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Cold Comfort

Gorgeous shiny things aren't hard to find, it's true. But if you seek something with a little more backstory and a little more integrity -- something that isn't laser-cut and perfectly uniform but is sturdy and lovely just the same -- check out the elegant, straightforward bracelets made by North Side optometrist Nicholas Jenson.

Made from found metals, the bracelets come in differing widths and finishes, and no two are alike. They're sold exclusively at SUGAR, and each one is handmade by Jenson, under the name "Jensson."

And we do mean handmade: Jenson works with only the simplest of tools, and he works the metal cold. He starts by bending the metal against his thigh, and then working the curves tighter and tighter against an oak stair tread and a wooden mallet. The physical bending is easy enough, he says -- the tough part is doing it without marring the metal's surface.

"I can think of a lot of tools which would make this work easier but that wouldn't necessarily be as enjoyable for me," he says. "The bracelet almost becomes a souvenir of the design process. Each bracelet is the result of hundreds of decisions. Eliminating, adding and varying the order of steps in the process can produce very different results. It is understanding this, and even anticipating these results, that interests me almost as much as the finished piece."

The soft-spoken, bespectacled house-flipper and nomad -- he's currently refurbishing a Victorian home to put on the market, a habit that's taken him around the country -- didn't set out to be a jeweler. He also used to make lamps, the only other handmade objects he's sold ... besides the houses he repairs.

"It's really a simple story," he says of his career as a jewelry maker. "I've always made things. I grew up around construction sites. I'd make things from scrap.

"The first thing I made was a pair of earrings because I couldn't find anything that I liked and was affordable."

The idea to make bracelets first arose a decade ago, when he and one of his brothers were seeking a gift for their sister. "I wanted to find a really simple silver bangle, and we couldn't." So the idea was born to create simple pieces that jibed with his obsession with quality.

"I had an aunt -- she always had the best bike, the best jewelry. She'd say, 'Buy the best and you only have to cry once.' That's probably how I was raised -- why do I want to buy it twice? If I can make it through life with one cheese-grater, great."

Even today, reuse appeals to him a great deal -- he cites Freitag bags, which are made from refashioned trucking tarps. "I feel like it's my duty to reward better design," Jenson says. In fact, about the only part of Jenson's jewelry that doesn't bear out his ascetic ideals is their price -- between $200 and $300 apiece.

Jenson himself wears simple small matte hoops, and his quest for quality was coupled with his thrifty upbringing. "Because I couldn't get the toy I wanted, I would make it," he recalls. "I don't know which came first: the obsession or the desire to create." Living in Utah and reading books about kayaking, Jenson says that as a kid he made "kayak after kayak": They fascinated him, and he wanted to learn as much about them as he could.

"It's funny how similar a free day is to when I was young," he says. Now, as then, he spends his time "hunched over, tools out, making something into something else."

Learning to create on his own led Jenson to adopt a utilitarian, minimalist aesthetic. "I really like the idea of things being simple and well made," he says. "I'd rather just eliminate rather than complicate."

And he does. Other than the rivets used to fasten the metal together, the bracelets are without bells or whistles. The functionality of those rivets sets his attention alight, leads him to seize a reporter's notebook and start drawing diagrams.

"For a long time, I popped the rivet heads off, got rid of them," he says. Now he leaves them in, with the understanding that at some point during the life of the bracelet, they will fall out ... and the piece will evolve into something new. "I kind of think of it as a loose tooth -- it will be interesting to see when it falls out."

With anything, Jenson says, seeing how it got to be might be the most beautiful effect of all. A door in his house bears a huge gouge, which he's come to love and value at least as much as he would a door in perfect condition. Perfection and the obsession with it bother him: He brings up the deliberate imperfections weavers sometimes introduce into rug patterns, or how much optometry clients freak out at the notion that their ears aren't precisely symmetrical.

He wears one of his own creations all the time, a thick flat piece that hugs his wrist and slides easily beneath a shirt sleeve. Before he made it, he says, "I used to wear this big bangle -- it would clank at work. This was annoying: I'm the guy with the noisy jewelry."

The bracelet he wears today, by contrast, is unobtrusive but bold. "It's uneven, that's part of the charm. It's asymmetrical, but I made it. The first time I scratched it, I was kind of sad, but I wear it. If I worry about it, it's not as fun. It has a history.

"I like the idea that any mechanism, any process that was used is visible," Henson says. "Anyone familiar with metal could determine that a particular piece was polished lightly before it was brushed. Those clues to the process -- it's so simple yet so fascinating. It's demystified."

The bracelet he wears, he says, took about 10 or 12 hours to make, but when he's making more, economies of scale let him work faster. He's refined the art of it a bit, but it's still evolving. "I realized there were more ways to get at it, and maybe the most direct is not the neatest. I have cereal boxes cut into cardboard bracelets to try different shapes."

Part of Henson's artistic sense is letting materials speak for themselves. "There's a certain way I handle the materials. I'm interested in making the most of them, but not overdoing it, not trying to make it look like something it's not," he says. "Sloppiness, no, but being true to the material. It's the process that interests me."

Being associated with a store and having an outlet for the bracelets, he says, justifies the time he spends on them. "I can't quit my day job," he allows. But then again, being an optometrist "is probably something I would be doing anyway."

And in the meantime, he says, "My inspiration is derived from whatever I'm able to do with a minimum of cost," he says. "It's made me appreciate other peoples' work. It's amazing to think of people forging metal."

click to enlarge Nicholas Jenson wearing his custom-made bracelet -- and not much else - BRIAN KALDORF
Nicholas Jenson wearing his custom-made bracelet -- and not much else

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