STARTING OUT © 2006 Andy Cooperman
True story: Early spring 1987, my first official solo custom client since quitting my job as a bench jeweler in a jewelry store. The sister of our landlord's wife wanted a wedding ring built in gold, set w/ two small diamonds and a square cut pink sapphire. We met several times, in Seattle and in her suburban town, to discuss drawings-- I produced over 20 carefully rendered color sketches-- examine stones and approve wax carvings. The ring completed (a process which also entailed the making of a rubber mold) I cheerfully drove my 1979 V8 GMC gas lovin' pickup somewhere into the back=country and delivered it to my client. She loved it and then invited me to the wedding reception where-- if I wouldn't mind-- she'd really appreciate me tending bar, since I probably wouldn't know that many people any way. Price tag? $250.00
I told this story to a friend and colleague recently who is trying to establish himself as a goldsmith after recently finishing a university undergraduate degree in jewelry and metalsmithing. My friend is on the horns of a dilemma: to work for another metalsmith producing their line of jewelry or to take a low paying grunt type of job in the commercial jewelry industry where he would learn through doing or maybe to work at a non related job, for a higher wage, buy a home, sock some cash away and pursue his passion in his time off.
Tough decision, one that I suppose depends to a large part on how much he really wants to be a successful jeweler or metalsmith, and just how he defines those terms. Working for another artist might allow you to gain speed and proficiency at say, soldering, fabrication, setting and finishing. It's inarguably a great way to gain an education in production methods, gallery communications and the operation of a business in general. Being in another artist's space can be quite positive, can give you some exposure for your own work and allow you to use and discover tools and processes that you had no idea existed. You may even be able to subcontract, working from your own studio, a situation some find more comfortable. If you have your sights set on establishing yourself as a production jewelry artist, for instance, than working for a successful one can be invaluable. The downside is that the skills you learn may be very specific and the work itself can become repetitive. However, as a friend once reminded me, there's more to be learned from a job than dry technique and sound business practices; working with or for another artist can offer life lessons that cannot be had elsewhere. Watching another artist integrate their work into the rest of their life--especially when the studio demands so much physical and mental energy-- and seeing how they conduct themselves in an ethical manner under what can be trying circumstances are object lessons that can truly change your life. It's knowledge that perhaps can only be found in this type of situation.
Working at the bench in a jewelry store or "trade shop" situation is another deal entirely. You may start at the bottom, often in the polishing room--which is as bad as it sounds. This won’t last forever and with some advancement things can look up and you can gain some real experience in soldering, fabricating, repair, maybe wax carving and casting and eventually setting. You get to try a wide variety of techniques on a vast assortment of jewelry and, although much of it is often mind-numbingly banal and simplistically designed, this variety offers myriad opportunities to learn. Learning how to repair jewelry, for instance, is one of those unexpected yet incredibly useful skill sets that applies to situations one can never dream of. You get to sit next to old timers who may be really great people willing to share their tricks and short cuts or paranoid sociopaths who wrap their benches in tin foil because they believe that you're broadcasting thought rays to steal their carefully guarded knowledge. (Even the kindly old timer may not understand "jewelry art" and by the 187th time you've heard the term "artsy-fartsy" you'll be ready to wrap him in tin foil.) This is learning in the trenches. The pay may not be great and the environment nerve wracking, but the potential to learn is huge. This is all about technique and, at times, customer service; things that school may have fallen a bit short on. (Besides, there's often the text book way to do something and the real world way.) It can be humbling. But if you want to be a goldsmith or studio jeweler or want to establish a sound technical vocabulary or gain experience with retail and wholesale clients then this is a great path to choose. You will become fast and you will become good. The drawback here is that the "trade" carries it's own frustrations, the festive holiday season, personality clashes and territoriality being just a few. Perhaps the biggest danger lying along this path is what I’ve come to call “Imperial Conditioning”. Years spent at the bench in a market driven environment can cause a metalsmith more cautious and conservative in the design and material choices that they make. This influence can last a long, long time.
Working at a decently paying job not related to the jewelry industry (or any media specific field), buying a house and socking away cash sounds great. Taking care of life's essentials and pursuing your passion in your spare time is sound, adult thinking. But what spare time would that be? You may be one of those renaissance people who can do it all: work all day, drive home, cook dinner, remodel the house, create passionate evenings for the spouse, partner or significant other and build wonderful, thoughtful brooches that comment on late 20th century angst and the need for ritual and community in modern life. I'm not one of those people. I need to sleep. It's the rare metalsmith that I see who hasn't submerged themselves somehow in the field and is still really good. Technical proficiency and depth of thought are most often achieved by constant exposure to process and to ideas.
As for me, I viewed every jewelry related job as another brick in the foundation. I steeped myself in the metals world, working days at the bench at a variety of jewelry stores and trade type of shops and working in my own studio nights and weekends, even spending several years making crowns and bridges in a dentist office where I really learned to cast and be comfortable w/ the process. I tried the production route and attempted to market a line of cast sterling jewelry which, wearing a dark blue blazer, I carried in a briefcase from store to store and from booth to booth at gift and wholesale shows. (This led directly to a gallery affiliation and a custom jewelry relationship, both of which lasted for many years.) I sent my slides to calls for entry to juried exhibitions and mailed more slides along with cover letters to countless galleries that caught my eye in the pages of Metalsmith, Ornament and American Craft. I applied for grants and competitions.
There's many ways to approach your career. But never forget that opportunities come in many guises: a staff position at a gallery, a job in the trade or at a supply house. Along the way, find your particular voice and once you have, generate a cohesive, recognizable body of work. Remember that this is your edge, the one thing that truly sets you apart from the pack. Have good, professional quality images of this work ready to send to whoever asks. Get your name out there. Speak about your work whenever asked to-- no venue is too small. Write about your work-- you don't have to show it to anyone, but it will aid you in clarifying your vision. Keep your ears open: Ask for feedback from galleries, clients and colleagues and consider it when it's offered: it can be invaluable. Learn to live with the fear of failure and don't let it get in the way. Sometimes you will fail; learn from it and then put it behind you. Always remember to follow through and do something if you've said that you will. Nothing can compete with the sour taste left in the mouth of a client or colleague left hanging. Plow the profits back into the studio for a while if you can. Build up your equipment. Take risks sometimes. Kiss some ass if you have to--you won't have to pucker forever.
The point of my story: Don't pass up any opportunity. Nothing is too small when you're starting out. You may take it in the shorts a few times and some clients are going to walk away with some really great deals. But keep your eyes on the prize. Remember that this is like the stock market: you're in it for the long haul. I have clients now who are third and fourth generation referrals. Having a home, a family, a nice car, and a social life are certainly not achievements that mutually exclude a successful career as an artist. The real world has to be dealt with: you have to eat, buy clothes, have fun and enjoy life. But making a commitment to what you want is essential. Those who have a supportive partner are certainly at an advantage. My wife never questioned my commitment of time and emotion or the dedication of funds to the studio. I was very fortunate. For every one it's a matter of choosing priorities. Sometimes you may even have to tend a little bar.