The Contemporary American Custom Goldsmithing
22 Minute Read
About five years ago, Robert Fairbank, John Reynolds and I created a "living entity" called Goldsmiths 3 in Concord, Massachusetts. Our name simply reflects what we are: three goldsmiths, custom-designing and handcrafting all sons of objects in precious metals—primarily gold jewelry. We also work in sliver, platinum and precious gems.
I had previously been an associate professor of art in design and metals at Boston University and was an active participant in the academic and contemporary craft world for over 20 years. One of my dilemmas in making the transition to custom goldsmithing was the nagging question, how can I maintain creativity without the support systems of the ivory tower? I wondered about the opportunities for human interaction and the intellectual stimulation I had enjoyed as teacher and advisor. I was justifiably concerned because the care and feeding of that "living entity," the custom goldsmith studio, or any small business for that matter, requires an enormous commitment of time and energy. After a long day of goldsmithing for the paying public, who wants to shift to the home studio and try to be "creative" for oneself?
In fact, I discovered that there are more similarities than differences between the job descriptions of "academic" and "custom goldsmith," the most significant of which is that both must teach—the academic in formal classes, the custom goldsmith in relationships with clients. Further, the teaching challenge for the custom goldsmith often goes beyond that of the academic in that he is often confronted with extremely complex design requests. By this, I do not mean that people ask for objects beyond our goldsmithing capacities. Since each of us at Goldsmiths 3 has his own areas of design interest and technical expertise, we can accommodate almost any request. No, the complexity can arise in trying to figure out what "game" a client might be playing. We sometimes find ourselves refereeing a power struggle between husband and wife or mother and daughter.
Frankly, l have found that I enjoy the challenge of arriving at consensus with certain clients—a process I fondly call "design therapy." (Recognizing the danger of being labeled "pop psychologist," I'll take my chances and proceed.)
Thoughts on The Contemporary American Custom Goldsmithing
An interesting and important factor in the psychology of our business is that of the environment in which our interaction occurs. During the first three years at our current location, we had only one tiny showroom/everything room. It was reached via steep stairs and a locked door at the top landing. The space was too small for anything but intimate design consultations between one goldsmith and one or two clients. Upon the arrival of additional clients, the atmosphere was immediately filled with tension, especially if the first, seated clients had spread their prized jewels on the table for design evaluation. We often saw, to our dismay, that subsequent clients would come to the top of the stairs, stare uncomfortably at the "crush" of five or six people and flee. We now have acquired an adjacent, considerably larger room with light, airy visual access to the outside and we see and sense a vastly improved atmosphere. While one client consults with the designer in a private corner near a window, other clients can move about in either showroom and feel comfortable.
When a new client arrives, we greet her or him cordially and invite them to browse around, to get the feel of what we do through objects on display and through perusing our thick albums of photographs of the many pieces we have done for other custom clients. John photographs each new piece before it goes on display awaiting pick up by its new owner. The discerning repeat clients are used to our system of display-before-pick- up and make a point of dropping in regularly to see "what's new." The new client is advised of this system and is oriented to particularly interesting pieces or is engaged in conversation before getting down the their specific request.
Since we do selected repairs and restorations, some people use a simple repair as an introduction, and, once satisfied that we know our craft, bring in successively more complex and valuable pieces to be refurbished or completely changed, using their own gems plus new ones. If their request is small, they are usually dispatched fairly quickly after a thorough explanation of the work to be performed, prices, time frame, etc. Frequently, this entire procedure is performed by Susan, our sales manager.
If the request is more complex, we sit down to talk, taking each other's measure. How did she or he learn of our studio? Do we have any connections, mutual friends, interests, the weather, anything to put them more at ease and to give me a chance to observe various aspects of their persona. I observe how they comport themselves, what they are wearing, their jewelry, and, especially in women clients, hair and eye color and skin tone. I am seeking a clue to a mutually acceptable design direction. By their reaction to our photo albums I further refine the design approach, and, by this time, they have revealed just what it is they want. Of course, even through we are as receptive as possible, we are not mind readers and are helped in our task by the very fact that they found our studio in the first place. In about 90% of the custom design cases, once a client has made the effort to find us, they follow through with the commission. Part of this success rate has to do with reputation through advertising and word-of-mouth recommendation and part of it is due to our subtle remove from the "mainstream," i.e., we are located in a small, elegant town about 15 miles from Boston.
Our clients also seem to know that since our work and services are special they must be prepared to pay a bit more than they would at a conventional jewelry store, especially if they want to have something custom designed. Our nonrefundable $100 design fee seldom turns people away, nor does our $500 custom-job minimum. Certainly, we do sell many objects for less than $500, but they are "case pieces" designed and made by us or a few other goldsmith friends whose work is stylistically compatible with ours. In this category are many one-of-a-kind pieces plus some limited-series items. These pieces satisfy the impulse buyers, especially at holiday time.
Despite the fact that each custom client's requirements are unique, there are several categories of clients and products that make up the bulk of our business. First are the wedding-ring clients Over 50% of our custom business involves the design of usually three rings per couple, who, although usually well-educated, very well-paid and "self-confident" young, urban professionals, still cling to the tradition of ring sets. There is the engagement ring ("We want something different"), usually set with diamonds or a diamond with sapphires, rubies or emeralds. The accompanying wedding bands are in related styles, one for her and one for him. Their tastes vary somewhat within a rather narrow range of "something different," and they come to us partly because they have been turned off by the offerings of more "commercial" jewelry stores but mostly because they like to feel discerning and aware of the best-quality products available.
I am sure that we all recognize the trend toward costly designer labels in everything from cars to castles. Perhaps we have become a "designer label," at least locally, because we have never been busier. Or, perhaps we are simply beneficiaries of the long-term American crafts revival. I am convinced that part of these particular client's design and quality awareness is the result of their having attended schools and colleges where contemporary crafts programs flourish and where many of them had taken such courses themselves. Some of them come in pointedly discussing "bezels," "cabachons," "married-metals" and other contemporary metals buzzwords like "electro-colored titanium"; Wow! At any rate, despite their occasionally annoying know-it-all and want-it-all attitudes, these younger (usually first-time-to-be-married) clients respond to a warm and sincere approach. I dispense homilies about the "married condition" along with the advice that diamonds are usually not such a terrific investment (and still they want them, tradition is that strong).
The search for older values might also account for a peculiar phenomenon we have dealt with of late, that is, the popularity of my own wedding ring for the young male who does not respond to other, more "designed" rings. My ring has evolved with my marriage of 21 years. It was originally a 7.5mm band of 14k yellow gold with an overlayer of textured, squarish shapes (very "early 60s"). It caught on towels, etc., so 1 hammered it and fused the pieces a bit more. Then I put on a lot of weight and hammered it to stretch it. I've gardened with it on, I've done carpentry, pottery, you name it, and then, for the final touch, I lost weight and cut the ring down to its original size! Well, of course, that's the ring they want. Perhaps the telling of the story is what sells the ring, or perhaps its lack of slickness is what appeals, especially since our method of reproducing it assures the client of getting his ring only similar in feeling to mine, therefore, a true one-of-a-kind. Whatever the reason, I find the homage to my cherished, clunky ring, touching.
The second- and third-time-around couples come in with slightly more unusual design requests than the first-timers. When they ask for something "different," they mean it because they have already done the conventional thing, and found that it didn't work for them. They are less likely to want three rings, often choosing simple, sculpted bands for each partner. Recycled gems often appear in this category and are sometimes relegated to use in something other than the wedding rings, such as the perfect four-carat diamond, which became the centerpiece for a lady's seldom-removed gold chain, "choker" length. I often wondered in this case, who was doing the choking, the "ex" who paid for this talisman of love lost or the new mate who obviously could not afford such a bauble but had to see it every day hence.
Odd though some requests might be, I prefer working with these more seasoned clients because their established quirks and tastes provide more opportunity for innovative solutions and frankly, fun. One delightful couple had included in their new relationship a switch from Judaism to Buddhism and requested wide, delicately pierced and carved bands of lotus leaves and blossoms. Another, a big, strapping gentleman, proud of his Celtic heritage, requested a ring with a "Celtic-feel." The result of our collaboration is a handsome, wide band of white gold, pierced on the inside with several words from his personal philosophy and then overlaid on the outside with "Celtic" spirals and waves of white gold and 22k yellow gold accents. This was great fun to do.
Usually, the relationship between couples becomes evident during the first design session and certainly by the model-fitting stage or second contact hour. However, sometimes any "games" they might be playing takes a little longer to understand and consider in the design and "therapy" process. Most of the young couples are simply "in love" and desirous of pleasing each other. The norm seems to be to have lived together for at least a year and now wish to make a commitment. Sometimes we see traits and interactions that make us want to say, "Watch out!" "This union is headed for disaster!" But, of course, we can say nothing. However, by the time a couple is working on marriage #2 or #3 we sometimes see some fascinating power plays.
One such recent experience concerned a couple in their early 40s, both second-timers, both independent, very successful professionals. They were playing, "Me, big, strong, demanding male. You, small, subservient female. . . ." He insisted upon choosing her ring, but not she his. He chose a very demure little number when it was clear to me that she really wanted something more interesting. She acquiesced "sweetly" and I was Left, mouth agape. Was this the same assertive, decisive and independent woman who had come in initially, alone, to arrange the design session? Had she hinted to me that she wanted help in getting the ring she preferred, I would have tried various persuasive tactics in her behalf, but she hinted at nothing. Either she is a very clever lady with a subtle agenda or, her need for security and love causes her to settle for domination.
Another couple developed their maturation-of-relationship stint in just a few short weeks of our acquaintance. Initially, he was a classically, maddeningly indecisive type, fussing over every detail of the design of her ring, using up hours of my precious time! With the exception of the very substantial ruby and diamonds she agreed to, she shyly deferred to his leadership. The final design was his. It certainly had ceased to be mine! There comes a point in this process when you realize that, "This one is not going to appear in the design book." What started out to be crisp and elegant became blousey and awkwardly conventional, but he was delighted at the result. She said little.
However, upon their return visit some months later for wedding ring designs, she ran the show. They were in and out in record time, he saying, "Yes, dear. I think they will be just right." Incidentally, she had been married before and he, at about age 40, had not. He was, in fact, so subdued that even the "therapist" could not resist a little swipe at him (retribution for frustration): When he began whining about the possibility of his band turning on his finger, I fairly snapped, "Of course it will turn! All bands turn!" And, that was that.
Certainly, we deal with sentimentality. Besides tradition, sentimentality is the next most important aspect of our profession. We tenderly rejuvenate grandma's worn-out rings. (Woe betide us for one slip, one chip. What was a cordial relationship between client and goldsmith can turn instantly into a vicious, ugly scene if some accident befalls a cherished "heirloom," or some misunderstanding occurs concerning intrinsic value or money in general. The exchange of money is always the barrier between truly open friendships and mere business friendships.) On the positive side, we build into some pieces private signs and symbols that have tremendous meaning for the giver and recipient, and during the research and design process we come to know intimate details of the individuals' lives.
A piece clearly representative of our capacity for interpreting sentimentality is the 18k yellow gold bracelet, hollow constructed and hinged, repousséd with Swiss mountain scenes in memory of a long, happy marriage, which included travel and lots of mountain climbing in Switzerland. Its owner, a very dear lady, nearly 90 years old, commissioned it as an "heirloom" to pass on to her grandchild. I was deeply moved by this experience. There are far too many examples of sentimentally inspired pieces to mention here, some as funky as an actual ¼" top slice of champagne cork from some auspicious occasion made into a money clip, and others are delicate and sublime as two of grandma's rings, a thin pink gold one and a thin white gold, each set with a small diamond intertwined with two thin bands of yellow gold for a granddaughter's new marriage.
The most troublesome design problems are those in which the parameters are not clear because some sort of power play is afoot between two (or more) clients. One such situation occurred recently between a mother and daughter (and, as was subsequently revealed, the whole family). Daughter (adult, married, professional) came in alone to commission a new ring setting for grandma's two-carat diamond, which she had been given. The ring, a simple, bold sweep of 18k yellow gold was enthusiastically approved during the design stages, drawings, models, etc.
Upon completion, however, daughter was a bit apprehensive at its "modern look," but after gentle counseling, went away happy, wearing the ring. Next visit, some months later, in came daughter with mother, whom I had not yet met. Mother was clearly annoyed. She started attacking the design of daughter's ring. We got into a terse discussion about what constituted "gracefulness," she insisting that her flat, wide band with two-carat diamond in the center was more graceful then her daughter's ring, and so forth. A struggle ensued, daughter tried, with my help, to assert herself. Mother declared that "the whole family disliked the new ring."
The therapist "lost it" momentarily and replied frostily. "Had I known I was designing for a committee, I might have approached it differently, or perhaps not at all!" They soon left, having half-refused to accept my offer to take back the ring, but pay me design time for a new one. As far as I know, the ring still sits, perhaps uneasily, on daughter's finger. It is important to note that we could get into similar scrapes with relative ease over various misunderstandings with clients or between clients but we try very hard to leave serious intrapersonal tangles alone, thus separating us from true psychotherapists who might be just getting warmed up at this point in the relationship.
Not all family-connected experiences are so perilous. I have several families as long-term clients who simply do all their jewelry business with us, without question. We are "their" goldsmiths. I don't know whether or not some of them refer to us privately as "those nice little men who make our jewelry for us," but I don't think so. Rather, our relationship has been built and strengthened over a period of 20 years or more with commissions covering every family occasion, from wedding rings to baby spoons to anniversary gifts to second-generation wedding rings. There is a wealth of trust and understanding between us. In some cases, the relationship has taken on the character of collector and artist and it is indeed gratifying to review each collection for evidence of design development and growth.
For example, for one client two "show stoppers" (client's words) were made in 1967 and 1987. The client was always desirous of providing something strikingly unusual for his attractive and socially prominent wife to wear. They both enjoyed the "game," and I enjoyed their admiration and patronage. Since I have always found u difficult to make elaborate pieces without a client in mind, their support made it possible for me to make some of my most important works. Even now, a few years after this gentleman's demise, his wife keeps up the tradition, more as a friend and art patron than as someone who "needs" more of anything. It is this love and respect between client and artist that is the spiritual food that keeps me going, not the money. Another such artist-patron relationship concerns an extensive collection of pieces featuring fine opals. These client-friends' unflagging support has enhanced my reputation for unusual opal settings and has inspired many other people to come to me for similar work.
Perhaps the most important question, eventually asked when designing, making and buying jewelry is, "How much is it worth?" Implication: how much am I worth? This question can be simply interrogative or it frequently is rhetorical. Figuring out why and how it was asked and the concomitant layers of meaning is where the fun lies for the designer-therapist. Scenario: a fortyish wife comes into the studio bearing a large, costly sapphire, "a gift from her husband." Our ensuing discussion reveals that wife received it for some unspecified "payment" from husband and wants to combine it with other gems in a lavish bracelet (seemingly too lavish for wife's unprepossessing appearance and demeanor).
A subsequent joint visit, a design session, reveals a relatively handsome husband with what seems, to me, like a tell-tale twinkle in his eyes for other ladies. Wife pushes on, relentlessly, in her pursuit of other gems of "sufficient size" and "value"—sufficient value for what? Husband makes no protest as she repeatedly asks, "How much?" and "Don't you have bigger ones?" Eventually, size and value match up to her hidden-worth agenda and she stops bidding, seemingly satisfied that the "deal" has been consummated. This was an embarrassing, but not all that unusual experience for the designer-therapist. However, all that one can do in cases like this is try to alleviate the woman's quiet desperation and make something as beautiful as possible and hope that she feels somewhat assuaged.
I am fascinated by women, not just because they are the opposite sex but as enormously interesting human beings. I appreciate their sensitivities and creativity but am especially attuned to their vulnerability in the face of societal demands and expectations concerning physical beauty and its lore. Too many women are cowed by the "need" to be beautiful at all costs, giving rise to cruel stereotyping and the like. Therefore, we, who are in the business of creating objects for personal adornment, have an obligation to be as honest, direct and supportive as possible. Not lost to the sensibilities of most men in the business of catering primarily to women is the simple fact that we are men. The time we casually spend talking to, listening to and enhancing the "beauty" of our ladies is often enormously important to them and like the relationship of a true therapist and patient, it can lead to momentary infatuations, sometimes even for the therapist.
Some women are so compellingly beautiful that any jewelry I might make for them seems redundant to me. One such lady came into our studio recently, a statuesque creature of incredible vibrancy with the richest, dark, chocolate-colored skin, dark brown velvet eyes, a flashing smile and proverbial "ruby lips." I was so dumb struck by her natural beauty and grace that my normally glib tongue was tied into knots. Perhaps I shall be able to design something to enhance her sensual beauty, a flash of gold here or there. Even though I do not feel that she needs much help, she must feel that she has a personal equation that needs balancing. Soon afterward, another "brown" lady came in, this one not racially brown, but mouse-brown in dress and demeanor. She is an accomplished professional of early middle age, obviously intelligent and well-paid, enough to afford a rather expensive ring, a resetting of her own, much cherished, brilliant blue-green gem-chrysocholla.
Upon discussing her design requirements, I sensed that her self-esteem as an attractive female also needed resetting. She seemed a little sad and needlessly self-depreciating. She implied that since she was still "single" that she might as well buy herself a nice ring. I felt that her self-assessment was quite wrong and that she was warm, sincere and witty and somehow missing her attractiveness potential. I approached the design task with genuine zeal—my mission, to lift her spirits. I made the piece a bit more opulent than its price warranted because I had become emotionally involved in its success as a mood elevator. It worked! The ring turned out to be simple and elegant but large and bold enough to be symbolic of a change she was seeking. She came in to pick it up, dressed in her characteristic brown, but in a very nicely cut dress, her soft brown hair swept into a flattering wave. At first, she gasped at its size and the visual impact of brilliant, blue-green against the richness of 18k yellow gold. She then put it on and beamed with delight, as did L A lively conversation ensued about color and we decided that with her customary browns she should try more, strong blue-green and gold. I produced a multiple strand of such beads belonging to another client for her to try on, the resultant "beauty enhancement" and spirit lifting a joy to witness. She eventually left the studio, fairly dancing with resolve to do some image changing.
Male clients are not only fewer in number but are usually shopping for someone else, usually a female. However, when they are shopping for themselves they can often exhibit the same kinds of insecurities about self-image. Only, as "men," they are compelled to mask their sensitivities as much as possible. Sometimes, the mask slips and we get a glimpse of the little boy underneath, the little boy who needs to feel big and strong, so he needs a big, strong ring. This ring should tell about his accomplishments (largely monetary), therefore it should be quite valuable. Males are generally more tentative in our jewelry store" environment, perhaps viewing it as a female preserve. They are sometimes tentative about us, as, although we are also males, we design jewelry. Are we sometimes scrutinized for our "orientation?" Since we don't wear gold-lamé jumpsuits we usually pass inspection and can get on with business. Most often, however, the male client is simply a bit awkward about selecting the "right" thing and seems grateful for sincere interest and advice. I am particularly pleased to work with those young men, perhaps a few years older than my son, who are idealistic and romantic enough to buck the trend of joint ring shopping and pointedly choose or help design a surprise for their fiancé or wife. Usually, the gamble pays off and the lady is thrilled, but there have been some incidents where the hard-hearted lady has returned the proffered love-token and dashed both males' romantic notions.
Some older males are as zealous and firm about a pair of earrings as they would be about a serious stock deal. They have clearly done their homework and toss around the lingo, letting us know that they know a carat from a carrot (and implying that we had better not try anything shady with them). Some of this feistiness is only macho posturing but on occasion we have suffered the indignity of someone requesting to be present when we unset and reset their gemstone. Some jewelers and goldsmiths get furious at this affront, but I choose a different approach. I reason that this negative attitude about slippery jewelers must have originated from a few real episodes of cheating and that this lore needs correcting by example. So, after mildly scolding the suspicious client, I invite him (or her) into my work room to witness the procedure, all the while delivering a lecture on the care with which we do our work, the stupidity of anyone who would try to switch a client's stones, plus a dash of discussion about "trust," and then a look into the gemscope for identifying marks and color. Thus reassured, these clients often become some of our best repeat customers. Male or female, rich or not-so-rich, young or old, our clients form a fascinating stream of intrapersonal relationships that add a very special dimension to our profession, causing the days and weeks to fly by with never a dull moment.
Vincent Ferrini is a custom goldsmith and partner in Goldsmith's Three in Concord. MA.
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