Sunday, March 22, 2009

Jay Whaley: Teacher, Toolmaker, Jewelry Master

Jay Whaley In Class

I’ve been hearing about Jay Whaley’s rolling mill workshop for quite some time now. It seems that whenever the topic of rolling mills comes up, his name is in the next breath. So when I had a chance to take his workshop this past February…well, I jumped at the chance, even though it meant a 2 ½ hour drive to San Diego from LA!

Jay is a 30-year master jeweler who now spends most of his efforts teaching and designing jeweler’s tools. He heads the jewelry department of the University of California San Diego and teaches in his own studio. His Whaley Workshops studio is located in a quaint, upstairs space overlooking a trendy street about 20 minutes east of downtown San Diego. Jay is so upbeat and passionate about his work that the fun he creates is contagious. In the class, I learned far more than I imagined, including pouring ingots creating my own precious metals alloys such as sterling and 18 karat gold and rolling them into custom wire, bezel and sheet. I asked Jay about why he teaches this method:

I guess you mean why I alloy my own metals. It is simpler for me, actually. With a wide selection of alloys I keep on hand, which are pretty inexpensive, really, and pure silver and gold, I am ready to create any color or carat of gold I want, in any amount at all. I can custom make my own “high-tech” sterling with alloys I buy that are far superior, in every way, to ordinary sterling silver. I make custom wire and sheet stock myself that I could never find in a catalog, and I make it faster than I could order it. It’s true!

Why do you think most jewelers purchase their metal materials instead of making it? What is stopping most jewelers from taking this extra step do you think?

Well, there are many reasons. Many goldsmiths don’t understand just how easy it is to alloy your own metals. It seems so complicated, with those formulas and careful weighing, etc. It’s really easy with an alloy chart and an accurate scale. The quality of my “home-made” alloys is very high, and color and workability is excellent. I wouldn’t use it if it was problematic. Many jewelers feel that the time spent to hand-make their own stock is wasted time. Some forms take much longer than others, I would admit. I just can’t buy the stock I want from any catalog, and I refuse to pay the premiums commercially made metals cost, as well as waiting at the post office to pick it up!!

Tell us how you first got started making jewelry. Who were you most influenced by and why did you pursue this path?

I took my first art class my junior year in high school, after my mother’s suggestion. There, I learned how to lost wax cast, the year, 1968. In that class, I cast a set of sterling wedding bands for my parents, and entered them in the Scholastic Art Show, a national juried art show for high school students. I won a National Semi-Finalist Award for my rings, and that was probably the event which propelled me into making (or teaching) jewelry-making for the rest of my life. So you could say that my mother was my first important influence!

You are well-known now as a teacher. What particular satisfaction do you get from teaching jewelry making techniques?

I have exhibited jewelry , drawings, and sculpture in galleries and juried shows through the years, but never found that particular satisfaction that showing others how to make something themselves gives me. After so many years of experimenting with jewelry forms and techniques, I feel I can create pretty much whatever I want, but experiencing the glow of accomplishment from someone who has completed an original piece of jewelry to their satisfaction, is quite profound to me. I love teaching.

You are also making instructional videos. What about that appeals to you?

I am just now learning just how valuable the internet can be. My old brain was trying to figure out how many students I could get into my studio for each workshop I offered. Now I have learned that by creating instructional videos, I can reach out much farther than my shop in San Diego, and virtually teach around the world. My brain is expanding with the possibilities online…

You also invent jeweler's tools...tell us about this aspect of your work. What are your favorite self-designed tools?

The first one, “Heetrix” was just a solution to a bench problem I had to resolve. I was working in a very small bench space in the lobby of the old Jeweler’s Exchange Bldg. in San Diego. My workbench was quite cramped, and my soldering had to be done where I did my fabrication work. Heetrix was the rotating soldering tray that swiveled out of my way when I wasn’t using it. I still use that soldering fixture almost every day in my studio. I pour all my own ingots, and used a pair of tongs and a melting dish for years. My students had real difficulties making ingot pours, until I bent some heavy stainless steel rod into my first ‘wire-handled ingot pourer” or WHIP, for short. Now that operation is really easy for me and all my students, and much safer, too.

What do you think is the cleverest tool you've designed so far? Any sneak peeks of anything coming up soon?

I have gotten pretty proficient at bending heavy stainless rod to create heat-proof clamping fixtures. One which is “on hold” for now is a “speed clamp” for the ingot mold, which doesn’t get hot, helps steady and direct the pouring process, but is going to be hard to manufacture, I know. Then again, I may be one of the only customers for such a tool… I do have a couple of really clever tools coming up, that I’m not ready to produce or market yet. I have been through a few different prototypes, and with one, it is just so trick… well, I need to get it into the marketplace! My prototype machinist gets calls from me every week to check on his progress.

Jay also has “Wedding Workshops” where novice couples design and make their own wedding rings…under the close supervision of Jay’s expertise.

Again, taking a couple who has never picked up a hand tool, and guiding them through all the steps needed to make rings for each other, that they actually make with their own hands, well, it’s magical. I have seen tears in couples’ eyes after their rings are finally finished. Not even close to the experience you get when you buy a ring out of a store. It’s wildly gratifying for me, in the strongest possible way.

How would you describe your own style of jewelry?

I have jokingly called myself a “jewelry whore”, because I do custom work of about any description. They tell me what they want, pay me for it, and I perform… My own designs are more mechanical, rather hard-edged, carefully finished. Unfortunately, with my schedule the way it is now, I really don’t have much time to make my own designs, or even custom work anymore. Actually, that is a good thing, as my hands are going out. Jewelers never discuss this aging problem, but it happens. My old hands are just wearing out from all the hard use over the years. I can still do the work, but the next day, my hands are really trashed, and hard to move.

What advice do you have for fledgling jewelry designers?

Just learn everything you can. Try everything, experiment with everything. Learn something from every “expert” you can, but don’t think “their way” is the only way,( including my own way). Making and selling jewelry is damned hard to do effectively, and honestly I don’t know what sage advice I could give someone trying to be successful at it. It’s also a bad economic climate now, which doesn’t help matters, either.

Jay’s first instructional video offered for sale is on Making A Roller Printed Ring:

You can also see several of his other videos on the Ganoksin BenchTube:

It has been a pleasure getting to know Jay and his wonderful assistant, Terrie! (I saw one of his tool prototypes and it’s very cool so stand by!)

Thanks for stopping by!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gordon Aatlo: Stunning Gemstone Swirls and Orbits!

Gordon Aatlo

Swirl Rings

Orbit Ring

Two Blossoms

Torus Ring Pendant

Swirl Pendant

I first learned about Gordon Aatlo through a request I put out on LinkedIn seeking “the best-of-the-best” jewelry designers. Numerous wonderful designers came forward (some to be included in this blog down the line), but Gordon Aatlo's work was so clearly outstanding!

Born in Minnesota, Gordon moved to San Francisco at a young age. With his uncle as jeweler to the King of Norway and his father an accomplished bench jeweler, Gordon followed in their footsteps and has enjoyed a lifelong career as a designer, producing all of his own work himself, from concept to finished piece.

Gordon debuted several new pieces at the AGTV Tucson show including his Orbit and Swirl Rings which are published on this blog for the first time. Gordon’s assistant, Christine, also mentioned that his work was featured during an ACTV meeting of the National Association of Jewelry Appraisers where they noted that they were putting a different appraisal value on work actually hand made by designers.

Here’s a few moments with Gordon:

It is fascinating to interview a person such as you who has made a lifelong success as a jewelry designer/creator; still with what appears to be a passion for the craft. What do you most enjoy about this career choice?

There are many things I enjoy about my career choice! First, and most important is, I look forward to going into the studio each day, developing new designs that I like. I have the freedom to pursue and experiment with no outside influences or expectations. The other aspect that I enjoy is the people I meet, gemstone artists, suppliers, and clients, who enjoy and appreciate fine jewelry and gemstones.

You write on your website so eloquently about the time early in your apprenticeship when your skills started to come together and the work began to is it that you so clearly remember that period and what do you think triggered that "ah ha" moment?

I clearly remember that period because I had worked so hard, struggled really, for over a year and I had my doubts many times that my work would never progress. I can’t say that there was one moment, it was more of a gradual progression of improvement in both technical and design skills, until the one day I had a finished piece in my hand that I was satisfied with. Gradually, with every new project, I came to have more confidence and an excitement for the possibilities of what I could accomplish.

I continue to have “ah-ha” moments!

How would you describe your style?

If I have to choose one style that encompasses a description of my designs, I would have to say modern. I feel my style is wide open as I’m not structured or rigid with a design that it can’t be changed. I chose modern over contemporary because I think contemporary describes more of a style that is of the moment and I think my designs stand the test of time and cannot be defined to an era.

My styles and designs are subject to where the gemstone and idea are leading me to the moment I start to develop the design. When I first started showing my work in Tucson, my assistant would be asked “How many designers do you represent?” That is how varied my styles are. I might create a series of pieces, such as the Swirl Pendants, no two pieces are ever the same?

Tell us about the importance of gemstones in your pieces and how you work with gemstone artists?

Gemstones are the centerpiece of each design and for me, I am attracted to the gemstone first, and then develop the design. The color, cut, shape, size and quality all play a part in what design will best showcase the gem to its best advantage. The shape and size will naturally dictate some part of the design: curved lines for round stones, straight lines for trillion or cushion shaped. The gemstone color also will dictate what metal I use. Sometimes I will use both gold and platinum and I like to set cooler colors, like Tanzanite in platinum or white gold, but not always.

Artistic gemstones are the biggest challenge of all, finding the perfect balance between showcasing the work of art and creating an interesting design to showcase the gem. Arthur Lee Anderson’s work is so precise and the optics are fascinating. His Webbed Halo cuts and Blossom cuts are some of my favorite to work with. Glenn Lehrer “Torus Ring” gems are challenging, whether they are round or rectangular, because of the hole in the center. Sometimes I fill the hole with a diamond set in a bezel and there have been pieces where I set another Torus Ring inside of the Torus Ring. Michael Dyber’s work is fantastic and is so is the work of Larry Woods and Daylan Hargrave.

Berndt Munsteiner’s work has sometimes been my biggest challenge. I am intrigued by the gem, the cut, the size, but the idea isn’t there. I had a pair of Ametrine’s he cut, large and flat, and not matched for size or shape. I had done many designs for Munsteiner’s single gems, but these demanded something special. They sat in the safe for years until one Sunday, while I was reading the newspaper, the idea struck. I went to my desk and in five minutes I had my idea sketched. The finished pieces were all I had hoped they would be.

I do collaborate with the artists when I have an idea and they will design a gem for me, but most of the time I see what they’ve done and get inspiration from their beautiful and unusual work.

I love the work of all of the artists and it’s hard to pass up a beautiful gem and often I don’t! I have many gems sitting in the safe and I’m waiting for that great idea to strike.

You have a section on your website you call "Gordon's Favorites". What becomes a favorite for you?

There are many reason’s a piece becomes a favorite. It can be because from start to finish how the work flowed, how it came together, from finding the gem and the excitement I have while developing the design and even how the metal seemed to lend itself to the design. Another part of what makes it a favorite is the response from people as they see the piece and enjoy it as much as I do.

As I say on the website, I am happy with everything I produce and it’s hard to pick favorites!

Tell us about your new designs which you premiered at the Tucson show?

For Tucson this year, I premiered new designs in rings, pendants and bracelets, and also continued designs in the current Swirl and Petal Pendant series that have been popular with my clients.

The new rings are highlighted by one Tsavorite Garnet and diamond ring which received lots of attention for its design. Some people thought it reminded them of an amusement park ride, some the solar system! We’ve taken a consensus and have decided to call it “Orbit” Other rings premiered are in the same style and feature Pink Sapphires, Spessartite Garnets and Blue Sapphires. They are flatter than the Orbit and easier to wear.

New pendant designs included Paraiba Tourmaline’s cut by Glenn Lehrer; one set in yellow gold and one set in platinum. Both designs were very well received. I featured versions of my AGTA Spectrum Award winning design featuring new work by Arthur Lee Anderson and his new cut, the Spired Webbed Halo cuts in Citrine.

Another pendant shown this year is a continuation of the Deco inspired pieces in gold, platinum and Lapis. Because of the response, I am working on new pieces in this series in pendants, rings and cuffs.

New bracelets this year included a free form yellow gold multi-colored Sapphire and Diamond cuff with matching earrings and a fabulous Pearl cuff with large, natural colored pearls ranging in color in white, pink, peach and lavender tones, diamonds and multi-colored sapphires. Another cuff, more streamlined and structured, showcasing another Arthur Lee Anderson Amethyst, was premiered.

As the designs are all one of a kind, we have a lot of visitors to the booth that are always interested to see what we’ve brought along.

How was the show for you and what did you perceive to be the biggest change with this economy factored in? What was the overall theme you heard from other jewelers?

We did consider the current economic situation months before the show and that did play a part in what pieces were developed to premiere at the show. I followed my instincts and created pieces I thought were right and know my clients expect to see from me.

Although attendance was down, we were quite pleased to see that most buyers were focusing not only on the design, but the quality of the work and the value. Great designs, big looks and quality of workmanship are what we offer and new customer’s are amazed how affordable my work is.

In the AGTA section “Spectrum of Design” most of the designer’s I talked to expressed some surprise as to buyers being more interested in the higher end, unique pieces. With none of us really knowing what to expect and that comes with any show, most of us were pleasantly surprised. And I do think that has to do with buyers appreciating more and more they need to set themselves apart and offer their clients something different.

As someone who has been successful through many years of good and bad economic times, what advice do you have for the rest of us?

My first bit of advice is to be strong in your convictions and go forward with your ideas and appreciate your talent. We have to do whatever it takes, whether its longer hours or cutting back on expenses. It does get scary, but as artists it can be that way in good times too. There always seems to be something out there to get you through. Hang in there and have faith in your talent and yourself.

What a pleasure to feature Gordon Aatlo’s work! His upcoming show schedule is:

Paradise City Art Festival - Spring Schedule:

Marlborough, Mass: March 20, 21 & 22

Philadelphia: May 1, 2 and 3

Northampton, Mass: May 23, 24 and 25

Thanks for stopping by!


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Chuck Domitrovich: Etsy Excellence!

Chuck Domitrovich In His Studio

I heard about Chuck Domitrovich through Etsy. He was profiled on the site and I was enamored first by his devotion to giving back to his community but also by his phenomenal success on Etsy. I have a site there too though mine has nowhere near the 1,400+ sales Chuck has enjoyed on his site, DownToTheWireDesigns. And since the topic of Etsy has been a lively thread on the Orchid forum recently—with designers questioning whether it is a good outlet for their work, I thought Chuck’s story would resonate with the community. Chuck quit his job as a machinist about a year ago, and now makes a successful living creating and selling jewelry.

Quitting my day job had been a dream of mine for a long time. Leaving that job was made more difficult by the fact that I was well-paid and was allowed to have a very flexible schedule. It was easy to work there and pursue my career as a jeweler at the same time and the steady paycheck was a comfort. But I began to realize that even though I had managed to structure the job to fit around the demands of my jewelry pursuits, that every hour I spent at my day job was an hour not invested in my own business. In the end, despite the benefits of keeping the job, it was ultimately holding me back.

Since quitting for good, I have not looked back. It has been a struggle with the recent downturn in the economy, but I had a pretty realistic perspective on things before quitting. I knew it would be a challenge and that success was something I would have to work at and would not just achieve overnight. I am confident that I made the right decision and am happy to be taking this opportunity.

I love the name of your company! Does it have to do with making the decision to leave your previous job?

The name came long before the job and is based on two things. The first is that after graduating from the University of Washington and being without access to a studio, I took up wire work. Mostly I was doing the beads and spirals thing but one day I stumbled onto a design that reignited my desire to be a jeweler. Soon after that, I quit my job and used the money I had saved to buy some tools and equipment and start my own workspace. The name derives from this earlier style which was still heavily dependent on wirework. But it also alludes to an unfortunate gift that I seem to have (or is it that I am cursed with it?) where I always seem to know exactly how much time any given piece will take to complete. So in that sense, I am always finishing things at the very last moment.

But in the era of large corporations paying millions of dollars to sports franchises to buy the right of naming their stadium after the company just to get a mention once or twice during each game, I have to laugh at the free promotion I get every time a game is close. (“This one is going Down to the Wire.”)

You have been highly successful selling on Etsy....what do you think it takes to break through the crowd? What is your best tip for Etsy success?

I am in most ways a very low tech person. My computer and even my camera skills really only go as far as the needs of my shop. So while I have given some of the social networking sites a try and have installed the Google analytics to my Etsy shop, I still tend to favor low tech methods of reaching people.

When I started on Etsy, I would look for every opportunity to promote myself. If people weren’t visiting my shop, I would make myself a presence on the rest of the site and they would see me and get familiar with me there, hopefully checking out my shop eventually. To this end, I basically devised a series of publicity stunts to make myself stand out from the crowd. In one of these, I went through every single archived page of the Etc. forum and posted happy birthday wishes to every old out-of-date birthday thread ever posted that was not attached to a birthday sale. The forums were in chaos that day and it took quite a while before everyone knew what was going on—but everyone who was paying attention suddenly knew who I was. My advice to others would be to look for every opportunity and know that many of them won’t come in the prescribed forms that everyone else is looking to.

That said, the best way of standing out is for your work to stand out. If your work is similar to that of others, it is always going to be a struggle because you are always going to be competing on price. If your work is unique, then people have to buy from you if they want it. Also, the more skilled you are, the less competition you will have. If your work is similar to that of many others, take the classes you need to learn the skills that will set you apart.
You seem clear on the notion that it takes constant work and vigilance to keep up with online selling. How much time do you think it takes to be effective doing this part of the job?

I think that depends on how disciplined you are. You need to realize that part of each day will need to be spent at the computer but know also that it is easy to lose yourself there. If you can, set aside a part of each day to deal with answering emails, listing new work, and perhaps updating your blog, but limit yourself to that time. I would also encourage everyone to spend a little time exploring the Etsy site. If you know what is there and how it works (for instance, being familiar with all the options for buyers to find things on the site) you will be better able to use those things to your advantage.

You focus on a great deal of pattern in your pieces...why does that interest you?

Patterns are a good way to add texture to a piece—to break up the monotony of the plain metal. Since I do not work much with color, mixing different types of metals and textures into a piece can make it more visually interesting. I find that even in my sterling and titanium pieces I often am scoring or hammering the titanium panels or wire for the same reason.

Tell us about your inspiration of the Vienna Workshops and the Arts and Crafts movement...

The Vienna Workshops were a very idealistic experiment. They sought to use modern technologies to make art accessible to the masses. In many ways they were not successful, but they were one of the first serious arts groups to even make the effort. I try to do the same in my own work. Even though I have sold at high end galleries, it is very important to me that my work is available to all. Growing up in a working class family, it would never feel right to me to sell only work that no one I know could afford to buy.

As an offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Vienna Workshops had a very clean sense of design that appeals to me. Much of my work is based on simple geometric shapes with contrasting metal tones. The patterned metal that I use in my work reminds me of the innovative materials that they used in theirs.

You also have said you are inspired by African and Pacific Island jewelry. What about it appeals to you?

I have always found tribal jewelry intriguing both because of the textures that are employed in the work and the sense of conservation that is inherent in it. Much of the texture in this work is a result of the technologies that is being used in its creation. Often pieces are simply tied or wired together, with the binding agent becoming a part of the aesthetic. So a shell, stone, or bone, will have its smooth surface broken by the wire or cord connecting it to the other elements in the piece. In many pieces, the elements are repeated, with those layers adding texture to the piece. In an age of machined goods that are often smooth and perfect, I find that texture and imperfection point to the human origin of a piece—I find that very refreshing.
I love the fact that absolutely anything is seen as a legitimate object to be incorporated into the jewelry. Many of the elements are natural—teeth, bones, shells, stones, even the skulls of small animals—but you are just as likely to see electrical wires, or buttons, or pieces of aluminum cans used. And when something is damaged or broken, instead of it being thrown away, the piece is often repaired, with the rivets or wire that is used to patch the piece, adding to its overall design. Yet it is very important to me to make my work distinct from the styles that influence it. This is especially true in the case of the tribal work that I admire. Taking from this work without trying to reinterpret it just removes it from its cultural context and does it a disservice. I would no sooner take directly from this work as I would any other artist selling on Etsy or anywhere else. It just feels wrong to me.

How would you describe your style?

With my production line work, I try to keep things simple using bold shapes and strong lines. I do not use much color, so I use texture and pattern to catch the eye. I strive to create pieces that are classically proportioned and could have come from some time in the past while still being stylish today. I also like to be playful in my work. Making jewelry is fun for me and I like to share that sense of fun with others. So in that sense, I like work that is versatile. My padlock earrings can be worn with one of two patterns showing, making them essentially two pairs of earrings in one. I like work that includes moving parts—like my orbit ring series. I like to make pieces that go beyond just making a visual impression to include sound. My round rattle necklace achieves this. In these ways, I try to make work that exceeds expectations. In many of my one of a kind pieces I try to strike a balance between the natural and the industrial, with each piece being sort of like a talisman of the modern age while yearning for a more ideal, less complicated past. With these pieces, I often try to achieve the feeling that they were dug up at an archaeological site—broken and from a distant past, yet still somehow speaking to us.
I first noticed you when a story was published about your commitment to donation of your work for charity. Tell us about this... Has the economic meltdown changed or affected this goal?

The financial meltdown was part of the inspiration for me doing the donation work. I was asked at my one big show of the year to donate something to a charity auction, and my first reaction was to be put off by the request (mostly because of when and where the request occurred). It was only upon looking back at that request that I realized just how needed it was in this economic environment and how very little it would impact me to give to virtually anyone who asked. So, I got the idea of committing to giving one donation a week throughout the year. So far, things have been slow. I have given away only one donation through the first eight weeks and was gone for two of those weeks on vacation. But I have 3 or 4 donations scheduled to go out this week and a few more lined up after that. I have also come up with a backup plan for the end of the year in the event that I am still behind schedule. My plan is to ultimately donate 52 necklace and earring sets to charity this year and I am determined to do that in one way or another.

Aside from Etsy, where can people see your work?

My work can be found in three galleries here in Seattle: La Tienda, Crackerjack, and Frank & Dunya. I also post photos of some of my older work and more upscale work—pieces not available on Etsy—on my blog and on my Flickr account. Finally, I have one ring in the Lark Books 1000 Rings book and some collaborative work in Lark’s 500 Pendants and Lockets and The Art of Jewelry: Polymer Clay. There are more collaborative pieces in Schiffer’s Art Jewelry Today as well as in both the 2006 and 2007 September issues of Art Jewelry magazine.

It was a pleasure getting to know Chuck! What a thrill to see a person take a chance, find success and give back; even amid this terrible economic time.

Thanks for stopping by!