Dec 23, 2023
A quest for purpose: How pro cyclist became Durango jeweler
The radiant kaleidoscopic hues of countless gems and minerals cascade through the windows of a new shop in Durango’s Main Mall. Crystal Mart opened its doors in July and showcases exquisite treasures,
The radiant kaleidoscopic hues of countless gems and minerals cascade through the windows of a new shop in Durango’s Main Mall.
Crystal Mart opened its doors in July and showcases exquisite treasures, including a collection of wire-wrapped pendants that imbued their own unique story.
“A beautiful stone makes you feel something,” said Lucas Wardein, a 28-year-old artist and retailer at Crystal Mart.
Nestled in the back corner of the shop, Wardein sits at his desk, practicing the art of wire wrapping. His nimble fingers create intricate designs, transforming raw materials into wearable masterpieces.
“Ten years ago, I would’ve laughed at you if you told me I’d be doing this,” he said. “Life is so unexpected, but I found a purpose.”
Wardein, who is one of 12 siblings, grew up in Naples, Florida. He initially gained recognition for his remarkable cycling career rather than his later-acclaimed artistic talent. He picked up the sport when he was just 11 years old.
“I mowed lawns, walked dogs, worked at a bike shop just to save up enough money to buy my first road bike,” he said.
His efforts paid off. Turning pro at age 15 and gathering 15 state titles, one national title and 14 national medals all before his 19th birthday, Wardein was a cycling wunderkind.
His adolescent years were spent traversing 40 different states and five countries to race against grown men, emerging victorious more often than not.
“I thought about Durango since I was 14,” he said. “Fort Lewis is famous across the country for cycling, and I wanted to race for the best team.”
While he competed in all events including cyclocross, mountain bike, road bike and BMX, Wardein said his claim to fame was track cycling. This event requires athletes to race on a velodrome, which is a steeply banked oval track.
Fulfilling his longtime dream, Wardein received a scholarship to race for Fort Lewis College in 2014. However, his path took an unexpected turn.
“I did OK in collegiate racing, not as well as I hoped,” he said. “I dealt with a lot of mental health issues at the time, so my cycle career started going downhill.”
After completing his freshman year at FLC, he decided to put his academic and cycling career on hold. He relocated to Phoenix, to live with his mom and seek mental health treatment.
It was here that his life changed forever.
“This is it. I’m going to die out here.” Those were the words that crossed Wardein’s mind after a serious mountain bike crash in 2017.
While descending a hill in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, he lost control of his bike and flipped over the handlebars, planting head first into a boulder. The impact shattered his bike into two distinct halves.
“I had a major out of body death experience,” he said.
The crash resulted in a severe traumatic brain injury, four broken vertebrae, two broken ribs and a collapsed lung.
A function on Wardein’s Garmin watch monitoring heart rate data revealed that his heart had stopped for 45 minutes after the crash.
“I basically suffocated to death and then spent what seemed like three weeks on the other side,” Wardein said. “I woke up alone in the middle of desert after having some sort of miraculous interaction with whatever the be-all say-all is. Some people call it God, but that’s too simple of a term.”
After his heart flatlined, Wardein awoke to find his arms and legs covered in burns, a result of the scorching sun having blazed the rock he landed on.
“And that's when I was like, ‘I got to get out of here,’” he said.
Knowing his insurance woudn’t cover the expense, Wardein decided to hike out of the trail instead of calling for a helicopter rescue. The 22-year-old at the time managed a two hour hike to the nearest road with a completely limp left leg and dismantled body.
Wardein spent two years recovering at his mom’s house in Phoenix after the accident. Struggling with existing mental health issues, his inability to cycle pushed him into a dark place.
“I don't remember it, honestly. My whole recovery was a major blur, I just felt like I was in and out for a long time,” he said.
With his life dominated by cycling, Wardein was faced with the task of suddenly forging a new identity. He resorted to drugs to cope.
“My career was so dramatic and I thought I had a purpose there,” he said. “And then it was all over, and I was like ‘What else do I have to live for?’ I was so narrow-minded because I had been pro racing since like before I hit puberty.”
During his recovery, Wardein took up painting and drawing. He posted his work on social media and received overwhelming positive feedback.
“After two years of just being super depressed, I knew I had to be stronger,” he said. “I told myself ‘I need to have a good life. I’m capable of so many things.’ I knew I had way more potential than what I was doing.”
Seeking peace of mind in the mountains, Wardein packed his bags and returned to Durango. He found employment at Homeslice Pizza and embraced a new artistic hobby, wire wrapping.
“There are three components to a happy life. Food and water, shelter and community,” he said. “That third thing I never had until I came to Durango.”
In a manner reminiscent of his cycling prowess, Wardein swiftly mastered wire wrapping. While working 40 plus hours a week at Homeslice, his exquisite work was noticed by the Four Corners Gem and Mineral club in 2019.
“I saw how much I could help others in art,” Wardein said. “When you offer a piece of art and someone says ‘I get that’ or it speaks to them, there's no better feeling. Art makes us feel as one.”
The gem and mineral club extended an invitation for Wardein to showcase his creations at its annual gem show. His display proved a resounding success and marked the beginning of his career as a wire wrapper.
“People just forget how to live, they take life for granted. I took my old life way to serious, and that's why I was so unhappy” he said.
Wardein’s wire wrapped pendants exude an exquisite charm that captivates the eye. Delicate tendrils of wire caress and weave around a gemstone.
“When I was on the other side, I had a deep talk with the universe, or God, or whoever, and realized I was a special person here. And if I could get through the accident and conquer my challenges, then my next life would be an incredible one,” he said.
Having begun crafting whatever pieces inspired him, Wardein’s focus has now shifted primarily to fulfilling custom orders. Operating his self-run enterprise, Ethereal Gem Works, he has achieved remarkable success. At one point, his custom order list extended to over a year long, with a minimum fee of $3,000 per commission.
“I’ve made so many amazing connections with my customers,” he said. “The imprint that you leave behind on people’s mind is the most important thing in life, and sometimes my gems carry that.”
Wardein’s creations are now available at Crystal Mart in the Main Mall, which opened on June 30. He continues to be involved in cycling, working as a mechanic for the FLC bike team. He also teaches ski lessons at Purgatory Resort in the winter.
“Today might be hard, but tomorrow will be better,” Wardein said. “No one’s going to come save you. No one’s going to tell you how to make it work. It's your job to make it better, and you might as well enjoy it because life can be over real (expletive) fast.”