It was on a summer trip with his family to Western North Carolina in the early 1950s that an eight-year-old boy from Tennessee made a discovery that would change his life. Walking down a dusty gravel road near Highlands, young Bill Lehnert stopped to pick up some purple rocks.
“That discovery of amethyst led to a lifelong interest in geology and mineralogy,” says Lehnert. This, in turn, led to an extensive collection of natural crystals and stones, which in turn led to cutting gemstones and eventually jewelry design.
Although he earned an engineering degree from Auburn University and worked for 31 years for Eastman Chemical Company, Lehnert’s early fascination with gemstones never waned. In fact, it developed into a “hobby business” that would run parallel to his corporate career.
“I designed my first pieces of jewelry in the early 1970s,” recalls Lehnert. He took them to an outdoor craft show in Bristol, Virginia, where he sold them, making his first $250 as a jewelry artist. Over the years, Lehnert continued to travel the country selling his works at juried craft shows.
When he took early retirement in 1997, the jewelry business became his new full-time profession. Though he’s quick to add, “I have never thought of jewelry as an occupation but rather as a passion and focus of creative energy.”
Following a long friendship with fellow jewelry artist Michelle Alexander, the couple married 13 years ago and in 2006 opened Alexander & Lehnert Fine Jewelry. In addition, they sell their creations at the Southern Highland Craft Guild shows each year.
Crediting his engineering background, Lehnert says he sees his designs as “architectural,” compared to his wife’s work, which he describes as “spontaneous and loose.” They frequently critique one another’s work and enjoy collaborating on pieces that draw on their unique strengths and talents.
Lehnert says he’s energized by the satisfaction that comes from making custom jewelry not available through traditional commercial sources. “A significant portion of our business comes from custom orders that require extensive sourcing for the very finest in faceted stones,” he says. (Alexander & Lehnert also use customers’ own heirloom stones.)
Of his lifelong work, Lehnert claims it doesn’t get stale. Maybe that’s because his brilliant source material has been here forever, and will outlast even the mightiest maker. “I never cease to be amazed by the ability of nature to produce such stones,” he says.
Alexander & Lehnert Fine Jewelry at the Historic Grove Arcade (1 Page Ave.), open 10am-6 pm Monday through Saturday. Starting April 1, long-time local jewelry artist Chris Van Dyke will become a partner of Alexander & Lehnert. For more information, call 828-254-2010 or see alexanderandlehnertjewelry.com.