published Friday, May 16th, 2014

From deer antler to handcarved gold, personalized jewelry created to individual tastes

Tyler Smalley carves a model of a custom ring out of jeweler’s wax at Arney Guess Goldsmith.
Tyler Smalley carves a model of a custom ring out of jeweler’s wax at Arney Guess Goldsmith.
Photo: Tyler Smalley

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Visit www.aggoldsmith.com/#!video for a video walkthrough of how Arney Guess Goldsmith creates custom jewelry.

Step by step directions for creating a ring
Step by step directions for creating a ring

For more than 25 years, Arney Guess has custom-made jewelry, but it's not just gold and gems that pass through his Hixson boutique.

Guess, 59, and his staff of jewelers receive about 100 custom orders a year, but for every dozen requests for diamond engagement rings, there's one for a bear-claw necklace or a pair of earrings made from polished elk teeth. Customers have walked in with dreams of beautiful works of art made out of everything from shark teeth to spent shell casings. A belly dancer once posed in the store, in costume, so her likeness could be handcarved out of gold for a pendant.

Recently, a man ordered a wedding band made from a deer antler so fresh it was still covered in fur and sinew when he dropped it off.

"That stuff smelled up the place so bad when you start grinding on it," laughs jeweler Tyler Smalley, the boutique's manager and Guess' son-in-law. "We had to open up the windows. Guys were walking out of there because they couldn't handle it anymore."

Just try taking that request to a jewelry store in a mall, laughs Guess, who began making jewelry in the 1980s.

"With custom jewelry, you can get exactly what you want instead of having to settle for something you kind of like," he says. "Some stores have really nice stuff, but most of that is financially out of reach for a lot of people. For the average person, you can usually get better quality and get more of exactly what you want with a custom order."

Guess first began working with gold 45 years ago as an assistant to his father, a dental technician who operated out of the family's basement. Eventually, Guess grew weary of making crowns and bridges and began experimenting with designing and crafting jewelry. Honestly, he says, it wasn't much of a leap.

"You use a lot of the same skills and tools ... [like] wax carving and casting," Guess explains. "Making teeth is very meticulous. If I can make teeth, I can make anything, so that's what I did."

For about seven years, there was even some overlap. Guess and his father worked in the same location, turning precious metals into both oral prosthetics and fashionable accoutrements.

Eventually, however, Guess split off on his own. After more than a decade operating out of a rented storefront, he moved to his current location -- a one-time greenhouse off Hixson Pike -- in 2009. The store's showroom features glass cases full of rings, watches and necklaces dripping in gems. With a few exceptions, these are out-of-house creations, either catalog purchases, estate sale acquisitions or consignment pieces.

About one-quarter of Guess' business comes from breathing life into the dreams of his clients, some of whom come in off the street with little to no idea of what they want beyond a vague impression that it's not sitting on a store shelf.

In the nine years since he was hired by Guess, Smalley says he has created about 500 engagement rings, including the one he used when he proposed to his wife and Guess' youngest daughter, Katy. Some clients, he says, arrive with a picture of their dream ring, either on a piece of paper or fixed firmly in their minds. Others need a bit more hand holding.

"A lot of times, it's a hybrid that's halfway between 'I know what I want' and 'Design me something,'" Smalley says. "I want to see how much they're already decided and go from whatever information they can give.

"If they can sketch something out and get it into my head, I'm normally pretty good to go with it."

When Shana DuBois' fiancee proposed to her on her birthday in January, they immediately made a trip to Guess' store to design her dream engagement ring. At the time, she was completely out of her element and hadn't even settled on the critical choice of what kind of cut she wanted for the center stone. Smalley sent her home with an armful of books full of ring designs.

"Once I had settled on that, it all fell into place," DuBois says. "I got to make little tweaks and changes and say what I liked. It was a very dynamic and exciting process, as a whole, to make your personal vision a reality."

When it was over, her ring was exactly what she wanted: a vintage design featuring custom engraving on the band and a tear-drop center stone ringed by a "halo" of accent stones.

"It's gorgeous," DuBois says. "I love it. I just like the idea of knowing that it's personal to you and not something that you'll see five other women wearing on the street."

The assumption that personalized jewelry carries a high price tag isn't necessarily true, Smalley says, adding that the cost of the labor on most custom pieces averages about $1,000 before the addition of a stone. That price can be even lower when customers bring in heirloom jewelry that they want to use the metal or gems from to create a new piece. In that case, he says, the only cost is for labor.

And when the ring, necklace or bracelet is finished -- which usually takes about two months -- Smalley says its worth won't just be measured by the materials that were used but by the knowledge that it's a singular work of art.

"It's sculpture on a small level," he says. "Art -- and jewelry is art -- by its very nature requires some degree of originality. Would you rather have a Thomas Kinkade print that's No. 762 of 3,000 or an original?

"There's something at least slightly shameful about mass-producing such creativity."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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