By Susan Thompson
Lake Panorama Times
The story of how two high school sweethearts from Davenport started and have maintained a retail jewelry store in Ames for nearly 45 years is an interesting one. What makes it even more interesting is they have a second home at Lake Panorama.
Gary Youngberg and Karen Mensing both made the Davenport varsity golf teams as sophomores.
“We played a lot of golf together and fell in love,” says Gary.
Gary attended the University of Iowa for his first year of college while Karen went to Iowa State.
“I hated college and considered quitting and becoming a policeman in Davenport,” says Gary. “Karen encouraged me to finish the year in Iowa City and try Iowa State the next year, so I did. I liked Ames much better but still saw little value for me in college. My scholarships were running out, and I didn’t want to borrow money to do something I didn’t like, so I ended my college career.”
Gary had always loved rocks and gems and had taught himself how to make jewelry from two books he checked out of the library while in college.
“Karen and I were 20 years old and had been doing some art shows with a modicum of success,” he says. “I knew I loved what I was doing, so we started Ames Silversmithing in August of 1976 with $1,500 from my savings account. I ran out of funds by the time we opened and was fortunate I was a waiter at a sorority so I could eat.”
The couple married in June of 1977. The same year, they moved Ames Silversmithing to a larger location at 220 Main in downtown Ames, where it remains today.
Originally working in silver and semi-precious stones, Gary continued producing his one-of-a-kind jewelry creations. As business grew, both Gary and Karen received their diamond training through the Gemological Institute of America, the leading gemological laboratory in the world. Soon, Gary was working in gold, platinum and diamonds, as well as an extensive selection of precious and semi-precious colored gemstones.
Gary says when he and Karen started the business in 1976, they didn’t think about long-term success, yet the business continued to grow. In 1990, they more than doubled the size of the business by building a new facility on their old site. In 2000, another expansion made room for two more workbenches, allowing four full-time artists to design and create jewelry.
In 2002, the couple’s two sons joined the business. Kyle attended the University of Kansas for three years before returning home to graduate from Iowa State University in business. Kyle works in sales and customer relations, plus inventory management and administration. Kyle’s wife, Katie Youngberg, has been a part of the business for more than a decade, and helps with sales, marketing, purchasing and inventory management.
The couple’s younger son, Kirk, attended college for two years before joining the team. Gary says Kirk “brings an exciting and refreshing perspective to the bench in his jewelry designs.” Kyle, Kirk and Katie all received their diamond training and degrees from the Gemological Institute of America. Kirk’s wife, Lori, works at Iowa State University as an ISU Extension program coordinator.
In 2004, Ames Silversmithing expanded again. The purchase of a property adjacent to the store allowed for expansion of both the retail and work areas.
“The extra space made it possible for us to completely redesign the retail area with all new showcases and interior displays,” Gary says. “The extra space has been a benefit to not only the staff, but also for our customers.”
Most customers come from a 60-mile radius around Ames, but the business has had customers from nearly every state in the country.
“We have a broad range of customers,” Gary says. “The young couple looking for an engagement ring, the high schooler looking for a $45 pair of earrings for his girlfriend, the guy wanting to surprise his wife with an anniversary gift after 30 years of marriage, and the self-purchasers who want what they want.”
Their busiest time is the last six weeks of the year, with spikes around Valentine’s Day and spring wedding engagements.
The Youngbergs bought their Lake Panorama home in December 2016.
“Karen had been looking off and on at both Clear Lake and Lake Panorama,” Gary says. “She worked with a realtor a few times, but we found out about the house through friends who live directly across Horseshoe Cove. They had looked at the property before buying where they did, called one of our sons and told him it had come on the market, and suggested Karen and I might like it.”
The house is a cedar cabin and features a point of land that sticks out into the cove.
“That is where our yellow lab named Koda and I love to sit and fish,” Gary says. “I had a ‘Koda’s Point’ marker made for the point.”
The Youngbergs use their Lake Panorama home year-round.
“Our time there can range from a simple overnight to perhaps a week, but typically it is just one or two days at a time,” says Gary.
The family enjoys Lake Panorama for many reasons.
“Being on the water is always fun, and the ability to fish when and for as long as I want is a real plus,” says Gary. “With our two sons, their wives and six grandchildren all in Ames, the lake is a wonderful getaway that is very easy and convenient to get to. We all look forward to our family gatherings there, but the other families get their alone time as well.”
Both Karen and Gary are accomplished amateur golfers. Gary has won the Ames City golf championship eight times in the Open division and twice in the Senior division. That means the couple also appreciates Lake Panorama because of its two golf courses.
“The 18-hole course is challenging for all levels and always in fine shape,” Gary says. “But the gem, at least for me, is Panorama West, which is literally a two-minute golf cart ride away. We never tire of playing the par-3 course. In 2019, I had my third hole-in-one there on the eighth hole.”
Over the last 10 years, Gary has taken up an interest in hickory golf.
“Hickory golf is played with pre-1935 hickory shaft golf clubs and is rapidly expanding across the country,” he says. “It speaks to the soul of golf and lets people see how the game was played 100 years ago.”
Gary has about 200 hickory clubs and is always looking for more. He does club refurbishing in his work area at the lake, and he and Karen talk about organizing and hosting a hickory event at Panorama West someday.
The Youngbergs have donated a piece of jewelry for the Fin & Feather annual auction three times.
“Karen and I have developed a truly special feeling for Lake Panorama after just this short time,” Gary says. “We appreciate the work Fin and Feather does and are always happy to support their efforts in conservation.”
Gary says the success of Ames Silversmithing has allowed the couple’s philanthropical efforts to grow through the years.
“We support every high school post prom in the area, every grade school carnival, multiple fundraisers for the American Heart Association, the American Diabetic Association, Canine Companions for Independence, Search Dog Foundation, and Tunnel to Towers, to name a few,” he says.
The couple also routinely donates jewelry pieces to help those in need of kidney transplants or other health issues.
Ames Silversmithing offers a wide variety of jewelry.
“We carry everything from moderately priced silver jewelry in the $50 to $500 range, up to larger diamonds and fine quality colored gemstones such as rubies, emeralds and sapphires,” Gary says. “We also carry perhaps the largest selection of semi-precious stones in Iowa, including tourmaline, garnets in multiple varieties, tanzanite, aquamarine, opals in a wide range and cultured pearls in classic white to black South Seas Tahitian pearls.”
Gary says the Ames Silversmithing story truly is one of the American dream.
“Karen and I started the business with little more than a thought,” he says. “And while we still are a small business from a technical viewpoint, our business supports eight different families. Our success over the last 40-plus years is based on an attention to detail one seldom sees in today’s world.
“Our service is second to none, as is the quality of our jewelry and gems,” Gary says. “We have six people in the store, myself included, who not only design but create many of our pieces. We work in not only silver as our name suggests, but gold and platinum as well. As manufacturers, we are able to offer prices and selection like no other store around.”
Ames Silversmithing is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with appointments welcomed. More information is available on the store’s website at www.amessilversmithing.com