Living in the OC: Oceana is a gem to local businessman, inventor.

January 25, 2016
Shelby Gem Factory owner and founder Larry Kelley.

Shelby Gem Factory owner and founder Larry Kelley.

By Allison Scarbrough. OCP Editor.

‘Living in the OC’ is sponsored by Springstead Law Offices, with locations in Hart and Fremont, 231-873-4022 (Hart), www.springsteadlaw.com.

SpringsteadVertical_091015SHELBY — Shelby Gem Factory founder and owner Larry Kelley has traveled all over the world, and he considers his homeland of Oceana County the best place on earth.

The 71-year-old Hart native began the unique business that manufactures gemstones in 1970. It was the first company to launch in the village’s industrial park.

Born in Hart in 1944, Larry graduated from Hart High School in 1962.
In his youth, Larry found a passion for science and inventing things. This may sound crazy, but he built an artificial heart for a frog when he was only 14 years old. The frog didn’t stay alive very long, but Larry’s breakthrough invention kept the amphibian’s heart pumping briefly.

At the age of 13, Larry made the local news headlines in 1957 when he and a friend requested city council’s permission to blast homemade rockets over Hart Lake. They were denied due to safety concerns.

When he was 14 years old, Larry made a functioning underwater diving helmet from the inside of a hot water tank.

Larry and his brother Arthur were in the news in 1962 after an explosion in their home laboratory resulted in Larry

A young Larry Kelley displaying one of his many clever inventions – a diving helmet made from a water tank.

losing a finger and partial loss of other fingers on his right hand. “Ever since I was a kid, I liked to play with chemistry,” he said. “I was careless with explosives and blew my finger off.”

Both boys were hurt, and Larry received extensive injuries. “I had about 300 stitches in each hand; it burned my hair; and blew my ear drums out. I was hospitalized for a couple months. In the long run, it doesn’t matter. It kept me out of Vietnam — they wouldn’t take me for a physical.”

Larry and Arthur ran a gas station in Hart for a couple years and were involved in building the very first dune buggy that went over Mount Baldy in Silver Lake in the late 1960s, he said.

Larry’s biggest claim to fame, however, is the Shelby Gem Factory. His one-of-a-kind business that creates imitation diamonds, manmade rubies and sapphires and other manufactured precious gem stones has drawn tourists to Shelby for decades. Visitors can tour the showroom to see a variety of gems and are invited to view a film inside the gem factory’s 50-seat theater that explains how the gems are made.

larry kelley - 5

Larry enjoys sailing — his favorite thing to do in Oceana County.

Atop his list of accomplishments is his invention of a way to manufacture cubic zirconia, one of the most famous manmade gems in the world. Cubic zirconia was first created by Russian researchers who did not know how to produce them commercially. Larry invented a process to mass produce the artificial diamond. He manufactured and sold cubic zirconia at his facility until other companies began producing it as well. Eventually, the retail price for the imitation stone dropped dramatically, and he stopped making it 1992. Shelby Gem Factory produces the Shelby Imitation Diamond, which Larry said is of higher quality than the cubic zirconia.

Larry attended the University of Michigan from 1963-67, where he studied “whatever I felt like studying” and did not follow “a particular path” to a degree. He studied chemistry, physics, biology and geography. He went to Michigan State University for one year and studied the same subjects. After working at Dow Chemical in Ludington as a research chemist, he founded International Crystal Technology (ICT Inc.) to make rubies for lasers.

“I read in a magazine what rubies were made of — aluminum oxide and chrome, so I decided to start making them.”

Larry’s gem manufacturing business boomed, and he eventually opened factories in France, China and India with eight jewelry stores in Michigan and in other parts of the country. He ultimately closed them down, because he said

One of the many wonderful things to do in this area -- sit in the grass and not worry about being attacked by bugs.

One of the many wonderful things to do in this area — sit in the grass and not worry about being attacked by bugs.

his products were being misrepresented by store staff and he was too far away to control it.

Throughout all his travels, which also included a trip to Antarctica, Larry said he never saw a place better than Oceana County. “It’s just perfect,” he said. “I have been in many countries and have found no place better for normal living.”

“Really, it boils down to feeling comfortable with people you grew up with,” Larry said, along with “the climate, the work ethic; the water, snow, spring flowers, fall-colored leaves, sandy clean beaches with drinkable fresh water, good fishing and hunting, and not too much rain or sun.

“In the summer, you can lay out in the grass and don’t have to worry about getting eaten by ants,” Larry said. “I like the four distinct seasons — that’s really really nice.

“Living here taught you to work,” Larry said. “The farm boys taught you to work for yourself, and it taught you responsibility.”

A young Larry Kelley with his dad, Laurence Kelley in 1945.

A young Larry Kelley with his dad, Laurence Kelley, in 1945.

He has been married to his wife Jo for almost 31 years, and she is vice president at the gem factory. They have four grown children, including  son John, who works at the gem factory, and Larry said will “take over whenever I decide to quit.” They also have five grandkids.

“It’s a small community, and the the neat thing is if you want to do something, you can be on a sports team,” Larry said. “The schools are small enough that you can always be on a team. And if you’re good, that’s very good indeed.” Like their father, Larry’s kids excelled at track and field.

“My dad (Laurence Kelley) said, ‘Son, do what you like and you will never work a day in your life.’ That’s what I do.”

In addition to his successful career, Larry enjoys many outdoor activities in Oceana County, such as sailing, swimming and flying airplanes. Almost every year, he swims in Lake Michigan on his birthday, which is Oct. 19.

“I just like the water — I love swimming. I love it here,” he said.

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