Peter Te went to Southwest Texas State University to earn an accounting degree. It was a clear road to a good living, and, up until his last semester, he was sure his future was in crunching numbers.
“Yeah, but as it got closer to graduating, I didn’t want to spend my time in an office,” said Te, reflecting on the decision he made 16 years ago.
Te’s father, Savuth Te, invited him back to the family-owned jewelry store that has been on the Burnet square since 1984. Peter already had work experience in the store, including learning to make jewelry, so it was the perfect place to be as he contemplated his next career move.
That was in 2004, Peter recently recalled as he stood behind the counter at Savuth-Te Jewelry at 230 S. Main St. in Burnet. Although he assists customers alongside his dad, his heart is in the jewelry he creates: pieces of art that become heirlooms.
“I like working with my hands,” he said. “I like taking an idea, maybe something a customer wants, and making it. It’s a sense of completion.”
When a customer comes in with a project, Peter explained, it is usually a one-of-a-kind piece. In a time of cheap, mass-produced jewelry, people still seek that sense of connection and legacy they get from a handmade item. That’s where the father-and-son team shine.
The work is challenging. As an artist and jewelry maker, Peter conjures up an image based on the customer’s description. Sometimes, people bring a photo of a similar piece. Other times, they have a sketch or a verbal description.
The true shape and makeup of the jewelry come together in Peter’s mind.
“That’s what is challenging and enjoyable to be here, coming up with new designs,” he said.
Jewelry making is both an art and a craft. Savuth Te learned it while living in his home country of Cambodia, which he fled in the late 1970s when the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime took power. He discovered Burnet through a relative and began working at the dry cleaning store on the square, which is just a couple doors down from where the jewelry shop is now. Savuth also repaired jewelry in Marble Falls, Austin, and the surrounding area.
The dry cleaning store set up a small display case where Savuth could show and sell his own designs. In January 1984, Savuth and his wife opened their own shop on the square, where they still operate their business.
Creating fine jewelry requires painstaking attention to detail. After Peter or Savuth come up with a design, they create a mock-up for a mold. Silver or gold metal is poured into the mold, serving as the base. This often requires intricate soldering to connect several pieces. If the creation calls for stones, they place each one by hand.
Savuth and Peter also make jewelry from their own designs. One of their most popular features a bluebonnet set in a silver or gold Texas outline. They offer slightly different designs of bluebonnet jewelry, including pendants, earrings, and necklaces.
Sometimes, they create just for the pleasure of it.
“It’s fun, you know, when I can just make something,” Peter continued. “I get to try different things.”
Another important part of the job is the trust of their customers.
“We’ll have customers bring in a piece of jewelry that belonged to a grandparent or a parent, and the style doesn’t fit their style,” Peter said. “They’ll ask us to create a new piece from it, you know, something that fits their style better.”
Using another piece of jewelry to start from, Peter explained, is more challenging than working from scratch because, as a jeweler, he wants to create an exceptional piece, but one that still reflects its origins.
It takes a lot of trust to leave an heirloom with a jeweler to be molded into something new, and Peter and Savuth take that responsibility seriously.
The fact that people turn to him and his father with such requests is a reflection of the reputation Savuth-Te Jewelry has built over its more than three decades in Burnet. While people can go to big stores in Austin or order online, Peter said customers still crave a personal touch.
“Customer service is still important, and it’s something we really try to do here,” he added.
Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Peter and his dad create some amazing jewelry — true works of art that can be handed down for generations.
Savuth-Te Jewelry is located at 230 S. Main St. in Burnet. Call 512-756-8429 or search for @savuthtejewelers on Facebook.