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Lured by the love of Fabergé

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Lead photo by B Soby, other photos by Tamie Meck Jeffrey Hatton with "Carpe Diem," one of the custom fly rod boxes he made during his career as a crafter of functional, beautiful bamboo fly rods. Hatton is tapping into his artistic talents to craft art ob

He's known as a builder of bamboo fly rods, a longtime fly fishing guide, fly-tying expert, author, and authority on the history of fly fishing and antique fly fishing equipment.

Also known as The Gnome, Jeffrey Hatton is now carving out a niche as an artist.

For years Hatton created a niche for himself as a crafter of beautiful, functional split bamboo fly fishing rods, considered among the best in the world by fly fishing connoisseurs. A self-taught artist, he made each rod with art class principals in mind. "I wanted them all to be absolutely unique," he says.

A lifelong fly fishing enthusiast, he chronicled his deep knowledge and love for the sport in his 2005 book, "Rod Crafting: A Full Color Pictorial & Written History from 1843-1960."

A Colorado native, in the book he shares that he was "horribly addicted from a very early age to anything having to do with fishing, and especially fly fishing." When he came to the North Fork Valley in 1986, he discovered a magical place: the Gunnison Gorge. He describes his experiences working the Gorge as a fly fishing guide in his latest book, "Three Deep at the Mahogany Riffle: Fly Fishing and Fun on the Lower Gunnison."

Hatton also owns possibly one of the largest collections of vintage fly rods in the world. It dates back to the 1700s, each rod holding within it the story of its owners and the waters its lines were cast upon. To share it with the public, he built a one-of-a-kind traveling museum. Over the years he and his museum have been featured in books, articles and videos.

For years he made a good living from his work. But like many craftsmen, the 2007-08 financial crisis forced him to re-invent himself.

When the recession hit, he says, many of his customers were nearing retirement age and looking for a lucrative hobby. "All of the sudden they're all picking up tools and learning how to make rods," he said. The customer base became a builder base, and the market was flooded with rods selling for a fraction of their former prices. "All of the sudden," he said, "I'm making two or three dollars an hour. Can't do that."

More than a decade since, he is re-discovering his artistic talents through an unlikely source of inspiration: Fabergé.

As an artist, he said, "My whole life I've always admired the work of Carl Fabergé." A Russian goldsmith who lived from 1846-1920, Fabergé is synonymous with ornate eggs made of precious metals and stones. What many may not know is that he also made jewelry boxes and cigarette cases and flower studies with the same eye for quality. His designs are "absolutely incredible," said Hatton.

"I would really like to leave a mark as an artist," said Hatton. But major life changes can be scary and costly. It was a recent job at Lands End Sculpture in Paonia, working on a massive bronze whale project, that gave him the confidence to move forward. "I'm finally at a point where I can sort of trust myself as an artist," said Hatton. "It's been a long journey, a hard journey, but I'm finally ready to take a shot at this."

But the Gnome can't afford precious metals and stones on a rod-maker's budget. About 15 years ago, says Hatton, friend David Torkelson introduced him to mammoth tusk ivory. He fell for it and immediately began incorporating it into his fly rods.

"It's a perfect material," he says. While elephant ivory is heavily regulated under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, sale and trade of mammoth ivory is legal. "I've always been enamored with the stuff," said Hatton. "There's no reason any elephant should be killed when there's hundreds of tons of this stuff coming out of just the Siberian tundra every year." Using it, he says, is "a tribute to that animal that's gone. What a tribute to the Great Spirit for allowing this to come back to the surface, and allowing us access to it."

About three years ago he started making "Smiling Fish Jewelry." He carves tiny trout from yellowheart, a lovely exotic African wood that's strong and more affordable than ivory. He painstakingly paints patterns on each trout -- brook, cutbow, rainbow, cutthroat, which he makes into earrings. Each pair is completely unique.

An homage to Fabergé, he recently began carving tiny Easter eggs earrings on his lathe. Each pair is inlaid with different materials -- mammoth tusk ivory, colorful natural stones or Swarovski crystals.

To honor Faberge's flower studies, which he set in carved crystal vases, Hatton carves flowers from mammoth ivory, inlaying them with semiprecious stones and setting them in optically clear resin vases. He preserves them in UV resistant automotive clear coat. "The colors will never fade," he says.

He carves creamy white mammoth ivory mushrooms, their dark gills etched into the outer "bark" of the tusk, which he sets into a base. "Very much in the vein of what Fabergé would have done in his flower studies," he said.

He also carves small animals from chalcedony, agate, quartz and other semi-precious materials in the tradition of Japanese netsuke. He carved a lancehead viper out of snakewood from French Guiana commonly used to make frogs for violin bows. The piece looks and feels like a real snake.

At the center of his Gnomish work are the eggs. Unlike Fabergé, his eggs aren't made of gold and translucent enamels and encrusted with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. "Can't do that on a rod-maker's budget."

About 40 hours of work goes into each piece. The process, he explains, starts with sanding the ivory for hours and hours, gradually increasing the fineness of the grit. He then goes over it with a gum eraser to give it the "tooth" needed to carve into the material. He uses numerous tools -- a foredom ("a dremel on steroids,") xacto knives, and dentist picks honed to various sharp points. "Amazing what can be done with them," said Hatton of the customized picks.

The surface is then hand polished with renaissance wax, a micro-crystalline polish used by conservators at The Smithsonian.

From mammoth tusk ivory he carved a ruby-throated hummingbird. Its eyes are sapphires, and the wild rose it's feeding on is carved from ivory set with tiny yellow sapphires.

The wooden egg it resides in is made of spalted and flamed box elder encircled with a chaste brass band leaf and vine motif. Just as Faberge's eggs all came in wooden boxes, he carved a box for the egg out of Russian birch wood.

Not immediately apparent, the piece mimics a 2,000 year old Chinese seismograph. The egg balances evenly, but precariously, on its stand, so precariously that a small tremor or quake would cause it to slip slightly sideways, a warning to its owner that more tremors may follow.

Open his "Nessie Egg" and you'll find a painted ivory serpent swimming through a sea of blue resin past a tiny stone Loch Ness Castle. He calls her his tribute to the Loch Ness Monster, the Lake Champlain Monster, Ogopogo, "and all the lake monsters out there."

"I look at the world differently," he says. "I'm trying to do what Fabergé would have done, but with his sense of humor."

The work is less stressful than building fly rods, he says, but in some ways it's harder. Because we are our worst critics, he said, "The one who has to approve of it is me."

All gnomish kidding aside, Hatton is motivated to make his business work. He cares for his 94-year-old father, a World War II veteran who served with the 10th Mountain Division in the Po River Valley and Apennine Mountain campaigns and was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. As he writes to his dad in the dedication of Three Deep at the Mahogany Riffle, "...you instilled a deep love and respect for the outdoors and all the creatures that reside therein in me."

He also wants to continue sharing his traveling museum with the public. His friends with the Fly Fishing Show (flyfishingshow.com) recently established a GoFundMe account "so Jeff can continue to expand, preserve and build the Gnome's historic treasures."

Hatton plans to have his works available through Etsy in the near future. Like his museum, he would love to share it through exhibits and shows. The Gnome can be reached on Facebook at "Gnomish Rod Works and Angling art." To schedule a showing, call 970-527-3406.

A pair of hand-carved, hand-painted cutbow trout earrings Hatton made to honor his love of fly fishing, and inlaid Easter egg earrings to honor Fabergé.
A Rocky Mountain Columbine, Colorado’s official state flower, and a wild rose honor the flower studies of Carl Fabergé.
“Hummer and the Wild Rose” fits nicely into a carved mammoth tusk ivory egg. The entire piece fits into a custom wooden box.
A black limba wood egg ornament reveals a carved mammoth ivory snowman with sapphire eyes and mouth, a scarf of green-painted brass shim stock, nickel silver wire branches and a copper wire nose.
“Damsel in Distress,” a collared lizard carved from mammoth tusk ivory, stocks a hand-tied damselfly. Both creatures can be found in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area where Hatton was a fishing guide.
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