While visiting the New Orleans Museum of Art as a child, Baton Rouge-native Layne Zuelke’s eye was drawn to the intricate beauty of a Fabergé egg, sparking an interest in jewelry. When he was 17, Zuelke got a job with O’Halloran Jewelers and after just one summer of work he knew it was the field he wanted to pursue. But in 1994, while serving as an apprentice at Hannon Jewelers, something else caught Zuelke’s eye that would slowly alter the trajectory of his budding career: A picture of a M1911 Colt pistol hand-engraved by a Slidell man. “It became an obsession.” For years, he learned everything he could about the art of engraving from books and mentors until 2010, when he finally began engraving guns on his own.
It takes about 300 hours for Zuelke to engrave a single gun—including nearly 20 hours of prep work alone—so he tries not to take on more than three projects at a time. “Cutting steel is the reward for the many hours spent with pencil and paper.” And over the years, he’s been able to transition himself away from jewelry and devote most of his time to gun engraving thanks to client demand. In 2014, he was slated to join the cast of Discovery Channel’s “Sons of Guns,” but the show was axed as he was preparing to move into the new shop, so he decided to work for himself. His mentor, jeweler Shavarsh K., advised Zuelke to move into his shop on Lobdell Avenue to create a kind of jeweler co-op, and Zuelke has operated Southern Custom Engraving there ever since.
Zuelke gets most of his clients through word of mouth. A fan of Instagram, the engraver takes on mostly out-of-state clients. He also started a YouTube channel in September, expecting to only get a few hundred views on his videos. Within a month, he amassed over 20,000 subscribers, which has since swollen to more than 27,000. “Engravers used to be crusty old guys that sat in basements and no one ever saw them. Social media has made my business what it is.” Moving forward, he’s been offered a teaching gig with GRS in Kansas, where he’ll fly periodically for classes, and he’s recently been recruited to design and engrave a limited run of pistols by Wilson Combat. He wants to engrave guns that tell a story and has shifted his business towards accepting commissions to engrave guns strictly as pieces of art. “We’re in a Renaissance period of engraving. With modern tools, technology and spread of information, engravers are not limited to guns anymore.”