Getting Started in Jewelry Making
Someone asked me recently if I had any recommendations for books, classes or schools that would be helpful for someone getting started making jewelry, so I thought I’d write up a post with some of my favorites! And it was a good excuse to snap some quick photos of the new studio. I absolutely did not photograph the messy side that I haven’t finished unpacking yet… So more on that soon. But for now - here is a bit about how I got started making jewelry, and some recommendations for classes + books that have helped along the way. Also, check out my interviews with Shana Ready of The Ropes, Polly Wales , Gretchen Jones , and Anna Bario of Bario Neal for more tips on getting started as a designer.
If you’re interested in making jewelry, I definitely recommend taking a class. Most community colleges and community art centers offer some kind of jewelry course. It’s worth it to take one or several. In person instruction is really crucial for getting started, especially when it comes to learning how to safely operate torches and work with hand and rotary tools. Once you have a lot of the basics down, online tutorials and books can come in handy as supplemental resources. There are countless videos on YouTube on a variety of topics, and I’ve definitely utilized some of them when trying to learn new techniques.
I started making jewelry as a kid, mostly of the fiber, beaded, and fimo clay variety, and loved it! (My mom still has some ancient fimo creations somewhere to prove it.) When I got to high school there was a jewelry making class, and it was then I started learning how to form metal. I also took a few classes at the nearby Heartwood College of Art, and then my high school art teacher set up an apprenticeship for me with local jewelry designers. I got high school credit during the school year, and then helped them out in the shop for a few summers. Through classes and the apprenticeship, I got tons of hands on experience, and became really comfortable with all of the tools and torches.
I left Maine to go to art school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Once I got there, I found that I really wanted to learn how to use new materials and work on a much larger scale, so I focused on sculpture and ceramics. Also, the jewelry and light metals department at SAIC was all but nonexistent. So, after the first year, I brought my all of my jewelry tools out to Chicago, and continued to make small pieces for myself and friends at home. After school finished up, I moved to Philadelphia, I worked briefly as a bench jewelry for a large jewelry company there. They taught me how to work with gold, as all of their pieces were primarily 18k gold and pave. The shop was very impressive – I got to see a laser welder in action for the first time, and they had separate, well-venhilated room for polishing. I didn’t stay there for very long (I moved back to Chicago), but it was exciting to see and work in a really well-laid out workshop. Back in Chicago, I worked for another jewelry designer for a number of years. I learned invaluable business experience from that position and saw first hand the ups and downs of running your own business. I had done a lot of larger, sculptural casting in art school, but I’d never done any jewelry casting, so I signed up for a casting class at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago so that I could learn how to carve my own waxes. They have a great metals department and I recommend starting with any of their jewelry classes. They also have shared studio spaces – and I had a space there for a while. It’s a great space to work in if you’re just getting started. Most shared studio spaces are, since jewelry tools are so expensive, and you need so many different kind. It can be really helpful to be part of a shared space while you build up your own tool collection.
Here in New Mexico, there are also a lot of resources for metalsmiths. At Rio Grande in Albuquerque, you can take metalsmithing classes of all kinds. They are also a great supplier for students and jewelers alike. You can get a student account with them and don’t need a business license or tax id number to buy from them, as is the case with a lot of jewelry suppliers who only work with other businesses. I haven’t taken classes with them, but I’ve been getting supplies and tools from them since I was a teenager.
Another resource is Meltdown Studio, which has locations in Albuquerque and in Santa Fe. They offer light metals classes and bench rentals. And even Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch out in Abiqui offers seasonal jewelry making workshops.
The jewelry designers that I apprenticed with in high school gave me a copy of Tim McCreight’s The Complete Metalsmith which I still have and use today. It’s a great intro to metalsmithing, with lots of great information about tools, soldering and forming techniques, stone setting tips, and lots of useful charts in the back. While I don’t look through the book as much for help with technique and tools references, there are a bunch of helpful conversion charts in the back that I find myself referencing often. Hands down, it’s my most-used jewelry book. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the section on stones, reading about the different properties of each stone, learning their hardness and the superstitions behind them!
Here are some of my favorites (quoted from McCreight’s The Complete Metalsmith p. 107-116):
Beryl, hardness 7.5-8, This stone occurs in a wide color range including pink, orange, yellow, green, blue-green, and blue. It is also found colorless. This resembles rock crystal and was used for lenses and crystal balls. Pink Beryl is known as morganite, after the banker and gem collector J.P. Morgan. This stone is said to protect the wearer from helplessness caused by fascination. It was also used to treat diseases of the eye, jaundice and liver disease.
Diamond, hardness 10, From the Greek “adamas,” unbreakable, indomitable. Diamonds were believed to render all poisons harmless and to drive away madness, night spirits and evil dreams.
Moonstone, hardness 6-6.5, A feldspar of orthoclase with thin layers of albite. This yields a play of light called adularescence as light is spread by the fine particles or layers. The effect is a cool frosty glow that accounts for the name of this gem. Occurs in white, gray, pink, green, blue, chocolate, and an almost clear variety that looks like a water droplet. When work around the neck, moonstone protects against epilepsy and sunstroke. It is used to treat headaches and nosebleeds. When hung on fruit trees it produces abundant crops and generally assists all vegetation.
McCreight used to teach at Maine College of Art, and has a number of other books that are really interesting. I find his book on boxes and lockets really interesting, and his casting book very helpful.
Somewhere, I stumbled upon Anastasia Young’s books, and have referenced them a lot in recent years. Her Workbench Guide to Jewelry Techniques is a great compendium of different ways of working with metal, and her book Gemstone Settings is a really helpful guide to setting different types of stones in all shapes and sizes. Also the photos of some of the jewelry in the books are just so fun to look at! I also recommend checking out Anastasia Young’s own work – her pieces are so beautiful and interesting! She’s based in London and currently teaches jewelry making courses at Morley College and Central St. Martins.
Another fairly recent addition to my jewelry book library is a helpful business focused guide by Emilie Shapiro called How to Create Your Own Jewelry Line (she also has a book on wax carving). She talks about how to start a business, think about design, source materials, handle marketing and finance, and lots more. By the time it came out, I’d already learned a lot about the business from working in jewelry for many years, and from starting my own company, but there were still lots of really useful things in the book for me. For instance tips on creating master production forms and spec sheets were really helpful organizing ideas. I also really hate cutting the white background out of product photos, and she lists a few places online where you can outsource this, so I totally went for it, and it’s really made getting a new collection ready for release much easier. So thanks Emilie! Also be sure to check out her jewelry as well - it’s super cool!
Interviews, Books, Resources and Spaces to check out:
3 Tips to Succeed in Jewelry Design from Shana Ready of The Ropes - my interview with Shana Ready (from my hometown!!!) about her jewelry line, and career.
Polly Wales Rings Master Artful Elegance - my interview with Polly Wales about her jewelry designs and background in sculpture.
The Ethical Metalsmiths - great organization of jewelers committed to social and environmental responsibility.
Brooklyn Metal Works - jewelry classes in Brooklyn, also studio space
WJA - Women’s Jewelry Association, a national association of women in the jewelry business
Haystack Mountain School of Crafts - seasonal classes in Deer Isle, Maine
Arrowmont School of Crafts - classes in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Penland School of Crafts - classes in Penland, North Carolina
Ganoskin - online jewelry resources and forums
Creative Stone Setting - stone setting resource by John Cogswell
Professional Jewelry Making - jewelry making book by Alan Revere
7000 Years of Jewelry - really fun jewelry history book by Hugh Tait
P.S. You may also be interested in this journal post about sketching out new collections, and I’ve also started offering one hour creative advising sessions if you want to chat one on one about some of your projects.
P.P.S. thanks to Tim McCreight, Anastasia Young, Pam Robinson, Sarah McGuire, Deborah Robinson, Judith and Elizabeth Gilday and all the other teachers I’ve had along the way!