Marking all feast and saints’ days in red on the ecclesiastical calendar became customary during the 15th century, with average days marked
in black. The term “red-letter day” is used commonly now to signify a particularly noteworthy or memorable moment.
That day came for jeweler Danny Hansen in 2013 when he learned his creations were garnering significant screen time on the popular history drama television show, Vikings. Danny says, “The phone rang one day, and a customer wanted me to make a bracelet just like the one I had made for Vikings, but with raven heads instead of dragons. I politely told him I didn’t have any jewelry on Vikings and that if I had jewelry on a hit TV show, I would most certainly know about it. He patiently told me I was wrong and that I really needed to go take a look for myself!”
Danny, who graduated from A.C. Flora High School, and his wife, Sherry, a native of Baltimore, Maryland, own and operate The Crafty Celts, a global jewelry operation based in Leesville that focuses on artisan-made reproduction medieval jewelry. Danny says he never imagined his jewelry would make it big. He and Sherry began crafting simple Celtic brooches while they were in college in the 1980s after he joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group dedicated to the study and recreation of the Middle Ages, where he was introduced to Celtic art. He needed jewelry to accessorize his historical re-enactment costume, so he figured out how to make it. An artist from a young age with a father who was a professor of art at the University of South Carolina, Danny had taken a jewelry making course his sophomore year at USC and was hooked. He especially took to working with fire, using torches to solder and furnaces to melt metal and cast it.
While on the phone with his Viking enthusiast customer, Danny remembered an order 18 months earlier from a woman in Ireland who wanted bracelets and other items for some show involving a band of Viking warriors.
“Now, mind you, I get calls from movies and TV shows from time to time, and it is rarely a big deal — usually a very small project. They often want me to donate the work because they are on such a limited budget. The one time it had been a big deal was for the movie Beowulf & Grendel with Gerard Butler. I got a number of pieces in a fairly popular movie, but it didn’t change my life in any way. So when I got this call from Ireland, from this woman with a glorious Irish accent, I didn’t think much of it. She did try to convince me it was a big deal … I had the impression it was going to be a documentary, maybe on the BBC, and I just didn’t take it too seriously. But it was a decent order, and I got paid. I never thought of it again.”
After he finished taking the customer’s order, he hung up and went on the Vikings webpage. And lo and behold, his bracelet was on the homepage! The show, launched in 2013 and inspired by the life of Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Norse hero, includes a regular cast of at least 20 actors and a loyal viewership of around a million. According to Nielsen ratings, the series premiere drew 6 million viewers in the United States alone.
Vikings’ popularity put The Crafty Celts on the map. “In the second season,” says Danny, “the main character, Ragnar, is nearly killed in battle, but he is saved at the last minute by a companion, a priest named Athelstan. Ragnar takes off his oath ring, our Viking Dragon bracelet, and gives it to Athelstan in thanks. That week our business basically doubled! And it seemed like everyone in the world wanted to own their very own ‘Athelstan’ bracelet! I have no idea how many of them I have made in the past four years, but it is in the thousands. Each one of them was made by hand in our workshop.”
Two dozen pieces or more have been worn on the show. The Crafty Celts also supplies historically inspired jewelry to the SCA and other historical re-enactors, as well as to revelers at Renaissance festivals, to fans wearing costumes at fantasy conventions, and to participants at Grandfather Mountain (North Carolina) and Stone Mountain (Georgia) Highland games. Plus, jewelry is sold at various shows throughout the United States.
The Hansens started The Crafty Celts, now known throughout the world, 25 years ago in a log cabin kit house with an allocated room for a jewelry studio. Danny was working as a typesetter for a Kinko’s store, but he and Sherry realized at the end of the summer in 1994 that more of their income was coming from selling jewelry than from his job at Kinko’s. Sherry had been working as a lab manager at Midlands Technical College. Both quit their jobs to concentrate full-time on the jewelry business. The Hansens also built a two-story workshop building on their Leesville property. Just recently, the couple made a business decision to move the operation to an even larger building — 7,000 square feet — that they purchased in Batesburg.
Although both are jewelers, Sherry concentrates primarily on management of the business. Also working with them at The Crafty Celts is Danny’s brother-in-law James Glendenning; their son Kendall, who is 25 and a designer and jeweler; and occasionally their son Kaellan, who at 20 is in his sophomore year at USC as a double major in media and studio art. Kaellan’s twin brother, Kelley, is a Marine. They also have a daughter, Kerrie, who is 13.
Danny offers insight into his creative process: “I study what was done before, and then I try to put myself in that time period and ask myself, ‘What would I have made if I had lived then?’ I never copy existing art; that holds no attraction for me. I want to create something new, but I want to challenge myself to see if I can make that new thing while still following the ‘rules’ of the historical style.”
He shares how Celtic art, in particular, has a distinctive set of conventions and preferences, adding, “Same with Greek art, Scythian art, and others. And so with each historical style, I study what was done, how it was done and why it was done, and then see if I can do it as though I lived then.”
A highlight for Danny came when he was invited a few years ago to the set of Vikings, filmed in Ireland, and asked to be an extra in the show. His son Kelley went along. Father and son also consulted on costumes. In one scene, Danny plays a guard who stands beside the Frankish king’s throne.
The Crafty Celts also became the official licensed jeweler for Vikings, and Danny and Kaellan met the vice president of marketing for MGM in 2017 in Hollywood to sign the papers.
“The nerds won!” quips Danny. “We all grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading The Lord of the Rings, watching Saturday morning cartoons, and playing video games. We learned to use our imaginations, and some of us went on to create what we imagined all those years ago. It is why Vikings, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead are some of the most popular TV shows ever and why The Lord of the Rings was one of the most successful movies ever. Because we nerds learned to cultivate our creativity, to put it to use, now the nerds run the show!”
In all seriousness, the process of reproducing medieval jewelry requires working with bronze, silver, and occasionally gold using a number of traditional tools and techniques. However, Danny and James also experiment with modern tools and try new techniques as well. “We cut, saw, file, grind, sand, anneal, twist, forge, and cast metal into the shapes we need and then assemble them into finished pieces. Once Vikings really took off, we invested in a much larger casting machine. So that helps us keep with demand. The machine tripled our capacity to cast.”
Ironically through this Vikings journey, Danny has learned that the medieval ancestry of his now-deceased father, Harry Hansen, included actual Vikings. Television show fame aside, Danny says he is rewarded daily simply through the art of jewelry making. The history fascinates him. The process challenges him. And, knowing he makes items that bring joy to wearers makes him happy.