Design of the Times: Atelier Zobel and John Atencio

It’s never too early to begin the countdown to JCK Tucson! I’m getting excited already: the setting at the J.W. Marriott Starr Pass resort, friends, gems, and beautiful jewelry all against the singular backdrop of the Tucson landscape. The designers exhibiting at JCK Tucson this time represent an intriguing cross section of design veterans with an established vision, and emerging artists spreading their wings. Kicking off 2017 in the desert is sure to be memorable, so register here and don’t miss out on a single part of it!


honeycomb-cuff-atelier-zobelPeter Schmid, Atelier Zobel

One of my favorite places at JCK Tucson several years ago was the German design ballroom. Established and emerging artists presented their collections, all very different, yet with a consistency of edited design that was perfectly executed. Atelier Zobel stands out in this notable field. Since Tucson is all about the gems, I am very intrigued by the spectacular gemstones incorporated into their jewelry. No standard prong-set designs here: textural forms wrap around and compliment a rainbow of color, including many cuts that are as sculptural as the jewelry. It is obvious that Peter Schmid thoughtfully considers each gemstone, then builds and layers around the gems: a perfect amalgam of his many experiences and influences.

The textures of your work are incredibly rich, can you tell me a bit about the materials and process?

I work with pure materials: 24k gold, 18k when the piece needs to be more structural, plus silver, platinum and palladium. The gems are all natural and usually have some kind of intrinsic beauty. Beauty springs from individuality, even imperfection, and manifests itself by being authentic, purely itself. Beauty surprises and confounds expectations. A perfect stone with a perfect cut is, of course, a triumph of skill. But our jewelry owes its special charm and sophistication to our free use of materials, breaking with tradition, adding a diverse array of colors and materials to the goldsmith’s palette. I pull the story from the stone or found object, use the body and pieces as a canvas, and paint in gold.

Do you work closely with German gem cutters for your jewelry?

I love the lapidary work of the Atelier Munsteiner in Germany, as well others whom have explored the light, color and sculptural forms within gemstones. We appreciate beauty in the same way and respect the nature of the gems, as well as the ethical sourcing of materials.

Are you planning to debut new work at JCK Tucson?  Anything you can hint at?

We’re actually working through several diverse collections at the moment…earlier this spring we collaborated with Dr. Martin Wikelski, Dr. Iain Couzin & Dr. Alex Jordan from the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology (MPIO) at the University of Konstanz, Germany on a collection of jewelry inspired by honeybees and collective behavior. We looked at why nature prefers hexagons, how honeybees organize their hives and how they efficiently evolve divergent roles within their communities.  Together we looked to understand the bee as a symbol of the fragile connection between humans and nature and communicate our connection through fashion.  We are continuing to develop this project and hope to create a small catalog with the team at MPIO.

While working on the bee project, I came across a collection of antique marbles masterly hand blown in Germany between 1850 to just before the First World War: the first glass marbles! I was immediately flooded with memories from childhood… sitting up to my knees in dirt, snapping marbles across the playground with all the kids gathered around…cheering and jeering. The marble collection for me is a time capsule. The marbles are individually hand blown. You can see where the puny was broken off before the process was mechanized. The glass caning celebrated in the master works of Italian glass blowers like Lino Tagliapietra can be seen in small scale in this work. I worked with two master stonecutters to be able to incorporate the marbles into our jewelry. Contrasting these playful found objects with precious materials highlights both the craftsmanship and the concept of time, which is intrinsic to my work.

It is obvious that you carefully consider the relationship between the gemstone and the jewelry that surrounds it.  How do you achieve your singular balance between geometry and organic?

It is a like a dance, a search for beauty. I look for the essence of the stone, explore the female curve, but also look for a disruptive element to create tension. The relationship between the organic and the geometric is important here. The female body is erotic, full of sensual lines. When I create a form, I look to the body as a platform, but also to continue the lines that nature has provided. Over the years our signature rings have been called ‘Ladyfingers’, as they extenuate the elegance of the finger. I use geometric compositions to create tension and provoke love, but there are different kinds of love stories.

Do you have a favorite gemstone to work with, something that sparks your creative vision?

I love the interesting inclusions of quartz. I have this great ring right now with a green tourmaline crystal that grew right into the stone, and a fabulous collection of phantom quartz that I’m just sketching out now. Oh, and the amazing colors of tourmalines, which are now so difficult to find…but just delicious.

If you could tell your beginning self something you’ve learned through your experience as a designer, what would it be?

Throwbacks are for Facebook! As an artist, you have to push through it.

What are you looking forward to at JCK Tucson this year?

JCK is a community, not just a show! Meeting old friends and making new ones, the cactus desert, and the Starr Pass Marriott is the perfect place to host the top jewelry event at the Tucson gem show. The fireside chats, the element of discovery and the particular charm of the sunrise hikes make JCK Tucson a truly unique experience.

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john-atencio-headshotJohn Atencio

I’m looking forward to saying hello to John Atencio and his team. For four decades (!), this prolific designer has created many collections with a thoroughly recognizable aesthetic. Each design reflects a sculptural approach, with lush depth and layers. Whether diamond or gemstone, ring or earrings, John’s attention and direction are apparent in every collection. It is rare to find that sort of consistency and longevity in the jewelry industry, and John shared his insights into the creative process, change, and what keeps him inspired.

You have approached nearly every category of jewelry: engagement rings, earrings, pendants, fashion jewelry… Do you have a favorite starting point that you enjoy designing around?
I don’t really have a favorite starting point. I love rendering and tweaking those drawings to get the process started. When the seed is planted, I have a reverence for the drawing that keeps me to task throughout the development process. I love to be in that process with my development team—and particularly enjoy seeing the finished sample knowing all the work that has led up to that point.

Maintaining many categories is definitely challenging. Making sure that I have a thread—my personal aesthetic—that carries through each category and collection is critical. Now that I am 40 years into this journey I am experienced and clear in the designing part.

Do you find it challenging to continue to create new work while holding on to your recognizable aesthetic?
Not really. Through the years, each collection has helped deepen the foundation of that aesthetic thread. More energy is used to develop the architectural puzzle. We make sure that the jewelry weights, settings, and production throughout are consistent and meet my criteria for beauty and excellence.

Ideally, all the hands that touch the design should derive satisfaction and have an appreciation for our core aesthetic, so that stones aren’t broken, metal isn’t wasted, and the process has been efficient and thorough. Ultimately, we want our people in development and production to share in the dream and excitement of creating a beautiful, unique piece of jewelry.

What continues to challenge you and keep you inspired about designing and the jewelry industry?
Change. There are a few aspects of the industry that remain constant, but overall, the puzzle of design, marketing, market conditions, and selling channels are all constantly changing. For me, change has become a source of inspiration and is essential for growth. In the past couple of years, we have ventured into new areas and developed new collections that have really set us apart. One is Signature. Each piece in this collection is very personal and one-of-a-kind.

Obviously, economics is always a challenge. While we are now in a much better place than several years back, we know that careful, well-thought-out decisions in business are critical to ongoing growth and prosperity.

What are you most looking forward to with JCK Tucson?
We are really looking forward to being back on the trade show circuit with other jewelry artisans, designers, and retailers. Over the years there were challenges with the shows. But with the challenges came camaraderie, deep feelings, and long-standing relationships. Information was shared, and there was a sense of a greater purpose. We are looking forward to getting back in it with JCK Tucson.

Colored gemstones or diamonds?
Both, clearly. But as Pliny the Elder concluded, “The diamond is the most valuable, not only of precious stones, but of all things in the world.” Diamonds are a key source of revenue for us, but there are challenges to both. I think that having a task that challenges the art, the artist, and the ability to compete within the market makes for deeper rewards in personal development and financial growth.

Is there a particular retailer you have had a long-term relationship with? What would you attribute your successful partnership to?
I think “partnership” is definitely the key word in this question. We have some great retailers, but our best retailers aren’t necessarily the ones that we’ve done business with the longest. It is the retailers that have been in the business for a long time—those that have weathered the storms—that offer the richest experiences and the greatest rewards. This isn’t an industry that has seen success overnight. It has taken a lifetime of building, experience, and knowledge to get to this point.

What is another passion besides jewelry, and does it influence your design aesthetic in any way?
While attending art school in college, my greatest challenge was painting on canvas. Although I did very little painting during my college years and early years in business, it is now a source of great pleasure. The lasting pleasure of designing jewelry sometimes feels quite fleeting or never-ending. Creating work with the brush and canvas feels very different. I see that I’m living a truly artful life: writing, painting, and designing. It’s a story and a legacy.

What’s next for John Atencio?
“Draw, draw, draw…” is the battle cry! Keeping my hands moving and my mind creating is what I live by. So as long as I can draw what I see or how I feel, the “Next” always seems to appear on the horizon. Honestly, the dream of creating a watch collection seemed far-fetched (impossible?) just a few years ago, yet here we are…
I am also now in a position where I take great joy in helping others to grow, to develop their business acumen or artistic pursuits. As I begin to mentor others, I hope that down the road, they too will be able to meet the challenges of the day.

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