a man and woman standing next to each other holding a plaque
Winner of the fifth annual Saige Raiche Mother’s Day Contest, Shannon McCormick, left, with mom and Armando Gonzalez, Blue Marlin Jewelry owner. CONTRIBUTED

“One day, I decided I wanted to do something for women, mothers. You know it’s the old saying, ‘Without mothers, you can’t have a father.’ There’s no life without the feminine, the feminine is the whole earth and everything around us is the feminine,” said Armando Gonzalez, founder and owner of Blue Marlin Jewelry in Islamorada.

This year is the ninth annual Saige Raiche Memorial Junior Designer Mother’s Day Contest.

“Mothers never get appreciated as much as they should, so I wanted to do something special, and I love doing this for the kids,” Gonzalez said.

“My idea was to have the kid come up with a design and the story behind it. If chosen by our field of judges, we would make it for them for free, frame the artwork and then give it to their mom on Mother’s Day. I don’t know how it all started, but it started — the idea just came to me.”

Gonzalez’s story, in itself, is unique. This writer thought he inherited his talent for designing and procuring sophisticated, unique, wearable jewelry from his family. However, he came to learn, and one bread crumb led to another. 

“Hurricane Andrew drove me south,” Gonzalez said. “I was a firefighter for more than 30 years with Miami Dade — lieutenant, paramedic and various deployments.”

“I was sitting in the office twiddling my thumbs doing floor time and a lady walked in selling jewelry,” Gonzalez continued.” I would have her come show her jewelry to the guys in the firehouse. After some time trying to get her to sell more, I started figuring out the jewelry business through trial and error, and then my friend suggested I open my own store. I should have failed many, many times but failure is not an option.”

Each year in November, art teachers from Ocean Reef to Key West are contacted so the jewelry design submission packets can be distributed before Christmas break. The teachers also receive a PowerPoint about gemstones so they can learn a bit too.

The Blue Marlin team does a lot of leg work and follow-up, as some teachers don’t want to be involved or lose the packets. Home or church-schooled kids are also welcome to participate in the contest. Each year there are three winners, one from each grade segment — K-3, 4-7, 8-12.

This year, they received 300 submissions. The team at Blue Marlin reviews the first round and selects 10 finalists. They judge the entries based on overall design and artistry, material quality and craftsmanship, color selection, originality, degree of difficulty, durability, wearability and the story behind the design.

The 10 final submissions are then handed off to a fresh team of judges, non-Blue Marlin associates, to ensure no one thinks there is any bias.

The packets are for all the details, as Gonzalez aims to have the winner’s piece as close to the original vision as possible. “I try to create the piece identical to how the kids drew it. They are the designer; we are the manufacturer. Some designs need a slight tweak, which makes it better.”

Besides the “story behind the design,” students draw the piece, draw two close-up drawings, and also share the material descriptions — gold, silver, gemstones, etc. 

“A lot of kids actually hire an artist to help them. I didn’t know that was the case but I found out that an artist was teaching them how to draw it. That kid is super interested in being a better designer,” Gonzalez said. “Like in life, when you really put your mind at it and excel, you’re going to win like in everything we do. So, if the design is outstanding, they are going to win. How much effort are you putting into this and give me the story from your heart? I really want to know why your mom is special.”

The packets were due to the Blue Marlin team by March 1. Once the winners are chosen, they need at least six weeks to make the piece. 

The majority of the designs are then created in-house, but occasionally, if it makes sense time-wise or design-wise, Gonzalez will commission another jewelry designer to create the piece. 

An example is a past year’s winner who designed a gold whale shark crafted with diamonds. This piece was sent to Stephen Douglas, whose brand is coastal jewelry, and the line is also carried at Blue Marlin.

During the first jewelry contest, tragedy struck Saige Raiche, the daughter of one of Gonzalez’s close friends.

“The first year we were doing it, a friend of mine’s daughter, Saige, was taken to the hospital, 9 years old, and she died. They had been on a ski trip, and she had caught the flu. I went over to their house in the morning, and her mom, Renee, went into Saige’s bedroom and said, ‘Saige really wanted to win, and this is her artwork.’”

Gonzalez had Saige’s design made in rose gold, a heart locket with diamonds, and the words “smart, loving, and caring.” He put a picture of Saige inside and named this annual contest after her.

There is a lot of heart behind this annual contest, which is an incredible opportunity for the kids. Treasure Village has the most significant participation, with much credit to Diana McGuirk. Last year, they had two winners. Key West High School also shows up very strongly. 

Gonzalez said, “We really wished more schools would be involved. If you are motivated to do something you will find a way.”

Winners will be announced in next week’s edition of the Upper Keys Weekly. Visit Blue Marlin Jewelers, MM 81.5, Islamorada, Monday through Saturday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., and Sunday between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Learn more at www.bluemarlinjewelry.com, @thebluemarlinjewelry on Facebook and @bluemarlinjewlery on Instagram.

Melinda Van Fleet
Melinda Van Fleet is an Intuitive Energy Business & Leadership Mentor and the owner of Good Karma Sportfishing with her husband, Ryan Van Fleet. She is a speaker, bestselling author of "Confidence Mastery for Couples" and "Life & Love Lessons," and the host of the weekly podcast "The Success Codes Podcast." You can connect with her more at www.melindavanfleet.com.