Production Jewelers: Design & Industrial Techniques

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HomeLearning CenterBusiness and MarketingMass Production of JewelryProduction Jewelers: Design & Industrial Techniques
By Akiko BuschMore from this author

This is the second in a series of articles about production jewelers. This installment concentrates on design versus saleability, the incorporation of industrial techniques in a line of jewelry and preparation for running a small business.


Business Name:Cathleen Bunt
Designers:Cathleen Bunt
Description of Jewelry Line:Jewelry at the high end of production; modern design which is often bold and geometric in silver, brass, black chrome or gold plating, gold, ivory, ebony, and semiprecious stones. All work hand fabricated, except for casting. Has been selling a jewelry line for about two years; introduces a new group of pieces before each show—about three or four times a year
Business Setup:Solely owned. Employs two part-time workers, both from art metalsmithing backgrounds. Attends craft fairs and The Fashion Accessories Expo. Work has appeared in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar
Education:Studied art metalsmithing at SUNY, New Paitz

Most production jewelers will agree that financial compensation has been one of their greatest motives. Betsy Fuller, a jeweler in Hobe Sound, Florida, goes so far as to tell how, at the age of seven, she sold glitter paper rings on the sidewalk for two cents apiece, concluding that her present vocation "is destiny perhaps." Many will agree as well, however, on a less obvious incentive: The esthetics that evolve from the repetition of a single motif are often reward enough in themselves. Explains Jan Yager, a Philadelphia artist-goldsmith, "I have always worked in a series to completely run an idea through." And while she points out that repetition of anything from three to 50 times can complete an idea, the kind of exploration implicit in production opens avenues closed to the jeweler who limits his work to one-of-a-kind pieces.

Pam Levine, a New York jeweler, concurs. "Production jewelry is not always chosen for the sole reason of making money; it may also be viewed as a creative avenue." While production jewelry is often associated with the tedium of monotonous repetition, its flip, and less understood, side is that serial design implies a sense of continuity. Pieces that are part of a production line can suggest an evolution, a dimension lacking in one-of-a-kind pieces.

Business Name:Pam Levine Designs
Designers:Pam Levine
Description of Jewelry Line:Both high fashion and art jewelry, which has been described as everything from classic Japanese motifs to contemporary New Wave design. Made from sterling silver and brass electroplated with black chrome, silver or gold plate. For many pieces the metal shapes are cut out by machine or chemically etched by outside contractors and then folded or manipulated by hand to fit the design. Has been selling a jewelry line for three years; changes the line a minimum of two times per year, removing or discontinuing certain items and adding others.
Business Setup:Solely owned. Has two employees, one full time, trained in industrial arts, and one part time, trained in traditional jewelry in Japan and commercial jewelry in the US. Attends Rhineback and the Fashion Accessory Expo and employs a sales representative to visit fashion, museum and boutique shows. Advertises in fashion magazines and has been given editorial coverage in them.
Education:Served apprenticeships and attended Pratt Institute while employed as a jeweler at Cartier.

Production jewelry also, by nature, tends to acknowledge industrial techniques. And herein lies another dimension which distinguishes it: Although industrial techniques may first be adopted for their cost and convenience in making creative impulse material, the reverse often holds true as well. That is, industrial techniques often wind up as the very inspiration themselves. While some jewelers are reluctant to actually find these techniques "inspiring"—Sean Gilson of New York finds technique "Just another tool" and explains that he designs with virtually no regard to the manner of execution—most do acknowledge instances in which techniques have motivated design. Yager points to the embossing processes she employs "which I first saw being used by a company which made embossing dies for Valentine cards. And having lived in Providence, Rhode Island, the world capital of costume jewelry, she adds, "I couldn't help being influenced." And Cathleen Bunt, another New York jeweler, admits that it was the anodized aluminum that inspired her pieces incorporating aluminum, ivory and stones. An industrial process, concludes Levine "can be stimulating if one is creative enough to push it beyond its limits." In her case, black chrome plating and chemical etching permitted her to develop detailed pattern pieces that could not otherwise have been produced in quantity.

What Levine is also pointing out is that the production jeweler can look to the pragmatic side of his work for creative input. "while my first line," she explains "was a result of instinctual design, I realized that my work must be practically produced—cost-conscious—and still maintain consistent ideas. The folded shapes that evolved solved production problems while providing a creative base." The lesson, though it may be obvious, bears repeating: Industrial materials and processes are not simply the means with which to execute design but are creative resources in themselves.

Business Name:Betsy Fuller
Designers:Betsy Fuller
Description of Jewelry Line:High fashion, simple, graceful, wearable jewelry—artistic but not outlandish in 14- and 18k gold, silver, pearls, seashells and beachglass, all fabricated by hand. Has been selling a production line for 12 years. Many items in line stay two to three years; adds to them often, but never makes an entire change in the look.
Business Setup:Solely owned. Makes all piece by hand herself. Sells through galleries, department stores, museum shops; produces an elegant color catalog with price list; attends JA shows and advertises in JC-K classified column. Work has appeared in fashion magazines—WWD, New Woman, New York—but does not seek out such coverage.
Education:Took only one college-level jewelry course as MSU; studied at Haystack two three-weak sessions in jewelry.

Another point of agreement among most of these artists is in the kind of education they found available. Yager establishes that "a broad background in art history and various art media" provided a wealth of resources. Others concur that past education most valuable to them now are the art courses which exposed them to media and expressions they might not otherwise have encountered. Second in importance are the technical skills learned in workshops. Nevertheless, all agree that their backgrounds did not sufficiently expose them to the practical business skills that are as vital to their professional success as creativity at the bench. And, as might be suspected, the illiteracy that ensued fostered one of the most difficult problems that greets most of these jewelers: while maintaining cash flow maybe elusive enough in itself, it is often even more difficult just to keep track of where the cash is. Simple bookkeeping and paperwork can consume much of the time that they had hoped to spend at the bench. Most of these jewelers will agree with Gilson who recalls that it was "experience and hunger" that best provided him with business training.

The exceptions seem to be in the cases where jewelers apprenticed or worked for another studio or gallery before going into business for themselves. For example, Levine's tenure in the commissions and repair department at Aaron Faber Gallery and later position as a product developer at Cartier both taught her how to seek out contractors through industry trade publications. Or Bunt, who licked up her "speed and precision" by working for another craftsman. Or Gilson who apprenticed as a benchworker for a year. The point seems to be that while most jewelers who choose to do production work do so precisely because it allows them to work independently, apprenticing first or working in a gallery can offer a fast course in business know-how that might otherwise take years to pick up.

Still, it is only fair to point out that not many production jewelers actually went to school below the graduate level with that career in mind. Had they done so, they might have tailored their curriculums to include more business courses. Fuller, for example, had entertained notions of becoming a psychiatrist or oceanographer. While her work is certainly a rich reflection of her fascination with marine forms, one would not expect that interest to propel her toward business courses. Likewise, Gilson had considered becoming an aeronautical engineer. Like the art courses these jewelers found so valuable, these interests are what has provided the imaginative scope and power of their work. They lay the foundation for a personal and esthetic vocabulary later translated in precious and nonprecious materials. And though they could be what discouraged these jewelers from business courses, the less tangible information they did provide is surely as valuable.

Business Name:Jan Yager
Designers:Jan Yager
Description of Jewelry Line:Distinctive, collectible jewelry of precious materials which is tactile, pleasing to feel and wear and of lasting quality and design, produced mainly in sterling silver and some 18k gold or brass and nickel combinations. All embossed hollow forms. Has been selling a jewelry line for 10 year; work evolves and builds on previous work—line has changed from emphasis on brooches to emphasis on earrings.
Business Setup:Solely owned. One or two part-time employees work on occasion—most have an art background. Attends craft fairs and trade shows; advertises through newspaper ads and mailings. Work sold in stores, shops galleries and museums and shown in Mademoiselle and Vogue magazines.
Education:Received BFA from Western Michigan University and MFA from Rhode Island School of Design.

Jewelers who did study metalsmithing at a graduate level and in subsequent workshops also found, unfortunately, that the practical side of the profession was rarely addressed. Most agree with Yager who says, "Schools could and should offer more exposure to business practices and philosophies. Artists, like lawyers and doctors, are ready for some undiluted advice on survival and flourishing." Bunt is more specific, advocating that jewelry departments in art schools offer courses in how to deal with sales reps, billing, crafts fairs and photography.

As much a problem as cash flow and bookkeeping is marketing. Marketing techniques appear to vary with the individual. What makes sales for one only costs time for another. While Fuller advocates personal contact with retailers—"Go in. See them. Show them your work. Take them to lunch. Help."—other jewelers find that this personal approach is costly in time and energy. Yager describes an ideal sales rep as one who is "sensitive to my work and goals, witting to create or seek out the markets I am looking for . . . one who looks for quality work without quickly changing taste and who understands and shares my esthetic and looks at jewelry as more than just merchandise . . . one who presents the image I want to present but perhaps even better than I am able to." Not surprisingly, she is still looking for this rep. Most jewelers, though, find themselves somewhere in between learning how to be their own best rep and finding the perfect rep with a set of cloned esthetics. That is, a successful marketing program can be determined by how a jeweler is able to juggle maintaining personal contacts through correspondence, phone calls and personal visits and delegating responsibilities to reps and retailers he has discriminately selected.

Jewelers also have had mixed experiences with (and feelings towards) editorial coverage in fashion magazines. Some find that it is a helpful marketing tool only when done on a regular basis. Fuller adds that the results are elusive: Because coverage rarely results in specific sales, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many sales actually result from it. Gilson is far less ambivalent. Asked whether he had found it worthwhile, he unequivocally states, "No. Headaches. Broken and lost jewelry." Patient and forgiving jewelers, however, will probably agree in the end with Yager who shrewdly points out that "exposure never hurts and usually helps, somehow, somewhere along the line."

Business Name:Gilson Designs
Designers:Sean Gilson
Description of Jewelry Line:Fine, well-designed jewelry that is very wearable and classically fashionable in gold, platinum, silver and stones. Has been selling a production line for two years and the line has moved to the higher end of the jewelry scale through original design. Structural techniques ranges from centrifugal casting to sheet metal forms, forging and blacksmithing and varying enameling techniques. Line is augmented with new pieces.
Business Setup:Solely owned—part-time workers on occasion; prefers artists as workers as opposed to commercial jewelers. Sells in jewelry stores, attends JA shows.
Education:Studied at Bowling Green State University and at Washington University; year apprenticeships as a benchworker.

From the points mentioned above, it is not difficult to see why most production jewelers, when asked of their long-range plans and aspirations, tend to answer in terms of pragmatic business goals rather than of creative goals for their work. Bunt speaks of having more people trained to do her production work, giving her the time, ironically, to do more one-of-a-kind pieces; Levine of artisans trained in her quality and design theory and a business staff to promote the work, both of which would allow her more time to design. Perhaps Yager again speaks for all when she says "I hope to give the marketing aspects to a sales rep and have a bookkeeper. I can't guess what my work will look like, though I do hope it demonstrates five years of growth."

"I went to grad school with two aims," she continues. "To develop further as an artist, both esthetically and technically, and to somehow figure out some method of working that would allow a more viable means of living." While most production jewelers have found that the latter presents by far the most imposing challenges, it is for the rewards of the former that they continue to meet these challenges. And these rewards are perhaps best summed up by Pam Levine: "I chose production jewelry for the constant demands to create new ideas and successfully incorporate them into the marketplace. I like knowing that production enables more than one person to enjoy a specific design. And I want to feel that my work is connected to a specific facet of the vast design community. There are those who view production jewelry as a compromise where nothing creative or quality-oriented can survive. To me, that is not a limitation, but a challenge."

Related Articles:
By Akiko Busch
Metalsmith Magazine – 1984 Spring
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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