With bottles of boron and sulfur covering a wooden work desk, Adam Neeley’s studio on Coast Highway in Laguna Beach may look like it was made for chemistry, not jewelry design. But for the self-described alchemist, each piece requires a mixture of scientific technique and thoughtful design — with a touch of magic.
One of his latest pieces, a citrine pendant bordered by yellow and white gold, became a finalist in the international Saul Bell Design Award jewelry competition. The pendant, named “Star Hen Galaxy,” features 22- and 14-carat gold pieces appearing to swirl around a 19.43-carat citrine gemstone, like the spiraling arms of an actual galaxy.
“It’s really cool because it comes alive,” said Neeley, 35.
The piece competed against hundreds of other entries from 19 countries to be named one of five finalists in the gold/platinum category. Neeley will find out May 19 whether he wins, which would mean beating out last year’s winner, Los Angeles designer Garen Garibian.
The competition piece began as a dream — literally.
Every new Neeley piece starts at home on the couch. He turns on classical music, holds a metal ball in his hand and lulls himself to sleep with visions of the gemstone he plans to work with. Just as he reaches a semi-dream state, the metal ball slips from his hand, jolting him awake and catching him in the middle of his meditation.
“What I like about that semi-dream state is that you don’t have the rules holding you back, because it’s a dream,” Neeley said. “So you can just sit there and visualize and turn them and twist them and put things together that maybe you wouldn’t have done at your daily conscious sitting at the bench.”
Once awake, Neeley puts his vision on paper with a quick sketch. He then usually translates the drawing to computer to render the vision more exactly. The computer-aided design is printed into wax form and cast in the shape of a necklace, ring, bracelet or earrings.
The process “combines design with technique and then mystery,” he said.
For most jewelers, the next step would be to pour liquid metal — gold, silver, platinum, etc. — into the casts. But the scientist in Neeley goes a step further. With the periodic table as his guide, he mixes elements into the gold, creating a distinct hue.
“I have to engineer how to go through and mix in just the right combination of ingredients to get the new colors of gold that I’m making but also get them to be workable and then get them to be hard enough and resist tarnish,” he said. “It does have that kind of mad scientist element to it.”
The final steps are welding the pieces together and finishing the metal into smooth, sparkling jewelry.
“It’s like culinary — there’s a lot of different layers to it and they hit your palette,” said Zach Rollins, Neeley’s partner and gallery manager.
Neeley began his vocation as a child, collecting rocks in his rural Colorado hometown with his father, whom he calls a hobbyist “rock hound.”
The first piece of jewelry he ever made was a lapis pendant for his mother, who wanted him to do something with the piles of stones sitting around his bedroom.
Soon, Neeley was apprenticing with silversmiths, learning to fashion raw metal into twisted designs for pendants and rings. By age 14, he sold out his first art show. He spent high school honing his technique and finding his voice in his artwork.
“You do not need to make a piece of jewelry that is just that standard concept of jewelry,” Neeley said, fondling a gold ring inspired by a baby grand piano. “Make something that is out of the box that pushes technique and pushes design into something that really is an art piece.”
After high school, Neeley moved to Florence, Italy, for 2½ years, studying technical jewelry design. He learned how to draw and make technical renderings of how a piece of jewelry was going to look before creating it.
He paid his way through school by working as a goldsmith in the evenings and selling his wares to a growing American patronage during the summers.
“When you see a piece, you know it’s an Adam piece,” said Deann Day, a longtime customer of Neeley’s from Cypress. “Some of the pieces are almost like curves of a woman’s body or very musical in nature. It all has a certain — gosh, I don’t even know how to put my finger on it — it’s all very graceful and fluid. They just look distinctly Adam.”
After returning to the United States, Neeley and his father came to California — which Neeley had previously visited — for a planned road trip up the coast from San Diego to San Francisco to find a place to open a shop. They got as far as Santa Monica and decided to go back to Laguna Beach because Neeley liked it so much.
“We got to Laguna Beach and that’s always been a very special spot,” Neeley said. “I was like, this feels really wonderful. … Laguna just had that really awesome vibe.”
At age 21, he opened his first shop on Coast Highway in Laguna with 15 pieces. They sold out in the first month.
Leslie Tucker of Newport Beach met Neeley nearly 15 years ago and commissioned him to redo her wedding ring.