A Gem Amidst the Red Rocks
Gary Neilsen, a Sedona
local for some seven years now is known by many people around
town. Some know him as a musician. Others for his phenomenal work
with gemstones. While a select few know him as the long-haired
guy at Sedona Coffee Roasters complimenting the ladies and amusing
A cloudy spring morning
found me approaching his quaint little home tucked away in rural
Sedona. Having spoken to him casually over the years, I only knew
to expect the unexpected.
yelled from another room for me to come in. I pushed my way through
the portal, into the world of Gary Neilsen. Free to roam about,
I began noticing his many treasures. Crystals of all shapes, colors
and sizes dotted his unpretentious habitat. Unique artwork of
birds and various wildlife adorned the walls in a haphazard kind
of fashion. As I turned to enter one of the rooms, he appeared
smiling widely. "Oh you'll definitely have to check that room
out," he said emphatically. "But first come out to my workshop."
Passing through the
porch where several bird feeders hung, he greeted a small hummingbird
dining nearby. Sharing a love for the little dynamos, we traded
stories before entering into his humble place of work and play.
There were tools I recognized having seen them in my dad's woodshop
many years ago, and others I'd never seen the likes of. Diamond
saws, lapidary tools, wheels and drill bits you'd find in a dentist's
office, to name a few. Neilsen told me diamond tools were the
best and the only ones he uses on his gemstones. This provides
superior quality in the execution of his work. Something I would
come to understand better as I viewed his art.
Chatting easily, we
returned to the living room to make ourselves comfortable. Here
I would further discover the many facets of Neilsen.
Born in Chicago the
seventh child of nine, Neilsen seemed to be the black sheep of
the family. An attribute many share here in Sedona and one that
seems to make for a great artist.
Neilsen's first talent
showed itself when he was 18. His girlfriend gave him a silver
flute as a gift, which he taught himself to play. By the time
he was 25, he owned 27 instruments ... violins, drums, guitars
and more, all of which he was self-taught. Other than spending
a little less than a year in private lessons with a friend on
music theory, Neilsen has no formal training. After playing around
with so many instruments, he decided on the silver flute and hand
An avid fan of classical
flutist Ram Pal, jazz giant Joe Farrell of Chic Corea and the
man who brought the silver flute to rock, Ian Anderson of Jethro
Tull, Neilsen had a hard time picking his favorite.
Neilsen's first band,
Mothras Revenge, was a 5-piece jazz ensemble out of Chicago. Working
all day as the Forman of a factory with 40 people under him, and
playing music at night was a life he'd come to know, but not particularly
like. Except for the music that is. So at 29, he quit his job,
sold everything, threw a backpack over his shoulders and hit the
Landing in Canada he
met and fell in love with a local "Moongoddess" and they began
traveling together. Roaming up and down the coast, they enjoyed
a time free of worries and stress. When landing in Bisbee, Arizona
they came upon Al, a one-legged bass player. He took them on a
hike up the worn out railroad tracks between the old mine and
smelter where Neilsen found a piece of azurite malachite. Al cut
it for him turning it into a piece of jewelry.
"It fascinated me that
you could pick a stone up off the ground, cut and shape it, turn
it into a finished product and suddenly it's worth a lot of money,
and, it's really beautiful!"
Traveling with his
Moongoddess, they stayed at every campground from Van Couver to
San Diego. After a short return to Chicago, he moved to Canada
and the two began doing craft work together. Using feathers they
found locally, they sewed them into hat clips and things of that
nature. (Robert, he actually said hat clips and roach clips -
that's why I'm saying "things of that nature") Selling them on
the streets, at the beach and at local fairs, they did quite well.
They began to travel
again only this time from craft fair to craft fair, selling their
wares. When returning to Bisbee, Neilsen collected a bunch of
malachite and azurite. Once back in Canada, a friend taught him
how to cut the stones and let him use his equipment.
And so, another facet
of Neilsen's natural ability presented itself. He began working
more and more with the stones, learning as he went along and soon
purchased his own equipment. This was quite expensive since Neilsen
only works with diamond equipment. He explained the use of diamond
saws, wheels and lapidary tools to produce the quality of work
he does. This is a "painstaking process" of precision and expertise
he has perfected over the past 25 years.
He continued, "You
can go completely commercial and do it the quick way or you can
do it the artists way which is more time consuming and precise.
I choose the artists way and, well, I hope it works. I make what
I like and then hope the public likes it too." He spends himself
and his money for something which he believes in and produces
a product he can be proud of.
Neilsen doesn't depend
on craft shows anymore to sell his unique items, but still attends
the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show every February, as he has for
the past 25 years. It is here that he sells many of his pieces
but even more importantly where he purchases 90% of his stones.
This is because the quality is incomparable. "I buy lapis from
an Afghani, Ruby from an Indian or Pakistani, Citrine from a Brazilian.
Most of the time I am buying from either the miner or the next
guy. You just can't get better quality."
He tells me of a mine
he ventured into many years ago that collapsed shortly after he
retrieved 2 lbs. of the most beautiful azurite crystal he'd ever
seen. Then how he invented a process to set crystals into stone.
A 14-step process using all diamond equipment that no one else
has done to date. Of his now favorite crystals from the Brandburg
Mine in Namibia, Africa that run from flawlessly clear to deepest
richest amethyst and smoky. They can be skeletal or have water
trapped inside or phantoms. Most grow very deep in the earth in
As Neilsen continues
to talk about his work, I am irresistibly caught up in his story.
I see an amazing passion rise out of him as he talks of the different
stones he delights in working with. He is amiable and good humored
with a lavish sense of beauty, that echoes in his art.
At this point he is
surrounded by pieces he has brought from all over the house as
we have talked. Gorgeous stones sit among these objects ... jewelry,
sculptures, ceremonial pieces. He holds up a pendant of the Madonna
with child in her womb. It is the most remarkable composition
I have ever seen. The Mother is lapis, the Baby labadarite (spelling?).
The back, as fine as the front, is a 12-rayed star. A very precious
piece, priced at $6,400, Neilsen believes this is one the grandchildren
Next he shows me a
magnificent seahorse made of gem silica chryslacola (spelling?).
One eye is sapphire, one emona(????) As he shows me he speaks
through half closed eyes of his love for exotic crystals.
His newest love and
creation in the line of jewelry are his very plump and luscious
spirals. Making them in every thing from emeralds to rose quartz,
they are 4 sensual, voluptuous twists that many relate to the
goddess. They have been very popular and range in price from $96
The spirals are very
labor intensive and have been developed with the use of diamond
powder and golf tees. Another one of Neilsen's ingenious inventions
to produce a one-of-a-kind item. The spirals are put through an
arduous polishing phase using seven wheels.
He is particularly
drawn to the spiral and has used the shape over the years in a
lot of his work. Creating unicorn horns and free form spirals
has led to this next phase.
I asked him if it required
a great deal of patience to do this painstaking work. Before the
words were completely out he was shaking his head. "I don't believe
in patience," he said. "It has nothing to do with patience and
everything to do with passion. If you love what your doing, what's
to be patient about? It's what you want to be doing!" Some people
are driven by quick results, this is obviously not the case with
Now it was time to
enter the room I had ventured towards over an hour ago. It was
here that Neilsen explained the three categories of work he performs.
His jewelry which includes
crystal settings and free form pendants is made entirely of natural
material that has never been treated, stabilized, or resurfaced.
All natural gemstones are made with no metal involved. The free
forming stones can be put on leather and in some cases, Neilsen
has combined wood with the stones. These cost from $16 and up.
Crouching in the corner
like a sorcerer among his charms and spells, Neilsen pointed to
one of his sculptures. This one in particular was astounding.
A gorgeous sculpted piece of mahogany formed the stand that looped
over and held - in mid air - a meteorite knife adorned with a
lapis handle. The knife blade dangled mysteriously from its point,
handle down. Much to my amazement, Neilsen reached over and spun
it. He explained that a super magnet was embedded in the top allowing
this magic to happen. The blade, which is actually made from nickel-iron
meteorite - in other words pieces of shooting stars - are designed
by Neilsen and very unique. They glimmer like ancient stones scattered
over the floor of some magic wood. Knifes run about $1,500.
Barely able to turn
away, Neilsen is now showing me a ceremonial pipe. He uses many
exotic woods for the stem, Minnesota pipe stone exclusively for
the bowl and decorates some with Bear totems.
His favorite all time
pipe was sold last year for $15,000! Made of 3/4 lb. of ruby,
lined inside with pipe stone in both directions, it had a crystal
setting and a stem of coca bolla wood and star ruby set behind
the bowl. From the gleam in his eye I suspected it was hard to
let go of. "Not for that kind of money," he laughed.
While the pipes have
a Native American feel to them, Neilsen is very respectful and
careful not to use their designs. Creating gemstone pipes for
over 15 years, he is adamant about not offending any one.
Always creating new
products, Neilsen is also now making something he calls "well-balanced
labadirites." They are free form shapes of high quality labidirite,
some suggestive of animals or birds, on wooden bases. He uses
super magnets here to create this "sense of balance." The wooden
stands really are a nice way of displaying the stones.
You can see and purchase
Neilsen's jewelry, knifes, pipes and his newly created "well-balanced
labadirites" in Crystal Magic in West Sedona.
Robert, I have a closing
paragraph that talks briefly about his new band and upcoming dates.
It also kinds of closes the story as I try to bring it full circle.
Ill bring it in tomorrow I wasnt quite finished
or happy with it and Id like it to be strong.