The Memphian Theater was mostly empty when Lowell Hays walked in and took a seat behind Elvis Presley on Christmas Eve of 1969. From time to time, the rock n' roll icon would gather friends for private movie screenings at the gilded, Art Deco venue -- but Hays, the city's most respected jeweler, wasn't yet one of those deeply trusted companions. He was there on business.
"Come on with me," Presley said, ushering him into the men's room where the musician pushed open a stall door and took a seat on a toilet. "You can put your briefcase right here on my lap," he gestured to the brown leather bag Hays had stocked with jewelry.
"So that's exactly what I did," the jeweler, now 78, recalls nearly five decades later at a rib joint near Presley's Graceland home. In what was the first of nearly two hundred purchases from the brown leather case that sits before us today, Elvis picked out three large diamond pieces for his aunt, father and girlfriend that night.
"I could tell you stories like these for hours," smiles Hays. Because the truth is, over the course of his seven-year friendship with Presley, he amassed stories so wild, they can feel mythic.
Like the time he first visited Graceland only to find Presley outside in the rain in a floor length mink-coat shooting a pistol: "They shot up his daddy's office pretty good." Or middle of the night phone calls with near-impossible jewelry requests, and flights Hays would take to New York's La Guardia airport for the sole purpose of picking up precious gems to help meet Presley's demands. "Our nickname for Elvis was 'Crazy'... you never knew what he was gonna do next," Hays says. It's a moniker that would ultimately be engraved onto a gold ID bracelet for the star.
But for all of the spur of the moment trips the duo took across the country, Memphis is where they were happiest.
Juke joints lined Beale Street when Hays' father, Lowell Sr., began doing jewelry repairs from his family's home attic in 1937, but it would be another decade before the city became the epicenter of the rock 'n' roll movement. "Having been in the business all of my life, I can tell you that there are very few people that have the talent my father did," says Hays.
It was talent that was partly cultivated by chance. As a 12-year-old boy, Lowell Sr. ran away from home to escape a physically abusive stepfather and ended up at a YMCA in Houston, Texas, where he connected with a jeweler. For more than a decade Lowell Sr. would work in a factory and eventually become a master craftsman, developing skills that were ultimately imparted to Hays. "I started at the bottom, doing pick-ups and deliveries as a kid from one end of Main Street to the other before progressing on to the jewelry bench," Hays says.
More than anything, though, he wanted to branch into retail, and convinced his father to open a women's fine jewelry store in the city's Germantown neighborhood. When the responsibility of that store, which was open from 1971 until 2005, prevented Hays from joining Presley on the road, he would simply send the brown case filled with precious golden pieces to wherever the star was. "Elvis knew the combination to the lock, so whenever he wanted something, he would tear the tag off and leave it for me."
For every piece Presley kept for himself, he gave nearly just as many away. During a 1975 show in North Carolina, for example, Hays remembers Presley summoning the bag on stage: "He just started handing jewelry to people in the front." When Hays hopped in Presley's limo after the show, distraught about how much money had been guzzled away, the singer got a twisted little half-smile on his face and patted Hays on the knee. "He said, 'Lowell, I'll have to sing five minutes longer tomorrow night to pay for it.'"
The trail of sparkling baubles, which have become prevalent in the auction world in recent years, often make their way back on the jeweler's radar when he's contacted for certificates of authenticity. Pieces like the ruby and baguette diamond ring that will be auctioned at Graceland on August 12, can fetch $10,000 to $15,000. Other creations, like the Aloha Horseshoe ring that was designed with a central 10.5 carat diamond surrounded by 11 full-cut round diamonds, have brought in upwards of $200,000.
Among the pieces Presley never parted with, however, is the "TCB" ring Hays crafted using 56 diamonds including an 11.5 carat solitaire. Intended to be a show ring, "something that would immediately make people think 'Elvis Presley,'" it incorporated Presley's "Taking Care of Business" mantra that also doubled as his backing band's name. To this day, the ring remains identifiably Elvis, who was so thrilled with the design, he paid the $35,000 price and then handed Hays the keys to his Lincoln Mark III Cartier edition as an additional token of gratitude.
But beyond the jewelry itself, time has also revealed the extent of how pioneering Hays and Presley's collaborative partnership was. Though it's now the norm for high fashion jewelers like Ben Baller and Lorraine Schwartz to create jewel-drenched statement pieces specifically for a musician's ensemble, Hays set this precedent for male artists. One could go so far as to argue he's the reason artists like JAY-Z would later wear custom pave chains. Jewelry was never merely a status symbol for Presley, though, who was always intent on pushing fashion forward; it became a carefully considered part of his artistic persona.
At the suggestion of the profundity of his and Presley's influence, Hays goes silent. Maybe it's out of modesty, or maybe it's a quiet admission that his work with the icon comprised only a portion of a more than 50-year career that also attracted clientele like Al Green and Isaac Hayes. "Elvis and I were like that." Hays crosses his fingers. "We were like brothers."
Their relationship was also fundamentally different than the one Presley shared with his Memphis Mafia entourage, who all wore the golden lightning bolt "TCB" necklaces Hays designed from a sketch Presley and then-wife Priscilla drew out on a cocktail napkin. While the Memphis Mafia was paid to surround Presley constantly, Hays could come and go as he pleased. "Regardless of whether or not I was actually traveling with Elvis, there was a always a room at every hotel with my name on it." When the musician, who struggled with addiction to prescription drugs, tragically died in August 1977, Hays still had his own life to lead. His path, in other words, wasn't dependent on Presley's.
Which isn't to say he never stepped in to protect the King.
During a show at what was formerly the International Hotel in Las Vegas, Hays remembers sitting in one of the circular booths when he noticed a man trying to sneak on stage. "Elvis is pointing but the bodyguards aren't paying any attention, so I bailed out of my seat and took care of it." After the show, Presley ripped into the guards. "Then he looked at me and said, 'Lowell, you have any TCBs?'" Hays fetched the briefcase and handed a necklace over. "It's about time you had one of these," Presley said to him.
It still sits on his neck.