By Antoinette Rahn
There’s a familiar saying “Everything old is new again.”
Fortunately for anyone immersed in the antiques and collectibles universe, old is new all the time. And that is very good.
Sometimes an item is new because of a change in owner; new because it’s a recent discovery; new because there’s an element of design/provenance that suddenly becomes evident; or new because of a renewed appreciation for the traditional techniques used in creation. Such is the case with studio jewelry. These modern-day collectible accessories represent the value of unique hand-made creations. The inclusion of ‘found objects’ also honors the timeless relevance of centuries-old jewelry making practices.
Discover exclusivity in studio jewelry
Interest in studio jewelry is very much alive today. Studio jewelry pieces are often one-of-a-kind items made by hand. They feature various materials of nature and are produced in a studio setting. Visiting online sites including Etsy, and keeping an eye open for studio jewelry at craft fairs and artisanal markets can be quite rewarding.
“I believe studio jewelry speaks of what jewelry has always been and what it means to people,” said esteemed jeweler Nancy Schuring, founder of Devon Fine Jewelry, located in New Jersey. “We’ve seen an increase in interest for it as more people are looking for something that is truly unique. There is so much that is mass-produced today, to have something that is designed and made by hand is quite desirable.” In a way, she adds, it harkens back to how jewelry was made centuries ago and is representative of antique jewelry collected today.
For Claire Mannheimer, owner of clmjewelrydesign.com, the appeal of making jewelry is multi-faceted. It is a combination of various aesthetics: art, history, nature, and in some ways philosophy.
Tap into timeless jewelry-making techniques
“I have always had an eye for design. I love to make things, and I am very detail oriented. So, I knew
I’d be well suited for the medium. But it was the desire to learn how to use tools I had never seen before that attracted me to the discipline,” states Mannheimer. Her earliest foray into ‘jewelry making’ took place when she was five or six years old, she explains. It was while participating in her older sister’s beading birthday party.
Professionally, she’s been fabricating jewelry from metal since 2011. She began taking jewelry classes at Humboldt State University. However, it was almost by chance that she discovered the world she is wholly immersed today.
“My fascination with this field started when I was taking Art History classes at Humboldt State. The Jewelry & Small Metals Studio was across the hall and I would hear the tapping of hammers and the buzz of drills every time I would walk to class. There’s something about learning how to use specialized tools for very specific reasons that attracted me to the medium.”
Understand techniques to better appreciate design
The timeless techniques and tools of working with metal were also part of the appeal for Elle Green. She is the owner of Chase and Scout Design, located in Austin, Texas. At the age of 16, she took a silversmithing class with her parents. This ultimately led to fabrication classes. The trio initially attended the class to learn more about methods used to make Native American jewelry. The focus of their interest was based on authenticating pieces.
“My father was a dealer of ethnographic art and at the time the market was being flooded with factory made faux native jewelry,” reports Green. “Sometimes the best way to learn how to identify something is in knowing more about construction methods. This can apply to all facets of the antique trade.”
Green spent a few years working in the antique trade as a dealer. During this time her focus was largely Art Deco and Mid Century Modern. The ‘thrill of the chase for antiques and vintage’ was fulfilling and fascinating, she recalls. However, the desire to produce her own work prompted her to shift gears. In 2008 she picked up silversmithing tools for the first time in 15 years.
See symbolism within studio jewelry
Early on, Green states, she was influenced by modernist designers like Alexander Calder and Georg Jensen. Yet, her personal interests lean toward more elaborate symbolism of Victorian and Georgian mourning jewelry. In addition, with the appeal of more primitive traditional personal amulets drawing her in, her own design style took shape.
Similarly, personal life experiences were significant aspects of the blossoming creative and personal influences for Paula Crevoshay (www.crevoshay.com). Her entry into the world of jewelry making occurred in 1978, while she was on what she describes as a “magical mystery tour.” Her late husband was researching ancient Buddhist text at the time. The couple made their way to Southeast Asia, to live, travel and work for a period of four years.
“I was exposed to ancient art of all kinds, jewelry from many cultures and the brilliant colored stones that come from many Asian countries,” recalls Crevoshay. Over the years she's come to believe each and every piece she creates has a destined owner. “I lived in a Tibetan Monastery for much of that time and was highly influenced by sacred Tibetan art and painting as well. It is there that I began to hone my craft in hand making jewelry.”
Honor natural elements and objects
Crevoshay says she still incorporates ancient techniques in designing jewelry today. Some of those techniques are granulation, hand piercing, engraving, and bezel setting. She cites exposure to rich gem and mineral deposits found in many of the countries she’s traveled and lived, as transformative experiences within her life and artistic development.
Part of the common core of studio jewelry is the presence of natural elements or familiar every-day objects. That may be the inclusion of physical items, as well as the representation of nature within the design.
Schuring and the team at Devon Fine Jewelry have worked with a variety of everyday items to create unique jewelry. Some of the materials that come to mind, explains Schuring, include fossils, shells, pyrite beads, shavings from billiard balls, Fordite (see Fordite sidebar). And even baby teeth from a horse. The teeth came from a woman who had collected equine baby teeth and commissioned the jewelers to create a piece of jewelry featuring a tooth, Schuring explains.
“It was a unique project. My husband is a dentist so we were able to collaborate and create something special for her,” she states. “As the woman explained to us, ‘it’s hard to find the baby teeth of a horse after they’ve fallen out,’ and having it as a piece of jewelry became a precious treasure for her.”
Transform found objects into uncommon accessories
Working with found objects to create studio jewelry pieces can occasionally present a challenge to
the maker. However, the excitement of meeting that challenge and creating a truly unique piece is remarkably rewarding, according to Mannheimer. In fact, she still has the first piece of professional jewelry she ever made. It's a pendant made from brass sheet metal. She describes it as something ‘super weird, organic, and detailed.’ It's also an item she wears to this day.
“I think it is a necessity to reclaim materials and objects rather than extracting more resources from the Earth. Even if you’re not an environmentalist, it at least makes sense from an economic perspective to use your scrap metal and collect bones and shells and sea glass rather than buying diamonds and gold,” states Mannheimer. She draws on an appreciation and awareness forged while growing up near the Point Reyes National Seashore. The area comprises about 70,000 acres of preserved coastline. “I also like having the restriction of working with what’s in front of me. When I am limited to working with remnant pieces of metal and things I’ve collected that’s when I’m the most creative.
Admire message studio jewelry evokes
“Using reclaimed materials or found objects in art, especially jewelry since jewelry there is this association with luxury and heirloom. You are elevating those objects to a level of preciousness. When I take something like beach pebbles, deer teeth, or sand dollar fragments and encapsulate them in silver I am honoring the value of the ordinary, and organic processes of nature.”
It’s also about making pieces that speak to the artist, the person commissioning a custom jewelry item, or a person who inspires a design.
“The joy of studio work is that my designs are based on what speaks to me; it doesn’t speak to everyone, but it shouldn’t. Jewelry should be very personal and chosen with intention,” says Green. She credits the inspiration for her line of honeycomb jewelry to a friend who raises bees and bottles honey. “Clearly, not everyone can or wants to raise bees, but the organic symmetry of the honeycomb speaks to people on a more primitive level. It’s very pleasing to look at a honeycomb or the spiral of a sunflower.
“Wearing a honeycomb ring can give anyone a feeling of connection to nature regardless of how physically removed they actually are from a natural setting.”
In addition, Green takes her appreciation for this particular source of inspiration one step further. She donates a portion of the sales from the line to a conservancy group studying the collapse of bee colonies.
Hone design talent over time
Regardless of the source of inspiration and material, transforming items and experiences into unique pieces of studio jewelry requires time, skills, and a mindfulness to see beyond the obvious.
For Crevoshay, her primary process involves designing, drawing and coloring the piece to scale. Then she creates a stone map, drafting the finding and details. The next step involves working with artists to create the one-of-a-kind pieces that she designs. In Mannheimer’s studio, which she describes as low tech, her work involves basic tools. These tools include a jeweler’s saw, small hand tools, and tiny files to round edges of sheet metal. In addition, very fine grit paper to sand sharp edges is commonly used. Plus, she relies on an acetylene torch tank attached to a hose and a torch tip for soldering.
“A major lesson I’ve learned from this discipline is that proper planning and the correct order of operations really goes a long way,” adds Mannheimer. “I’ve learned many times the hard way that when you try to take shortcuts they end up backfiring on you and it either takes a toll on the quality of the work, or you spend twice as long fixing what you thought would save you time.”
Commit to exploring materials and methods
Green echoes those sentiments. She also cites yearly attendance at intensive metalsmithing training programs as a benefit. This adds to her desire to be fully involved in every step of the jewelry-making process.
“I am involved with my work every step of the way. I design, carve, fabricate, enamel, set stones, cast, polish, photograph, describe, package and send each piece with love and good intention,” she states. “It’s a lot of work and devotion. I am hands on and I hope a little of that happiness and joy travels along with each piece.”
That devotion to the process and keen attention to details is also at work in the pieces created by Schuring and the team of Devon Fine Jewelry. It’s also what contributes to emotional and memorable interactions with customers. Case in point, Schuring recalls when a woman commissioned the company to create an item of jewelry with a single flower pattern from her grandmother’s china, with the china pattern serving as the centerpiece. The woman had inherited the set, and after many years a single plate was all that remained. The only intact China plate from the set was handed to the Devon Fine Jewelry team, to be strategically broken in order to extract the singular flower image to be incorporated into the item of jewelry.
For this commissioned work, Schuring turned to additional assistance from family members, including her brother who is an engineer and her sister-in-law who is an expert in stained glass. Today the woman has a piece of studio jewelry unlike any other, and a beautiful item of great sentimental value.
Invest in individuality of studio jewelry
In studio jewelry making, as in other aspects of life, time (as well as money) is a factor to consider.
Of course, these jewelry makers state, it all depends on the type of piece being designed and the materials involved.
The initial design is a large part of what drives the time required for Green to complete a piece. She says her pieces range in price from around $90 for the honeycomb pendants up to $500 for larger pieces like her orchid collar piece, with prices for custom pieces assessed according to the request.
On average, Crevoshay says her ring creations take six to eight weeks. Bracelets require upward of six months. And masterworks require the greatest amount of time. Among her more popular creations are the flower pieces, which on average take at least one year to create.
“To preserve my mission to keep the ancient metal techniques alive and to keep the human element within every single jewel I create I imbue them with those art forms and each of these metal techniques are labor intensive, to say the least,” states Crevoshay, whose jewelry creations range in price from $5,000 to $350,000, with some selling for more. “Time is a key component in any masterful creation.”
Consider time and design when considering cost
It’s also not only about time spent ‘creating’. Allowing for consideration of the design, and how a piece of jewelry is coming together is important, explains Mannheimer. Her creations are available through her shop at Etsy (www.etsy.com/shop/clmjewelrydesign). “Depending on the level of detail, I can spend anywhere between twenty minutes and ten hours on a piece of jewelry. For the more detail-oriented pieces even if I can finish in a day’s (time) I like to work on it over a few days just to be able to sleep on it. I find I make better decisions that way.”
While her jewelry creations range in price from $10 to $400, Mannheimer says the majority of her pieces are available for between $60 and $200.
One common piece of advice shared by some of the jewelry makers and designers, in regard to purchasing and commissioning studio jewelry, is to be cognizant of the value of time and techniques used in making these pieces by hand. It’s a process that may include (depending on the piece) design, acquiring materials, cutting, soldering, sanding, and polishing, among other skills.
Embrace the opportunity to make a statement
Acquisition of a piece or pieces of studio jewelry is an unparalleled investment in oneself, or someone special if given as a gift.
“Studio jewelry makes a powerful statement about yourself and how you interact with the world. It’s very personal and it should be,” shares Green. “Giving handmade jewelry as a gift says that you really took the (recipient) into consideration, thought about them as a person and took the extra step to seek out and choose something that honestly reflects a part of their spirit that you love.”
Also, given how some items of studio jewelry perform at auction, there’s the chance that additional benefits could come from such an investment. For example, in early June 2017, an enameled yellow gold, diamond and ruby frog bracelet hand-made by artisans at David Webb sold for $37,500 during an auction presented by Rago Arts and Auction Center. The sale price was more than double the low estimate.
Regardless if the act of acquiring a piece of studio jewelry is driven by the desire to own a beautiful accessory with which to adorn oneself, or to add and display as part of a collection of jewelry, when heeding the number one tip of collecting the result is certain to be positive: Acquire that which you love, and you’ll never be disappointed.