How to become an artist jeweller: a Seattle community case study

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At a time in Australia where funding for metals education at both TAFE and university is being threatened, it is interesting to note that there has been simultaneous increase in independent not-for profit and privately run jewellery studios offering alternative education streams. Joining the long-running Jam Factory in Adelaide are studios such as Contemporary Metal in Perth, Northicty4 in Melbourne and Gaffa and Square Peg Studios in Sydney.

With some TAFE’s already facing changes, and more wide-sweeping alterations coming, coupled with the precarious position of some university courses, how far-fetched would it be to think these new spaces could become the main training facilities for jewellers? With the apprenticeship system also under threat[i], how else might future jewellers and metal smiths receive training? Is there a real need to meet (or even learn) face-to-face, when a lot of what industry affiliated associations and societies used to provide – links to other artists, exposure to new skills and equipment, a specialist library for makers – are now provided on the Internet?

So many questions. Seattle, Washington, in the USA has experience with changes in education similar to those occurring now in Australia. By using the city and their metals and jewellery association the Seattle Metals Guild (SMG) as a case study, I will endeavour to illustrate an alternative reality to the situation currently faced by the Australian jewellery community.

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What’s in a name?

The SMG is not an Australian style guild like the Gold and Silversmiths Guild of Australia, nor is it the trade-union style of the Writers Guild of America but a not-for-profit volunteer-run community organisation, which by their own admission caters to “jewelers, metalsmiths, artists, makers –practitioners and metals fans.”[ii] Membership thus includes full-time artists, hobbyists, and people who work outside of metals and craft.

Founded in 1989 by Micki Lippe and Jane Martin, two jewellery artists recently settled in Seattle, it has grown and evolved significantly from its twenty-member beginnings to the current two hundred and fifty membership. Current programs run by the guild include the annual Northwest Jewelry and Metals Symposium – which also attracts presenting artists to teach workshops whilst in town -, a Winter Lecture Series and Biennial Members Exhibition. They coordinate the Passing the Torch program, a competition and exhibition opportunity for local high school students enrolled in metals programs, and an emerging artist award.

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While they are not connected with the Society for North American Goldsmiths (SNAG), they have hosted the SNAG conference twice, most recently the 2011 edition, which holds the title of the largest to date, with approximately 1000 attendees.[iii]

Getting a jewellery/metals education in Seattle: First up, how-not-to

Apprenticeship programs, at least as we know them in Australia, no longer exist in the US. When there were apprenticeships available, according to Seattle smith Nanz Aalund, who served her apprenticeship in the 1970’s, they were under the direction of the relevant trade union, which were independent bodies in every state. To become an apprentice jeweller, or the levels above, a ‘journeyman’ or ‘master’, one would become member of the local trade union, who would offer assistance through the process.

A combination of factors undid this system in the late nineteen seventies. Casting had been gaining ground since the introduction of better casting media in the nineteen forties to fifties. The quickening pace of transportation and the wide-scale rollout of services like UPS (incidentally itself one of the first in a long line of Seattle start-ups) who began delivering to all of the contiguous states in 1975[iv], meant that local production was gradually being phased out in many manufacturing houses in Seattle, as the bigger production centres on the east coast began to ship their wares across the country. Added to this was a general rise in production of cheaper jewels to cater to the increasing size of the American middle class (and their seemingly insatiable desire for bling), and finally, the influx of migrants to the US during the decade.[v] Wage pressure resulted in the Seattle union going on strike, and eventually the larger local jewellery stores hired outside the union in response. Once broken, the demise of union also ended the accreditation system.[vi]

Now the apprenticeship system for jewellery exists informally, after a fashion. There is on the job training for anyone who wants to start at the bottom, as a polisher, working for minimum wage. From there one might work through the ranks, with no guarantee of progress or further training other than independent deals struck with management. This training comes from colleagues, but as ever in this industry job specialisation is the norm. To receive arts and or design training, a university metals course is often considered the default, but to switch from university to industry is difficult, with graduates not preferred over other applicants for trade jobs, according to another Seattle jeweller Aran Galligan.[vii]

To compound the difficulty, manufacturing jewellers are becoming harder to find, with the bigger local stores selling out to the industry behemoths. “[M]ulti-billionaire investment legend Warren Buffett”[viii] owns, through Berkshire Hathaway, one of the largest former private manufacturers in Seattle, Ben Bridge. Started in nineteen twelve, the company was sold to Buffett in the year two thousand, though the Bridge family still oversee the day-to-day running of the over 75 stores. On a side note, through another Berkshire Hathaway company Richline, Buffett now has a significant hold over supply sales to art jewellers, owing to their acquisition of Rio Grande in 2013[ix].

As a result, pathways into jewellery (in any form) for high-school leavers in Seattle seem relatively clear-cut; go direct to university, go out of state to an independent training college or take a job for minimum wage. And all this in spite of the fact that there are several high schools in Seattle with specialist jewellery programs boasting staff who are able to teach jewellery and metalworking skills for the full five periods a day[x]. So what happens when the university closes?

Getting a jewellery/metals education: Howto

Here’s a brief rundown of the many places that you can get an education in jewellery.

University: As suggested, the local tertiary jewellery programme formerly headed by Mary Lee Hu at the University of Washington, announced its impending closure on her retirement in 2006, graduating its last class in 08.

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An alternative stream (again both a BFA and MFA program) is available at the Central Washington University in Ellensburg, a two-hour, one hundred and ten-mile drive from Seattle.  (Head of department – Keith Lewis)

Community College: North Seattle Community College (NSCC) operates a jewellery program in two of its streams, College Transfer and Continuing Education[xi], under the advisory of tenured professor Lynne Hull. As is the remit of most community colleges, the College Transfer offers two-year courses designed as bridging courses to enable students to enter full time university through portfolio building and gaining prerequisite training, and as such has varying arrangements (dependant on the student pursuing arts or fine arts Associate Degrees) in place for the transmission of prior credits earned by the student on successful entry to what is termed “four year university or college”[xii]. While this course may operate as a pathway to assist students in gaining university admission, it does not guarantee admission and the ability to focus on jewellery is hindered by both other required prerequisites as well as the fact that in a two year program there are only five jewellery and metals related courses that can be taken (equalling 25 credits out of the necessary 100).[xiii]

NSCC also offers an independent one-year certificate program[xiv] (taking a four-term year plus a summer semester) that necessitates a student studying a range of eight courses (this section is more flexible and made up of other college courses so would likely include areas such as art history, design and business) alongside five classes of specialised jewellery design and manufacturing.[xv]

As a part of the summer program NSCC also offer courses to UW students under arrangement. The general setup for summer credits in the US is that assigned courses are eligible to be taken externally as ‘independent study’, with grades issued by the offerer, or, in some instances, graded by the professor who auspiced the independent study. Summer programs are normally arts electives, necessary for some majors and because of the nature of the courses offered, students are generally not metals nor even arts majors.[xvi]

Continuing Education – Community College night classes: As mentioned, these eight to ten week night courses also take place at NSCC and are typically ungraded. Classes operate one night per week (or on Saturdays), and the different streams involve as many as five sessional lecturers working simultaneously (each heading one class) teaching basic metal smithing, jewellery making, enamelling et cetera.

Arts and crafts schools: The USA is home to a very specific type of craft school that offers intensive craft courses given by visiting lecturers. While none with jewellery or metals offerings are located in Washington State, part of their point of difference is the isolation of their campus, so the accepted paradigm is that students travel to attend courses normally located in wilderness surroundings.

The main focus of such schools’ activities is back-to-back two-week summer intensive courses, with an emphasis on experience seemingly equal to that of education. (To generalise, they have their roots various craft movements of the first-half of the twentieth century.)

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Penland School of Crafts is a prime example, as it is one of the original[xvii] and most well known of these schools. They have 2 week and 8-to-10 week full-time short courses, for which the program is based on the area of expertise of each presenter, and focuses on skill acquisition. They have seven blocks of two-week courses in the summer, with the longer courses (known as Concentrations[xviii]) being in the Spring and Fall (Autumn) terms.

At Penland the objective of participants is to learn from professional artisans, with no grading system (although credits may be gained with some prior arrangement) with entry through a lottery system owing to their popularity.

They also offer two-year and three-year residency opportunities for recent graduates as assistants with different co-payment or work-trade arrangements for each. There are similar artist-in-residence and internship programs at the other Arts and Craft schools, and are ungraded or non-qualification accruing opportunities.[xix] According to Aran Galligan a former a resident at Penland, the opportunities afforded by these schools for residents are a unique training and teaching opportunity[xx].I know of no corollary for these private schools in Australia, nor the style nor broadness of crafts taught in a single, non-tertiary program.

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Privately owned and operated workshop and teaching facility – Danaca Design: Metal Crafting Center and Gallery. Owned and operated by the current President of SMG Dana Cassara, this studio was set up for her to pursue her own teaching and making practices in 2003. As a former lecturer at NSCC, she wanted to both have her own making space as well as a space in which she would be able to take small groups of beginning metals students for weekend workshops, which were then not available there[xxi].

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Workshops are provided by Cassara as well as a rotating group of local artists and generally focus on instruction for beginners. The studio periodically also brings artists to Seattle. Also offered are supervised studio sessions for students enrolled in courses to finish up pieces or make unrelated works.

Not-for-profit workshop and teaching facility: The Pratt Fine Arts Center offers studios and a teaching facility in a range of media including jewellery and metals. The course program is very similar to that at Danaca Design, with some of the instructors even shared between the facilities. They however boast additional features; more permanent bench rental to practicing jewellery artists and a membership system for discounts on classes. As a larger organisation they also offer corporate and party events as well as lectures and a small exhibition space.

Privately owned training academy: The closest private trade-style academy is the American Jewelers Institute in Portland, Oregon[xxii], which offers a 16-week beginners program, with a similar but more thorough course offered by Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts, in San Francisco, California. Their offerings range from beginning metal smithing to master classes. They also offer a diploma course (made up of individual units of their regular programming that can be amalgamated), enabled by the “Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education of the State of California to grant Diplomas and Certificates”[xxiii] , and then give the student the option to then take to a Jewelers of America (JA) Bench Technician certification.

Maker Spaces: This is the new kid on the block. MakerHaus, Freemont, gives the student, hobbyist or professional full access to a well-equipped studio or workshop. It is a membership based organisation, offering short-term access right through to full membership of their workshop facilities, which includes amongst others wood and metal spaces. They offer night-time and weekend classes in specific techniques (sewing and laser cutting are two examples) as well as introductions to some of the more complex tools, and have the option for offering outsourced design and prototyping through calling on the membership’s expertise. Specialty equipment can also be hired by the hour, which includes 3D printing, laser cutting or etching and 3 Axis CNC milling.[xxiv]

Independent Accreditation Options

As mentioned, independent accreditation is available through the Jewelers of America (JA). Their offerings, from the website Education Portal:

“Certified Bench Jeweler Technician (CBJT), Certified Bench Jeweler (CBJ), Certified Senior Bench Jeweler (CSBJ) and Certified Master Bench Jeweler (CSMJ)…

Each of these credentials is obtained by passing both a written and a practical examination … obtaining the skill needed for these credentials may improve the jeweler’s career prospects.“[xxv]

(As you will note, “may improve…” Despite best intentions, it is my experience that this certification is not particularly well known, nor particularly well respected, though proponents see it as a partial replacement for the lack of certified apprenticeship training.)

Alternative Training Options

Given this mixed array of training options and few prescribed pathways, there is no surprise that other creatives are finding new points of entry into the jewellery realm. Tomas Wittelsbach studied Fine Arts at Cal Arts, majoring in sculpture, and worked in Hollywood carving huge statues in foam for films.

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Through the innovative use of Z-Brush, an animation package, he became able to print in wax, and after making his own investment in wax printing technology he started producing a successful line of jewellery [xxvi]. After realising his strength was in designing and not finishing in metal, he opted for a full-time digital design position at Green Lake Jewelry Works in Northlake, Seattle, a large firm specialising in custom and alternative jewellery in traditional and new materials. His casts, often now in platinum and palladium, end up with finishing artist and UW graduate Elise McKenney, who feeds back to him on issues of design and finish as she works on his pieces. A similar story applies to fellow Green Lake designer Harry Caldwell, who has a bachelor of science in industrial design but who came to work with jewellery via a short but intensive engraving course[xxvii]. He now specialises in designing and hand engraving jewellery works, while in his spare time he works on his own exhibition pieces, that showcase his engraving skills in works using coins and small objects.

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Potential New Training Grounds

In my conversations with various artisans I found a few opinions of where the new training grounds might be. Some still lamented the loss of the university, and have hopes (albeit small ones) that the program could return. Others have indicated that online class options will increase, with experienced maker and workshop lecturer Andy Cooperman even naming a price per student for online classes in the future[xxviii]. He also shared his view that jewellery training will be more specialised, and artists will come to learn specific skills in a very quick timeframe as and when they need them.

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That is certainly one avenue, as already common are links from online materials and tools retailers to YouTube instructional clips as well as similar artist-generated videos that focus on a single skill or technique, though I doubt at-home learning could become the default.

So is there a happy ending in our alternative reality?

…or… Choose your adventure starts now…

Heading back to Seattle’s Guild, I found the reason for its strength is a continuous history of the same artisan jewellers prepared to volunteer time with an almost cyclical routine.[xxix], but the consistency of Seattle’s reputation as a metal smith friendly city owes much to their and UW’s activities. To maintain their position they will have to attract a younger generation of makers (which they are pursuing through the aforementioned Passing the Torch and emerging artist awards) with the main obstacle of no university jewellery program from which glean them. Yet prospective jewellery artists have already begun to find new ways of sourcing relevant training, and with a plethora of facilities, as we have seen, several new tuition options have arisen.

New ways to source training you say?

The approach into the profession that Harry Caldwell and Tomas Wittelsbach took involved pursuing design or arts training before specialising. The specialist training was short but high quality beginner-to-master courses in a single skill or technique, the type of course that smaller facilities specialise in offering. And in an industry with a long history of makers engaging in such specialisation, this just might be enough, at least as a starter.

So, where to from here? As an attendee of last year’s Crafthaus Think Tank, which gathered makers, gallerists, educators and even Chris Amundsen, the current executive director of the American Craft Council, into a room to talk turkey about craft education, organisations and opportunities, action is being taken, but obviously for some this is too little too late. And in a city like Seattle where the existence of the Guild rellies so heavily on a core group of makers, will the next generation want to take on the leadership and concomitant management oversight required for such associations, when the alternatives for contact, critique and commerce are already on the internet? And to answer my earlier question, will we see these smaller and more agile studios taking up the skills-dissemination slack?

The evidence suggests that skills training facilities are getting permanently smaller and are becoming privatised, so arts and design training may have to be sought separately from skills training in future. And despite the internet, new maker spaces and open studios continue to be opened across America. And really, who better to advise on these options than the metals community.

The communication hub that the Seattle Metals Guild now provides is as a replacement to some of the more altruistic and community-focussed functions that the University of Washington program used to support. After the collapse of the latter, the continuance of the Guild has been touch-and-go, but with alterative training grounds feeding new makers into the industry, hopefully they can hang on for a greatly anticipated renaissance.

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[i] Peter Keep, “Soapbox SOS- Save Our Skills.”
[ii] Seattle Metals Guild, “About.”
[iii] “Society of North American Goldsmiths.”
[iv] “United Parcel Service.”
[v] Nanz Aalund, Nanz Aalund interviewed by Melissa Cameron.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Aran Galligan, Aran Galligan interviewed by Melissa Cameron.
[viii] Tina Grant, “History of Ben Bridge Jeweler, Inc. – FundingUniverse.”
[ix] Eugene Brill, “Jewelry Union Between Rio Grande and Richline, a Berkshire Hathaway Company | Eugene Brill.”
[x] Nanz Aalund, Nanz Aalund interviewed by Melissa Cameron.
[xi] North Seattle Community College, “Programs | NSCC.”
[xii] North Seattle Community College, “Associate of Arts Degree | NSCC.”
[xiii] North Seattle Community College, “Associate of Fine Arts Degree: Art | NSCC.”
[xiv] North Seattle Community College, “CJD.pdf.”
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Aran Galligan, Aran Galligan interviewed by Melissa Cameron.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Penland School of Crafts, “A Short History of Penland School of Crafts.”
[xix] Aran Galligan, Aran Galligan interviewed by Melissa Cameron.
[xx] Ibid.
[xxi] Dana Cassara, Interview with Dana Cassara.
[xxii] “American Jewelers Institute.”
[xxiii] “Diploma Programs – Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts.”
[xxiv] “MakerHaus.”
[xxv] Education Portal, “Become a Jewelry Maker.”
[xxvi] Tomas Wittelsbach, “2012 Seattle Metals Guild Lecture Series: Tomas Wittelsbach.”
[xxvii] “Design Your Own Ring & Custom Jewelry , Unique Engagement Rings and Unusual Wedding Bands.”
[xxviii] Andrew Cooperman, Interview with Andy Cooperman by Melissa Cameron.
[xxix] Nanz Aalund, Nanz Aalund interviewed by Melissa Cameron.

With sincere thanks to my interviewees:

Seattle
Nanz Aalund
Harry Caldwell III
Dana Cassara
Andrew Cooperman
Aran Galligan
Micki Lippe
Tomas Wittelsbach

Australia
Anna Davern
Caz Guiney
Peter Keep
Mel Miller
Philip Noakes
Claire Townsend