Lord of the Rings

Jeweler Clare Yares turns rock fragments into fine art

There are rocks. Then, in jewelry lingo, there are rocks--those glittering gems of high fashion and net worth.

Yet the rock that jewelry maker Clare Yares has just picked out of a crate at Rockazona, an annual swap meet of rock hounds and geezers in the desert west of Phoenix, has none of the uncut drama or flash of a gem in the rough. It is a smooth chunk, about the size and shape of a small potato with a grayish-green skin.

But Yares, who for the past 25 years has been turning rough stones into some of the finest, most understated jewelry around, sees enough promise in the chipped face of one of its rounded ends to give it the ultimate test.

"The cult of the agate licker," he says wryly, then quickly licks a finger and smears it across the stone. Like a warm thumb pressing through window frost, the mark clears a view into the luminous blue heart of a blue chalcedony.

"This is what it'll look like polished," he says. "It's a little white in the middle, but out here toward the edge you can see that blue I like. I can really work with that."

The chalcedony (pronounced kal-SED-nee) would have been easy to miss among the surrounding quarter-mile of tables and stalls mounded with gleaming gems, polished stones, trays of jewelry and crates of raw minerals with names like Botswana agate, Oregon sunstone and Mozambique garnet.

But Yares has an artist's knack for distinguishing what's pretty from what's useful to his cause. At 74, he is one of the area's master jewelers.

He's made a little-noticed career of transforming chalcedony and other bits of quartz and relatively inexpensive minerals into immaculate little constructions of color and light.

Simple. Classical. Elegant. Pure. Those are some of the words people use to describe his collection of rings, pendants, brooches, cuff links and earrings, which range in price from $400 to $4,000. Flashy and ornate don't apply. In fact, his works are deliberately understated, unfaddish and unprecious. They're made and valued more for their visual than their material weight.

Some fans see in Yares' works a Zenlike austerity; others, a Bauhaus or constructivist sleekness. Whichever the case, their pragmatic joints, fittings and transitions often appear to be the products of some high-performance machine shop. No detail has been left out, overlooked, or skimped on. Everything meshes with a gearlike visual ease.

Although Yares' work is one of the area's better-kept cultural secrets, the Yares name is something of a fixture on the Scottsdale art scene.

Yares is an encyclopedia on how that scene evolved from a dusty enclave of bright eccentrics, who convened every afternoon for drinks at The Pink Pony, into its current commercial poshness. Over the past half-century--he moved to Phoenix in 1950 and Scottsdale in '65--he's crossed paths and conversation with just about every significant art figure in town.

From the 1960s into the 1980s, Yares was the town's preferred art handyman, producing beautifully crafted frames, display cabinets and other essentials for most of the Valley's museums and better galleries. "Go see Clare," was the advice local museum directors would give to people needing to have something built exactly right.

And the gallery he started in the 1960s with his second--now former--wife, Riva Yares, has grown, with Riva's name, into one of the glossier biggies, with an outlet in Santa Fe.

Yet the gallery's impressive edifice on Bishop Lane, which architecturally shouts FINE ART SOLD HERE, stands in poignant contrast to the nearly hermetic world of contemplative interests that Yares now inhabits.

Living and working in a house in north Phoenix, with an Airedale named Tashi, Yares isn't part of the art-jewelry movement. He isn't interested in innovation for innovation's sake. He hasn't led or followed any fads. People familiar with his work say he has simply followed his instincts, building a body of jewelry that is as distinctive as it is unheralded.

Yares' lack of renown is partly due to the relative ambiguity of jewelry's place in the arts. Often considered more a matter of fashion than fine art, jewelry doesn't have the prominence of other arts and crafts.

As much as the art-jewelry movement--which has flourished since World War II, largely in American college and university metal and jewelry studios--has tried to sell the notion that jewelry is an art of big ideas in miniature form, most people still judge jewelry according to whether it goes with the color of their eyes, clothing or hair.

Yares' inconspicuousness is also due to his nearly complete indifference in self-promotion. Unlike other art jewelers, who try to place their works in as many of the 10 or so galleries around the United States that specialize in high-end, handcrafted jewelry, Yares has been content for the past 22 years to exhibit almost exclusively at the Joanne Rapp Gallery/The Hand and the Spirit (recently sold by Rapp and renamed Materia: The Hand and the Spirit). Gallery director Louise Roman says Yares' work occasionally catches the eye of jewelry collectors visiting from out of town. But his audience is here.

Yares says Rapp encouraged him to show in other galleries around the country, and, for a short time, he did. But he didn't care for the anonymity of shipping and selling works to people he didn't know. A soloist who prefers an audience he knows, Yares seems a modern throwback to the village artisan who specialized in making things for people down the street and around the corner.

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