DULUTH — Nick Altiere ignites a blow torch. He fans its sky-blue flames over a titanium ring, rotating on a set of bricks with his free hand.

The metal’s gray finish appears to burn gold, purple and blue, before resting on a shiny black.

“It goes really fast,” he said, waiting for it to cool.

The Duluth artisan behind Altiere Custom Rings creates fashion, wedding and memorial rings with alternative materials such as antlers, meteorites, exotic woods and even cremains.

More than jewelry, he views his works as functional, wearable art — and his clients agree.

Andrew Latka’s ring turned out better than he imagined. “The green was perfect, and the mammoth tooth gave it that little pop,” he said, adding that designing this was an overwhelming process made better by Altiere’s attitude and expertise.

Metal ring turns black as it is heated by a blowtorch

Nick Altiere uses a blowtorch to blacken a metal ring Oct. 5.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

Along with ring size, he asked Latka about his lifestyle and interests, and Altiere walked him through several shades and styles of his favorite color.

“That one-on-one experience made me feel really special,” said Latka, and Altiere is knowledgeable about his craft, intuitive and he knows his limits.

A man in a black cap and a green and metal ring.

Andrew Latka, left, commissioned Nick Altiere to make this custom ring.

Contributed / Andrew Latka

“My wife’s got her jewelry; this is dad’s thing. This is something I can pass down to my children,” he said.

Security Jewelers co-owner Kyle Genereau said he’s proud to carry Altiere’s works.

“I have not met a ring manufacturer, in my 20 years in the jewelry industry, that shows the pride and attention to detail that Nick does in all his rings,” he said. “He’s going to go so far, and I have so much faith in what he does.”

Altiere began making coin rings during a layoff from the railroad. A year and a half ago, he pivoted to developing his business full time.

He operates on the upper level of his best friend’s shop, Bear’s Heavy Duty in West Duluth. “If you need tires and a ring, you can come here,” Altiere said with a smile.

Box of materials with holes cut into them

Remnants of materials used to make custom rings sit in a box on a work table.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

It takes Altiere 10-20 hours to complete an order. His process starts with material, which can often come in a rod or block that he cuts into sections and begins “machining” into rough sizes. Then, he works the pieces individually, stabilizing and shaping them.

Most rings call for gluing with a marine-grade adhesive, before he moves onto curing, shaping again and polishing.

Man works on custom ring

Nick Altiere uses his tools to form the size of a custom ring.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

He works with two metal lathes, band saws, a lapidary machine for polishing stones, an ultrasonic cleaner, buffing wheels, a scroll saw, drill press and a pizza oven and hot plate — for fixing meals during his 10- to 12-hour shifts .

“You become a mechanic essentially because of all of the machines’ needs,” he said.

Crafting materials sit in a box

Unique materials used by Nick Altiere to make custom rings.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

The most unusual item he worked with was a 1968 rotary tool formerly used in his father’s dental practice. When you think about it, dentists were jewelers because they shaped metal, he said.

Asked about job hazards, most are self-inflicted for Altiere. “I recently decided to try to cut my thumb severely off, but we only made it about halfway,” he said, showing his scar. No nerve damage.

There’s also inhalation hazards. (Ask him about copper poisoning.) Today, he wears a respirator.

Man works on custom ring

Nick Altiere looks carefully as he makes a custom ring.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

On a friend’s suggestion, Altiere started offering memorial rings, often made with human or dog ashes. He has also used 21-gun salute casings, shot during a veteran’s funeral, and he turned a brass buckle from a Frost River dog collar into a custom ring.

His mixed feelings about working with these materials changed when he received a woman’s custom order with a note about her son’s cremains. “This is somebody’s family member, somebody’s love and it’s become pretty profound for me,” he said.

Along with this, Altiere said he was surprised at what he’d learned about himself by starting his business.

Tools are used to sand a wooden ring

Nick Altiere uses his tools to sand the edge of a custom ring.

Wyatt Buckner/Duluth News Tribune

He said his brain is a “scatter board,” and this work provides focus and calm. “It’s a creative outlet that I never knew I needed,” he said.

“I was always that kid that was in trouble. … This fixes whatever I had. It gives me great satisfaction every day.”

For more information about Altiere Custom Rings, visit acrings.com.

Melinda Lavine

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 17 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014 as its features editor, and today, she writes about the people, the heartbeat of the community.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military father.

In 2006, she earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota, and that summer, she started her career as a copy editor and page designer at the Grand Forks (ND) Herald, a Forum Communications Co. sister publication. In 2012, she helped launch the Herald’s features section, as the editor, before moving east to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, [email protected].

By ting