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What's New? - Observations on Innovation

by Tim McCrieght - © Metalsmith Magazine - 2006
Like many other metalsmiths, I am a time traveler. I am writing this on a computer, skipping over to the Internet to search the web as I go, while across the studio I have an anvil and hammers that haven't changed in the last 500 years. In the course of the day, I toggle between poles that are centuries apart, regularly using ancient tools with twenty-first-century techniques. The situation is familiar to jewelers around the world as we embrace the rich legacy of our past while simultaneously extending our reach to encompass the latest innovation. In a universe of such extreme contrasts, the very concept of "new" comes into question.

Over the past three decades, I've seen quite a few innovations in our field, and as the founding director of the Precious Metal Clay Guild, I have firsthand knowledge of one of them. I am struck at how fortunate we metalsmiths are to have a wealth of creative people, a culture of sharing, and an infrastructure that provides the apparatus for communication. Our community is blessed with a history that is not only long but also well documented in its recent chapters. This magazine and the organization behind it have provided a huge service, not only in dispersing information, but also in recording the process. Here are a few of the techniques and tools that were brought to our community either at a SNAG Conference or in this magazine (often both): Mokume gane, hydraulic die forming, anti-clastic raising, foldforming, reactive metal anodizing, shell forms, PMC, photoetching, and CAD/CAM.

Each of these has a story to tell, but space allows only a summary of three of these breakthroughs. Since I've been involved in bringing a new material into the field, I've become interested in the evolution of other techniques as they make their way from novelty to become an established component of metalsmithing. Even those things we now consider well established, like brilliant cut gems or bottled fuel gas, were once quirky newcomers. It is tempting to search for patterns that recur when a new material or process appears on the scene. I've discovered several recurring themes, including the caliber of the early work, the mix of science and artistic mindsets, and a range of response that spans a wide arc from critic to true believer.

In every case I researched, an important part of bringing a new technique into the studio was a personality that bridged this gap, a scientist with an artistic streak or an artist with some scientific background.

Hydraulic Die Forming Like many readers, a mention of hydraulic die forming conjures for me a sterling version of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine. In issue 15 of Goldsmiths Journal (precursor to Metalsmith), a San Francisco lawyer named Marc Paisin shared his plans for a homemade press that was operated with a car jack. The idea was perfectly poised for its time: It was quirky, required some creative tinkering, and at the same time brought an aura of professionalism to jewelers who were looking for production methods appropriate for a small studio. The use of silhouette dies was just gaining a foothold, and this new contraption took that investigation to a new level. Now we could make puffy hearts faster than ever!

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Marc Paisin's homemade hydraulic press illustrated in Goldsmiths Journal, 1988.

I don't think we'll ever know how many people used Marc's plans to make their own press, but we do know that the evolution of this technology took a clear and important step in 1989 when Susan Kingsley, a metalsmith who pioneered work in die forming and taught some of the first workshops in the process, asked an engineer named Lee Marshall to build a frame from those plans.

His background in science and toolmaking told him that the press could be improved, so he made some modifications and produced a press frame that was lighter and more versatile. He started a company called Bonny Doon Engineering, and introduced his new frame at the 1990 SNAG conference in San Francisco. Today Lee estimates that there are about 1600 Bonny Doon presses in studios around the world. Susan Kingsley continued her educational efforts, first through a chapter in a book called Metals Technic in 1992 and a year later in her own book, Hydraulic Die Forming for Jewelers & Metalsmiths.

Imagine walking into Marc Paisins's studio in the mid 1970s and encountering his chunky device made of threaded rods and steel slabs. You could be forgiven for the puzzled look on your face—that's typically the way it is with new ideas. Yet now it is a rare metals department that does not have a press installed in the workshop. An index of the importance of the press to the field is the fact that new techniques and materials are quickly fed into its jaws. Die forming experiments have been done on foldforms, metal clay, and micro-folded sheets.

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Robert Grey Kaylor Bracelet, 1998 sterling and gold (die formed)
3 1/2 x 4 1/2"

Reactive Metals Another example of what happens when creative minds, entrepreneurial spirit, and dedication to an idea merge can be found in the decorative use of reactive metals. Even those of us who don't use titanium or niobium in our work are familiar with these lightweight metals with their seductive scarlets, chilly greens, and electric blues. Titanium and niobium are now firmly established in the jeweler's arsenal; so much so that we might forget how new the materials and techniques are. These exotic metals were harnessed for use in the aerospace industry, so how is it that you and I know about them?

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James Brent Ward Dragonfly, ca. 1978
titanium, sterling

The first mention in the jewelry field was in a paper prepared for the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths by James Brent Ward in September 1978. This caught the eye of a handful of American jewelers, including Joseph F. Hall. In June 1979 he published the results of his research in Goldsmiths Journal, issue #24, including plans to make an anodizing unit. Two years later he brought his work to the SNAG conference in Lawrence, Kansas, where a guy named Bill Seeley got his first view. Bill was in graduate school at the University of Kansas, and for him it was love at first sight. 'The technique brought together several interests for me, including my science background and my love of gadgets," he says. Bill wrote his thesis on reactive metals, and in the process not only learned the science of anodizing, but also developed contacts at the relatively few suppliers who dealt in titanium and niobium. Because minimum order levels were high, Seeley needed to purchase more material than he could use himself, and this led him to sell to others. As his circle of friends and customers expanded, he started a company called Reactive Metals Studio. From a modest beginning in a corner of his studio, Bill's business has grown to an enterprise that boasts a customer base of 10,000. Those who know him would agree that Bill combines curiosity, entrepreneurial spirit, and a passion for sharing. New innovations seem to arrive in the hands of people with these qualities.

Precious Metal Clay (PMC) Only a few years ago, mention of PMC brought questioning looks, but now it is earning a serious presence in the field. Like die forming and reactive metals, metal clay offers unique challenges and opportunities.

In August 1994 I was invited to sit in on a meeting with Ron Pearson and two men from Japan who wanted to discuss a new product their company had recently produced. Sitting around the kitchen table at Ron's house in Deer Isle, Maine, these two men told us about a material that was made of fine silver but could be worked like modeling clay. They had brought dozens of samples, mostly familiar charms that did not appeal to our taste, but I remember meeting Ron's glance across the table, and in his eyes he echoed my thoughts: "If this stuff does what they say it does, this is revolutionary." The immediate result of that meeting was a think tank session held at Haystack school the following spring.

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Christopher Darway
Untitled, 2003
fine silver (PMC), window glass 21/2x4"

PMC is the brainchild of Japanese metallurgist Dr. A. Morikawa, who at the time was manager of a state-of-the-art refining operation that specialized in precious metals. He challenged his team of scientists to radically change the character of the metals they used every day—to convert something rigid and technically demanding into something as easy to handle as children's modeling clay. The recipe was simple, but it took several years to achieve consistent and reliable results. After mastering the technology with gold, they were able to produce a silver product, which was patented in 1994. Since then, Mitsubishi Materials has developed two additional versions of silver (called PMC. and PMC3), a 22k gold coating material (Aura 22), and a surprisingly tough 22k yellow gold alloy that has just been released.

The situation with PMC is different from die forming and reactive metals because the material is made by a single manufacturer and distributed (originally) by a single company, Rio Grande. From the start, the maker and distributor have promoted classes to train teachers, and both companies support the PMC Guild, an educational organization formed in 1999. The Guild, which currently boasts about 3000 members, publishes a quarterly magazine, hosts a popular Web site, sponsors bi-annual conferences, and maintains an Internet service that allows teachers to advertise their classes for free.

One of the most exciting aspects of PMC, and somethingthat is echoed in other innovative techniques, is the way it merges diverse backgrounds. In this case, people with experience in ceramics, polymer clay, modelmaking, and sculpture find themselves nicely positioned to use PMC. These artists bring with them new ways of thinking about materials and resources from their other lives. This creative cross-pollination stimulates ideas, which stimulate further ideas, which draw other artists... you get the picture.

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Claire Holliday
Crystal Series 1 (brooch), 2002
fine silver (PMC), gold
height 3 1/4"

Observations Work done in the infancy of a new technique is usually, well, mediocre. Books published in the 1960s show examples of a new-at-the-time process called investment casting. Pieces included in national exhibitions back then might not earn a passing grade in a college class today. This is not a criticism of our forerunners, but a testament to the rapid maturity of design as a process becomes integrated into the field. Those who get hung up on the early work in a new technique or material risk closing their minds to opportunities that are not yet apparent.

In my work with PMC I have become aware of, not one, but two cultural divides. Metal clay was developed in a high-tech lab by Japanese scientists. Since I don't speak Japanese, it was predictable that we would experience communication problems. What I didn't foresee was the cultural block that can arise between artists and scientists. The scientists' training, their methods, their goals, and even their mindset was radically different than what I saw in studio artists. In every case I researched, an important part of bringing a new technique into the studio was a personality that bridged this gap, a scientist with an artistic streak or an artist with some scientific background. In the case of PMC, each party was able to bring special strengths to the problems we faced. At the Haystack retreat in 1995, I remember overhearing a technician telling someone in the group that a particular technique wouldn't work. Of course most of us would recognize that this was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Sure enough, the artist tried it, and to the amazement of the scientists, it worked.

Noted scientist and writer Cyril Stanley Smith places the matter of innovation in an interesting light in his book of essays, A Search for Structure (MIT Press, 1981). We generally think that technical information and new materials migrate from the business or scientific world into the arts. In the shallowest version of this, artists get the scraps that fall to the cutting room floor and turn them into interesting baubles. Smith takes us back to a much earlier time when humankind made the shift from stone tools to spear points made of metal. He observes that for the dominant industry (stone chippers), improvement in technology meant better stones. It took a radical departure, probably by someone outside the existing establishment, to recover a blob of metal that was accidentally refined in a fire. Only after that person had investigated the properties of this new substance and discovered a few tricks for working with it was the material of interest to the established order.

Every new process has its skeptics. There is the famous miscalculation when managers at IBM couldn't imagine that people would actually want a personal computer at home. In fact it is difficult to think of any important device, process, or medical treatment that received immediate endorsement. There are jewelers who see die forming, metal clay, reactive metals, and other new techniques as fads that will soon pass. I think they are wrong. Will PMC ever replace lost wax casting, or will the hydraulic press make hammers obsolete? Of course not, but they enlarge the possibilities of what we do and how we do it. And how can that be a bad thing?


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