Around Life's Curves

Around Life's Curves

In an evolving career, Gustav Reyes found an early touchstone in wood.
Gustav Reyes Rings

Gustav Reyes began his jewelry career making custom wedding rings. Customers often send him material – wood, stones – with a story behind it, which he incorporates into the piece. He finds it makes the work especially meaningful, not only for the clients, but also for him. A bonus: They take good care of the rings, “just like they ought to take care of their relationship,” he says.

Reyes’ Ad Idem rings (far left and center) use wood he salvages from other crafts­people. The custom wedding band sets are from his Simply Wood Rings line. A client provided the gemstone ring, which Reyes surrounded with rosewood. On the far right, a ring with interior wood from a pew.

Simply Wood photos: Sara Johnsrud / Other photos: Gustav Reyes

Gustav Reyes tapes reminders to his computer. A recent one: “Don’t forget to play.” “It’s what my wife wants me to remember while I am at work,” he says. “I have a tendency to get bogged down by all the detail involved in running my business.” The Chicago woodworker and jewelry maker needs to be reminded to “keep things fun and light,” he says. “After all, that’s how I went into making jewelry in the first place.”

Reyes gratefully attributes his success to support from his wife and parents. His family moved back and forth between the US and Mexico, where he was born, settling in the US in 1973 when he was 5 years old. The family made Chicago their home, and Reyes’ Puerto Rican father, a carpenter who worked construction, sometimes brought along his young son to work sites. There, he taught him woodworking basics and impressed on him the pride of good workmanship. They spent time together like that until Reyes was 11, when his father was killed in a work accident. “My father was my hero,” he remembers.

Some people never really recover from tragedies like that, and Reyes becomes emotional when he recalls how he made it through. “I coped with his sudden loss by making little dollhouses,” he says. “I was absolutely obsessed with building small spaces for a good long while.” His mother’s help was crucial; she was a rock for Reyes and his siblings. She encouraged his artistic inclinations through the teen years and supported him while he studied painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1986 to 1988.

“I absolutely loved my art history classes; they opened my eyes to the world,” he says. “But somehow I never felt a connection with any of the other subjects offered. I didn’t hang with the artsy kids’ crowd either, so one day I just left the school.”

Reyes soon became a husband and breadwinner, working a variety of jobs for the next few years while making wooden boxes in a small workshop in his basement. He and his wife carefully planned their next steps to make his dream of being a full-time woodworker a reality.

The turning point came in 2005; he had quit his day job and opened an Etsy shop. When he was featured on the Etsy blog, people began to take notice.

But that was only the beginning. Shortly after he became self-employed, his wife, who has a metal allergy, came to him with a question. “She had curled a piece of paper into a ring and wanted to know if I could build her a ring as thin as that paper – only made from wood,” he says. The challenge was all he needed to move in an entirely new direction.

At the Art Institute, Reyes had learned about a steam-based wood-bending process invented in the early 19th century by German-Austrian cabinetmaker Michael Thonet. He began researching the technique in earnest, to learn how to adapt it to a small scale. “To this day, it never ceases to amaze me that a material heavy and solid enough to hold up a house can also be rendered soft, lightweight, and malleable when treated differently,” he says.

It took only a few months before Reyes made his first ring from wood; his customers took note. Some had sent him wood to build boxes for them; now they asked him to make rings – using everything from driftwood collected on a beach to peepul, which is considered sacred in India. Not every kind of wood is structurally sound enough to withstand the bending necessary to create a ring shank, but today Reyes always includes at least a bit of the artifact in his custom rings, usually as an inlay. “Everything I work with comes with stories and meaning, which renders my jewelry authentic and deeply personal,” he says. “As a result, my customers take excellent care of their wooden rings, just like they ought to take care of relationships. They treat them with respect.”

 As his customers take care, so does Reyes. He believes earnestly that, as human beings, we should be conscious of our environment, take only what is needed from it, and leave hardly a trace behind. That’s why he favors wood: Eventually it disintegrates without harming its surroundings.

“I love my customers,” he says. “They understand the true value of my work, even though it is not made from precious materials.”

These days, Reyes combines three distinctive businesses under one roof: His brand Simply Wood Rings features his signature one-of-a-kind wedding bands; a separate jewelry line he began in 2008 under his own name tends to run considerably larger, pushing the natural limits of wood. And taking a cue from those larger designs, Reyes recently started a third venture, a furniture business that scales up his swirly wooden forms even further to form bases suitable for tables. Reyes’ favorite material is salvaged rosewood left over from a Chicago xylophone manufacturer that went out of business. “The wood swings,” he says. “It has the perfect balance between stability and flexibility. Thankfully, I have a huge stockpile of it. I can use it for many years.”

Looking around the artist’s 4,000-square-foot studio in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, you half expect Tyra Banks to sashay in at any moment and pull one of his large signature necklaces from the display to show off in a photo shoot. Located on the fifth floor of what used to be an old factory, with whitewashed walls and tall windows overlooking the Chicago skyline in the distance, the space feels industrial and modern, yet airy and calm.

Reyes and two employees work in his striking showroom, running the administrative side of his business, while two other employees create Reyes’ wooden rings in the adjacent workshop under his direction. A door between the spaces muffles the humming of the machines and tools. Mastermind Reyes moves easily between desk duty and woodshop many times a day.

Reyes considers his three business segments and every activity that supports them as equal parts of his Gesamtkunstwerk. “Everything I do feeds into each other seamlessly,” he explains. “I couldn’t make my furniture if I didn’t have prior material knowledge from developing and working on my wooden jewelry lines. I actually consider myself more of a woodworker than a jewelry artist.”

Reyes approaches the adjustments he makes to his website with the same meticulous eye for detail as when he is designing a new piece for his jewelry line. Nothing is an afterthought. He is proud of his assistants and recognizes their value to his success – so much so that he shares his profits with them. “I hire people who are good at things I have little interest in. I trust them completely to do their job well.” This hands-off approach helps Reyes focus mostly on creative tasks, keeping in mind his wife’s reminder to make time for playfulness. “Every morning, I wake up and am happy to realize that I lead a wonderful life. When you push the boundaries of what you do, you define them.”

His next big project: opening a storefront and gallery space in Chicago. Stay tuned.

Brigitte Martin is the founder and editor of Crafthaus, and president-elect of the Society of North American Goldsmiths.