Design of the Times

November, 29 2016

Design of the Times: Atelier Zobel and John Atencio 

By:  Monica Stephenson of JCK Magazine


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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