William Travis Jewelry has been a fixture in Chapel Hill for more than 15 years. Behind the success is William Travis Kukovich, an award-winning jewelry designer with a pedigree in metalsmithing. Kukovich is a fifth-generation metalsmith who became a bit of a prodigy in the jewelry industry when he won the highest award in his profession at the age of 26.
He has now won 17 AGTA Spectrum Awards, but his road to success was not an easy one. He was born into an immigrant family who urgently wanted to assimilate. They believed there was nothing worse than being a German-speaking Jew in the United States. Kukovich was virtually abandoned by his father when he was four months old, and he and his six siblings were no strangers to free-lunch programs and government cheese. He suffered a tragic accident at age 4 which diminished his reading abilities but may have accelerated his artistic prowess. Kukovich believes it gave him the vision to create unique pieces for his clients. He joins host Frank Stasio to share his journey and life philosophy that saying yes has consistently moved his life forward.
On his family immigrating from Europe to Kansas:
They were Polish Jews and spoke German. I remember as a child my grandmother saying to me ... She said: We’re two of the worst things to be in the United States. We’re German-speaking Jews. It was really something that we hid.
On being raised by a single mother as one of seven children:
We were very, very poor. I’m sure you have listeners out there who remember government cheese. And I can tell you that we were happy to get government cheese. We were thrilled. We couldn’t believe it. Cheese sandwiches. Cheese toast. Tomatoes and cheese.
On finding his career path early in life:
I’ve know what I was going to do since I was 12 years old. I’ve always known. I didn’t realize how lucky I was until I got into my mid-30s, and a lot of my friends started quitting their jobs and going back to school or starting new careers. And I said: What are you doing? And they said: Well, we don’t like what we do. We hate this. And I thought: What are you talking about? I just assumed everybody loved what they did the way I do.
On how a chance meeting with Orlando Bloom on the set of the movie “Main Street” led to working with Miley Cyrus:
One of them in props came to my store and said: Do you change watch batteries? … I do it all. He brings all of these prop watches over to get batteries changed ... He walks around my store, and he says: I really love your jewelry. And you’re doing this kind of ancient oxidized silver 24 karat gold look. And when this movie’s over I’m going to Savannah to work on another movie with Miley Cyrus. And we need a line of jewelry for it. Would you be interested?
On how being diagnosed with breast cancer at 26 changed his approach to life:
We all know we’re going to die. It’s inevitable. But you think of it very differently when you’re faced with it … It’s when I decided to really throw caution to the wind and really go for it. The year I got breast cancer and had it removed was the year I won my first Spectrum award, which is the big one in our industry.