"I asked him about it one time," recalled his daughter, Margaret, after spotting a date scribbled inside the pocket of a pair of pants. "He told me it was because he wanted to know how long things would last."
In the end, it was Earl Robbins himself who achieved timelessness.
He died Thursday on York County's Catawba Indian Reservation, with an undisputed reputation as one of the greatest Catawba Indian potters of all time. Robbins, 87, will be buried today at 1:30 p.m., in a service at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Rock Hill.
"He was the most famous male potter in Catawba history," said Thomas Blumer, a retired Library of Congress editor who wrote the 2004 book "Catawba Indian Pottery."
"His passing marks the end of an era. He is the last of the well-known 20th-century potters. There are a lot of younger potters out there now, and he taught them."
Museums and universities across the Carolinas keep stockpiles of Robbins' work, including 66 pieces at the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia and 125 pieces in the collection at USC Lancaster's Native American Studies Program.
It was once even sold in the Smithsonian Institute's art shop, says Blumer. "But Earl said, 'Why should I send it up there, when I can sell it here for the same price?' So he kept it and sold it out of his yard."
If anything, the decision added to his allure. Art dealers and collectors from Washington to Atlanta were forced to drive their BMWs and Mercedeses to the backwoods of York County, to a modest home that was often swarming with Chihuahuas.
It was a trip many happily made, given the place Catawba pottery holds among Native American art forms. The Catawbas are the only tribe east of the Mississippi still making pottery the way their ancestors did before European settlers arrived.
This includes mining for extremely fine layers of clay along the Catawba River, coiling the clay into shape rather than spinning it on a wheel, and baking the pot in the coals of a backyard fire, rather than an oven.
That the tradition survived is a "miracle," Blumer says. In the early 18th century, the Catawba Nation once covered 50,000 square miles. Over the next two centuries, that dropped to 1square mile. Today, the reservation covers a little more than that: about 1,000 acres east of Rock Hill.
Robbins was never the tribe's only master potter. In fact, his late wife, Viola Robbins, also was considered among the tribe's best-known artisans.
But he held an exalted place, due to a distinctly masculine bigger-is-better approach that took traditional Catawba shapes and doubled or tripled their size.
It's an approach that many credit to his background as a carpenter. In fact, Robbins didn't really focus on pottery until the mid-'80s, when he retired and turned his sense of detail and measure to creating pots.
"The ladies were making these finely crafted gorgeous bowls that would sit firmly in their hand," said Ann Tippitt, executive director of the Schiele Museum. "But he'd make one big enough to put 5 quarts of chili in."
Still, Robbins kept his work traditional. He's credited with reviving shapes from the early 1900s that had been abandoned, including pots shaped like horses.
Today, works by Robbins that sold for $400 in the '90s average anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000, Blumer says.
Robbins made all of his pots in the middle of the night, which earned him a reputation for being secretive.
"Early in the morning, the phone wasn't ringing and nobody was around, so he could concentrate," his daughter said. "He told me there was nobody around to tell him he was doing it the wrong way."
Ironically, his adventuresome streak ended his career.
In 2004, he was working on a pot with a snake coiled around the lip - a pot so big that he seriously injured his back trying to move it. Margaret Robbins says her father suffered a compound fracture and never really recovered.
"He still managed to finish the pot," she said.
And he put a date on the bottom.