Craft and commerce came together with spirit and style at the 1983 Society of North American Goldsmiths’ conference held at Asilomar Conference Center, Pacific Grove, California, from June 8-12. The conference, headed by Doug Steakley, with that special combination of laid-back California style and solid business sense, proved that there is a way to achieve professionalism for the artist-designer.

As a member of the commerce side of the equation, I found myself drawn into discussions with fellow attendees from breakfast time and on, through the entire day of meetings, lectures, slide shows, panel discussions, meals and after-hours hoopla. The beauty of the setting, with the California cypresses twisted into defiant shapes by the prevailing on-shore wind, the sudden appearance of a deer walking by on the grounds, combined with just the right amount of isolation to keep everyone in the same working and living milieu. The energy kept flowing seamlessly through the days. It didn’t feel like work but it certainly was a learning experience.

Solid workshop sessions on technical subjects were offered, interspersed with practical lectures, and an evening of jewelry viewing at a special show of SNAG/Johnson Matthey award-winning platinum pieces held at the Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art.

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Mort Abelson, manager of the Jewelers of America show, a trade event at which some 1100 jewelry firms exhibit, spoke on the place of the young designer in the changing commercial environment. His pitch was aimed at designers whose work was suitable for the New Designer Room, a special area of the JA Fall show, held in New York City at end of July/beginning of August.

Abelson metaphorically rolled up his sleeves and told it straight. “You can make 125 presentations during a five-day trade show, at a cost of $40-75 a call. On the road, the same number of calls would cost $180 each and would take two-and-a-half months.” That assumes a few things of course: first, that 125 people approach your exhibit space and stay long enough to learn about your jewelry; second, that you have sufficient production to meet the orders that come your way.

Abelson actively encourages young designers to show him their work because he is keen to spark the JA show with interesting jewelry. “I was bored to death with the jewelry lines I saw. Most people do the same thing; they buy from the same casters, they finish their lines the same way.” The boredom of seeing the same thing led him to institute the New Designer Room, where 12 newcomers rent booth space, at a reduced rate. Of the 71 firms that have been in the New Designer Room since 1977, 38 have remained in the show.

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The panel on which I participated, along with Alan Revere and Helen Drutt, with Steakley moderating, was the theme session for the conference: Professionalism for the Artist-Designer. We three were chosen for our diverse but solid connections with the commercial end of things. Helen Drutt runs a gallery in Philadelphia; Alan Revere is a working goldsmith, manufacturer and head of the Revere Academy in San Francisco, and I am New York Editor of Jewelers’ Circular-Keystone, a magazine written for the retail jeweler.

As discussed at the panel, and particularly from my perspective, the artist-designer not only has a place in commerce, but provides the spark that is so often missing in the retail jewelry store. Since I began covering the Rhinebeck Craft Fair some six years ago, I have made it my mission to bring well-designed, well-made jewelry to the attention of our readers. These designers, and this kind of jewelry, now offers retailers the chance to bring back the customers they have lost to their competition, those stores that sell purely by weight and price.

This is the kind of jewelry retailers need to make them look different from the store down the street. And it is jewelry that consumers respond to with glee, once they see it, The stumbling block, for the most part, remains the retailer. He is cautious, he is conservative and he is light years behind his customers. Their taste has evolved, and they’re ready to buy. But they can’t buy what they don’t see.

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Getting into the Market

Retailers who want to reach out to artist-designers don’t really know how to go about finding you. Some contacts are made at regional craft fairs; universities with jewelry programs could also be the meeting place. But there’s nothing wrong with calling up a shopowner and asking if he would like to see a line of well-made jewelry.

The atmosphere of the gallery approach limits the amount of jewelry sold there. I feel strongly that jewelry sells best in the environment of the jewelry store. While your work certainly is an art form, it is bought to be worn. The customer looking for something to wear goes to the jewelry store to find it.

If you seek collectors, such as those Helen Drutt considered in her talk, you may find them in galleries. But there are thousands of jewelry buyers who collect a designer’s work, buying several pieces over a period of years. They enjoy knowing the person who made their jewelry and they are very loyal customers indeed. It’s one thing to hang a piece of art on a wall, it’s quite another to hang it on yourself. Don’t cut yourself off from these art lovers by limiting the places where you show and sell.

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Retailers need to be educated, gently. They were brought up to consider pennyweights and karats; they have to learn to appreciate art. Yours is a great and ancient tradition; it is a tradition that many retailers have forgotten by keeping their eyes glued to the bottom line. Help them lift their heads up and see the light.

There should be no confusion between sculpture and jewelry. I do not consider jewelry to be sculpture to wear; sculpture really doesn’t wear all that well and I think this concept has done more harm to the cause of your work than any other single element. I have no objection to a necklace being hung on the wall, if the buyer so chooses, but that is not its primary purpose. Jewelry must relate to the person wearing it; it does not exist in isolation.

Finally, production should not be a dirty word. There is nothing wrong in making a wonderful design more than once. If it is handmade, it won’t be exactly the same anyway. Sign your work; date it; put a copyright notice in it or on the back. If you’re concerned about having your designs knocked off, beat the thieves at their own game by bringing out lower-priced versions of your own work. Reduce the weight of the gold, use a different type of stone to lower to cost. Bringing good design to more people helps upgrade taste and creates even more of a market for well-designed, thoughtful and well-made jewelry.

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