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Podcast Episode 3: The Legacy of John Atencio


In this episode, we speak with John Atencio, an artist, designer, and icon in the jewelry industry. In a career spanning over four decades, John Atencio, a native of Colorado, reflects on his journey from selling out of his VW van to his first store in a small alley near CSU in Fort Collins  to the changes he has experienced over the past 47 years. Now, with six stores in Colorado, John infuses his creations with his personal experience of the world.

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Show Transcript

Troy Olson: Welcome to the Modern Jewelry Podcast. Today we have a very special guest John Atencio who is the owner, founder of John Atencio the brand and the retail stores and lots of years of wonderful jewelry so John welcome to the show today.

John Atencio: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

Troy Olson: Well John I want to dive right in you know take me back in time to the very beginning, when did your passion for jewelry really start?

John Atencio: I started making jewelry when I was about 20 years old, and that particular point in time, I was an art student at Colorado State University. I decided that I needed to take a free class at the Free University at the basement of the Student Center and I did that with my girlfriend and one of her friends and that's where we got started and I fell in love with making jewelry kind of right off the bat. The girl, and I became more serious and we went out shopping for rings, because we were going to get married and I decided that I could make a ring, and we did go ahead and buy another ring outside of what I made, but what I made kind of started the passion and I saw how excited she was to have a ring made and I started making rings for her friends and my friends and it just kind of grew from there.

Troy Olson: Great. So tell me did you already have an interest in design or what were you doing kind of creatively at that time? Obviously you found jewelry and found a real passion for that, but did you already have an interest in creating or art?

John Atencio: I had a interest in creating my whole life so by the time I got to school, I was an art student and that piece of it was kind of happening, the way it should be but I never really had any passionate all for jewelry and never really thought about it, it was really about taking that class kind of get my hands in the metal, so to speak, and trying to do things and when I went back to the class several times I kept trying new things, and obviously everybody else was kind of struggling or had lost interest and my interest just kept growing, so the creative piece just kind of took off and I never stopped I got called back.

Troy Olson: That's great and did you kind of max out all the classes that they had there at the university and continue your education elsewhere?

John Atencio: No, I did not take any formal education in jewelry making the class that I was taking was just a short class I think three or four classes in the Free University, and it was very introductory so the Professor the student or whoever was teaching the class kind of gave us a little bit of metal and a little torch and kind of put us on our way and really I never had any formal education after that I never took a class in my formal education at college that was in my second year of art and after my second year of art, I changed my major to business and never really went back to art, but it was something that I had kind of in my hip pocket that I liked doing so, I was very much a hobbyist at that point and the hobby grew and like I said, you know I saw people that were really passionate about what I was doing. Right, I saw people that became kind of customers early on that wanted something like started making things and selling things and making extra money and kind of snuck back into where I'd started and kept going and never stopped.

Troy Olson: That's great. Now I know that you were greatly influenced by your uncle. Xavier Atencio was one of the original imaginaires. At Disney he was very close to Walt Disney himself. I'm wondering if you can tell me about your relationship with your uncle and you know what barriers to creativity that might have brought down for you or how that helped influence your ability to just be creative and grow your own business.

John Atencio: As a child growing up I didn't really have a personal relationship with my uncle. He and his family lived in California and I and my family lived in Colorado. There were a few kind of times where our paths crossed, but he was very famous inside of our family because he was very successful and work directly with Walt and so Walt had a show on national television called the Walt Disney show and on several occasions, my uncle would be on the show with him so as a young guy growing up kind of watching Walt Disney hang around or work with my uncle it had a direct influence on me and, as I got older and got into high school, I visited my uncle and saw what he was doing, and he took me around and met a lot of the people that were in the imaginary department at Disney and walked me through how they did things and at that point, like anybody that's growing up you're starting to soul search for what you're going to do in life and about that time his inspiration was, I just wanted to be like my uncle and so get my hands in art to get an artist cation. As time went on the relationship grew and the more I got my hands into art, the more our lives kind of parallel to each other from his start early on. He was hired out of high school from Walt Disney and so we just shared time we shared talking about art, we share talking about you know the Disney corporation and kind of how he did what he did, and he was very passionate about what I was doing, I was very interested in what he had done and we became very good friends and, obviously, he was very much an inspiration in my life artistically.

Troy Olson: That’s so fascinating to me to hear about that connection, and you know how you were able to learn so much from him and learn so much that's great. So you know 46 years it's a long time to be in any industry. How have you seen the jewelry industry change and what do you believe have been some of your contributions to it?

John Atencio: Well over the years, obviously life changes and business changes and people change. So I don't know if the industry changed as much as I changed but as my career grew and I started showing and and developing artistically and the business started developing I started showing my jewelry nationally in New York, and I was accepted into jewelers of America new design Program and so, in the early 90s, I had to audition to be in a major jewelry show in New York and about that time I became much more aware of what was going on in the industry. There was a lot of trade people, there were a lot of journalists, and people that were writing about jewelry magazines started coming and writing articles or wanted to interview, and so I looked at the colleagues that I was around at that particular point in my career and saw their jewelry and saw their careers changed and my career change dramatically by being in major shows and kind of developing those relationships with people. The industry obviously started being much more interested in designers like myself like David German like Steve Lagos'. Many other designers started getting a lot of recognition and basically their businesses started changing like my business did so my dream really was at that particular point, just to be able to show with the likes of those kinds of people in a large show, and what I found was is that the industry was changing to really kind of leverage sales and leverage relationships into designer jewelry, and so I was lucky enough to come in at the right time and be a part of the industry change but since then, obviously, the whole industry has changed dramatically and more because I was a part of that change during those years I kind of kept track of what was going on and so there's much, much more trade around brands and brand names and different companies that are really marketing and developing businesses in the jewelry industry and so there's a consolidation there's a large industry that's consolidating into businesses that have much more of the marketing tools or branding tools that really, other companies are really having, not just in the jewelry business but outside the jewelry industry like the technology business and things like that so it's really changed a lot in the last five or 10 years.

Troy Olson: That makes sense, so anyone that has spent time with you just knows that art and really just creating is a big part of your, I guess, life force. Where do you get your energy and inspiration from?

John Atencio: One of the things that I've done along the way, is just really become aware of art and basically what's happening in all art fields, not just the jewelry field and being very interested in other artists that create paintings or other pieces of art you kind of read their stories and it's very similar to how my story has gone and I would say it's very much like writing a book. You start a book sometimes and you don't really know exactly how the ending is going to come, but you get into it and your story, basically, is just chapter by chapter by chapter. In the first part of my career I was very, very interested in just learning the trade, learning how to make jewelry and playing with metals and kind of playing with wax playing with design and really kind of just finding my way to feel comfortable just making jewelry as a craft. After that I got started, you know the design piece of that started designing and trying to win awards or being in contests or having my work be known for what my art looked like, and so I learned more about my hand and my art, as I developed that next stage and that joined with making the jewelry just made it more and more interesting and more and more fun. So the chapters just kept coming and the stories just kept coming about why I was doing it, or how it was done or you know what the designs look like, and so did the recognition and the recognition and the art and the story, you know just developed to a place where it became part of my life and the life piece of it, you know life happens, as they say, and so there were people that came into the business that were part of the my life and part of my family and that changed the business and it grew and the stories just kept changing and the art kept changing and developing and now it's a place where I really understand the whole piece of it, I understand the whole story. I understand how to make jewelry, I understand how to draw, how to develop, how to work with artisans and how to work with CAD and all those kind of things and so it's just a situation where it's accumulated and it's formed a piece of my mind or a piece of my heart or a piece of my hand that really is my life and I love what I do and the story goes on, I just keep doing it.

Troy Olson: I would say that your skill set is much more diverse than probably the average jewelry designer. Just because you have, like you said, worked with wax and worked with materials, and you know evolved it over time, and you know, having the experience with CAD and scaling different designs and things like that, so do you feel that you have kind of unique skills that maybe other designers don't have?

John Atencio: I do, I think probably the main thing is most of what I’ve learned is self taught. So the experience piece of it is such a wonderful piece of the art that you know learning how to make the jewelry isn't any different than learning really how to draw or how to develop it in your mind, so the whole process has really been a pretty wonderful joyful ride in my life to be able to have all those skills and kind of have them come together. A lot of people go to school and learn sort of what somebody else wants them to know or they you know work with other students or things like that to develop, so they don't really develop their own sense. I didn't really have that. I really developed on myself, so I really have a sense about it that's I think pretty unique and obviously worked really well for me over the years.

Troy Olson: Great, so what do you see in the jewelry world today and what do you think the future holds?

John Atencio: I think that smaller jewelers are going to be just fine they come to the market with some intellectual capital they come to the market with a dream they come to the market with some capital, it takes money to get in the business and so the smaller stores are family businesses, the wife, the husband, the family, the children kind of stay involved into the business and the businesses flourish because there's very little overhead and they don't have big stores and they don't do a lot of advertising, they have relationships and those relationships are pretty solid and so they're pretty secure inside the business. The larger scale piece of it is changing quite a bit and that's more of a digital piece, right now, and so larger companies that have social and digital platforms that have larger markets and or larger pocketbooks or capital to play obviously are flourishing right now, because there's a lot of opportunity in the jewelry business. The middle people between the small and the large I think are getting squeezed. The large ones are crossing over and marketing and a lot of ways right now that the middle businesses can't and the overhead for the middle people are squeezing them, and so I think there's going to be a wash out, so I think will be a consolidation with small jewelry companies or small jewelry stores that are independent. Larger designers and larger companies that have very, very you know grander multifaceted businesses that will prosper in the marketplace.

Troy Olson: Thanks for that insight. So the first piece of jewelry you ever made was that engagement ring. If I was to compare that first string to what you create today, you know what would I see, what would be the same, what would be different?

John Atencio: The piece that I made in the first part of my career were completely hand done. Those pieces were basically made just of metal and they were made by bending or adding metal or soldering metal or soldering stones. There's no real relationship to what I started with them, the way we do it today, so today it starts primarily with a sketch, and an idea. There's a lot of work done just to be able to prepare myself and or my team to really get the piece ready to be able to be produced. We work with really talented people around the world, stonecutters and craftsmen that really are very sophisticated and how they go about their business and a lot of the stones that we have today are either bought specifically for or cut for the pieces that we make when I design a piece today i'm thinking through all the different manufacturing to our, how the pieces really going to come to life and that I guess experience or that kind of sophistication really has nothing to do with how I got started in the beginning it was myself my hands you know, a torch, a bench, a few tools and cutting and slicing or sanding polishing. Those pieces were all done completely by hand and although my hand is very much into the work today I'm not really at the bench really making the piece by hand myself there's a lot of other people around the world that are involved with the making of a piece today.

Troy Olson: That's great to hear. So this next question is probably the one that I've been most excited to ask you and see what you say. Your jewelry looks and feels a lot different than a lot of other jewelry. What sets John Atencio jewelry apart?

John Atencio: Well, it really is something that comes from me personally and so I have a team of people that work with me that kind of make it work after I come up with the design, but the hand that I developed early on in my career by making my own work, but not really knowing how to make jewelry and simplifying the process and really simplifying the work itself is something that hand and that look has kind of stayed with me so most of the pieces that I make are very clean and they are pretty simple. I've learned and added many attributes along the way, but I'm still true to those attributes that I got started with and so, most of the people that I come across that talk about the jewelry that they like they they talk about that look, they talk about that hand or they talk about the simplicity of the piece and over the years it's become identifiable, not just in terms of the look of the piece, but also in the advertising and the way we market the pieces, so our work, my work and the work of others around me there's a lot of very talented people. They’re are all pretty cognizant and they understand what that look or what that feel is all about, and so when we do make a piece that doesn't have that look for that field generally there's some rejection or there are some people that kind of push back because it's like hey john it doesn't feel, it doesn't look much like you know that look that we all know is John Atencio. I'm very clear of what that looks like. The people around me are very clear with what that look like. We've worked with artisans and I've gone to all parts of the world to share and to work with people, so they understand kind of what I'm looking for. Some of the edges and some of the finishes, very high polished, very clean. Takes a lot of extra work to make that kind of jewelry come to life, and so it is now pretty identifiable as the John Atencio piece.

Troy Olson: Yeah definitely love that one thing that really stuck with me when I talked with one of your staff in the store was you know as customers come in and shop and they hold the jewelry and they look at it closely they feel just how substantial it is, your staff is not afraid if they're like well i'm going to go shop around you know i'm going to go look at some other stuff because they know so frequently they come back after having seen the jewelry, held the jewelry and then going to other stores it's, there's there's just a difference, you know there's a difference in the in the weight in how materials are brought together how sturdy it is. I don't know if you have any comments on that or if you've had that experience over the years as well.

John Atencio: Well over the years I've been kind of accused of having a heavy hand, so the jewelry that we make is a little heavier and I like that. I like to have something that I put on that when I put it on I can feel it. It's not something that's just kinda disappears or something that's so light that kind of breaks or falls apart, so our jewelry is pretty substantial. Over the years, the price of metals have changed quite a bit. When I first started, I think, gold was about $40 an ounce and it's closer to $2,000 an ounce, and so it would have been easy to keep trimming and trimming and trimming the metal but again, because I became known for something that was a little more substantial something that had a little bit more weight, something that was a little more durable living in Colorado and having people that were in the outdoors a lot, the jewelry never really changed much, and so it still holds up. It still has kind of the heavier look or heavier hand and people became used to it, and so the prices went up, obviously, because the metal prices went up, but the fact of the matter is, we never really changed the feel of the pieces, and so they feel pretty substantial still today.

Troy Olson: Great, that's obviously one of one of the many things that sets you apart. So your name is the brand, what do you want people to think and feel when they see your brand?

John Atencio: Well, like you said, my name is the brand and I'm pretty proud of that. There's a lot of weight, or some responsibility that comes along with that, and I think that what got me going in the beginning was a passion that I developed as a person to really dedicate myself to something and that really has not changed so that kind of passion and that kind of dedication and work is something that I'm really, really proud of. When you look at a lot of artisans or artists or people that are in different industries and say that person's really talented, what I would say is that person's really a hard working person so I've never really been shy of going back and doing the work necessary to keep the brand strong and to keep the jewelry strong and to keep my passion really interested in making jewelry and so i've never really lost any of that and behind the name as a person that's pretty dedicated to what they're doing.

Troy Olson: Yeah I definitely agree with that. Well John, it's been an absolute pleasure having you come and join us today and share with us some of your story. If someone wants to see your jewelry, to handle your jewelry, what do they do?

John Atencio: Pretty easy to either come to a store or go to a store that carries our jewelry or go to johnatencio.com and get a feel for the jewelry online, as well as there's people standing by that really understand the stories and know all the technical parts of each piece, and so you can talk to somebody online, you can talk to somebody in the store. You can call, and so one way or another there's somebody that understands how we're doing it, what we're doing and the stories behind it, and I think when they go to those places and find out those things they'll understand they're getting something pretty high quality very unique and something like I said i'm really passionate about.

Troy Olson: Oh great. Well, Thank you John, thanks again and I'm sure we'll talk again soon.

John Atencio: Okay, thanks Troy it's been nice talking to you.