Move over, Spielberg. Pensacola has its own Indiana Jones.
Jewelry designer Rocky Hard may not carry a whip or battle treasure-seeking Nazis like the big screen hero, but his real life adventures in archaeology are better than any Hollywood blockbuster. And Indy, we hate to tell you, but he got the girl (actress and “Indiana Jones” star Karen Allen, who dated and traveled with Hard in the early 1970s) first.
Stop by Rock Hard Designs, his artifact-packed store on North Palafox Street, and the affable 59-year-old, who exudes a mellow surfer vibe, will gladly share a tale or 10 of international travel, out-of-body experiences, shape-shifting shamen and ancient ruins. Take for instance, the time, many years ago, Hard was kidnapped by a ruthless, gun-toting sheriff during a trip to Peru.
“Basically, he commandeered me as a driver in my Blazer. We spent several days together driving from the village to village on the highest roads in the world,” Hard explained. “He always took my keys when we’d stop, and he didn’t let me get anywhere near a phone. I had no idea what he wanted with me.”
Hard can thank the sheriff’s bladder for his escape. When his captor called for a high altitude pit stop and left the keys behind, Hard took his chance; he gunned the Blazer on the icy mountain road as the abandoned- and outraged -Peruvian official fired off a couple of parting shots.
“I think, sometimes, I’d like to go back up there, and see if he’s an iceberg,” Hard joked.
Then there was the time Hard, at age 19, traveled across the Middle East in a battered, window-less Volkswagen. While driving from Afghanistan, he and his companion were stopped by native men in Range Rovers and asked to follow them to a remote location. With the “naivete of the young,” Rock and his barely functioning vehicle followed the hospitable strangers “on roads that Alexander (the Great) built” and eventually, he and his buddy hound themselves luxuriating in a palatial compound by the Caspian Sea. Their gracious host? Prince Qolum Reza, the youngest brother of the Shah of Iran. “That is just one example of the amazing hospitality that I have encountered all over the world,” Hard said. “It’s the luck of the pilgrim.”
Hard, who grew up in Pensacola, has made a name for himself and Rock Hard Designs with his award-winning jewelry since 1974. His gems and designs, including his popular Burning Water line, are sought out around the world. Hard has created pieces for notables such as Roy Jones Jr., Muhammed Ali and King Ocansey of the Ada District in Accra, Ghana, Africa. “Every piece has a meaning. The designs come from my experiences and my intuition,” Hard explained. “I am many things, and interested in many things, and my work reflects this.” His wife of nine years, Carla, says her family calls the multi-talented Hard a “Renaissance man,” but to her, he is more like Picasso. “He is so gifted and charistmatic, like Picasso,” she said. “And he is open-minded, which you have to be to really appreciate the experiences that Rocky has had.”
Hard said he was always adventurous. “My siblings and I camped and explored and did all kinds of things. When kids would play cowboys and Indians, we were always the Indians,” he said.
Fascinated by the ancient world from an early age, Hard found his first fossil in North Hill, near his family home. Soon, he was giving lectures to his classmates at A.V. Clubbs Middle School.
By age 13, he and his brother were certified divers and members of the Pensacola Historical Society, “probably the only two members under 90,” he joked. While diving in Pensacola Bay, the teens found “a Civil War torpedo and bombs” that prompted a call to the Naval bomb squad.
“My parents were adventurous, and they raised adventurous kids,” said Hard, whose father was an intellegence officer in the Army Air Corps and whose mother served as a U.S. Navy Wave during World War II.
Hard’s adventuring spirit took him to Europe after he completed a year at Pensacola Junior College. He hitchhiked, staying in youth hostels, and celebrated his 18th birthday on a motorcycle in France. He finished his second year at PJC and returned to Europe for additional schooling, and the start of his many international excursions – including a stint and the occasional near-death experience. Hard, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1972 with bachelor’s degrees in cinematography and creative writing, never had a master plan. “It was just traveling the world surfing, always looking for ruins and things. My love of archaeology was such that i wanted to go to school for it, but with the ’60s and Woodstock, we wanted those big questions answered, so i became a philosopher instead,” he explained. “I don’t believe in taking the same road twice. Life is too short.”
And these days, much like his whip-cracking film counterpart, the adventurous artisan loves to share his passion for archaeology, history and science with students. Hard has been named a physics consultant for the University of West Florida for his skill in photomics, which he calls the “last Holy Grail of physics.” He lectures in area classes, from grade school to college, often wearing his “disrespectacles,” glasses he handcrafted for fun from a variety of gems and metals.
Hard’s daughter, Chloe Vignes, said her dad is a hit with her fifth-grade Gulf Breeze Elementary School students. “They are captivated when he comes in for career day,” she said. “He breaks out the jewelry and the fossils, and the kids eat it up. It’s magical.” Hard so impressed one young student that the boy wanted to change his future career from pilot to jeweler. “I told him to go ahead and be a pilot,” Hard said, chuckling. “And that he could be like me, and be a jeweler, too. You should never give up your dreams.”
Students from area schools often visit his downtown Pensacola store, which serves as a mini-museum for many of Hard’s unique artifacts and creations. There, guests can view his collection of dinosaur bones, rare gems and tribal weapons, such as the Inca Star, a stone tomahawk which he discovered in the highest part of the Andes Mountains with the help of a 12-fingered guide. Or they can admire another prized possession, a dinosaur bone, gem opal – the rarest fossilized gemstone. ” i hope it will all go to a museum one day, but for now, I enjoy sharing it and having it around me,” he said.