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.

"I kind of like it when people who have my stuff call me up and ask if I'll buff out some scratches or fix something that's been damaged," he says. "It reminds me that people wear it and use it--that I make things that people actually use."

Yares reached jewelry by a circuitous route. He grew up in Minneapolis/St. Paul, in a world of tools and music. His father ran an electrical contracting company, so most of his childhood toys were tools. Before he was out of high school, he was working in a metal fabrication plant producing a variety of machine parts. He played acoustic bass in weekend bands.

He parlayed his metalworking skills into a World War II stint as an aviation metalsmith in the South Pacific, replacing rivets on damaged planes. Off duty he played in dance bands and made belt buckles and other jewelry out of rolled-out coins.

After the war, Yares took to the road as a bass man, traveling a Midwestern circuit as far south as Lexington, Kentucky. In the late 1940s, acting on a tip from a friend, he enrolled in television school to learn how to direct and produce shows in the burgeoning medium. While waiting for TV jobs to open up, he studied at the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis.

In 1950, he set his music and metal aside and moved to Phoenix to become studio manager for KPHO-TV, Channel 5. Yares says part of the thrill of working in TV in those days was that it suited his improvisational streak.

"I've always been a jazz player, still am. I love that feeling of making things up. That's what we were doing--just making up the medium--doing it off the cuff and having a ball."

He kept the job, he says, until formula TV took hold and the work stopped being fun--around 1965. By then he was divorced from his first wife, Phoenix portrait painter Dagne Hanson, whom he married in 1950, and with whom he had four boys. And he was thinking of trying to make a living by, in his words, "making things for people."

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Yares kept a room in their house on north Third Street in Phoenix in which he worked on various projects.

"I remember he had this big section of a eucalyptus tree trunk that he worked on for a while," says Hanson. "It wasn't a steady thing. But he'd take a couple of swipes at it. And he was always doing other woodworking and some enameling on copper."

Hanson's mother and father ran a turquoise business in Phoenix. Whenever Yares visited them, he'd go out to the shop and putter around.

"One day, her father came by with a starter set of tools to make jewelry," recalls Yares, "and that pretty much got me going."

From the time he left KPHO through the mid-1970s, most of his energy went into being an art handyman. Toward the end of his TV years, he had a little studio next to the Los Olivos restaurant, in what used to be Scottsdale's barrio. Yares married Riva and started a gallery on Main Street around 1965. They eventually moved the gallery and his workspace into an old adobe building on Bishop Lane. That gallery has since grown into one of Scottsdale's largest art showcases.

Yares says that when he left Riva and the gallery business, in 1976, he stayed afloat on his framing and cabinetry, and began to concentrate on jewelry.

"In some ways I was a damn fool," says Yares. "I still had that musician's thing of only taking the good jobs. I turned down a lot, so I never really made it from an economic standpoint. I just sort of scraped along."

His old connections with local galleries and museums kept him going. The Hand and the Spirit gallery, which for a brief time had been housed in a room of the Yares' gallery, began showing his work in 1976. He's been with The Hand and the Spirit and his craft ever since.

Standing in the hallway of his home and studio, Yares has the furry presence of a mountain mystic--a man who spends much of his time alone, listening to music and dwelling on how to refine the designs of the smallest of small things.

He has the stooped shoulders of someone who has spent years leaning over his work, hammering, soldering and buffing it into shape. He always looks like he just awoke. And his soft, crackly jazz-club voice forces listeners to lean a little closer.

People who know him say he is one of the gentlest people around. He has plenty of friends, but says he rarely gets out. When he does, it's usually to stop by The Hand and the Spirit or go to doctors' appointments.

"What Clare is, and has been most of his life, is a real intellectual," says Phoenix attorney and art patron Edward "Bud" Jacobson, who has known him for years. "He doesn't need many people. I don't think he dislikes people. I think he just likes them infrequently."

Yares' sees his home and studio as something of a refuge, from the half-fun, half-harried existence of his younger days. A shrine to music and tools, it combines the ambience of a monastic machine shop and jazz club. Every room has its purpose. Their spaces are filled with a spare variety of simple shapes and things--many of which he or friends have made.

Friends insist you can't help visiting the place without wanting to come home and torch everything you own. Yet Yares' tidiness has an obvious iconoclastic edge. Tall bandstand-style bongo drums are stationed just inside the front hallway, where Yares can easily rattle the skins while passing from room to room. A vibraphone sits around the corner in the living room. And soft jazz and classical music is piped into every room. Yares, who also spent time as a woodworker, made a fair portion of the household furniture, which shows the clean lines and organic simplicity of Shaker, Scandinavian design and Japanese-folk craft. The garage holds some of his heavier and noisier stonecutting and wood-shaping equipment.

And down the hall, on the other side of the house, are rooms devoted to making and photographing his jewelry.

Yares says he likes to have his tools and materials arranged like a drum set--everything he needs within reach. The walls and table tops of his studio room are filled with neat collections of hammers, miniature anvils and dapping blocks (for forming varying size cups out of metal), pliers, files, reamers and more hammers.

"It's sort of manic, I know, but I just love hammers," he says. The hammers come in all shapes and sizes, for a variety of purposes too lengthy to name. Some are made of steel, some plastic and teflon. And in the thick of them is a mallet made out of rawhide.

Beside the workbench and row of hammers are miniature booklike slabs and flat-ended chunks of blue and pink chalcedonies, chrysoprase--a green stone with the glow of a subdued emerald--and rutilated quartz--clear as glass and filled with reddish-gold threads of the mineral rutile. More uncut stones sit in gallon containers tucked neatly on the floor against the wall. Yares also has samples of obsidian, opal, hematite, carnelian and varieties of jade.

He reaches for a chunk of jasper and moistens the surface with his finger to give it a fleeting polish. "What I'll do is pick the places in the stone that do the most for me."

Pointing to a spot mottled with reds and greens, he says, "There's a place up here that has some really lively, spotty greens. The idea in cutting stone is to bring that kind of thing to life. That's why I cut my own stones because I can see how the colors and light are changing with the shape."

He says he's got 30 pounds of rock crystal--enough for several generations of jewelers.

But he can never have enough of the luminous green chrysoprase that he picked up earlier in the day at Rockazona. "That's so good. I have to ration that to myself."

He makes every part of his jewelry by hand. He never uses molds or casts. He views the tools as vital extensions of his hands, and reminders of the craftspeople who have schooled him in one intricacy of his craft or another. He says the late Scottsdale jeweler Fred Scaggs and former Phoenix jeweler Pierre Tourraine, who worked under the flashy moniker "Pierre of Paris," were mentors of sorts.

He picks up a hammer that came from Tourraine.
Says Yares, "I used to go to see him just to watch his hands. Instead of hammering a wire to straighten it out, he would work it straight with his fingers--pretty high tech. Same with a piece of metal. He had the touch. Just magic."

Yares says that his early years in the tool-and-die shop introduced him to the visual and mechanical conundrums that are an everyday part of his work as a jeweler. Many of the shop practices from those days have stayed with him. At a large drawing table in the entryway, a long reach from the bongo drums, he makes detailed, improvisational drawings of his sculptures--forms that feed and borrow from the jewelry. And on index cards boxed in his studio, he keeps precise measurements of many of the forms he has made.

The irony of all this tidiness and order is that they serve what at times can be a vague, elusive cause. "What I'm trying to get in these works is an aura, an ambient quality that exists in a lot of good art," says Yares. "That probably doesn't translate very well, or it might sound odd. But basically it's a mystery that you can't solve. You can only experience it, over and over."

Unlike the gold, diamond-encrusted jewelry sold in fine stores everywhere, Yare's works aren't worth much melted down. And like other art jewelry being produced today, it doesn't command much of the estimated $20.5 billion Americans spend annually on fine jewelry.

Its value is, at best, esoteric.
"It's very abstract, and difficult to talk about without sounding like a New Age snake-oil salesman," says Kim Rawdin, a fellow Phoenix jeweler and admirer of Yares' works. "But Clare's work does have a sort of magical tension. He often talks about this polarity between two opposing forces in his work."

Rawdin says that tension is most apparent to him in some of Yares' rings, where the bands, settings and stones seem to come together specifically to set one another apart.

San Francisco painter Claribel Cone, who started buying Yares' jewelry about 20 years ago when she lived in Phoenix, points to the varied shapes Yares gives his stones, and the way he often bleeds silver into gold on the ring shanks, giving the ring a smooth iridescence.

Yares is particularly interested in shifting the scale in his work, says Cone, making the small appear larger by forcing the eye to zoom in on tiny details. "He made a ring for me once and set the stone so that it came down to the shank like a spaceship," she says. "He was really interested in how that tiny point on that stone was reflected down below--and how you could see through it, as if it were a little window."

Yares always cuts his stones by hand. He'll often begin with a rounded disc--like a Peppermint Patty--of precut and polished stone, called a cabochon. Invariably he shapes it into subtleties that are easy to miss or overlook.

Rawdin and others point out that he likes to undercut his stones, to bring light in under them and play off their concave surfaces. And he often uses reflective settings that mirror and illuminate stones from below.

These and other small touches are Yares' way of one-upping other jewelers who might be looking to borrow an idea. Instead of pounding on his chest, or making something that dares the wearer to put it on, he simply tweaks the angle of a bezel (the collar part of the ring that grips a stone), adds gold links to a silver chain, or constructs cuff links that flex with the movement of the wrist.

Many of the artist's special tweaks reflect his desire to make his jewelry as comfortable as possible. Many other art jewelers in the past 20 years have been testing the limits of safety and wearability. But Yares has been content to make simple-looking things that people want to wear.

His 80 or so works at The Hand and the Spirit show that his form of change all these years has been continual refinement. Nothing dramatic. He's channeled his stubborn effort into reducing his forms to their simplest outcomes, making their parts work like pure musical improvisations. All the members playing separately, but in unison.

And never the same thing twice.
"There's a certain point where the excitement extends itself," he says. "You get to that point, and you just can't stop. You have to keep going because you just have to see it through--see the birth of this object."

His pace changes with mood. He can work for weeks at a time on a piece, sometimes contemplating the angle of a cut. Or he can hammer one out in a matter of days.

"One of my conclusions is that I do this work for one other person," he says, "the person that discovers it and responds to it. I think I work a little faster sometimes if I know someone is waiting to see it fresh. That's what really gets me in the groove. It even makes me a little giddy."

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