. … Each stone lends itself to a certain shape, and you have to keep true to that. It all comes out in your materials. That’s how people know you’re the real deal.”

And everyone, from customers to shop owners to contemporaries, is noticing. Gabel raves about how Laurel has “stepped up her work so much since I first met her.” Lara Kocerka, who owns Declaration Boutique on San Marco Avenue and will open Hello B a few doors down next month, concurs.

“Laurel’s jewelry is inspired and created with a true artisan’s touch,” Kocerka said. “She has a great following in St. Augustine for her designs and vintage aesthetic, and her pieces are staples that a woman’s jewelry collection is built upon — handcrafted and timeless.”

At Hello B on May 25, Baker will debut fresh designs of her own, along with an exclusive collection of gold-inspired pieces to be carried in the new store. She hopes it will give her fans and those curious about Anchor’s relocation a nice introduction to her reinvigorated work. She also said she’s excited to work with another of St. Augustine’s female movers and shakers.

“Lara and I started our businesses at the same time and grew together over the first two years,” Baker said. “And there are so many other women in their early 30s taking things up a notch here in their respective fields: Jenna Thorpe with Philosophie Salon, Amy Fretto with The Conservatorie … St. Augustine’s really a place that rewards ambition and entrepreneurship, and we’re all reinventing things that are contemporary yet beautiful — not like the stuff you’ve seen before.”

Baker also plans on having a second run of the Seventh House line with Gabel available this summer, a project that both women say will push them even further beyond their respective comfort zones. Gabel, who’s exhibited in galleries around the world, said that, in Baker’s evolution, she sees the makings of a fierce new artistic force.

“Laurel’s from Florida and stays true to her history and her artistic vision,” Heather said. “But she offers people in St. Augustine very cosmopolitan pieces that you’d normally find in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. She busts her ass — as a working mother and business owner, I don’t know how she does it. I guess she’s carrying her dad’s torch in a way.”

“People use the word ‘delicate’ a lot to describe my pieces,” Baker said. “So with my new work, I’m trying to take things in a bolder direction. It all goes back to that term ‘rockhound.’ It [denotes] older guys who specialize in collecting, cutting and polishing certain rock specimens. But I have fun dealing with them; I definitely take advantage of my feminine aspect, showing up to gem shows looking my best while also saying, ‘Come on — give me the best deal on this rare Tahitian pearl here!”

“My dad would classify as a rockhound,” Laurel Baker said. “And I guess I’ve become one, too, in my own way. Just a newer version.”

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