Joe & Betty Phetteplace

   Joseph was born on March 28, 1906, in Auburn, Nebraska, to Wilson and Stella Phetteplace. Joe's artistic abilities became evident when he was in High School. He made an inlaid jewel box, and then he happened to see an inlaid teakwood chair at a museum. That so fired his imagination and ambition that he was determined to enter the field. He wrote to several firms for a job but found that he had much to learn, so at the age of 22 he moved to Chicago where he studied for two years under the late Martin Danielson, considered at the time to be America's greatest mosaic craftsman. Joe soon mastered the art of shell inlay. In the 1930's when specialized lapidary equipment was difficult to get, Joe designed and made his own precision machines. He made his first Diamond saw in 1934.

   On June 25, 1936, he married Betty Shelkey. The couple moved to Wauzeka, Wisconsin in 1940. During the war he helped to set up the National Scientific Products Co., suppliers of cut crystals for use in the walkie-talkies. He later taught at Clairbourne Air Base near Wickenburg, Ariz. Joe was the proprietor of the Phetteplace Inlay Company. His entire output of pearl inlay headpieces and fingerboards for banjos, guitars, and mandolins each year went to three Chicago houses. Six hundred headpieces and 8000 fingerboards were made each year and all were handmade. Some of the musicians who took pride in owning instruments finished with Joe's unique craftsmanship were Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Merle Haggard, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Elvis Presley, the Kingston Trio, Hank Williams Jr., and several others. When the musical world wished to honor David Rubinoff for his 50th year milestone as a concert violinist, they commissioned Joe to create a pearl inlaid table.

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   Joe's first masterpiece was his 2 by 3 foot mosaic of the century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Completed in 1934, showing every detail, even to the cars on the street, the work used more than 10,000 pieces of pearl, and took about 2,600 hours to complete. It rapidly brought fame to its creator. Betty helped a great deal in his original design.

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   Although he had learned the art of shell inlay, he had to teach himself the skills required to work with pietre dure (hard stones). His exquisite commesso, Man O' War took more than 5 years to gather the gem material and over 3,000 hours to assemble the more than 1,000 pieces of jade, tigereye, datolite, peristerite, malachite, sard, and agate. Man O' War won the Best of show trophy for the American Federation show in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1956.
   Joe and Betty established a lapidary museum at their home in Wauzeka, where thousands of hobbyists and professionals in the gem and lapidary field enjoyed the amazing and distinguished collection. Busloads of club members, lapidary fine artists and others learned at the Phetteplace museum about the many steps needed to produce his amazing artwork. Joe also had a fine collection of crystals, fossils, gem materials, fluorescents, and examples of many types of lapidary and mineral art. Along with Betty, he taught lapidary at summer camps for young people, and worked with Scouts, 4 H, and Senior Citizen groups. He once estimated that he had taught well over 1,000 people the art of lapidary.

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   Also interested in wild flowers, and birds, they created nature pictures using both mother-of-pearl, hard gems, and occasionally pieces of fine wood. For the Bicentennial, Joe did a series of miniature portraits of the U.S. presidents. He also made a replica of the dramatic emblem of Apollo 11.

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   His life-sized, bust length, 125lb. portrait of Lincoln is considered by many to be Joe's most sensitive and finest work. It was made of 2,700 pieces of jade, datolite, agate, catlinite, jasper, and petrified wood. It took 2,700 hours between November of 1961 and July of 1962 to complete.
   All of Joe's works are realistic and noted for their true to life details and remarkable precision. Joe's eye for the exact color was so demanding that many times he would cut dozens of pieces until he found the right one for a particular spot. He felt that his art and his craftsmanship continued to grow through the years, and he was always eager to accept new challenges. Joe passed away from a heart attack on August 18, 1982.

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