When John Witt left the family jewelry business at 19, giving up his trade as a silversmith and goldsmith, John could not know how much this decision would ultimately cost. John escaped premature death but would endure many long, emotionally discouraging and physically battering stays in different hospitals, numerous painful operations and years of rehabilitation which continue even to this day.
The now 50-year-old Goldsboro resident has been able to overcome most of the obstacles from a job-related explosion and fire that left him with third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body thirty years ago. Severe infections early on in the struggle just to survive; required many courses of strong antibiotics. John was later told that the medications that saved his life and prevented amputation of his legs ultimately also triggered a permanent loss of over 50% of his hearing. While hearing instruments have significantly improved in thirty years nothing really can fully simulate normal hearing, while frustrating often John is thankful for improving audiology technology and that he is a survivor.
Due to extensive physical limitations John was later determined to be 100% disabled, and told he would never be able to do jewelry work again. The doctors had told him he would only gain about 15% normal use of his hands and maybe get 30% use by learning how to do things different ways. But God had other plans! John states that he is able to accomplish so many things with his hands only by the grace of God! “My hands took the blunt of the blast and burns. The fact that I still have hands is a miracle from God, most people that are burned to the degree that I was and even less lose their hands by amputation.” John slowly made progress in the reconstruction of his hands with the help of a fiercely positive and talented surgeon in Texas and as a result is now currently designing and fabricating intricately detailed jewelry!
A native of Ocala Florida, John was born to be in the jewelry business. John started cutting gemstones with his father at 9 years old. During that year his father was recovering from a broken neck from an on the job accident.
“Seeing what my parents went through during my dad’s recovery taught me a lot about how patience, determination, hard work and a lot of prayer can overcome most anything.” A friend of the Witt’s had inherited a lapidary machine (used for cutting gemstones) and invited John’s father Wayne, to learn along with him, how to use the machine. Young John also became very interested. Cutting stone seemed to come natural to both John and his dad. As they developed their talents the father and son would go out to lime rock mines in the area and collect interesting stones. Wayne and John also went to ‘rock shops’ to purchase stones from that had come in from around the world. Wayne later started working as an apprentice jeweler in a local jewelry store. As his skills improved Wayne started making jewelry with the stones and gems that he and John had cut.
Wayne began selling the jewelry to friends and businesses in the area. Sales eventually grew to the point where Wayne and his wife Joyce, opened a jewelry store. John worked in the store with his parents after school, watching and learning. John started making silver pieces of jewelry at age 11 with the guidance of his dad and a very fine silversmith in Cocoa, Florida who provided constructive training. Four years later John’s confidence and skills in metal work had advanced to the point where he was trusted to turn gold into fine jewelry and at age 17 John began setting diamonds.
Graduating from high school in 1979, John initially went to work at his parent’s jewelry store with thoughts of continuing his education or even applying to the military. His parents divorced in 1981, closing the family jewelry store. Wayne moved to Arizona and John's mother remained in Ocala. The unexpected and unhappy divorce led to an abrupt closure of the family business. John realized that his mom needed his support and made the fateful decision to leave jewelry and postpone education accepting a job to work as a specialty welder for Emergency One. E-1 was world’s largest builder of fire trucks and is located in Ocala where John and his family resided.
Jan.19th, 1982 was a day that changed John’s life and one he has never forgotten. John “I was asked to weld closed a couple of extra holes that had been drilled into what was supposed to be a new 50 gallon aluminum diesel fuel tank. My lead man said he had checked the tank out, when I questioned him about this tank being safe for welding”. John had concerns about this tank previously holding fuel because there was some red and black paint on it, which indicated the tank had been mounted on a truck before. However after being assured that it was safe to weld, John knelt, flipped down his welding hood and activated his torch; the spark triggered a massive explosion.
“I found out later this tank, which had come out of the new tank storage area, had been used to siphon gas in and out of, to fuel other trucks just to bring them into the building. There was gas still in the bottom of this tank but you could not smell it with all the welding fumes and grinding dust in the area. When the tank exploded, one end blew out which was a blessing because this kept me from getting the full force of the blast. The force that hit me still threw me about 10 feet in the air and gas blew out all over me so that I became a ball of fire."
“I was working in a very small area and there was no place that I could get down and roll so I began looking for a way to get in an area large enough for me to get on the ground to roll. I was later told that my friends and co-workers grabbed fire extinguishers, but they tried seven before they found one that was charged and it was chemical. The prolonged exposure to fire led to primarily third and some second degree burns over 70 percent of his body. Areas of my body most severely impacted were my hands, neck, chest, and legs.
John was rushed by EMS to the local hospital and from there immediately transferred to the burn center of Shands Teaching Hospital in Gainesville Florida. John was released after 2 ½ months to continue recovery and rehabilitation in Ocala however his hands and fingers were completely contracted from the scar tissue. “The burns had caused my hands to form into tight fists and my fingers had grown into the palm of my hands. I couldn’t even begin to straighten my fingers. There was no space between my fingers and palm of my left hand, and there was just enough room that a fork handle could be forced into the small space on my right hand, which allowed me to feed myself."
Florida physicians were not giving any optimism of getting back use from his hands. My family would not accept this answer, after doing some research it was agreed that John would go to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. Galveston has one of the best burn centers in the nation. It was there Dr. Sally Abston, head surgeon, took his case. “Dr. Abston reviewed my medical records and learned I had been a jeweler. Dr. Abston told me that she wanted a lapis ring and wanted me to make it for her!”
For the next three months, John underwent many surgeries to remove scar tissue from his hands and fingers. Later his fingers were put into traction using a “hey rack” method where each finger is individually, and slowly, forced to straighten. This was very painful and slow but ultimately successful. At the conclusion of the surgeries and therapies John was able to open his hands, flex and extend his disfigured fingers. After completing eighteen months of skin grafts, rehabilitation exercises, John designed and made Dr. Abston the lapis ring she had prophesied!
Emergency Ones’ Insurance Company at John's request then paid for John to attend the Jewelers Institute of America in Statesboro, Georgia as part of a comprehensive rehabilitation program.
John received his first Master Jewelers Certification through JIA. John last went to Texas in 1990 for additional hand surgery this was never completed however.
At the time of his accident John was married and had a one-year-old-son. In 1986 the couple had a second son. John had never anticipated the dissolution of their marriage however the couple divorced 1991. John Jr., the oldest son is now 30, resides in Mount Olive NC with his fiancée Jennifer. Austin now 22 years old, lives in Ocala and is engaged to his high school sweetheart.
In 1994 due to significant health problems related to the extensive burns John was invited to move in with his father and step mom who lived in Huntsville, Alabama. John lived briefly with them getting a fresh start in the jewelry business. In 1995 John went to work for a jewelry restyling company, which he and his then coworker, later partner, bought. This partnership brought John to Roanoke, Virginia and created “Jewelry Masters of Virginia”. John and his partner Brian traveled to jewelry stores all over the east coast offering custom designs through presenting jewelry restyling shows.
John moved to Goldsboro in October of 2001 where he formed his own company; John Austin Designs in 2002, closing Jewelry Masters of Virginia.
As John Austin Designs, John worked as a sole proprietorship for other jewelry stores and galleries; designing and fabricating custom designed pieces. “I really enjoy making people happy when I’m able to create exactly what they have been looking for.
Prior to and since moving to Goldsboro 10 years ago, John has attended intensive seminars and workshops focusing on different aspects of the jewelry craft. The seminars and classes involved traveling to Arizona, California, Iowa, Kansas, New York, Virginia Beach and most recently to Chicago. John believes that acquiring and embracing new concepts and techniques is invaluable. “Constant growth allows an artist to apply the latest skills to improve jewelry design and manufacture.” Some of these seminars were hosted by several of then Americas’ top jewelry designers; Henry Dunay, Jose Hess, Paul Klecka, Blaine Lewis, Robert Lee Morris, Kate Wolf and others.
“I love what I do and strive to stay current with new skills and the latest technology! In addition to accomplishing even our typical jobs with greater ease, customers also directly benefit from greater choices, and practically unlimited solutions for their needs and dreams.
"My mission statement for John Austin Designs is From the Ordinary to the Extraordinary. All my work meets the Jewelers of America standards. I believe all jewelers should make whatever sacrifice they must to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that are available to learn and improve skills. I endorse New Approach School for Jewelers owned by my friend Blaine Lewis, located in Virginia Beach, Wolf Design owned by another friend Kate Wolf in Portland Maine and Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts owned by Alan Revere in San Francisco as places offering excellent curriculums. There really is no reason for bad and or mediocre work being offered to customers at top quality prices. I wish I had photos of the many delighted faces of customers who have brought me poorly done pieces and or had a desire for something unique and I was able to make that unique piece, one they could say ‘WOW’ over! To me, this is what being a professional jeweler is about.”
John has done a great deal of research into 3-dimensional designing, specifically a new computer design system called Matrix. John first learned of Matrix in 1998-99 through seminars attended in California. This computer program allows the jeweler to design a concept on the computer and then render pictures, which appear as a printable photograph of the finished piece. A computer program for the piece is generated after the customer approves the design, which is loaded into a mill, and hours later a beautiful wax is rendered from the 3d design. John purchased this program and has worked for the last decade to improve this skill. His efforts not only triggering local praise but John won the 2010 Matrix Design first place award for ‘The provided gemstone division’ for the Tanzanite gemstone. This award was voted on by his peers judging entries from around the world.
Goldsboro North Carolina is the home for Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Growing up as a Florida native and living close to the Space Center, flight had always captured Johns’ interest from early childhood. The Blue Angels as the Navy flight demonstration team were doing a show in Ocala when John was about eleven. John’s parents invited the group to their home for supper, several of the pilots came over and their presence fueled the flame in John to become involved in aviation however many factors took John down another path. It was God’s design that many years later John would settle in Goldsboro. John would meet an Australian Air force Officer Exchange pilot while working through a local jewelry store. The officer wanted someone to design his plane: a Giles 202. Officer Matty Hall had to leave North Carolina before the plane was even rendered on the drawing board. John designed, completed and cast the Giles 202, and decided to wear this unique piece while trying to get in touch with Matty. So many people from all walks of life took notice of this piece and offered compliments as well as encouragement for John to do a line of aviation jewelry. One major complement and boost came from a pilot with TORA TORA TORA, the Pearl Harbor reenactment team. They were at SJAFB for an airshow and just happened to be at the restaurant that John and his father and step mom were dining in. Johns’ father and step mom spoke to the pilots as his step mom was a small girl in Pearl Harbor during the actual attack. The pilot was shown an F-15 lapel pin by John’s proud dad and then saw the Giles 202 John was wearing. The pilot immediately advised John to start a business making the aircraft after seeing the amazing precision in these pieces of John’s work he expressed that the detail was at a much higher level than he had ever seen before! This and other ‘happenstance meetings’ became like jet fuel for launching John’s dream of being involved aviation and the hope of becoming a private pilot in the future.
John was destined to meet another important couple through a wife wanting a mother’s pendant. Wendy arranged for her husband Daren to meet John. When Daren understood how eager John was to learn to be a pilot, Daren an Air Force Officer and jet pilot agreed to become a mentor to help John acquire what was needed to get a license to fly. John gave Daren an F-15 tie tac in 14K gold as a ‘thank you’. After Daren was given this gift he took time to visit John and very strongly urged John to start an aviation and military jewelry design business. This action and high praise was the final push for John, and triggered serious inquiries on starting what soon would become Aviation Jewelry Designs.
Daren invited John along for a cross country flight being taken to bring Daren’s personal airplane out to Las Vegas and to get things prepared for his family as they embark on Daren’s next mission with the Air Force. Three weeks later John would return to watch Daren as he was made commander of the 17th Weapons Squadron, the F-15E group. Daren (Shotgun) invited John out to Las Vegas the following year for a Weapons School Graduation event, during the same week the International Conference of Air Shows was being held in Las Vegas.
John learned Matty Hall was in attendance at the ICAS and through friends John found Matty Hall and was able to give him “the piece” that proverbially ‘launched a thousand ships’.
John has another friend through church, Darren Wilson, who is a corporate pilot. Darren also was very enthused with the aviation jewelry John was producing along with the other goals John has in mind for the future. In 2008 John and Darren formed a partnership that became Aviation Jewelry Designs LLC. John continued to work full time as a custom designer for Barnes Jewelers and Darren continued full time as a corporate pilot as they started building AJD. Another ‘chance meeting’ was when a SJAFB officer came in their store in 2009 to look for retirement gifts. John felt the Lord speak to his heart that he should discuss a partnership with this individual. When the officer came back for his order John took a step of faith and shared his heart, goals and business needs as the officer had already shown a strong interest in what John was doing at their first meeting. Lt. Col. Jon Beliveau smiled and told John he was very interested in joining the company as he was entering early retirement and would work at SJAFB as a private citizen. Jon has a master’s degree in business administration and has brought strong organizational skills to the young company.
Darren withdrew as a partner at the end of 2010 due to family commitments and additional work requirements.
John would like to recognize the owners of Barnes Jewelers, Doyce and Sherll Barnes and Doyce’s son Stephen, who have been very supportive of Aviation Jewelry Design. “We would not even be in existence today if it was not for their help as our landlord and enduring friendship.”
John has always loved to laugh with others and with life since childhood. Both members of the public, friends and family will recall his easy laugh and ready smile even after John has worked long hours. Although at peace with visible remnants of the terrible explosion; John does struggle daily with related ongoing physical aches, the permanent hearing loss and just a few years ago learning he contracted Hepatitis C due to receiving numerous untested blood transfusions during surgeries and in his battle to live. Despite this and other personal valleys in the past three decades, John expresses great joy to be alive and embraces a ission to help others.
John Witt continues pursuing his desire to become a licensed pilot, is always improving and designing innovative new jewelry, excelling in craftsmanship, as well as working to stay close to members of his immediate family further south. Always looking for ways to give back in thanks for all he has been given, John is privileged to currently be involved with Warrior Aviation Flight Team and Operation Happily Ever After for the last 2 years. John is also recently getting involved with The Moonlight Fund a group that aids burn survivors; Amanda’s Wing is now part of this worth organization. Also as described more fully under our mission statement a jewelry school is planned in the long run that will be for interested wounded warriors and or burn survivors, to help them find healing and find their voice through various art forms.
John is blessed by having several close, supportive friends, and is especially thankful for their membership/affiliation with The Bridge Church in Princeton North Carolina.