In undergrad classes at Savannah College of Art and Design, I tried my best to take the most interesting electives, and my Intro. to Metals and Jewelry class didn’t disappoint. From simple sawing projects to more complex riveting, soldering, and even cuttlefish casting projects, I knew I would eventually return to this medium even though I majored in painting.
Now that the four summers of my Masters Degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art have been completed, I’ve had the time to continue expanding my skill base as well as the direction of my work. With a generous Professional Development for Artists Grant from the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, I was able to attend a 5-day long course in Channel Inlay Jewelry at the William Holland School of Lapidary Arts in Young Harris, GA.
My obsession with “treasure” started young, with the prospect of finding buried gold doubloons from Spanish galleons that have wrecked off the Florida coast where I grew up. Throwing fire onto my flame for expedition, my parents even spray painted some stones gold and buried them in our backyard sandbox for me to dig up (much to my excitement!). As I grew older, I became interested in other sorts of treasure as a rock-hounder: patterned agates, colorful tourmaline, and various fossils like megalodon teeth and trilobites.
Using treasures I’ve found on trips out west, channel inlay is a specific form of silversmithing that combines my interests of metals, semi-precious stones, and fine art. As a technique that closely aligns with painting or collaging with gemstones, strips of sterling silver are bent into organic-shaped enclosed spaces where stones are hand-cut to fit into their designated slots (think along the lines of “Paint-by-Numbers” for jewelry). To me, this is the closest way I can get to wearable paintings by being able to translate my drawings into sterling silver lines, with various colored stones as my “limited palette.”
Because the channel inlay class was so small (just two of us), I was able to really spread out, which was a wonderful treat.
Many forms of jewelry tend to rely on symmetry, but I wanted to approach jewelry-making from the perspective of a painter, and use my preliminary sketches for paintings as material for pendant designs.
This is the second piece I completed during my week at William Holland (my first piece was a braid-like piece). As a true glutton for punishment, I gave myself some challenging shapes to cut with this one, especially with the arm and booty pieces since they had to be separated into two stones butted-up next to each other.
The first step for channel inlay is to take your design and copy it on onion skin paper and tape to your soldering brick. As you form your sterling silver strips along your drawing outline, you pin them down so the sections don’t move when you start soldering your joints.
I got beginners luck on this piece and didn’t have too much clean-up work to do after soldering.
Now that the “channels” have been made for my figurative pendant design, it’s time to cut the stones to fit. These numbered templates were from my first braided piece as I forgot to get pictures of my gal’s progress at this stage. From left to right: petrified wood, jasper, and dinosaur bone slabs. To get them preformed, you use a trim saw to roughly cut these shapes out.
If I only had this kind of grinding equipment in Florida, I’d be grinding away the days! On either side of this hand-made carving machine, there are diamond-plated wheels with different widths to assist in getting the right curves for each stone to be cut once they have been trimmed. You can see my little stack of rocks on the top right of the machine.
While the stones are being cut, the backplate needs to be soldered on. Here, I’m testing out some bail designs (headphones, that I didn’t end up using but perhaps I will in a future piece).
With the templates adhered to the tops of the stones, it makes it a little easier to cut the stones to size, but there’s still a lot of Cinderella-esque fittings to be done until the stone slides in perfectly. Here are my first and second pieces with the stones set in place.
Once all the stones are cut, a strong epoxy is used to glue the stones in place. In the last image, you might be able to see how the stones stick out from the silver channels by at least a quarter inch if not more. Because the surface is irregular, the next step is to use a flat lap to grind the surfaces down evenly and flush. Once that is done, all it needs is a final polish and it’s done!
(Stones for the fan/skirt piece on the left: black petrified wood and lapis lazuli; stones for the braid: black petrified wood, dinosaur bone, and jasper; stones for the girl: black and tan petrified wood, jasper, and brecciated agate).
The fan piece still needs it’s bail, but I’m excited to have completed 3 pieces in 4 1/2 work days!
With only minimal jewelry and lapidary experience, I’m excited with the results and would love to get the equipment to do more of this type of work at my home studio.
In the meantime, I’ve been working on the channels for pieces I’d like to pursue in the near future:
And additional sketchbook drawings playing with some ideas:
Because of the necessary simplification of lines needed for making the silver channels, I’m looking forward to this new conceptual direction and how it will make an impact on my paintings.