When she was little, Kristin Albee loved to play “jewelry store.” She doesn’t have to pretend anymore: Last year, she married Vermont jewelry designer Jacob Albee and has been managing his burgeoning business, both locally and at high-end craft fairs around the region. This week, the couple opens a new studio-gallery in Burlington called simply Jacob Albee Goldsmith, and celebrates with a reception for the public on Friday, December 4.
What visitors will see are the cheerful, two-story quarters in a renovated building Jacob purchased from longtime owner Harry Atkinson on lower Maple Street, tucked between the Waterfront Diving Center and Jager Di Paola Kemp Design. It is not a retail outlet — Jacob’s BMW motorcycle parked just inside the front door is the first clue — but a working studio that will welcome customers by appointment. Despite her beloved childhood fantasy, Kristin, now 31, and Jacob, 33, are not ready to be tied to the daily responsibilities of a store. “We’re on the road a lot,” she says, adding, “The downstairs could be retail if we ever decide we want to go there.”
For his part, Jacob is thrilled — and a little incredulous — that he gets to just make jewelry while Kristin handles “everything else.” And, he points out, “I get to hang out with my wife. I’m basically the luckiest artist I know.”
Visitors on Friday will also see, of course, a display of Jacob’s singular pieces, most crafted from gold, gems and iron meteorite. Yes, rock that has fallen from the heavens to Earth. Specifically, Jacob has slivers of one that landed in what is now Namibia “between 10 and 30 thousand years ago,” he says. It was “discovered” — by Europeans — in 1920.
Two years ago, the Namibian government stopped exporting the stuff, Jacob notes, “so the price tripled.” But the meteorite is no ordinary rock; its dull gray surface is striated with silvery, crystalline patterns. Albee says he finds it “totally compelling — aesthetically as well as thinking how old it is and where it came from.” In jewelry, meteorite pairs beautifully with gold (Albee uses 100 percent recycled) — particularly when sprinkled with tiny diamonds, or an exquisite sparkler such as the trillion-cut mint garnet he’s set in a signature ring, or a strand of impossibly chatoyant blue-green labradorite.
The contrasting textures suit Albee’s sensibility: a unique melding of yin and yang, earthy and celestial. His bands and cuffs for men would make even a jewelry-averse guy think twice. Recently, Albee reveals, a gentleman from Connecticut casually dropped $5000 on a bracelet — for himself.
Albee wears his own work without registering the slightest affront to his masculinity. Kristin, with a fresh beauty and shoulder-length hair, is a gracious model for his more feminine creations. The two met when she was browsing at the former Grannis Gallery — Albee worked alongside master goldsmith Timothy Grannis for six years. Needless to say, Kristin was attracted by Albee’s creations … and him.
Despite the old jeweler’s superstition that it’s bad luck to make one’s own wedding rings, Jacob confesses he did just that. “There was no way I wasn’t going to do that,” he declares. His engagement ring for Kristin sets an unusual rectangular “antique cushion” diamond that once belonged to her grandmother.
Albee’s fascination with his materials is matched by his love of exacting craftsmanship; this is evident when he caresses a hunk of raw meteorite, when he opens a little black case to reveal a dazzling new creation, and when he speaks reverentially of fellow designers he particularly admires. He also takes evident pleasure in showing off the work areas of his spacious studio. “All my tools are so tiny,” he marvels. “It’s funny.”
That remark suggests Albee still can’t quite believe the path his life has taken. “I didn’t come from a ‘jewelry family,’” says the native of South Strafford, Vt. “But I always thought it was interesting — I couldn’t tell you why.” Reflecting a moment, he adds, “As an adolescent, you want to find anything that will appeal to the opposite sex. I found mine in art class.” He made his first ring at age 15.
But, growing up “with 100 acres of woods,” Albee also became enamored of wildlife. Later, attending the University of Vermont and thinking, What am I going to do with an art degree? he pursued two tracks simultaneously: art and biology. “I had to fulfill the requirements for both colleges, Arts and Sciences and Natural Resources,” Albee says. “I was on a career academic path, and if that didn’t work out, I was just going to hide out in some third world country and do fieldwork.”
Throughout college, he says, he loved “the balance of hitting the science books and being able to walk into the studio and pound on things.” Albee got a taste of fieldwork during two different semesters abroad, in Kenya and Ethiopia. Working for the Peregrine Fund, which conserves wild populations of birds of prey, he fell for raptors. “Then I was going to go to the raptor biology program at McGill,” Albee relates. “I had all but turned in the paperwork when I begrudgingly took a summer job at the Grannis Gallery” in 1999. He stayed until 2006.
“I never went to graduate school,” Albee recalls with a smile. “I thought I’d be a career biologist with jewelry on the side. The opposite has happened.”
Now, a wing-like tattoo that covers his upper left arm and shoulder hints at Albee’s inner ornithologist. It’s styled after “my favorite bird in the world, a Verreaux eagle,” he explains. And, notes Kristin, “The binoculars and bird book go with us everywhere.” The pair takes motorcycle trips to look for nests.
“We live in an awesome part of the country,” says Jacob, who once was certain he’d settle in East Africa. “Growing up in Vermont, I thought I’d be a failure if I didn’t leave. But after several years at Grannis, I gave myself permission to love it here.”
That devotion is evident in the quality of Albee’s work, and in the bright new studio just a block from Lake Champlain. Looking around the space, Jacob says, “This is the most exciting thing we’ve done, aside from getting married.”
Jacob Albee Goldsmith, at 41 Maple St. in Burlington, opens with a reception on Friday, December 4, 5-9 p.m. Info, 540-0401.
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