DAVID BECKER will fool you. He ambles up like the original TV "Grizzly Adams," his face bird-nested somewhrere in a forest of beard. The wool cap he pulls just tight enough over a bush of wild black frizz so's to look like the man who just had dinner with "Sourdough" Slim. You expect him to pull out a can of Coors and chew it in half.
Then you begin to talk and you discover Becker has all the hostility of a young doe. His words come out as smooth and creamy as sauce bearnaise. He forms his sentences as if they were pearls needing polishing. Becker, you soon find, is one 35-year-old Alaskan frontiersman who prefers French silk to buckskin.
Becker was in town recently on business. His is big business. He is president of the Alaskan Silver and Ivory Co., multi-million-dollar jewelry business based in Bellingham, Wash.He was at the Eagle Canyon store in White Flint Mall - one of many outlets of his company's goods across the world - to show some of his wares and a few of his techniques.
He asserts - and it could well be true - that he and his company are the original revivalists of the art of scrimshaw. Perhaps the only truly original American art, scrimshaw kept the Yankee Whalers busy in the 19th century carving scenes on the teeth of their catch. Becker has added colors and spellbindingly fine etching to the art and turned it into jewelry pieces - in settings of silver and gold - that bring thousands of dollars each.
Singer John Denver recently purchased one item, Becker said, for $10,000. Actor/producer Sylvester Stallone has commissioned another.
At least one reason for the high price tag (some smaller items go for $50, he says, but many carry a price tag of several hundred or a thousand and more) is Becker's insistence upon using the ivory of animals that never heard the report of a rifle; that never suffered the harpoon; that never knew modern man at all. The stuff of Becker's jewelry dates back 20,000 years or more. It comes from the fossilized tusks of mastodons (the prehistoric wooly elephants) and ancient walruses.
"Killing animals for their teeth," says Becker, with a furrow of the brow, "is not very polite."
As intriguing as the man's craftwork is his own history. Becker is not a native Alaskan. He was born in Washington, D.C. He did graduate studies in anthropology in California before taking off for two weeks to visit friends in Anchorage. He ended up trading for furs.
"I started doing carvings in soapstone - figures - and trading them for furs: fox and lynx . . . It was something you could do with no capital and no experience. Then one day someone says, "Gee, do you have any more?" So you go out into the woods looking. I thought I could get more for the furs than for the carvings."
Becker was spending his nights in a sleeping bag on the floor of a tavern or in an unheated trailer. Then he got into fishing with Pat Gallery, now his partner in the jewelry business.
They located a 50-foot fishing boat presumed demolished after it was piloted dead on into an island. It had been repossessed. But the bank, Becker says, was getting skittish about its dealings with frontiersmen who, he says, "are known to be violent.
"So I walked into the bank. They were trying to sell the thing for $4,000. I told them 'I'll give you $2,000 and owe you the rest this year,'" he says with a bit of giggly anticipation. "They told me, 'We'll take the $2,000 and don't owe us the rest.'"
Becker and Gallery began making a living off salmon, halibut and shrimp, out of Prince Williams Sound, about 60 miles from Anchorage. It was during long hours on the boat, off in some desolate Alaskan cove, the Becker first tried his hand at scrimshaw. He taught himself the rest.
"It was just like the old whalers. I know it sounds corny," he says in his soft manner, "but that's exactly how we got started."
He was giving his pieces - mostly nautical scenes taken from episodes on the fishing boat - away as Christmas gifts. Then, "One of my friends wanted something for his mother. He had an aunt, who had a store, who . . ."
The next move was to California.
About five years ago Becker showed his stuff at the Renaissance Faire in Novato. Then he went door to door in the stores in Carmel. One of the owners was Paul Laub, who suggested Becker take his work to a wholesale jewelry show in New York. Becker found the buyers were "literally standing in line to make orders." He left with $20,000 worth - for Christmas Delivery.
"After we had done a few things commercially, I went to a store and the guy bought everything I had. He wanted a five-year contract. I said 'I may be from Alaska, but I'm not that dumb.'"
The business has since sprung from "an abandoned chicken coop" to several buildings in downtown Bellingham, on the coast north of Seattle. Becker employs up to 150 during the Christmas rush. He has 11 full-time salesmen and outlets all over the country and in London, Munich, Japan and Australia.
Who is behind the Alaskan Silver and Ivory Co. line?
"We originally placed a newspaper ad saying 'Artists wanted - no experience necessary.' And we had everybody show up: from little old ladies with oils under their arms to kids with sketches of hot rods," he says."Nobody knew how to do this kind of scrimshaw because it hadn't been invented yet. We look for people who are artists in their own right, like pen-and-ink people. It takes a mellow person, the kind of person who can sit down and write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin."
Becker, when not traveling around the Lower 49, is back in Alaska trading with the Eskimos and gold miners for mastodon tusks. He has maintained his contacts in the northern wilds. But just how he goes about getting prcious mastodon bones and fossilized walrus he manages to talk around.
"Sometimes one of the Eskimo tribes tells us they've got a dead outboard motor. So we send one up there. They might not have any ivory for us right away, but they go out and find people who do. We had one guy come into Bellingham with a carload of tusks. He just said, "Hey, I just got back from Alaska. I heard you buy ivory.' And we bought it on the spot."
Becker keeps a Chinese junk off Bellingham to live in. "You can't imagine all the living space on a junk," he says. But that's not quite the same, now is it, as bedding down in a sleeping bag on the floor of the "Outhouse" saloon.