Few creative folks in the Vail Valley have been quite as much of a permanent and successful fixture as jeweler Dan Telleen, dating back to his first business venture in a still-fresh Vail Village of 1970. Karats, Telleen’s “working studio” and jewelry gallery, has greeted skiers and summertime visitors for some 31 years, and the iconic local personality is a regular guest on TV8’s “Good Morning Vail,” not to mention one of the community’s best-known working artists.
Given that history and his larger-than-life persona, it’s quite the revelatory experience to spend a few moments in Karats’ relatively simple studio space, where the adobe-styled display cases offer a small selection of Telleen’s current products, as well as jewelry by more than a dozen guest artists — Bali-based jeweler Carolyn Tyler and pearl specialist Koji Kowamato getting extra attention this summer.
And with his clever blending of historic artifacts — coins, arrowheads, minerals, even chunks of real meteorites — and freshly crafted precious metals and stones, Telleen’s pieces offer a distinctly Western flair, something that’s helped him develop a multi-generational group of devoted customers and fans.
“Our new inventory really isn’t designed for the runway or yacht season, like European designers do — hopefully our things are more longer-lasting than one season,” he says.
Telleen’s real talent is his deft interpretation and extrapolation of his clients’ desires for truly one-of-a-kind pieces that blend their own family jewelry or other keepsakes into new works. Working in consultation with a buyer, Telleen is able to repurpose rings, old gold or other jewelry into all-new works that celebrate those personal stories.
Recently, he crafted a deeply emotional piece for a customer, integrating a large Central European coin and a lock of her son’s hair, melded together into a creative and striking memento.
Another local client presented Telleen with a compelling list of ingredients: a strand of pearls, with deep sentimental value, but not quite appropriate for her lifestyle, plus an emerald from a trip to Thailand and some old gold, dating back to her childhood.
“‘What can we make with it?’ she asked me,” he says. “So, I created something that’s not just the emeralds and pearls, but uses those details for something new. How sweet it is to make stuff with a story, not just for the sake of making things.”
Telleen’s personal studio space, located in West Vail, is overflowing with boxes filled with precious stones, coins, arrowheads and even cowry shells or figurines used as currency in historic Africa. When inspiration strikes him, he’s able to create an imaginative blend of new and old — using, for instance, broken shells from Nagaland, home to indigenous tribes living between India and Burma, who practiced headhunting until the early 1960s. He’s reconfigured one of those human figure-engraved shells into a gold-edged piece that celebrates the Japanese notion of “Kintsugi,” a repaired object that takes on new life as a reinvented work.
“Really, I have no plans — it’s always just what I’m working on now, what’s exciting to me now,” Telleen says. “Natural things just serve as a springboard for my imagination.”
— andy stonehouse