Nevins talks quickly and waves his hands when describing his own special tools, the challenges of making rings out of fragile marble … “I get daily requests for plans,” he says.
Justin Nevins loved all the riddles in The DaVinci Code, the secret of the Holy Grail, the messages the Renaissance master had hidden in his paintings. But what really grabbed him was the marble cylinder box in which secret messages were locked. From the moment he heard it described on a book on tape, he wondered how it would work.
But that was a year and a half ago, and Nevins had other things to deal with. Recently divorced, unemployed, and moving home to live with his parents, the Washington State University foreign language graduate with an M.B.A. and international business experience was trying to sort out his life.
Today Nevins, 38, lives in a small blue house in a quiet neighborhood of Tacoma. OK, it’s his parents’ house. And he doesn’t just live there. He has based his business in a small room at the back. At the foot of a twin bed a television broadcasts the History Channel, and across from it a large bookcase holds a potpourri of wood, marble, granite, and brass. At the far end of the room is a kitchenette that leads to the patio where Nevins keeps his larger tools. Through it all wanders the black-coated family dog, Notchke.
“This is where I do most of my work,” says Nevins ’92. These days the former business consultant dons a uniform of jeans, baseball cap, and t-shirt and enters a world of fantasy. “At first, I just thought that The DaVinci Code was a cool story,” he says. “It talked about the Fibonacci sequence and the divine ratio, all these things that you go, ‘I know what that is. That’s so cool.'”
After moving home and working part-time, Nevins decided to take a month off from job hunting to clear his head. That’s when he started concocting educational games for a friend’s children-games with magic rings and hidden treasures. Then it hit him. He’d make the kids a Cryptex like the one Dan Brown describes in The DaVinci Code. It would be a cylinder with lettered rings that had to be turned to spell out a secret word before the box would open.
“I just wanted to see if I could actually make one,” says Nevins. The first version was pretty crude-he mocked it up with PVC pipe-but it worked. “It’s like a hollow bike lock,” he says. Days later, he’d done it in wood.
A friend saw the box, asked for one of his own, then changed his mind and asked for three. With the leftover materials from the project, Nevins made a small box for his mother. She showed it to her friends and the orders started coming. “People kept buying them,” says Nevins. “I put one on E-bay just to see what would happen. The bidding got up to $200.” That surprised him, because it required people going on-line and looking specifically for the word “Cryptex.” Since then, he’s made about a hundred of these artful boxes. They’re wood, granite, or marble, with shiny brass rings, and look like the products of ancient Italian craftsmen.
Nevins talks quickly and waves his hands when describing his own special tools, the challenges of making rings out of fragile marble, and the demand he’s seen for his blueprints. “I get daily requests for plans,” he says. “I tell them, don’t try to make one. Buy one of mine.” That’s what Dateline NBC did. Producers used one of his boxes as a prop in a story about Mary Magdalene and The DaVinci Code last spring.
Once Nevins started working with marble, he knew he was ready to make a box for the man who inspired him. He knew someone who knew someone who knew Dan Brown. What ensued was two nerve-wracking weeks. “I was either expecting nothing or a knock on the door with me getting served [by Brown’s lawyers],” says Nevins.
Then one day the phone rang. “He goes, ‘Hello this is Dan Brown calling for Justin Nevins.’ I was like ‘Ahhhhh.’ I didn’t hear the first two sentences he said,” says Nevins. “Then I talked with him for 20 minutes. He’s really a nice guy, like your next door neighbor.” Brown told Nevins he would have called earlier, but he missed the phone number Nevins had hidden inside the Cryptex. “It had expanded and was stuck on the walls,” says Nevins. “He said, ‘Some great puzzle solver I am.'” Brown liked the box and ordered several more.
Now the artisan is turning a profit, charging $300 to $1,000 for a single box. He isn’t worried that the fervor for the bestselling book may be cooling. There’s already a buzz around the DaVinci Code movie scheduled to be released next May, he says. While he may not be in business consulting anymore, Nevins has put his M.B.A. to use, designing his own business plan, which includes moving out of his parents’ house.