Lucid dreaming and the alchemical magic behind Adam Neeley’s designs

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Adam Neeley is an amalgam of many things – jeweler, designer, gemologist, geologist, metallurgist, the list goes on. He briefly considered a career as a geophysicist, so there’s plenty of hard science behind his artistic designs. There’s also a lot of magic. It’s the magician in Neeley that manages to transmute all those elements into pieces more complicated and stunning than the sum of their original parts. To date, his work has garnered 32 design awards and inclusion in the Smithsonian Museum’s permanent collection. Remarkable for a man who’s only 40.

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Jewelry designer Adam Neeley’s show at the Laguna Art Museum is the first of its kind. “Modern Alchemy” runs through July 29

For the first time ever, the Laguna Art Museum (LAM) is showcasing the work of a jeweler, having never before delved into decorative arts. LAM created a show that’s as educational as it is beautiful. And its unique curation by Timothy Adams – which simulates the feel of being inside a gemstone mine – is nearly as striking as the pieces themselves. This makes Modern Alchemy: The Fusion of Art and Nature in the Jewelry Designs of Adam Neeley feel less like a staid display and more like an immersive experience.

Occupying the entire lower level of the museum, guests descend into a dark opening that contains Neeley’s earliest works from childhood. We meet him as a boy of 8, growing up in Colorado, discovering his passion for rock collecting. By 12, Neeley is apprenticing with a gem cutter and silversmith and, at 15, participating in prestigious art shows.

We follow Neeley’s progression as an artist, from his education at the Gemological Institute of America and at Le Arti Orafe school in Florence, to the many accolades and awards his work has won over his 25-year career. A long corridor, feeling a little like an underground tunnel, leads visitors through the lengthy 10-step process of sourcing a stone and follows the gem’s journey to become a work of wearable art.

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A dark corridor leads from Neeley’s earliest explorations to his latest masterpieces. Along the way, visitors trace the timeline of Neeley’s progress as an artist on one wall and the journey of a gem on the other.

The show’s twists and turns open into various rooms, revealing treasures that treat guests to the finest examples of Neeley’s work. Note the many nature-inspired designs and an array of pieces that showcase Neeley’s signature SpectraGold technique – a risky and laborious process that achieves an ombré effect by seamlessly transitioning a single piece of gold from rich yellow to bright white by using seven custom alloys.

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“South Sea Glow” showcases Neeley’s trademarked SpectraGold™ technique with floating pearls. Its acquisition by the Smithsonian in 2012, when Neeley was only 30, made him one of the youngest artists to have a piece in their permanent collection.

Behind Neeley’s art stands tremendous scientific perseverance. Neeley’s trademarked and patent pending SpectraGold™ designs require relentless experimentation. Think thousands, not hundreds, of hours. Think hundreds, not dozens, of experiments. “Once I have a quest,” he said, “I have to conquer it.”

Conquering it isn’t only time-consuming. It’s expensive. Neeley has amassed roughly $65,000 of gold that simply sits in his studio as a reminder of what doesn’t work. Then there’s the $3,000 chunk of gold that he accidentally vaporized when he applied too much heat. It vanished in a puff of smoke.

Unlike the complicated science behind SpectraGold, Neeley’s artistic designs come to him in lucid dreams. He’s trained himself to use his subconscious mind to literally dream up his creations. He estimates 60-70% of the work on display came from designs he dreamed.

“You’re not limited to any boundaries in a dream,” Neeley said, noting how useful that is when conceiving of unique designs. “The trick is waking yourself up to remember your ideas.”

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“Through the Looking Glass” (2021), Veragold™, tourmaline pearl and diamonds

To access this state, Neeley lays out what he’s working on – gemstones, sketches, images of flowers or other inspirations. He plays classical music softly in the background. Holding a metal ball, Neeley drifts into a meditative dream state. “When I fall asleep, the ball drops and wakes me up. Then I try to capture those ideas.”

Neeley can come up with 50 to 100 designs at a time by maintaining this dream state. They arrive fully formed, exactly as they now appear. “I do a quick sketch and then the formal sketches the next day while it’s fresh in my head.”

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A sketch of Neeley’s “Cosmos” pendant which won the 2017 Spectrum Awards at the American Gem Trade Association in business/day wear

That dream state provides a potent wellspring of original ideas – one that never runs dry. It’s the same technique used by Salvador Dalí. “We’re all absorbing things all day – listening to a concert, going to exhibitions, seeing a beautiful house or being out in nature,” Neeley said. “That all gets into our subconscious. In dreams, we get to revisit it. That’s a powerful place to design, as well. You just have to capture it and figure out how to execute on it.”

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“Dionysus” (2018)
White gold, purple garnet, green tourmaline, amethyst, tsavorite

The thousands of hours, hundreds of trials and dream-state magic make this exhibition all the more thrilling. The nearly 140 pieces on display represent his finest creations, including the coveted South Sea Glow, which the Smithsonian Museum acquired in 2012 as part of its permanent collection and loaned to LAM for this special exhibition. Almost every piece on display is one-of-a-kind. “These are all hand fabricated,” Neeley said. “There are no molds.”

To illustrate the point, take a moment with his latest work, Olympia. The SpectraGold cuff boasts a rare Santa Maria Aquamarine gemstone surrounded by dozens of tiny diamonds. But perhaps its most impressive feature is invisible. When completed, the cuff didn’t quite fit the wrist of its new owner. Neeley needed an elegant solution. He created an invisible hinge that allowed the cuff to adjust. More hours went into making the hinge – roughly 250 – than the piece itself.

Neeley takes inspiration from the microscopic to the telescopic. His Cosmos series drew from images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. “The Andromeda Galaxy pendant reflects the movement and colorful combinations as billions of stars and their solar systems spiral in suspected harmony,” Neeley said. He also finds inspiration in Heisler Park, examining the many shades of green Mother Nature offers.

“My designs flow from natural inspiration. The spiral of a Nautilus shell, a blooming iris, the curves of the human body; this natural elegance is something I strive to capture,” Neeley wrote. “Bringing inspiration and precious materials together into a narrative is my calling. Every piece I create tells a story.”

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Naturally occurring images appear in some of the unique stones Neeley sources

The show has already garnered significant recognition. It was written up last week in the New York Times. The Smithsonian announced that South Sea Glow will be on permanent display in their gem hall (a rare honor, since 90% of their pieces remain stored in a vault outside of public view). Collectors have flown in from New York.

For Laguna, though, Neeley remains a local treasure tucked in our midst. His eponymous studio and showroom, located less than a block from the museum, opened in 2006. He’s sold his work to celebrities and collectors alike, but this exhibition – along with the recent international exposure – promises to put Neeley’s work on a larger map.

For more information on the exhibition and these upcoming events, visit LAM’s website by clicking here.

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A natural educator and passionate about his craft, Neeley freely shares his knowledge and expertise with guests at LAM

An array of events for guests of all ages are planned throughout the spring. On Saturday, March 16 at 1 p.m., LAM will host The Fine Art of Floral Design in response to Modern Alchemy. Sussanna Davidson of French Buckets will lead the workshop. Through hands-on demonstrations, participants will learn techniques to create stunning floral compositions that echo the brilliance of Neeley’s jewelry designs.

On Saturday, April 20 at 11 a.m., LAM will host a panel discussion with Adam Neeley, Curator Timothy Adams, Tom Burstein and Maranda Moran of John Moran Auctioneers & Appraisers. The discussion will be followed by “What’s It Worth? – Jewelry Edition” in partnership with John Moran Auctioneers & Appraisers. Participants are encouraged to bring up to five pieces of jewelry for a professional oral appraisal. Fine, designer and costume jewelry are welcome.

Finally, on Saturday, June 1 at 6 p.m., Timothy Adams, curator of Modern Alchemy and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Faberge, will deliver a lecture entitled “Nature: Jewelry’s Muse.” Adams will discuss how different artist-jewelers have interpreted nature in gold, gems and enamel works, culminating in the work of Adam Neeley and his flora and fauna works.

For more information on Laguna Art Museum, go to https://lagunaartmuseum.org/.

Laguna Art Museum is located at 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.


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