May 2013 | Vol 17, Issue 2
By Chris Callen
As an artist myself, I have always been a junkie for any new or uncommon type of media. Among these, I became curious on the subject of lost wax casting. Lost wax was how all the freaks of the time were getting down with the baddest creations. Some were using it for cool little statues, some for bike parts like shifter knobs, but the coolest of the cool were making jewelry. Now this was in the eighties so it wasn’t like Kay Jewelers’ style of rings and bracelets. These items were much more than that: dragons, skulls, wizards and three-piece finger armor rings that looked like they were from medieval times. I know, but gimme a break, it was the eighties! Hairstyles were a mile high and it was socially acceptable for men to wear spandex. This is where rock star style really got its foothold in our culture and no matter how well it’s been refined today, that trait is still identifiable in the coolest clothes and jewelry. I can remember back to the first couple big bike events I would get to attend. There was a sense of wonder that always came over me as I drooled over rack upon rack of far out rings and necklaces. At that time there were no stores like Hot Topic so the only place you could see stuff like this was when the motorcycle shows came to town, and man I’ve probably had a thousand different biker rings over the years.
What I always loved about jewelry that is made from a fine art like lost wax casting, is that the pieces are so much more precious. You see, by nature, since a sculpture is handmade, during the foundry process as the metal is poured into the mold, the wax form or the sculpture itself is lost. This makes each piece truly one-of-a-kind. This is what I knew going into my visit to NightRider Jewelry in Chandler, Arizona, but the education I would get in a full day with them…hell, it just made me appreciate the craft that much more.
But this trip started not out of a love for art or for the jewelry of our culture, but it was a sense that I had to talk to these cats. Somehow we shared a common thread and I knew it instinctively before we ever met. Then one day as I worked at putting an issue together that had one of their ads in it, I read the words: “Not pictured here – a Chinese sweat shop.” I told them I’d be out the next day that they could see me. These were fellow patriots on top of artisans and bikers; I had to meet them. As I would find out on that trip, that American made sentiment runs deep in the veins of everyone in their company and you can feel the room heat up as each of them speak passionately about being American manufacturers of fine jewelry.
In the beginning, it was a humble attempt to take one man’s experience, George Ganem, who had 30 years in the operation of a high-end jewelry company, and another man’s incredible talent in art and modern media. Nick Ballantyne is the second of the pair and it was while Nick was still in art school that he would meet George through his relationship with his daughter, the woman Nick would eventually marry. George had a similar background in art and was impressed with Nick’s ability. It gave them a common bond right off the bat, but it was the education that he was getting on modern media and tools for the arts that would lead them into a whole new path for life. As the two men grew closer, the idea of doing a high-end jewelry company that was cutting edge and tied to the biker culture came into light. It was right there in the garage behind George’s house where they started Night Rider, some five years ago. George had been a scooter tramp for a long time and it always threw him for a loop when he’d be at an American biker rally like Sturgis with all the veterans and ex-military, all pro American, everyone flying the flag, but they were all looking at foreign made junk. He knew that if they stuck to their guns with the quality of his work and Nick’s art, they’d create something like nothing else on the market.
It’s important to explain the level of artistic ability Nick has. It’s amazing how his chalk and charcoal renditions are more than lifelike. You would swear that you could reach out and touch individual hairs on a man’s face that seem to move as a breeze comes by. More incredible still is to watch him on his computer with stylus in hand doing three-dimensional clay modeling as if he were sitting at a table doing an actual sculpture. Technology has done amazing things to advance the arts and Nick has this firmly in his grasp.
What they came up with, the infusion of these ideals and principles, was jewelry that makes a statement. It isn’t the type of statement that says, “Yeah, I have a fist full of rings,” instead, each one makes a clear proclamation of individuality. The owner has to make a personal connection with it as every line and angle have been painstakingly plotted out to create a vibe. Everything from symbols of freedom, patriotism and man’s own mortality, this crew is not about just making another nice design.
Any time you talk about American manufacturers the question always comes up of how to be competitive. To this, George had a surprising answer: “American manufacturers cannot compete with low-end products imported into this country. We can’t compete with labor at that price level. It can’t be done. We feel we can compete at the high-end. We are obsessed with quality products and there are only about 1 percent of the jewelers in the world that can do what we do. We give a lifetime guarantee. We’re not interested in building a sweat shop with 200 guys all getting two dollars a day. There’s no excitement in those places.”
Now I’ve been wearing jewelry for most of my adult biker life; I wear it on stage when I play and when I ride. Hell, I have some on just sitting here at the computer, but to hold a piece of Night Rider product in my hands was an entirely different thing. Where most of the import companies go about the process of making a piece with as little material as possible, hollowing out parts of the design, not finishing the back so it’s less than three-dimensional, Night Rider does not. “It will never bend, it will never wear out, it will last as long as you last,” George expressed as he went on to tell me about their process.
The pieces are huge, heavy, intricate designs with so many pieces that you can’t imagine the work that goes into their construction. Take something like their Covenant bracelet. There are two eagle heads on the front of the bracelet which are also completed on the back, but even the background design work is there. Each link is individual cast then assembled with the rest of the links and carefully filed and polished so you can never see where it was joined. Even something you might think is as simple as a wallet chain uses 40 different pieces. They are sculpted and cast and if one slip happens during polishing, it’s all over and it’s back to the beginning.
Exacting standards are the key ingredient to their model. You can’t come into this place cocky and think because you’ve worked in the jewelry industry before that you can handle whatever they dish out. Many good jewelry craftsmen can’t make the cut on their team. Everything at Night Rider is made in-house. They’ve gone through a rigorous process of sifting through the jewelry trade shows to source their materials and tools, even their shirts are American made. They even have the guts to stand on the same street at the rallies with $5 shirt vendors because they believe in their vision: stay exclusive–stay special. The connection they make with customers through their designs and principles makes Night Rider jewelry heirloom quality accessories, meaning that generations of your family will have that piece of art with them forever. When was the last time you saw a skull ring carry that kinda weight?
Nick explained, “We think about the people that are buying our products. We want the greatest compliments to come from people being proud that they’re wearing our work. The greatest compliment comes from our customers, after having worn their piece for a while, then they come back and tell us that the more they look at it, the more detail they see and the more proud they are of it.”
These standards are not an easy dog to keep on the leash either. Training employees to work with their products at a level of proficiency that will keep them getting a paycheck also requires a personal commitment from them to make the customers happy. That rule was set down from day one and it takes a long time to get a guy up to speed to do that work. Even jewelers 15 – 20 years at the bench still might not be able to make the grade at NightRider. There’s a reason why shapes and edges are in their designs; nothing is left to chance and each detail is exactly where and as it should be from the designer’s eye. To carry that throughout the production process, a craftsman has to have the right touch, do quality work and take pride in what they do. American made meant something through the history of our country and it is people like the folks at NightRider who are working their asses off to make it stand for something great once more. “American made rides hard in my heart. If you don’t maintain our philosophies you won’t make it here,” is what George tells perspective employees all the time.
As the company grew, Nick’s brother Thad came into the mix. He had just graduated from LSU with a degree in psychology. He was starting to take the LSAT when Nick called about him about joining the company. At first, Thad told him he was crazy, that he didn’t know anything about jewelry, so why would he do it? Well, he ended up coming on board, but at one point he even gave his two week notice. He was getting ready to have a kid and there was just so much pressure. He settled down and thought about it a little bit more and decided to stick it out. Today he is one of the key components in the effort to keep quality under a tight grip. He oversees all of the casting from setting up the forms to the actual pour; he is the man.
Each piece represents its own challenge. Because they are dealing with pieces that weigh 300 grams, in comparison to a 10 gram wedding ring, most of it has been trial and error over the years. It’s part of the commitment they make to go beyond what the industry standards are. To exceed what your peers have accomplished, you have to make a serious personal sacrifice and these cats have each made theirs.
But the business climate of such staunch ideals is not without its own set of challenges. There are many from supply and demand, labor cost, location, and retail avenues, but the first thing that comes up is the price. Let’s face it, we live in the Wal-Mart age where people have been trained to want more for less and faster. The nice thing is that a lot of people appreciate quality so the price gets justified by what they have in their hands. Once they see the superiority and the process, the price is never a second thought. “Everyone can’t afford what we make. Actually everyone can, it’s just a matter of commitment,” said George as we went over the pricing. I’ll admit, even I was taken back at the cost, until I understood the process, until I saw the difference up close and in my own grubby little hands. The truth is, NightRider jewelry is by weight seven or eight times the superior to the cheap foreign stuff. Because of that it will not bend and it doesn’t break; it will, as they say, “outlast you.” So in comparison there is none. That would be as hard to do as it would be to convince someone who drives a muscle car that the better fuel economy of a subcompact makes it worth the trade. That’s just not going to happen once you’ve had a fine American muscle car at your fingertips.
We actually had to postpone our first visit, as NightRider was in the process of moving to their new production facility in Chandler. It’s an incredible space; very good for the creative soul. When you walk in, you start to see the reflection of art in everything. I can imagine it makes going to work for the employees there much less like a job punching a clock for a big, cold corporation. In addition, they have established their 1st retail store, 13 months ago at the time of this article, in the Scottsdale Fashion Center. Scottsdale is considered by many the new Beverly Hills. You can imagine, having said that, there has been an adjustment period for people to get used to coming down the aisle of a high-end mall and seeing the likes of these crazy biker/artist types and the store they have created. But as it turns out it fits perfectly. It is constantly visited by celebrities, athletes, or like the day we were there, rock musician Billy Gibbons. Billy, a fan of the brand, was nice enough to stop by and take some pictures with us as he was coming off the road from a tour.
This store is a major accomplishment when you consider these guys started NightRider by setting up at bike rallies. They worked the circuit and took their product to people one at a time, the old way. The retail store gives them the ability to create an atmosphere to explain the craftsmanship and the lifestyle. They built their own displays, hand picked the fixtures and furniture, and in the end, the place is like a shrine to NightRider itself. The grand opening party saw around 350 people show up to see them off. It was a scene unlike anything at the Fashion Center before it, and it gave them the feeling that people were getting it. They knew what NightRider was about. As great as it is to have rock stars and actors as customers, to the point where even Johnny Depp appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair wearing one of their pendants, it’s still the regular guy that makes them tick. It’s where they all came from, it’s who they are and it’s the reason they put so much effort into delivering a product that a man who slaps down his hard earned money will enjoy throughout his entire life.