Jewels of the Earth - Page 4

Moved by the natural world, Bay Area artist Milton Cavagnaro nurtured his creative spirit with painting, jewelry and the landscape
Harmony in the Hills
Cavagnaro in the mid-1950s.
Harmony in the Hills
Three unusual pairs of modern earrings created by Cavagnaro in the 1950s. For the photo shoot, Eichler photographer Ernie Braun held the camera, his wife was the model.

It was a two-bedroom house. "We each had our own bedroom," he says of himself and his sister, "and our parents slept on a hideaway bed in the living room."

 "It was hard work, creating new pieces every day and having to crank out stuff," David says, and it took its toll.

"During the period he was doing his jewelry, my father was at his psychological worst," David says. "He started drinking too much. He was a late-night person, and the only time he had to do his design and his jewelry was at night after the kids were in bed."

"Milt had demons he had to deal with," David says. His father could be depressed, often brooded, and could lash out. A few years later Mayreece had enough, and left. They reconciled after a couple of years.

"He was a wonderful person to be around most of the time," David says of his father. "He was a man of few words, but a sage when he said something."

By the end of the 1950s Milt again wanted a change in his life—to landscape design. For years Milt had enjoyed gardening, and was a serious bonsai artist. Mayreece believed the move would be a loss to the art world and asked him, "Don't you owe the world your talent?"

"He said, 'I don't owe the world anything. I am very satisfied with what I've given,'" David says.

"When he finally quit jewelry, it had been exhausting," David says. "All the creative pressure, all the pressure to make a living at it. He had to spend so much time indoors doing tedious, tedious work. He just had this growing urge to get outdoors."

Milt took a job as a gardener at Marin's private Branson School to learn the trade, then at a Sonoma nursery, becoming chief designer. In 1961 Milt and Mayreece moved to El Verano, not far from Sonoma Plaza.

"The same attention to nature's forms and details that had informed his floral arranging, his paintings, his commercial designs, and his jewelry could still be identified in the way he designed with plants," David says. Milt earned more as a landscaper than he ever did as a jeweler, David says.

In retirement Milt took on the look of Santa, with paunch and pipe and a jovial mien, a quiet man who "didn't talk for the sake of talking," Pippin says. On weekends Mayreece hit up garage sales, buying old lamps and the like that Milt would repair and she would sell.

"She financed three or four trips to Europe" that way, Pippin says. Milt, who never flew in his life, would say, "Have a good time with your lady friends."

Shortly before he died of cancer, at age 80 in in 1993, Milt had family and close friends gather round his hospital bed. "He went around the room from one of us to the other, and he told us what each of us meant to him. He was completely at peace," David says.


• View Milton Cavagnaro's 1953 appearance creating jewelry on KPIX-TV’s 'Discovery' program through the DIVA Bay Area Television Archive.

Photography: Pippin Cavagnaro, David Cavagnaro, Ernie Braun; and courtesy Cavagnaro family, Steve Cabella (of, Adam Vincent Wright, Dave Weinstein, Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, California Palace of the Legion of Honor