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The many facets of an Austin jeweler

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Staff Writer
Austin 360

The contrasting displays say a lot about the store. And the city. To one side, at Benold's Jewelers on West Anderson Lane, rests a complex group of showy diamonds, the largest a little over five carats, set in a mounting of 18k white gold.

In a matching case nearby, plainer stones — blue topaz, citrine and amethyst — in artfully designed settings don't attract the light and fire of the diamonds, but feel more Austin.

"Austin women are not like Houston women or Dallas women," says Milton Doolittle, the store's owner, known beyond the jewelry world for his charitable work. "When things were hard in this town in '08 and '09, there was a social consciousness here that, when I went to big fundraisers, the women I knew who owned significant pieces of jewelry, I didn't see them. ... That sense of ‘I've-got-it-I'm-going-wear-it' was not here."

To hear a jeweler speak in such terms is ear-opening.

"The vibe in Austin is completely different," says Houston-born Doolittle, 65. "I trace it back to the 1960s, during a time of cultural change. ... Austin has retained that independence and devil-may-care attitude that has attracted so many businesses here." While he sells high-drama adornments, Doolittle thinks more about everyday bangles.

His father, retired trucking manager Willie Doolittle, grew up very poor in Slagel, La. The family of his mother, Margaret Jones Doolittle, long ago ran a gristmill on Bull Creek.

Quite by accident, he grew up on Doolittle Street in the postwar South Park section of Houston, before moving to Lake Jackson, set near the chemical plants south of Houston. He graduated with a double major in history and sociology from the University of Texas in 1964.

"I was so lucky to be here during a time of cultural upheaval," he says. "It seemed that Austin just embodied a fearlessness and free spirit that made people want to stay or come back."

After a year in law school, he was drafted into the Army, and spent the last years of the Vietnam War prosecuting court martials at Fort Bliss in El Paso.

On his return to Houston, happenstance led Doolittle to a job with Robert Wander, a New York jeweler who had opened a stand-alone shop inside Sakowitz, one of the city's old department stores. For 10 years, Doolittle managed downtown Sakowitz's Room of Real Jewels.

"The jewelry was big and bold," he says. "Money was freewheeling. It was the ‘awl' business. I'd take a bunch of jewelry to the Gulf Building or Tenneco Building and sell to the big guys. Then I'd go home to my one-room apartment."

Wander transferred him to a Kansas City, Mo., store, but Doolittle couldn't stand the winters. Eventually, he landed in Austin.

That's when he encountered this city's old jewelry establishment. A few families owned the downtown stores and had opened branches in what were, in the 1960s, the far suburbs. Benold's belonged to the Laves family, who started with a shop on East Sixth Street in 1929, then opened an outlet on Burnet Road in 1962. The name was derived from those of brothers Benard and Harold Laves.

Doolittle went to work for the Laves brothers in 1983 and, before long, he was managing all five of their stores. By the 21st century, however, heritage businesses faced competition from big chains. Benold's shrunk to the remaining store on West Anderson Lane, which Doolittle purchased in 2006. The one store thrives, in part, because Doolittle has spent his adult life cultivating the nation's top designers. Along the way, he has provided auction items and leadership for area nonprofits.

"I love finding jewelry that an Austin woman would wear daily, not put in a drawer and take out once a year," he says. "What a waste."

Contact Michael Barnes at mbarnes@statesman.com