The following interview between Akiko Busch and Etienne Perret and Michael Good was held as a result of the business panel on which Perret and Good sat at the Society of North American Goldsmith’s conference last June. Their subsequent conversations about business direction and self-questioning reveal important considerations for metalsmiths in all phases of independent business development.
Choices confronting the contemporary American craftsman are increasingly complex. Since the 1950s craftsmen have tended to align themselves with fine artists. Whether critically acknowledged by the fine arts community or not, the craftsman’s most highly revered work has likely been one-of-a-kind pieces that have accommodated or otherwise referred to contemporary fine arts movements—from Abstract Expressionism to neo-Expressionism. Recently, an energetic cross-exchange has emerged: both the surface and substance of the visual arts have benefitted from the rich traditions of ceramics, textiles, woodworking and metals.
Yet the rich cross-referencing with the visual arts alone does not distinguish contemporary crafts. In the last several years, the esthetics and craftsmanship of the production craftsman has enjoyed new scrutiny. Production work can no longer be dismissed on grounds of commercialism. And in the case of the craftsman who designs prototypes for industrial production, his association with industry is no longer regarded necessarily as commercial rape, but as an efficient and responsible means to make a living and allow the work to be seen, used and enjoyed by a greater public.
What all this means, then, is that the craftsman has more choices. While labels such as artist-craftsmen or designer-craftsmen do continue to be used, they have become obscured and anachronistic. Because skill, talent, technical expertise and heightened esthetic sense can manifest themselves in limited and mass-production pieces as well as one-of-a-kind, these labels do little to describe quality.
With fewer esthetic stigmas attached to these different craft approaches, the choices facing the craftsman are all the more difficult. Especially for the craftsman with an expanding business, how to continue the discoveries made in a single piece, extend a single line or entire collection can be an ongoing process that asks for continual reevaluation not only of his own work but also of his ambitions as a craftsman and human being. In this interview, Michael Good and Etienne Perret of Etienne Fine Jewelry, Camden, Maine address some of these questions. Both their pieces shown here and what they have to say make for eloquent, if at times controversial, answers.
Good and Perret established their partnership four years ago. Limited production—runs vary from one to 15 of any particular design—allows them and their employees to work on more than one piece at a time, which inturn ensures a kind of diversity. That it is a partnership adds to the diversity: Good and Perret’s different approaches animate both their work and their dialogue. But one of the most frequent questions in managing a small production studio is whether to encourage or limit its growth. Once a certain size has been achieved, the market reached, decisions on whether to curb or nurture growth are made almost on a daily basis. These questions seemed a likely place to begin the discussion.
Akiko Busch: Your studio staff stays more or less constant. How is this reconciled with the less consistent demands of the market?
Etienne Perret: Demands do change from time to time, but there’s never any shortage of work. The big problem is trying to live up to our commitments, getting the order out on time.
Michael Good: We never turn anything down, but people do have to be willing to go to the back of the list. And people do get the idea that they have to wait. Right now, we sell to about 200 stores, and we’re going to cut down on that, but without consciously cutting anyone out.
AB: How—and why—are you cutting down on that?
MG: Well, we’re going to a higher end line, from 14 to 18 karat gold. When we started we were doing silver and gold, but mostly silver. Then it was gold and we cut the silver out entirely, and now we’re eliminating the 14 karat for 18. And, as the line improves, there will be more stones, which also creates a different market. The pieces will have the same integrity, but they will be more expensive.
EP: But that’s one of the keys in using stones, that they’re used with the same integrity of how the pieces are made.
MG: For me, that’s the real direction, the next step. How do I make the metal, or the stones, do this? Once you ask these questions, you know what the next step is. It’s a constant evolution.
EP: Michael and I work from the standpoint that we want to be part of the real world and we want to influence it in a big way. One of the big mistakes that many of our peers make is that they separate themselves from the rest of the world. They look at art jewelry and then at everything else out there, and we don’t work that way.
It’s a mistake again, to separate yourself into a crafts market. I would say that our direction now is towards a very sophisticated, wealthy group of people who can afford $200 or $600 for a pair of earrings. But the best jewelers, as far as I’m concerned, are not the craftspeople by any means. The best jewelers have been working for years for the best jewelry houses. Bulgari has been turning out for years far superior jewelry than any you’ll find in an American craft shop. It goes far beyond in both its technical aspects and its esthetics, in its understanding of the meaning of jewelry, which I think the craft movement is really trying to deny now.
AB: What are these elements that define this meaning of jewelry?
EP: The idea of decorating yourself, to showing status, to having a piece that means something emotionally, like an amulet. The craft movement has really tried to deny the essence of what jewelry is, and so they’ve had a very hard time selling it to people. The message is that you should like dull copper as much as you like shiny gold. Well, there’s something that reaches not only people, but animals, about shiny things. People have really over intellectualized jewelry.
AB: So your decision to go to 18 karat, then, is based on this—that using higher quality, or more precious, materials, brings you, and the person wearing the piece, closer to the essence of what jewelry is?
MG: I think there are other things involved too. People will scream about this, but there is a real class issue involved. The people who can really afford jewelry are in a minority. There will always be a movement to make jewelry affordable to more people, but when you use less precious materials, you start getting away from the real meaning of it. You just can’t take away the platinum, or the precious stones. . . although you can still use those and make a horrible piece. There are all sorts of ways to fake it.
AB: But there is a whole contemporary movement, or esthetic, of using nonprecious materials that you seem to be dismissing.
EP: But there’s something special about gold. It last; it wears well; you feel comfortable with it.
MG: That’s very much the heart of the matter. Look around at what people wear at a Society of North American Goldsmith’s conference. It’s real interesting. They’ll wear one of two things: either their own jewelry, or, if they’re wearing something made by someone else, it will be the simplest thing that person makes. There will always be this attempt to take things further, but look at what people buy and what they settle for. I think that’s an immensely difficult thing for a lot of “art craftsmen,” for lack of a better term, to understand.
Which is not to say these other things shouldn’t be done. Try a thousand different things, try new materials, but don’t do it because you’re trying to show that jewelry is more than it is. Do it because you want to play, or it’s fun, or you want to make this little piece of art. But then don’t turn around and say it’s fine jewelry, because that’s another ballgame.
AB: So you don’t distinguish between art jewelry and any other kind?
MG: There’s good art and bad art; good production and poor production; good artisans and not so good artisans. If you make art, then you find out from the world whether it’s art. You don’t make your decision and say you’re an artist and go into your cubbyhole. You say, “Well, I’ll do this, and we’ll see. Whether we’re artists or not is for the future to tell.”
EP: My feeling also is that very few of these craftsmen pursue the art world or try to be judged by it.
MG: It’s not necessarily bad art, but if you’re putting yourself on the line and saying I’m an artist . . . I feel awkward and uncomfortable approaching things that way. It’s an extraordinarily arrogant thing to say. Maybe what I do will change people’s lives, but it’s for the larger audience to say.
If you have to define it, then the craftsman is someone who is skilled in making the technical. And the artist is someone who is making—or trying to make—a statement, hopefully a universal principle. So an artist can make something, and have few or no skills, and a craftsman can make something skillfully which is nevertheless useless, or ugly, or whatever. Maybe the confusion lies in defining anyone with a paintbrush and canvas as an artist and anyone with a hammer, or loom, as a craftsman.
EP: An offshoot of this, I think, is to put your work out to be judged by the public. One way we do this is in advertising—we spend a tremendous amount on advertising. And people judge us by whether they order or not.
Lately, we’ve started advertising in Interview magazine. We put in a photograph of a pair of stockings I’d designed, with diamonds running up the back of the leg. And the response has been incredible. Newspapers, radio, tv stations all over the world are calling us, wanting to know what this is all about, a pair of stockings for $25,000.
So basically, it was this idea, working with a visual concept of diamonds on the back of a woman’s legs. That was the exciting part. After that, it was all work to make it happen. For me the idea is the important part. After that, you work on it, you refine it.
But for me, the craftsmanship has to be taken for granted. It doesn’t even count. If you don’t have it, you’re not worth anything. The technical part for me is like practicing the piano, sweeping the floor.
MG: Well, I’m not saying there’s any great ecstacy in it for me, but I enjoy doing it.
AB: The 25-grand stockings seem to me to be almost pure concept. It sounds as though Etienne is saying concept is the exciting part, whereas for you, it’s development.
MG: Well there are some technical things to be worked out in the stockings too. The setting has to be thought out. You have to design it so it really stays on the stocking. For one, the technical part is as important as the concept. There’s no question that making the prototype is the most exciting part. That’s the heart of it.
AB: But afterwards, you have the process of production which is what becomes so tedious for most people.
MG: The more you do something, the better you get at it. It’s that simple. The concept of this one-of-a-kind piece, so much of the time, is this ego trip. You want to be able to say, I made this one piece, and it’s the only one in existence, and it’s unique. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the most limiting things you can do.
But I can understand why Americans put such immense reliance on that. In art schools, students get the idea that you have to make these special one-of-a-kind things even before you understand what you want to say in the first place. And there was a point in that, when it was getting people back to working in the crafts . . . 20 years ago, or whatever, it was very important because it gave people an alternative. Suddenly there was this green light, and it was OK to pursue life in this way.
Well, for me, the first thing I found with this green light, is that it opened up this enormous world of possibilities. I found out that what I was doing was not all that unique and that there have been a lot of very fine craftsmen around all along.
AB: But how does production allow you to explore all these possibilities?
MG: It’s the way the Japanese concentrate, which is repetition. But the more and more you do something, or every time you do it, it’s not quite the same. It grows and expands. You get better; you understand it more. A kind of meditation is involved. An internal revolution takes place. I don’t say that that sense is always there. But it can be.
AB: Are you tempted to go off track, to try different things? Are those temptations important to finding new ideas?
MG: No, not really. And I confess that the last time I was working that way was just before I started working with Etienne. My work then was very experimental, a bit of this and a bit of that. And the parts were great, but the whole was really kind of horrendous. I was in so many different places at once. I would start something, and see what I could do with it, and go off . . . But it was immensely fun and one of the most important personal times in my life. I just loved it. But, nonetheless, the work was very scattered, without much consistency.
I’m not saying you don’t discover some interesting things when you do work this way. But really, it’s a kind of narcissism. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a constant battle to stay away from that, to ask the real questions about what you really need to know. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this stuff?
What’s very difficult for people, and certainly very difficult for me, is that when you lose that kind of inventive energy is when you begin to ask the real questions. Then the fun you were having, sitting at the bench, giving vent to your imagination, the sense of play, it all disappears. And it’s replaced by a terribly difficult time. You begin to ask yourself, what am I really doing here? You want to know more about the world. You looked around and thought you were discovering things, and you find you were really wasting a lot of time, that it was play.
AB: And how do you come through that period?
MG: I really don’t know. It never really ends. It’s a constant battle to bring yourself down.
AB: But there’s a kind of irony involved here. You would think that once you begin to ask the serious and difficult questions, that would be when the inventiveness starts.
MG: But that’s another kind of inventiveness. It’s not the kind of fun you’re having at the bench. People in this society place such an importance on that. You get completely obsessed with yourself and your work, and people call that invention. I found out it wasn’t invention at all. It was fantasizing, and playing. It was self-absorption. It’s not anything essential. And you may be way off-track. If you really want to see if someone has anything to say, look at their body of work. When they’re 60 or 70. Then it becomes evident if they’re asking questions . . . or playing.
AB: Then as to your body of work, what do you envision for yourself in the future?
EP: I’d like to see an overall look that people associate with our work, though not necessarily with any one person, an overall quality or style, like what’s associated with Bulgari. And the key in this is finding that niche between what you want to say and what other people will listen to.
MG: There are a lot of directions we could head in. Growth is a constant decision for me. I think I’d like to see a tooling workshop. And sometimes I consider going into mass production. It’s exciting because I think I could do it and keep the same integrity in the pieces. It’s all right there to do. But to do that, I’d have to put aside some of the new designs I want to work on.
Right now, we’re going high end and keeping it small; it’s a chamber music set-up rather than a symphony. But all these things are flexible. You can always change your mind. You always have to ask yourself what you want to do, what you want your contribution to be . . . if you go off on a tangent, something, else will suffer. If you don’t, and you stick to one thing, you just keep adding to the list of designs you can work on later. I have a list that would take 15 years to finish.
It’s not marketing, or planning so much, but just constantly asking yourself what you’re doing. And you don’t diverge from that. Our decision to use high-end materials was based on where our work was leading, rather than marketing. Sure, there’ll be a small debt area during the year of transition. And our bookkeeper is skeptical. But there won’t be any difference in the level of production. The more successful you are, the more clients expect from you. There’s a pressure to produce. The decision isn’t made in a vacuum.