At his 15-acre turquoise mine in Battle Mountain, Nevada, jeweler Robert Grey Kaylor flips over jagged stones to check for the tiniest fleck of robin's egg blue, a teardrop in the arid desert terrain. Though Kaylor uses a good amount of turquoise in his handcrafted work--and some of it has been culled from his mine, Concho Blue--he's quick to note that the mine is more for fun than for profit.
"We just do it as a hobby. It's all over lying on the ground up there," explains Kaylor. "You drive up the mountain, and you can see it from the highway and start picking off the old dump that's been there since the '70s."
Formed when groundwater seeps through aluminous rock in the presence of copper, turquoise deposits congregate in Nevada along a tectonic belt that runs from northern Elko County down to the California border. The stone comes in many gradients, some of them, Kaylor explains as he slips a bracelet made from extremely rare Lander Blue turquoise on his wrist, are more prized than diamonds.
"Diamonds are a perceived value, they're not a true value. Some of the heirloom turquoise that I own, you'll never ever see it again because of the way that they're doing gold and copper mining right now," says Kaylor. "Now they're doing cyanide leech and it all just goes from a big dump into a truck into a cyanide lake and dissolves the turquoise."
And though Kaylor has been obsessed with turquoise since the 1970s--crafting exquisite turquoise jewelry for his own R. Grey Gallery in Boise since 1985--his latest line casts aside this signature stone completely in favor of a less flashy material: antique steel.
"I started perusing antique stores for found objects that would be really cool and work in my jewelry design," explains Kaylor. "The first thing I found were the old cabinet keys, which were getting harder and harder to find. That was the basis for the first piece that I did. Then I found the old antique furniture square nails, and I developed a way to hot forge them into forms--twist them and manipulate them to make bracelets."
The keys Kaylor speaks of are of the classic L-pronged variety, the kind the evil stepmother slips into her coat pocket after locking Cinderella in the attic. Though these 1-inch-long antiques are made from firm, steely metal, attached to a simple gold chain and embellished with a diamond, they become the more delicate pieces in Kaylor's new collection. The other new pieces--bracelets and cuff links made from old furniture nails and numbered telegraph spikes--have a much more rustic demeanor.
"The spikes are about 3 inches long, and they used to put these in railroad telegraph poles," says Kaylor. "After a certain amount of years, they would remove the pole knowing that it was dry-rotting at the base. I think my earliest is a 1921, and my latest is a 1939."
For Kaylor, it's the history of the material--be it rare Blue Gem turquoise or an antique telegraph pole spike--that makes the finished product so unique. That quality, he believes, has set R. Grey Gallery apart from big box jewelry stores and kept the space flourishing for more than 20 years.
"It's not just like, 'Hey, I have a pair of cuff links on.' These used to be stuck in a telegraph pole," says Kaylor. "That's what I like to see, jewelry, or art in general, with a story behind it, not just a piece of art because I thought it was cool to do."
But that's not to say that Kaylor runs a folksy, small-time operation. His two-tiered gallery is filled with colorful glass artists, jewelry makers and furniture designers from across the United States, and even some from as far away as Germany. If that sounds impressive, it doesn't hold a candle to the workshop Kaylor hides in back. Down a hallway at the far end of the gallery, Kaylor's golden retriever Alta comes bounding out of the shop's double doors. Filling every inch of available counter space in the large, open room are machines that most lay jewelers wouldn't have a clue how to turn on--laser cutters, cleaning machines, plating equipment, wax injectors and even an espresso machine. Fidgeting with a piece of jewelry, bench jeweler Rick Olmstead explains that he shares the space with Kaylor three days a week. An ex-high school metalwork teacher in Detroit Lakes, Minn., Olmstead meticulously crafts his own pieces and also helps Kaylor work on larger projects.
"This is a pretty extensive shop, and this kind of room, you don't see this," said Olmstead. "Even if you go to Lee Read, you aren't going to see this kind of space and this type of equipment."
But when Kaylor isn't tinkering away in his shop, twisting nails and adding delicate gold, silver and diamond accents to his new line of jewelry, he's off pedaling his new collection to other galleries around the country. In the days leading up to his official First Thursday opening reception, Kaylor will likely be driving past turquoise mines very similar to his own on a long road trip to Tucson, Ariz. With all the stories wrapped up in his new line, and the history latent in each individual nail, he can't trust just anyone to tell it the right way.
"A representative that takes your work to other galleries doesn't always understand what went into it, so they don't always know how to explain it and how to sell it properly," notes Kaylor. "I feel it's important to keep my hand in it."
Thursday, Nov. 5, 5-9 p.m., FREE, R. Grey Gallery, 415 S. Eighth St., 208-385-9337, rgreygallery.com.