Wednesday, October 20, 2021

So… What does a goldsmith do?

Old School tools at a goldsmiths workshop.

Old School tools at a goldsmiths workshop.

By Richard Alan

A couple of years ago a confused gentleman entered my shop tossed a ring of keys on my counter and politely asked me to make two of each (Gulf Lock and Safe is next door.) I remarked that I would be happy to oblige him, “What metal would you prefer them in gold or platinum?” His reply…”What”?

Let me point out he’s the one standing in a showroom with jewelry from wall to wall; I considered it a perfectly intelligent question.

After I explained to the wayward soul that the locksmith is next door, he asked me a perfectly intelligent question. “What exactly does a goldsmith do?”

Touché! Now he put me in a spot, excellent question. Webster’s dictionary describes me as “a person who makes or deals in articles of gold.” Huh? That’s just too concise and incomplete; it’s like saying “A farmer… is one who raises crops” and anyone who has owned or worked on a farm knows it’s much more than that!

I can assure you I do more than what Webster describes.

So I try to explain to the misguided key seeker that if you need something made out of precious metal… this is the place.

Just like any profession some goldsmiths may specialize in one thing, say working only in platinum, I’ve never heard of a platinum smith but I’m sure they exist and you can bet they learned their trade with silver and gold before moving on to platinum.

I began learning my trade as an apprentice at the ripe old age of twelve. (I was told I should have started younger!) From two of my uncles who learned the same way, the “old school” method.

This required sweeping floors, cleaning showcases, fetching lunch and little by little you learned the trade.

That involved hand fabricating anything in precious metal and sometimes included creating the tools to make the jewelry.

Back when I was a young apprentice (late 60’s) it was unusual for a goldsmith to also be a diamond or stone setter. (a skilled craftsman who sets diamonds in jewelry. A diamond cutter is a different field.) A person who engraves jewelry was also a separate craft or guild.

I was fortunate to be taught by masters of several “guilds.” Besides hand fabricating, I also learned the lost wax process of casting precious metals from hand created models, I then was taught to finish, polish and hand set the diamonds and gems from start to finish. Another master taught me the secrets of gold, silver and rhodium plating to get perfect results.

All of my masters have passed away but their legacy remains in me, and will hopefully rub off on my son Andrew. Today I use their actual tools and equipment some of which are over a hundred years old.

What I learned from them is rare today; I can create jewelry with my mind’s eye, put it on paper and with my hands make it a finished gleaming piece of wearable art. And get paid for it and actually make a pretty good living!

It also involves restoring and repair of fine jewelry, I was proud of the fact that in the early 70’s the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston chose my uncle’s shop to repair and restore ancient Roman jewelry that was crushed by an accident in a gallery. It took us months to do the painstaking work following original photographs.

Once the work was done my uncles refused payment for their services. The curator returned the next day and presented us with several ancient carved gemstones one of which I have made into a ring that I wear on special occasions.

Working on antique jewelry requires the ultimate skill level. When the work is complete, it must look like it did originally or it loses its originality thus its value. Over the past three decades the skills of jewelry making leaves little to be desired. If the old timers were alive today it would probably make them cry to see the deplorable state of the industry.

Cheap lightweight massed produced jewelry from China that breaks or has constant stone loss within weeks of purchase.  Service Merchandise sold tons of this drek before it finally went out of business. Even now I cringe when it comes in for repairs every now and then.

Now some folks buy some cord and a bag of beads, string them

together and call themselves jewelers. To me it’s still arts and crafts minus the wallets I made with gimp in Boy Scout camp. I don’t mean to be cruel, but tying a few knots between 50 stone beads doesn’t qualify you to be a jeweler.

That said, fortunately my shop is a beehive of activity. I could be repairing the prongs on a hundred thousand dollar diamond ring one minute, laser-welding broken eyeglass frames the next, then the next moment carefully removing a ring from a swollen finger.

In a day I can be asked to repair an evening clutch bag or a shoe buckle. Let’s see… I’m a Goldsmithing- optometrist -cobbler working in an urgent care center!

My shop consists of four goldsmiths in season that includes one master goldsmith and an apprentice.  Repairs can be a large part of what we do all day, which can involve repairing broken chains, ring sizing, alterations, broken bracelets and hundreds of prong replacements. The list is endless. Not to mention a flood of costume stuff that half the time we can’t do a thing to fix.

People don’t realize that repairing costume jewelry is more difficult and labor intensive than fine jewelry, and skilled goldsmiths don’t work for minimum wages, so don’t complain when a shop charges you $20.00 to fix a $5.00 item you picked up a at a yard sale or a church bazaar… avoid the whole dilemma throw the item away and spend another five bucks and get another.

This goldsmith has pretty much barricaded himself into my upstairs work shop the past few months to avoid the daily time wasting lunacy that the great recession has caused to occur in my showroom. I have to admit I have lost the virtue of having “the patience of a saint.”  I still have my eyesight, (well sort of !)and dexterity and have come to a point in my career where I will be devoting my time to designing and creating jewelry at my pace that will give me satisfaction and fulfillment and to remind people that  I am more than capable of creating hand crafted original pieces right here on Marco Island.

Need keys? Try a locksmith. Got a broken heel? Go see a shoemaker.

Richard Alan is a designer/goldsmith with over forty years of experience at his trade and the owner of The Harbor Goldsmith

and the Richard’s Reef’s boutiques on Marco Island  and is now enjoying a state of semi-retirement which involves only thirty hour weeks vs. his usual seventy-five.

He is available by appointment for the commission of fine jewelry to satisfy discerning clientele, and welcomes your questions about “all that glitters” 239-394-9275

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