The Mind-Bending Work of Jeweler Adam Neeley Is Getting Its Own Exhibition

Nearly 20 years ago, when Adam Neeley was a jewelry apprentice in Florence, Italy, Giò Carbone, the master goldsmith under whom he was studying, showed him a unique gradient gold that faded from yellow to white as gradually as the delicate hues on a watercolor.

The only problem?

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“It was butter soft,” Neeley, a fine jeweler in Laguna Beach, Calif., recalls. “You could easily bend it with your hands. So using it to make jewelry really wasn’t practical.”

Adam Neeley SpectraGold Cuff Bracelets
Adam Neeley SpectraGold Cuff Bracelets

When Neeley returned to the U.S., he committed to perfecting the recipe by making it harder and therefore more wearable. Four years and 185 trials later, Neeley trademarked SpectraGold, a gradient gold that contains seven custom alloys of gold seamlessly fused together to create an ombré effect.

Now, the story of SpectraGold, not to mention the jewelry Neeley has set in it, are on full display in “Modern Alchemy: The Fusion of Art and Nature in the Jewelry Designs of Adam Neeley,” an exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum on view through July 29.

Adam Neeley Earrings
Adam Neeley Earrings

As the museum’s first decorative art exhibition, the retrospective—a gem-studded journey through Neeley’s jewelry-making career, beginning with the raw stones he collected as a kid growing up in the mountains of Colorado—highlights the growing conviction, among museum curators, auction houses and collectors, that fine jewelry is worthy of the art label.

“Our mission is to preserve, engage and educate around the California experience,” Victoria Zagarino Gerard, deputy director of the Laguna Art Museum, tells Robb Report. “What that means is besides having diverse programming, it’s also being diverse in the art we present. Adam is an artist and he deserves to have a show at this museum dedicated to California art.

“This is the first time we’re presenting decorative art and Adam is like a hometown hero, so we’re kicking off this new commitment to diversity and the California experience with a local,” she adds.

Adam Neeley SpectaGold and Diamond Earrings
Adam Neeley SpectaGold and Diamond Earrings

In addition to the exhibition’s focus on Neeley’s wizardly way with gold—he’s also trademarked three unique solid colors of gold: reddish-gray RevaGold, peachy-champagne AlbaGold and minty green VeraGold—the displays focus attention on Neeley’s use of colored stones, such as opals, tourmalines, garnets, sapphires, rubies, tanzanites and other more esoteric gems (ammolite, dendritic quartz and fossilized pinecones, to name a few).

Pearls, another Neeley trademark, also feature prominently. Take his award-winning Nautilus earrings, for example. Each earring centers on a disc of SpectraGold lined with 18 pearls in graduated sizes and colors, from rich Champagne to silvery white.

To coincide with his growing emphasis on making the type of one-of-a-kind designs on view at the museum, Neeley introduced a high jewelry collection in New York in the fall that places his love of gems—particularly unusual cuts of stones, many provided by Stephen Avery, a well-regarded lapidary based in Colorado—front and center.

The Aria earrings that grace the cover of the exhibition catalog are a quintessential example. Set in white gold, VeraGold and titanium that’s been anodized a bright violet hue, the earrings, which incorporate blue tourmalines cut by Avery into elongated barrel shapes, are encircled by a swirl of pave diamonds and tsavorite garnets.

Adam Neeley Aria Earrings
Adam Neeley Aria Earrings

Neeley, who is 40, began collecting gemstones when he was a kid accompanying his father on rock hunting trips in the mountains around their home near Colorado Springs. He made his first piece of jewelry when he was 12 years old at the behest of his mother.

It was the late 1990s when Neeley, then a teenager, began attending the Tucson gem shows with his father and searching for more serious stones to incorporate into his designs.

“One of the very first stones that I purchased was a Steven Avery,” Neeley recalls. “It was an aquamarine navette. I think it was probably $300 or $400 at the time, which was a bit of a stretch at, like, 14.”

With each sale, Neeley funneled the profits back into his jewelry business, allowing him to level up his gem purchases. In 2003, he graduated from the Gemological Institute of America with a graduate gemologist degree and in 2004, he moved to Florence to study under Carbone, the master goldsmith and founder of the prestigious goldsmithing school Le Arti Orafe.

Over the ensuing years, Neeley has perfected a design process befitting his reputation as a “modern alchemist”: Many of his designs appear fully formed in his mind when he’s in the midst of a dream state.

“You can fly in a dream, and I feel the same with design,” Neeley says. “You don’t have those restrictions — you can design freely. The key is waking up in the dream so you can remember.”

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