An Interview with Milt Fischbein
Jeweler Milt Fischbein explains his approach to teaching filigree techniques. Learn what he's planning in his upcoming videos and workshops.
17 Minute Read
Milt Fischbein is a Canadian jeweler who specializes in traditional, handmade filigree. He's also a passionate educator who devotes much of his time to teaching both in-person and online workshops. Recently, Mr. Fischbein teamed up with Ganoksin to produce nine instructional videos demonstrating basic filigree techniques. We spoke to Fischbein about his background, how he has organized his business in a post-pandemic world, and the importance of passing his knowledge of ancient filigree methods to the next generation.
From Chemical Engineer to Filigree Artist
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me! Firstly, how would you label yourself? Are you a metalsmith or a jeweler?
I'm a metalsmith and a jeweler, but I would probably call myself a filigree artist, given my current focus on filigree.
You devote your time to jewelry making, but this wasn't your original profession. What was your first career?
I worked as a chemical engineer for about 35 years. Somewhere along the way, I picked up making jewelry as a hobby. While still employed full-time, I started selling my work. When I retired from engineering about eleven years ago, I started spending more time with my jewelry, specifically at filigree. That's what I specialize in now.
So, you were still working as an engineer when you first picked up jewelry making. How did that come about? Did you have a friend who introduced you to the techniques? Did you perhaps see an exhibit that piqued your interest?
I was looking for something to do and thought working in precious metals looked interesting. So, I took a workshop at what used to be called The Alberta College of Art and Design, now the Alberta University of the Arts. I took a night course, "Introduction to Jewelry," for about eight weeks. I really enjoyed it, so I took other classes and workshops in the evenings and weekends. It just grew from there.
Your website shows that focusing on traditional techniques is very important to you. You mention Jewish Yemeni jewelers specifically. How did you come to appreciate this ancient art form?
That's a good question, and there's a bit of a story to that. In 1996, I lived in Malaysia with my family for a year, working as an engineer. One weekend, we were touring around the country and found a shop that specialized in filigree. So, we popped in there, but, unfortunately for me, nobody spoke English. Nevertheless, we communicated through a lot of arm waving and pointing. I asked the owner if I could see how they made their filigree. He was quite friendly and amenable and took me to the back, where many people were working. I assumed they were all family but didn't know for sure. They were all busy making filigree, all of it handwork.
I got to see all these different steps the folks in the back used to make these filigree pieces and became really interested in them. So much so that I actually bought some of the handmade filigree wire from the owner. I figured I would use the filigree wire to figure out this filigree technique when I returned to Canada.
It wasn't until I retired in 2012 that I had time to start learning filigree. However, I never forgot what I saw and always liked looking at filigree work and thinking about it. Somehow I couldn't get around to it until 2012. I found it so interesting that, over time, I stopped making other jewelry forms and just focused on the filigree. Today, 90-95% of anything I make is filigree.
Working with Gold and Silver
I noticed that you work with both gold and silver. Do these metals behave differently?
Yes. Gold and silver behave differently, primarily in the soldering, because they conduct heat differently. You must modify your soldering techniques, but it's not a huge difference. The big advantage of gold is that high-karat gold doesn't tarnish (or tarnishes very, very slowly). Hence, gold filigree pieces are low-maintenance.
On the other hand, tarnishing is an issue when you work with sterling. Many filigree artists will use electroplating to coat their silver with high-karat gold. The piece then looks like it's made from gold and barely tarnishes. Electroplating my work is something that I'll eventually get into myself, but I haven't had the time to learn the process yet.
You talk about using traditional techniques and being very loyal to them. Why is that important to you? Is it your way of honoring the past? Is it simply a better technique overall?
It's a little bit honoring the past, but those traditional techniques also still work really well. I've developed little tune-ups for those techniques to make it easier and faster to do the work and still get a better quality result. However, my techniques are generally very similar to those used for thousands of years.
So, if the technique isn't broken, don't fix it.
Exactly. And filigree has been around for nearly 5,000 years. Works have been unearthed from places such as the tomb of Queen Puabi near the city of Ur in what was Mesopotamia. Her jewelry dates back to 2,600 BCE. Some of her jewelry has elements of filigree in them. So that's one of the oldest examples I've seen of filigree use.
Learning the Art of Filigree
You spoke earlier about attending the Alberta College of Art and Design. Did they teach you this old technique, or did you have to seek specialized instruction elsewhere?
ACAD didn't offer any filigree workshops. When I started making filigree, I learned from several DVDs and quickly realized I needed to learn directly from the experts. However, there are very few filigree instructors in North America. Luckily, I could take workshops from skilled filigree artists such as Victoria Lansford, who studied in Russia and resides and teaches in the United States. I also found a few good workshops with instructors visiting the United States from Europe. Plus, I traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, where I spent a week learning Mexican filigree techniques.
I believe there are so few filigree artists in Canada and the USA because filigree is very labor intensive. Thus, it has difficulty competing with other jewelry techniques in terms of pricing, since high labor costs equal high retail prices.
If you go back to the 1600-1700s in Europe, most goldsmiths knew how to make filigree. It was part of their toolkit of techniques. Just like today, most competent jewelers know how to cast. Back then, most knew how to make filigree. Even then, evidence suggests that European jewelers couldn't compete with the filigree coming from India and China. There are European filigree collections from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that consisted of Indian and Chinese pieces. Back then, just like today, India and China had lower labor rates than the West. So over time, filigree fell out of favor.
Currently, it's hard to find jewelers in North America who know how to make or repair filigree. It has become a lost tradition here.
Ancient Art and Modern Elements
It's incredible how deep the history of filigree work is! I guess if the tradition is 5,000 years old, it has had time to travel across the world.
Absolutely! Filigree would travel along the Silk Road and established sea routes used by traders such as the East India Company. It connected Europe to India and China.
Even back then, it's amazing how interconnected the world is.
It really is.
Some of your creations have very modern elements, with three-dimensional shapes and lines. How do you infuse modern elements and your personal style with the ancient?
I try for a bit of both. Some pieces I make look pretty much the same as pieces made a long time ago. For example, filigree flowers have stood the test of time and are among my most popular pieces. But I also have many designs where I incorporate my style and focus on a more modern look. In terms of teaching, my students love learning filigree flowers. They're a little harder to make than some of the other types of filigree I teach but are very popular with students in my advanced filigree classes.
The Business of Filigree
That's a great segue because I wanted to change direction now and discuss your business model. I'm so impressed with how organized you are on social media. Your work is also well-exposed. You post regularly on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Does this orderly presentation come from your previous scientific career?
I've always been fairly organized. It seems to be part of my personality. But yes, I was involved with large multi-billion dollar projects in my engineering career. I had to be super organized when managing large engineering teams responsible for the design of these projects. So I guess many skills I use to stay organized and on top of social media came from my engineering career.
I see many talks and courses from various gemological organizations focused on teaching social media exposure. The goal is to help artists learn how to advertise their work. Now that we've entered a post-pandemic world, are you showing at any in-person trade shows?
I don't really do big trade shows. That's not my thing. Every year, I just do a couple of trade shows near my home to sell jewelry.
If you're not selling at such shows, how do you sell your work?
When I retired, I joined the Alberta Craft Council, a non-profit organization supporting local 3-D artists. They have two gallery stores. So, I started showing and selling my work at their two galleries in Alberta. I've also sold my work through several other galleries in Canada and the United States. I also have a large customer base that subscribes to my newsletter. Many of my sales come from direct sales to regular customers, some of whom collect my filigree.
As I started focusing on filigree and morphing into a filigree artist, some local folks kept asking me to teach them. I finally gathered enough material for a class, found a studio I could use, and ran a sold-out five-person course. That went over really well, not just with the students but with me. I discovered I really liked teaching. So I started to spend a little more time teaching in-person classes in Canada.
Then Covid hit, and everything shut down. I figured I would either stop teaching until this goes away or maybe teach online. So I started to investigate the technology required to teach online. Once I figured out the technology necessary for online teaching, I offered some courses to former students for the grand sum of $5 because I needed to see if the tech worked. I listened to the feedback from these students, worked out some of the bugs, and realized that, yeah, I could teach online. It does work, and I can do it competently.
How did you get the word out about your online courses?
To market my online workshops, I contacted some schools in the United States and started teaching through them. Most notably, I do a lot of online teaching with Silvera Jewelry School in Berkeley, California. Even with the pandemic winding down, I find student interest in online classes continues, so I have continued to teach online.
My online teaching style is very interactive. I simulate being in a studio with my students as much as possible. I'll demonstrate a step or technique. Students will then have some time to work on that technique in their home studios. They set up their cell phones to allow me to watch them work. I provide direction and feedback while they work, just as I would in an in-person studio.
Then, I started doing YouTube videos, and that's how it morphed. It was all driven by the pandemic. Suddenly, I had access to a very broad audience. I've had students from around the world, including the Middle East, Europe, Hawaii, and Alaska. That really changed my jewelry business quite a bit.
Right now, I'm focusing more on teaching than selling my work. Five or six years ago, my business was 0% teaching. Now, it's something like 50%. So, the pandemic really changed my business model.
The Ganoksin Filigree Video Series
It's incredible that you found a way to pivot during the pandemic to keep your business alive and thriving. Let's now talk about these videos you're producing with Ganoksin. How many do you plan to make?
Right now, I'm about two-thirds of the way done creating nine videos. Each video covers a basic filigree technique I typically teach in my Intro to Filigree class. These videos are technique-based. I'm not teaching a project. We're not making a pendant, ring, or cuff. Instead, I'm teaching specific filigree techniques. The videos cover making filigree wire, making and using traditional powdered solder, soldering with paste solder, making filigree frames, making a filigree bail, etc.
The first video in the series — which I haven't done yet, as it will probably be the last one I do — is an introduction to filigree. I'll talk about the history of filigree, Queen Puabi, and that type of stuff.
About how long are each of the videos in the series?
They vary, mostly from twenty to thirty minutes. The longest one is roughly an hour long.
Are these videos intended to lead to more intensive study?
These videos will teach you all the basic techniques required to make open-back filigree objects. If a person watches and works through all nine videos and practices the techniques, they would have the skills to go away and make filigree objects.
With Ganoksin, I'm also planning to offer a special filigree workshop. It's shorter than my typical "Introduction to Filigree" workshop because it assumes students have worked through these nine videos. We intend to offer this workshop to members of Ganoksin at a substantially reduced price as a custom class that teaches how to make an open-backed filigree pendant. I don't have to teach all the filigree basics since the students will have already learned that. Of course, I'll help them tune up their basic skills if needed.
For students who want to study these videos and take the subsequent workshop, what materials and equipment will they need?
The beauty of filigree is that your principal tools are very basic, such as tweezers, pliers, flush cutters, and basic soldering equipment. The nine Ganoksin videos describe all these tools very clearly. Students with a home studio will most likely only have to spend a little money on new equipment. However, you'll also need one expensive, critical tool: a rolling mill. Many students don't own a rolling mill. A really good rolling mill can cost over $1,000.
Fortunately, to make the workshop accessible to those without a rolling mill, I'll offer a material kit. This will contain all the materials required for the project pre-rolled, eliminating the need to purchase a rolling mill. The other option would be to pre-make the rolled materials before the workshop at a rented studio or with borrowed equipment.
And did ancient filigree makers use these same tools?
Similar, yes. They didn't have rolling mills in the past and probably used hammers to flatten the wire. Of course, they also didn't have electricity, so they manually rolled the wire between two wooden blocks instead of using a flex shaft as we do today.
Do you make all of the wire you use in your jewelry by hand?
I hand-fabricate all of my filigree wire from 26-gauge fine silver wire I purchase. The magic is in creating the filigree wire from simple round wire. Anyone who wants to learn how to make traditional filigree objects must master that skill. Some filigree artists sell filigree wire they've made, but high-quality filigree wire generally isn't available from the major jewelry tool suppliers.
On my YouTube channel, @mfmetalarts5782, the first video I made about filigree is the 15-minute "The Making of a Filigree Crown." It goes over the whole process of making a filigree object. At the time, the filigree crown in the video was the most elaborate piece I had ever made. And it has a matching tiara.
I'm so glad you brought up the crown because it's one of the pieces on your website that incorporates gemstones. I noticed that you sometimes use synthetic gemstones, a very hot topic in the gem and jewelry world. Can you describe how and why you have elected to use lab-made stones?
I often use cubic zirconia and other low-cost synthetic stones to keep my silver filigree affordable. However, I also use several natural stones, such as moonstones, ammolites, and pearls, in my silver filigree. When making gold filigree jewelry, I generally use natural stones.
I always disclose the use of synthetic or lab-grown stones to the customer. In silver work, supporting the price of high-end natural stones is pretty hard. So, it comes down to cost and marketing. But I have no problem if a client comes to me and says, "I like that ring with a cubic zirconia, but could you make it with a sapphire?" Sure!
Continuing the Filigree Journey
I want to ask you about your relationships with your students. Once someone has taken a class with you, are you available for support as they continue their filigree journey? It seems like you're a very loyal mentor.
Yes. At the end of each workshop, I let my students know I'm happy to answer their questions after the course ends, with no time limit. So if a student emails me a question, even a year after a workshop, I try to answer it within 48 hours. I do this because I want my students to continue making filigree. This is one of the ways to keep the art of filigree alive for another 5,000 years.
It's interesting, I keep a database of all of my students, and I can tell you that 50% of my filigree workshop students take a second one with me. I don't know what's typical in the jewelry world, but that seems like a really good retention rate. I've only been teaching for about six years, and one of my students just signed up for class number 15 with me.
Every summer, I teach a weeklong in-person workshop at Summer Series Art School at Red Deer Polytechnic, about a hundred miles from where I live. That workshop just went on sale, and there's room for ten. Six seats have already been filled, and five of those spots have been filled by students who've taken the Summer Series workshop with me. Two of them have taken it all five times I've taught it.
I imagine the world of filigree makers is an exclusive club. You must know many who do it.
Yes and no. I wouldn't say that I know everybody who teaches in North America. However, I have a pretty good idea. And I have been in contact with makers all over the world. Sometimes we will exchange email correspondence, and I've met some in person. Whenever I go on holiday to a country I know has a filigree industry, I try to find someone to talk to. We were just in Portugal in November, and I spent a whole afternoon with filigree artists Antonio Cordoso and his wife, Rosa Maria, at their studio in Gondomar. They were both very generous with their time and information on traditional Portuguese filigree techniques.
Do you pick up different techniques from artists who live in other countries?
Always! Always! I always pick up new tricks! But the type of filigree I teach is generally consistent with what (experienced and sometimes multi-generational) filigree makers do. The techniques I use are very similar to what they use.
So there's a lot out there to learn. It's not just nine videos.
That's right. Those nine videos are just the beginning.
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