Personal, Functional Art

My roommate Mackenzie and I take walks around Fish Creek at night. After a scoop of ice cream or custard from Malibu Moos, Dippy’s, or Not Licked Yet – we wander through the dimly lit, primarily empty streets, dangle our legs over the docks, or peer through shop windows. We might tilt our heads and call a skirt or blouse ‘cute’ in front of clothing store windows; we usually name off our favorite sweets as we pass the Confectionary, but nothing halts our steps like the gleaming windows of J. Jeffery Taylor, a wellspring of bright, alluring colors where salmon colored gems set in silver rings, necklaces, and bracelets are arranged over a piece of peach-colored coral in a display case. Glass fish, streaked with colors – red, blue, white, and green – are suspended beside glass shells, plates, and candle-holders. The shapes, colors, and covered display cases tucked inside the gallery are alluring, especially for a girl of 23.

J. Jeffery Taylor, during the day, is a bustle of light and people – two white-haired women lean over the display cases, pointing and speaking, unaware of another woman in a jean jacket gazing over their shoulders. I fumble with my notebook, stepping up to the case and gaze at violet gems, imagining the rings on my fingers, the necklaces dangling from my collarbone, and the bracelets around my wrist. Attempting to appear professional, I do not ask to try on the jewelry; instead, I ask for Jeri Taylor, wife of Jeffery Taylor, the jeweler.

Jeri leads me up a narrow case of stairs, to Jeff, who is behind a desk and an array of small silver tools jutting here and there, only his dusty blonde hair and squinting eyes are visible from where I stand. After clearing a few items from an old wooden table, Jeri, Jeff, and I sit and discuss the business of jewelry making.

Jeff sums up his path to jewelry-making as a combination of “accident” and “genetics.”

“My father was an artist, a renaissance man who painted, sculpted, did everything,” explains Jeff. Originally, Jeff attended the Art Institute of Chicago focused on painting and sculpture, until he started tinkering with a friend’s jewelry-making equipment. From there, Jeff participated in a variety of jewelry-focused classes, pursuing his interest and eventually becoming trained and certified by the Gemological Institute of America – citing premier artist Steve Kretmar, whom he calls “one of the best stone-setters,” as a major influence.

Jeff’s career began as many jewelry-makers’ careers begin: repair and custom work.

“There was a time when he restrung macaroni necklaces for boy scouts,” laughs Jeri.

“Jewelry is a service business,” says Jeff. “You need to go through phases.”

“When we were first married,” Jeri, who Jeff laughingly calls “the brains” behind the business, explains, “we did a lot of art fairs to get his work out, 30 to 40 a year.” That was 33 years ago, eight years before they began business in Door County.

“We always came to Door County,” says Jeff, “and thought it would be a good place to sell jewelry,” versus Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, their hometown, where the art and jewelry scene was existent, though not as visible.

Over the years, through many aesthetic phases, Jeff says that he is “at the point in my career where I can concentrate more on my designs.” He has developed a collector clientele – “people who have followed me through all my different phases,” he says. Jeri interjects, “We are making wedding rings for our customer’s children; customers we made wedding rings for.”

However, Jeff continues to develop his skill, attending what he calls “intimate, one-on-one classes, at least one a year.” His extensive education covers many disciplines of jewelry-making: fabrication, casting, diamond setting, and stone-cutting. Jeri states that Jeff’s “sculptural background helps him put together colors, shapes, and size” in a tasteful, yet original manner.

Spending much of her time on the floor of the gallery, Jeri tells of rewarding, memorable scenes and experiences – “It’s fun to see a teenage son with his mother, buying something for that first girlfriend, and the Mom saying, ‘You can get anything but a ring.’” She continues, “And several men have designed rings and proposed right in the store.”

Jeff smiles and nods, “This is not a job; it’s a lifestyle. It’s personal, functional art.”

The biggest challenge to jewelry-making is “knowing when over the top is too much,” laughs Jeff. “Jewelry is created to be worn. Some jewelers make crazy stuff, but it is not wearable. I want to make something people can wear and enjoy. I put my energy and life into something.”

At home, however, in a studio that has no jewelry equipment, Jeff says, “I build stuff that is not functional, but that is for me.”

The restored house in downtown Fish Creek, bearing the large, clear windows where J. Jeffery Taylor is currently located, is more than a space to display and sell Jeff’s jewelry, but a fine arts gallery that represents three dozen jewelers, including Jen Hough – a silversmith who has been with the Taylors for three years – photographers, glass-blowers, and other artists working in a variety of mediums. All the work displayed has been, according to Jeri, “hand-picked for what is right for the gallery – bright and colorful, contemporary,” primarily from the Buyers Market of American Craft which showcases over 2,000 artists, twice a year, in Philadelphia. The combination of jewelry, glass, photography, colors and light is effective.

Even at 8:30 am, after a late girls’ night, Mackenzie and I slow our pace on our way to get coffee. With a hazy overcast filling the sky, unkempt hair, and caffeine headaches, we still peer and whisper like we are two children gazing into a brilliant, oversized fish tank – full of sparkles and colors, creatures and treasure.

Located adjacent to Founder’s Square in Fish Creek, J. Jeffrey Taylor is open daily at 10 am. For more information, visit or call 920.868.3033.

Sally Slattery, a recent Winona State graduate, currently interns for the Peninsula Pulse Arts and Literature section. A visitor to the Door County area since she was a young girl, this season marks Slattery’s second to reside in the county.