HARD LANDING: Local Jeweler Was Up a Tree Until He Decided to Come Back to Work

February 22, 2011
Share this story:
Koko has learned that you can accomplish a great deal of work even when you're sitting down.

Koko has learned that you can accomplish a great deal of work even when you're sitting down.

While picking avocados from a relative’s tree on Christmas 2010, Koko Vartanian teetered and then tumbled off a 12-foot-high step ladder onto concrete, breaking his right heel and shattering his left ankle.

Instead of opening bright and shiny Christmas packages, the owner of Rodeo Jewelers in La Verne was accepting a steady stream of get-well cards, flowers and fruit baskets inside his Huntington Memorial Hospital room, where he was recuperating from surgery from Christmas to New Year’s Day.

He didn’t receive any get-well gifts from the California Avocado Board, not even a lick of guacamole. Nor did he want to. If he never sees another avocado, despite the fruit’s delicious taste and well known nutritional value, it’s okay with him. He doesn’t want to be reminded of how it caused his temporary downfall.

He knows he has only himself to blame, that he literally overstepped his authority, that he should never have stepped on that rung of the ladder that warns: “DANGER (PELIGRO) Do not step on or above this rung or step. You could lose your balance”

He stepped on that dangerous step and indeed lost his balance with his outstretched arms trying to haul in one more stubborn avocado.

“People should pay attention to that warning,” Koko said. “When they say, ‘Don’t step,’ Don’t step.” In that one foolish moment, he went from Koko to cuckoo, thinking he was a teenager again who could land like a cat after a steep fall.

For now confined to a wheel chair, Koko is not taking any steps. With his legs dressed in a cast and bandages and elevated to prevent swelling, he is in the middle of about a five-month recovery period.

Koko’s doctors were actually more worried about collateral damage to his knees, hips and spine than to his two feet.

“I was lucky my injury was localized,” Koko said. “The doctors were surprised there wasn’t more damage.”

They didn’t know Koko, however. After about a week back in his La Verne home, Koko starting getting itchy feet and wanted to return to his shop in the new Von’s Center. His wife Lena convinced him that he needed to stay home, but in February, Koko, no longer able to stand his solitary confinement, wheeled himself back in the shop.

“I’m a workaholic,” said Koko, who moved with his family from Michigan to La Verne about two and half years ago. “I had never taken that much time off in my life. It was strange for me. It was new.”

New to him also was turning over the day-to-day affairs of their business to his wife and his oldest son Vatche, 20, while he was recovering. (His other son, Shant — pronounced Sean —  is 10.) “They did a fabulous job,” Koko said in glowing tones. He also brought in a jeweler for a short time to help with customer repair requests.

Now in late February, the shop is once again humming at full activity. In his wheel chair, looking like a mummy from the waist down, Koko nevertheless zips about from work station to work station, designing, drawing, carving and performing other handiwork that is part magic and metallurgy.

“I love this job,” said Koko, now 50. “I’ve been in this business since I was 12 years old.” On holidays when his friends were kicking around soccer balls in Detroit, he was by his father’s side learning the family craft. “In our culture, you learn a trade,” said Koko, who was born in Lebanon before immigrating with his family to America when he was 10.

His time and dedication to his craft show across every ring, pendant and necklace on display in the shop. In particular, he is known for his creative custom work. He also has an infectious sense of humor. One ring that he produced for an NHL hockey player bears a Celtic cross, with the inscription, “God Forgives, I Don’t.”

Another ring, showing influence from his years of living in the Motor City of Detroit, is in the shape of an engine block. Meanwhile, he produced a beautiful pendant in the form of a piston.

Customers bring him an idea or perhaps a picture from an advertising flyer. With that small thread, he weaves his wondrous creations. His reputation for superior workmanship has earned him a loyal and steady following. To ensure trust, whether he’s creating an entirely new design or simply refurbishing an heirloom, he invites clients to come behind the counter and into his workshop to watch him work, soldering, reshaping and polishing.

“Their eyes light up, their mouth hangs open … they’re like kids in a candy store,” Koko said. “I get a kick out of that.  I take pride in what I do, and I’ve been doing it a long time.”

About his creativity, he added, “There’s nothing I can’t do.”

Except, perhaps, standing on his own two feet.

Leave a Reply