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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Wearable Art: Patty Nickels

Patty Nickels in her Florida studio.
Patty Nickels in her Florida studio.
Additional photos below »

By Angela Wampler | November 26, 2007

An accomplished "dream weaver" with precious metals and fine gemstones, Patty Nickels blends fantasy and fine art. With her "open work" style, no two pieces are ever alike. Her use of color, textures and stones is bold and dramatic.

"I work very hard at keeping my work unique, original, and fresh. I've never been afraid to push the envelope, or afraid to design something. I feel I'm not being true to my art form if I play it safe and create the same piece over and over again. I like to go beyond what people think of as jewelry. I don't worry whether or not it will sell — it will sell eventually. I just create. To me, that's art," she says. "Each piece is handcrafted and one-of-a-kind. I learn something from each work made. I redesign my jewelry until it's what I want and also comfortable to wear."

A native of Bristol, Tenn., Nickels has lived in Florida for more than 20 years. Before she left her hometown in 1986, Nickels had a jewelry studio in downtown Bristol. After moving south, she returned to the Tri-Cities area nearly every year to exhibit and sell her jewelry at the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon. She also appeared in shows in Kentucky, Western North Carolina and throughout Florida.

Her patrons are loyal, even traveling to shows where Nickels exhibited her jewelry. "I always sent show invitations to my mailing list. I also sent thank you cards to buyers," she says. "Some people have been buying from me since I operated my store in downtown Bristol 25 years ago. Without their support, I wouldn't be where I am today. Repeat business is great."

One of her regular customers built a place in her home to display her jewelry collection — like fine art. The curio case with special lighting showcases massive neck collars on velvet backgrounds.

For Nickels, making jewelry is how she expresses herself. "You take what's inside of you, and express yourself in some way," she adds. "For me, it's a driving force. I dream about my work night and day. My ideas are a gift from God. When I pick up a gemstone, I can already see the design."

In the late '90s, Nickels created a series of "Renaissance" pieces that she describes as "quite dressy and fun to do." The gold jewelry was set with diamonds, sapphires, tourmalines, pearls and/or aquamarines, embellished with hand engraving. "Those pieces would each take a month to complete, using casting and fabricated techniques," she recalls, "and ranged from $4,000-$20,000 apiece."

Her work ranges from sterling silver to many colors of 14 and 18 carat gold. She also developed a deep, rich, multicolored finish for her sterling silver creations which, when combined with polished silver and gold, presents a striking contrast in color and texture. She does a lot of custom work for engagements, weddings and anniversaries.

Nickels continually collects precious gems to use in her creations, and her lost-wax casting and fabrication techniques give her work a fluid, free-flowing look.

In addition, Nickels uses Dichroic glass in some of her pieces. "Elegant and mystical" best describes the visual result of combining the fine art of the professional jeweler with the hypnotic beauty of Dichroic glass. The unique optical properties and colors of the glass achieve depth and brilliance from the multiple layers and fusion process. The color coatings shift in hue and texture as they reflect and transmit wavelengths of light.

After 30 years in her field, Nickels has received recognition with numerous awards, and has exhibited at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Orlando Museum of Art, and many shows and galleries in several states.

In 2003, her work was selected for the Florida Craftsmen's 50th Anniversary Exhibition Tour. Of 3,000 artisans who applied, only 150 were accepted for showcase and sale.

Nickels has experience working with stained glass, painting, graphics, and sculpture. She once worked as an apprentice in pottery at Iron Mountain Stoneware where she found she liked working with metal more than clay.

She attended Sullins College in Bristol and Stevens College in Missouri. She is a graduate jeweler from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte (UNCC) and holds degrees from the Gemology Institute of America in both diamonds and colored stones.

Nickels was an instructor of jewelry for two years at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol. She also served for seven years as a board member for the Northeast Chapter of the Florida Goldsmith's Society.

Nickels no longer travels nor does she place her jewelry on consignment. She sells her work directly to fine art galleries and through her website:


JAMES-BEN STOCKTON & DANIEL LUTHER of Greeneville, Tenn. look at their designs as "Contemporary Heirloom."

SIERRA McMILLAN, an 11-year-old from Abingdon, Va., uses beads, turquoise, stones and even found items to create jewelry.

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Amber and boulder opal pendant in sterling silver with handcrafted byzantine toggle chain (18 inches).

"Earth's Treasures" Dichroic glass and amethyst gemstone pendant set in sterling silver and 14 carat gold with 19-inch handcrafted toggle chain.

"Four Seasons" toggle bracelet (dichroic glass and sterling silver braided links).

Hammered cuff bracelet (sterling silver with dragonfly form and triangular cut azurite gem).

Sterling silver bracelet with 18 carat yellow gold and 14 carat green gold with settings of fire agate and red rutile quartz.

Sterling silver with patina finish and 18 carat gold and setting of amber.

A ring in 14 carat gold with yellow and red gold setting of fine spider web turquoise.

An 11.80 carat boulder opal setting of sterling silver with stars on side.

"Dragonfly and Lily Pads" (14 carat gold with 3.15 carat oval-cut pink tourmaline gemstone).

"Let's Mardi Gras" (sterling silver pendant with antiquing on 18-inch chain).