It was not an easy start for the wellknown Colorado jeweler whose designs are elegantly showcased amongst the city’s most modern storefronts and worn by Denver’s most fashion forward residents. It is hard to believe the designer of one of the most recognized jewelry brands in Colorado once relied on a spray-painted bicycle as his only mode of transportation and lived in his workshop. But the life of John Atencio, like every piece of fine jewelry he creates, does not come without a story.
As I sit down to lunch with Atencio, he shakes my hand and I notice he’s wearing a watch as eye-catching as it is artful. We’re at the new 801 Chophouse in Cherry Creek, the neighborhood and host to his flagship store, and as we nosh on a far more extravagant lunch than we are both used to- steak tartare- Atencio shares with me the story of his humbler beginnings and big dreams.
“Dreams were always a part of my life. Only I dreamed of playing in the NBA, not of making art and jewelry,” said Atencio reminiscing about his college years and the start of his career.
Atencio was awarded a scholarship for basketball and gained acceptance into the art school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, however after just two years, he dropped his scholarship to focus on what would be the most influential use of his talents, making jewelry.
“It all started when I wanted to give my girlfriend a ring,” said Atencio. “I went shopping for rings, and I didn’t like any of them. I said to myself ‘I can figure this out.’”
While he never did get the girl, Atencio did make the ring, and in that moment, his true talent for the craft of jewelry making was realized.
“The fact that I wasn’t classically trained, or studied jewelry making, or learned from others ‘how to make jewelry’, but rather built my own aesthetic values, makes my jewelry more identifiable and more of an asset,” said Atencio.
Soldering simple shapes together was the basis for Atencio’s early creations, which he sold from a rented case in the corner of a jewelry shop in Fort Collins. His first customers were family, friends, and coworkers of the local restaurant he managed.
It was then, in 1975, at 25 years old, that Atencio decided to pursue his dream and opened his first retail store in an alley off of Colorado State University’s main campus in Fort Collins. However, his first business attempt did not come without its challenges.
“People thought I was crazy,” said Atencio. “The first store bombed, being off campus and out of mainstream traffic made it difficult for people to gain awareness of my location.”
Giving up, however, was not an option for Atencio. From that experience, he learned the right marketing meant everything to a business and that marketing started with a name.
The name of Atencio’s original store was Creative Designs, but he made a bold decision and changed the name to his own, JOHN ATENCIO.
“When I first started, it wasn’t like I came busting out of the seams. It seemed more logical to make the company more intimate and local feeling. Naming the company John Atencio was more designer and to put my name on the line was a risk.” The strategy proved successful, however, and now JOHN ATENCIO is a renowned brand.
Atencio also employed a unique advertising strategy to grow his business.
“There is an old saying, ‘a picture says a thousand words’,” said Atencio. “I found the best photographer I could come up with at the time, and at that time there was a slick publication insert in the Denver Post called Empire Magazine. I advertised in that, and it was like driving them [consumers] to the door- I was blown away.”
Atencio teamed up with his brother Jim, who focused on the financial side of the business, while John ran the creative, and together they opened a second store in the Cherry Creek North shopping district in Denver.
“My brother at the time was my partner and lived in Denver. It seemed like a natural place [to open a store] because Cherry Creek was starting to become the culture we wanted to be selling in. The higher-end traffic and local trade seemed like the best match for us.”
One of Atencio’s first big sellers was the “Apropos” diamond ring, which not only put him on the map as a good designer, but as an icon in the industry.
“The Apropos [ring] is a very clean and architectural ring. It is very contemporary, and very me. It stands out in the photographs. Somebody once said to me, ‘a good design, is time’- how long that design lasts. Some of the designs I’ve done have lasted 40 years and the ability to withstand the test of time has really stood out in all of my pieces.”
Atencio’s marketing continued to flourish, as did the company’s growth.
“Where people had been spending hundreds of dollars, after the soon-to-be iconic ads were placed, the budget for spending increased to the thousands, all from the hype of the advertising,” said Atencio. With his eye set on a prime new retail corner directly across from their garden level location in Cherry Creek, after much persistence, Atencio secured a lease and moved locations to what today would be his fl agship Cherry Creek store location at Third and Detroit.
“The store on the corner of Third Avenue and Detroit Street proved to be the cornerstone of the business we know today,” said Atencio. “280 Detroit became the headquarters for John Atencio fi ne jewelry in Denver.”
The new advertising plan. along with the key location in Cherry Creek. were game changers for the company. As the success of the business grew, Atencio and his partners expanded. With the trademarked triangular cut diamond that he and his partners offered, Atencio was able to enter the Aspen market, in addition to several national and global markets.
“The Trillion Diamond was a trademarked cut of diamond when I got started, but it was more the ability to use the “triangle” or trillion stones in new ways that set my style of design apart from others. Trillion stones were always used as side stones in jewelry. I put them in the middle. I had created a contemporary piece, and it was what made me different.”
People took note of Atencio’s unique style more than ever before.
“At the time that I started, contemporary meant clean and abstract. Putting stones in the opposite direction from where they are traditionally placed made me at least feel like I was being contemporary. I became a trendsetter.”
With ten retail stores and over 250 wholesale outlets to manage, it became clear to Atencio that he had entered a production level that was too much for the confines of his Denver studio. Atencio was hands-on in developing his expanded production capabilities. He spent countless trips overseas ensuring any overseas production would be up to the caliber of his localized operation.
The economic downturn in 2008 showed its effects on Atencio’s well-oiled business machine, and as the market changed, so did the company, once again becoming a local operation, operating out of the six remaining stores in Colorado.
Today, even with each new collection, and tireless industry demands, Atencio still creates every design.
“I’ve never had a ghost designer,” said Atencio. “That’s the juice, that’s the fun part. Unfortunately, business is the reality. I now have a design team, but they’re more into the execution of the piece and bringing the piece to market.”
Aside from high volume industry demands, Atencio doesn’t see any major challenges facing the jewelry industry today.
“I see the industry changing, but I don’t see a huge threat to it,” said Atencio. “I do think it will become more brand-oriented and commoditized at the same time. companies and stronger brands that are more brand-centric to their customers. The little guy is going to get squeezed pretty hard.”
Being based in Colorado, Atencio does see some shifts in the paradigm of jewelry buying.
“Millennials are clearly different. I don’t think anyone’s figured them out. There’s been a lot of discussion on my team trying to figure them out, but their behaviors are not following the trends of mom and dad and grandma,” said Atencio. “Boutique designers have fallen away. It’s the bigger boys, the Tiffany’s, that they’re paying attention to. The good news is that we’re so well established as a designer we don’t feel that competition. There are not a lot of shops where people can go shopping for a quality local designer brand.”
Atencio derives inspiration from a variety of ways.
“I think there’s a story in my mind on how my jewelry should go and where I want to go with it. I don’t know who’s leading who? It’s worked for 40 years, and I’m staying true to who I am as an artist. If I’m listening to my heart and listening to my hand, it’s telling me where I am going next.
Atencio tells me about the creation of a new watch line that’s making a new chapter in his life. “Guys like watches, we were sending consumers to other places to buy watches. Why do that? I felt like it was the next chapter. The jewelry is the same way.”
“I think there are pieces that are more timeless than others. I have to be conscious of trends in the market, and when I’m being conscious of trends in the market, I’m not as true to myself as when I’m freely creating. When I’m freely creating, there’s a better chance I’ll create something that’s truly timeless.”
In addition to designing all of the jewelry he sells, he also names each piece.
“We have a library of names. We all add to the library and when we get to the end, I try to put the name with the feeling I associate with the piece- sort of like naming a baby. If it’s a boy, I’ve got to see the boy first.”
With 35 people currently working for his operation, in soon-to-be seven locations in Colorado and 19 throughout the nation—Atencio has no plans of slowing down. “I don’t think retirement looks like anything I’d like to get involved in. I think I have a pretty good gig. I love creating, and as I grow older the mentoring factor will probably give me more satisfaction than anything. I’ll probably go out with my boots on.”
In Atencio’s 40th year in business, the iconic brand will host several celebratory events including a new store opening in Boulder late summer, a fall launch of a new watch line, and a mix of fashion items being incorporated into the more traditional jewelry mix.
“We have a lot more fashion including leathers, exotics, beads and different stones. From a design point of view, we’ve put a lot into the 40-year celebration,” said Atencio.
“As for Boulder, I started selling my jewelry early on in Boulder. Opening the new store is very apropos–it’s like going back to my roots.”
I have to ask, ‘what do you say to people that have been told their dreams are crazy?’
“Dreams are not crazy,” said Atencio. “That’s the craziest thing you could say to somebody. We’re not here on this planet because people are “crazy” with all these new ideas, but we are here because these “crazy” people are bringing new thoughts and new ideas to our culture.”
Atencio’s sustainable, wearable, art has become a part of people’s lives. There is a purposeful recognition of their relationships along the timeline of their life. Atencio follows this same process. There is a meaningful thought behind each piece he creates. He designs, modifies, and appreciates each finished piece as, not only a quality piece of jewelry, but as individual displays of art, and reminds us all, you’re never crazy for following your dreams.You’re going to have larger