We have two full-time bench jewelers at our store. They are always busy, repairing and creating jewelry. We know them well but, for the general public, they seem a mysterious breed–tucked out of sight in the dark recesses of the shop. They work with tools and heat and chemicals that can be dangerous. From the shop come loud noises that sound like wheels whirring, metal clinking, or compressed air escaping. “What’s happening back there? What motivates them to do this kind of work?”
I asked them the pros and cons of being a bench jeweler. From the comments and letters of other bench jewelers there is a broad consensus on the following:
A bench jeweler is fulfilled by making pieces of art that people will treasure. Clients are usually full of admiration and gratitude for the jeweler who can repair a sentimental favorite or create a masterpiece.
A bench jeweler gets to be creative. Whether he/she is making a custom piece for a client or for the store, there are a lot of decisions to be made on gemstone colors, metal design, and the engineering of the piece. Even if the job is a repair, there’s creativity involved in solving the problem.
Bench jewelers have lots of variety. Each repair, each creation poses different challenges. If you don’t like a steep learning curve, don’t be a bench jeweler.
No college degree is needed, however it helps to study at a trade school or design studio. Much of what a bench jeweler needs to know is learned on the job from a mentor.
The environment back in the shop is one of collaboration. Our bench jewelers have shared memories of repairs they’ve done and jewelry they’ve made. Camaraderie is the natural state for a bench jeweler.
As with all careers, there are downfalls. The work of a bench jeweler can be dangerous. It’s not uncommon to get cut or burned. One of our bench jewelers described hot metal flying out of a centrifugal casting machine and being burned in several places.
Even without injuries on the job, years of sitting and bending over tiny jewelry is hard on the eyes and the back. It’s a sedentary job, complete with the multitude of health issues that can come with not moving much.
Bench jewelers often feel pressure to complete jobs. Clients don’t want to be without their jewelry. There’s additional pressure around holiday times, so overtime during the Christmas season is common.
It takes a long time and a lot of practice to be good at this work. In the meantime, you are someone’s apprentice and probably not making much money.
A bench jeweler has to be very patient. He/she has to be able to concentrate for long periods. Just imagine having to work daily with tiny parts, gems, and tools!
IN THE END
Bench jewelers are a special breed– good-humored, courageous, sympathetic, and humble. They must be willing to put up with interruptions from their colleagues and impossible requests from their clients. They must be prepared to take on difficult jobs with potentially expensive consequences because, as one bench jeweler put it, “Somebody has to do it!” They must understand that, regardless of the quality of the jewelry, it has special value to the owner. And they must accept that, stuck in the back of the shop, they won’t always receive credit for their efforts.
And that final quality attributable to bench jewelers–playfulness. They jokingly say that they love playing with fire and banging away with their hammers. They may be kidding, but I think they really mean it!
For centuries jewelry was designed by men. Seems odd, doesn’t it, when most all jewelry is worn by women? But the design field was male dominated for the same reason most fields were–men were seen as the more capable sex and the bread winners of the family. When did it become clear that women could design for women?
Perhaps the first to recognize this talent in a female was Rene’ Boivin, a Parisian goldsmith and engraver in the late 1800s. He married Jeanne Poiret, a woman who became his business partner in his jewelry workshops. Together they created fabulous designs which were in high demand among their elite clientele.
Egyptian Emerald Ring by Maison Boivin
When Rene’ died in 1917, everyone assumed that Jeanne would sell the business but, instead, she and her daughter, Germaine, assumed control. Jeanne, though not trained as a jeweler, knew a lot from working with her husband. She’d think out the designs and have someone else render them. She also had a talent for finding good talent, hiring young Suzanne Belperron in 1921 and, when Suzanne left in 1931, the talented Juliette Moutarde took her place.
Suzanne Belperron opened her own jewelry design firm with Bernard Herz, and later, his son, Jean, in a partnership that lasted over 40 years. Her designs were so distinctive–very fluid and organic. Even while those around her embraced Art Deco, with its straight lines, Suzanne elevated a more modern design. Famous women like the Duchess of Windsor and Mona Williams (pictured below) bought her jewelry. Her work was never signed, though. She always said that her style was her signature.
Sketch and finished piece by Suzanne Belperron
Juliette Moutarde worked with Jeanne and Germaine at House Boivin until they sold the company in 1976. Jeanne had died in 1959, but her daughter, a talented jewelry designer in her own right, kept the business going. Throughout these successful years, custom pieces were never signed by the individual artists. Perhaps it was seen as too bold, too assertive, for a woman to sign her work back in the early 1900s.
Design attributed to Moutarde, made for Claudette Colbert in 1936.
But because of these women, and a few others like Italian Elsa Schiaparelli, female jewelry designers today feel empowered to open their own studios, sign their names to their pieces, and earn their own success in the design world. Thanks to these pioneers, we know names like Paloma Picasso, Elsa Peretti, and Ippolita Rostagno, who have had their own jewelry lines for decades. And because of THEM, contemporary female designers–from Kendra Scott and Irene Neuwirth to Farah Khan Ali and Erica Courtney find success in the always competitive jewelry industry.
contemporary Ippolita design
Today we don’t think much about gender when choosing a designer. If you like the creation, you respect the designer! But it wasn’t always like that, and I wanted to lift up the courage of Jeanne Bouvin and her team of female designers. They worked and made their way successfully in a male world. Good for them and thank goodness for us. Their combination of talent and determination allowed women who came after to enter the field with confidence. Because of that, I want to nominate Jeanne Poiret Boivin for Mother of Female Jewelry Designers!
Tucson Gem Show 2015 at the A.G.T.A.
The Tucson Gem Show attracts interesting people. People come from all over the world, and they have stories to tell. But the individual shows also have personality. This series will concentrate on three different shows–the A.G.T.A. (American Gem Trade Association); the G.J.X. (Gem and Jewelry Exchange); and the Pueblo Gem Show–and the stories I heard at each show.
The A.G.T.A. gets top billing at the Tucson Gem Show. It takes up the Convention Center, the fanciest venue, during the peak days of the two-week show. Its exhibitors must be members of the association, which has the highest ethical standards for full disclosure of any gem enhancement or origin.
It always feels calm and safe at the A.G.T.A. Everyone’s there to make a living, but there’s enough mutual respect and integrity to keep an honest exchange. It’s also very comfortable at the A.G.T.A. Booths have more elbow room, the environment is cool and carpeted, and the restrooms are of the permanent variety. At lunchtime, open doors lead outside to tables and chairs surrounded by food trucks offering wide variety.
The other shows know that you have to pre-register and meet the standards of A.G.T.A. before they’ll let you in the door. So, if you have your A.G.T.A. badge, you’re usually guaranteed entry to any other show. The A.G.T.A. deals only in wholesale, so the general public is not allowed.
Loose, cut gemstones are the specialty of the A.G.T.A. Only a few, high-end jewelers show finished pieces. The show also has booths set up for the top gemological schools and laboratories. There are educational seminars bringing in well-known speakers of the gem and jewelry industry. The Smithsonian Institution shows off its new gemstones and jewelry.
So, what is the “personality” of the A.G.T.A. Tucson Gem Show? It’s cool, cultured and full of integrity. It might also be just a little bit snooty. Everyone is well dressed at the A.G.T.A. People drink lattes for breakfast and have salad for lunch. There’s no one noisy or hot or grumpy at the A.G.T.A.
Maybe it’s this abundance of high class culture that draws me to the more down-to-earth vendors at the show. One such woman who, along with her husband, owns turquoise mines in Nevada, told a great story about a piece of turquoise I bought for my mother. It came from an area near the Ajax Mine, found in the Candelaria Mountains. She told me that one day she and her husband were walking their property and stumbled upon some pieces of turquoise just lying like gravel. They looked around and found a pick ax handle pounded into the ground nearby. It looked old, and they determined that it was probably left by a miner back in the 1930s. They think the miner saw what they saw and marked the place with the intention of returning. But, for some unknown reason, he never did.
When they started mining, they found a vein of turquoise. It’s called the Candelaria Pick Handle Mine. I can’t wait to tell my mom this story. And I’m so glad the owner took the time to tell me. Jewelry is best when it comes with a story. This one was like a good Western–rough and tough, with a little bit of mystery. And what a far cry from the classy, sophisticated story of the A.G.T.A. It was wonderful to experience both.
Next week’s story focuses on the G.J.X. show and a young stonecutter from Germany.
Tucson Gem Show 2015 at the A.G.T.A.
Every year, in the first two weeks of February, the Tucson Gem Show draws about 55,000 people from all over the world. The show means millions of dollars of revenue for the city of Tucson. What is all the fuss about?
1) How did the Tucson Gem Show get started?
Back in the mid-1950s, members of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society decided to have a free exhibition of gems and minerals. It was a big hit. They had to find a bigger venue for the next year. Today, the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show takes over the Tucson Convention Center on the second Thursday in February. And it’s still run by the volunteer members of the Society. Over the next several years, word got out that Tucson had a great gem and mineral show. More and more vendors wanted to exhibit there, and, of course, that led to more and more people coming to visit and buy.
2) What is the Tucson Gem Show like today?
It’s huge! There are now over 40 different venues with thousands of vendors and dealers. Some shows, like the A.G.T.A. (American Gem Trade Association), get housed in a big convention center. Booths are set up numerically, like city streets. You need a guide book for navigation. Other shows set up in hotels, big outdoor tents, or even outside. These shows, which all seem to be named with an acronym, can be many miles apart, and shuttles are set up to take buyers from one show to the next. Somehow Tucson finds room for everyone.
3) Who goes to the show?
People from all over the world come to Tucson. You’ll see people from Germany, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Thailand. Buyers and sellers of gemstones and jewelry make the Tucson Gem Show one of their top priorities. But lots of people who just love rocks and minerals also go to the show. There are a few shows, like the A.G.T.A., that only admit people who plan to re-sell what they buy. But many more shows are open to the public.
4) What types of goods are sold?
It might be easier to answer what ISN’T sold! There are cut, faceted gemstones for sale as well as rough, uncut gems. You can buy jewelry–finished and unfinished. Millions of beads are sold, as well as findings (metal pieces used in making jewelry). You can find amazing mineral and fossil specimens. There are always items made out of rock–like carvings of animals, bookends, and bowls. And then there’s microscopes, tweezers, and all the other equipment you use when working with stones.
5) What else can you do at the show besides buy and sell?
There are lots of educational seminars on topics in the gem and jewelry industry. Hands on demonstrations of equipment are common. Major museums like the Smithsonian bring in gem, mineral and fossil displays. But the best thing to do at the show is people-watch. It’s a show that brings in a wide variety of interesting people.
So all the “fuss” over the Tucson Gem Show is warranted. It IS a big deal. If you are searching for that special gemstone and you can’t make it to Tucson, remember to ask Teri or Matt for help. They go every year.
Repairing a Wedding Ring
Usually hidden in the back of the store, out of sight and unknown, bench jewelers work their wonders in mysterious ways. In an attempt to shed insight on the incredible work that they do, let me introduce Nick, the longtime bench jeweler and co-owner of Dearborn Jewelers. Known for his ability to work miracles with jewelry, he can create beautiful new pieces and repair treasured old ones. And he does it with a sense of humility and humor.
He started engraving in his father’s jewelry store when he was 14-years old. He learned a lot about making jewelry from his dad, Nick Pavlich, and from another bench jeweler in his youth, George Omelczenko. While most of his mastery has been obtained on the job, he did take stone setting classes from the Gemological Institute of America (G.I.A.) back in the early 1990s.
According to Nick, the three most important tools of a bench jeweler are “good eyesight, a hammer, and inspiration.”
His best advice to young bench jewelers is “Take care of your eyes.” But there’s a lot more to it than having a keen eye. Nick is a perfectionist and he has the patience to work with the jewelry. He says he’s not patient when teaching others, but I find him extremely patient with interruptions about whether some repair can be done or whether some design is feasible.
His most memorable job was a lapel pin he made for a gentleman whose last name started with W. I asked him why it was so memorable and he said, “It just turned out really good. It was a script W, in white gold, with graduated diamonds mounted in it. It was really pretty.” We tried to find a picture of it, but no luck. So he drew a little picture for me. It’s amazing how he can remember details of jewelry he worked on, even if it was decades ago.
A bench jeweler’s bench is his domain. It can look chaotic but he knows where everything is. If you spend any time around the bench, you’re likely to hear the sounds of hammering, drilling, filing and the occasional “ouch.” You’ll see the torch fired up, steam coming from the cleaning area, and sometimes you’ll even see Nick down on the ground, searching for that stubborn diamond that simply did not want to be set. Being a bench jeweler is not easy work.
Most importantly, Nick is a family man, a religious man, and a man of integrity and honor. You can always count on Nick to tell you the truth and to do his best for you. His sense of duty is one of the main reasons, I think, that Dearborn Jewelers is so successful. Customers know that no one will work harder and with more experience on their jewelry.
So the next time you look at your ring or put on a bracelet, you’ll have a better understanding of the work that went into making it. Think about the person that made your jewelry–a combination of artist and engineer– the bench jeweler.
Making a custom fit wedding band