Schooled in Jewels
Classes give students an opportunity to create rings, bracelets, pendants and other adornments
Beading and wire-wrapping are gate-way drugs,” quips master goldsmith Jay Whaley. “Once you try metalsmithing, you’re hooked.” For 20 years, Whaley ran the University of California, San Diego’s crafts center jewelry program. When the program folded, he inherited the high-end equipment and in 2006 established Whaley Studios in Hillcrest. His students range from college to post-retirement age. “There’s no curriculum, lesson or project,” he says. “People at all levels are in all classes. I just ask them ‘What do you want to make?’” Most popular are rings, with or without stones, and cuff bracelets, pins or pendants. Students typically come in with photos of jewelry they like, and Jay helps them turn their prefer-ences and fantasies into reality. To lively music, Jay teaches casting and fabrication. His studio features jewelry-making tools he invented and patented. Swedish-born graphic artist Siri Johansson started three years ago, with no metalwork experience, and now considers herself “a lifer.”
“If I were told I only had two weeks to live, I’d spend every waking hour making things at Whaley Studios,” she says. Though most jewelry-making students are women, Chuck Corotto, a retiree, relishes “the chance to do something creative, to use that side of the brain I didn’t use all those years at work.” Proudly wearing a ring he made, he’s been coming to Whaley two to three times a week for a year. “I was beading and wanted something more,” says Susan Rosenthal, a regular for 10 years. Some of her jewelry is sold at a gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. Students begin by melting down a piece of metal, pouring it into a mold and then refining it with a hand-cranked rolling mill to get the shape they want. “When they make a ring, they’ve really made the whole thing,” Jay says. Other techniques include casting (carving a wax model, “like a dental mold for a crown”) or forging (hammering to create textures). Whaley Studios offers a day-long, private session for couples to create their own wedding rings. Alicia Robbins and David Smith (both directors of photography in Los Angeles) chronicled their experience in a video posted on Whaley Studios’ website. David loved the DIY idea, but his search revealed the opportunity only in San Diego and San Francisco. “I really like things that have a story behind them,” Alicia says. “This put an amazing story behind our rings. We’ve created a family heirloom. What you don’t expect is the perfection of the product.”
“It’s very romantic,” David adds. “Both rings came from the same piece of metal, and we made them for each other.” San Diego Community College District’s continuing education curriculum offers jewelry-making and stone-setting classes with a different focus each semester.
Deb Jemmot teaches new techniques to advanced students, but finds beginners fun to work with, because they come with no preconceptions. “The best students are eager and fearless,” she says. Her specialties are fabrication skills like forging and soldering. “The difference between art and craft is intent,” says Deb, who has been teaching for 35 years. “Art has some deeper meaning beyond the object itself. Self-expression makes metalsmithing an art.”San Diego Mineral & Gem Society, in Balboa Park’s Spanish Village, also runs semester-based classes, including cutting and faceting gemstones, casting and stone setting.
“We slice rocks like bologna,” jokes instructor Dennis Turner, whose beginning silversmithing classes are “college-level, structured with homework and projects, modeled after classes I took at Grossmont College.” Experienced jewelry makers can attend open studio hours, with no direct instruction. Beginners start with copper and brass, learning to solder, torch, saw, hammer and texture metal, ultimately creating a silver ring with a bezel-set cabochon. Students from other pro-grams often come for lapidary classes: cutting, shaping, polishing, carving and faceting stone.“We don’t have fancy equipment,” Dennis says. “We have the basics. But our classes are very popular. And we offer social activities and rock-hounding field trips.”
Jacqueline Gore, who teaches jewelry fabrication at Art Academy of San Diego, earned a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State on metalsmithing. But, she says, “You don’t have to get a degree to learn how to form metal or to sell your work. I put an artistic twist on my work, and I encourage students to try to find their own voice. “There are hundreds of ways of making jewelry,” she says. “I like to teach cold-joining with rivets, so that students have other options if they can’t use a torch at home. “For me, metalsmithing is a lesson in life,” Jacqueline continues. “You have the perfect plan. But the next thing you know, something goes wrong. You learn that it’s OK to make a mistake. You can always go in another direction. It’s forgiving but complex and takes a long time to master. I feel like I’m pulling out a big toy box for my students and saying, ‘Play!’ And they come away with something they can show people and say,‘I made this.’”