Choosing professional path

Greetings all,

I would like your opinion and or experiences in choosing which path
to take in our industry since a crossroad predicament has presented
itself to me.

A small bit of background…currently I work for a small
manufacturing company as a goldsmith and have been there for 12
years. Basically I am bored and need to grown my skills to their next
level, very scary to say the least. We do not do any repair work at
all so I am embarrassed to say that I have never re-tipped a prong or
had to set a diamond in a mounting etc…very basic things I would
need to go into a typical jewelry store as a bench jeweler. I do know
how do these things but have never had to do them over and over
again…my skills are very high in other areas…I could go on but I
will stop there.

Here is the couple situations that have presented themselves to me…

  1. Working alone in a jewelry store as there bench jeweler. They know
    I have limited hands on repair work skills and are very willing to
    give me a shot and I have confident that I can do the work, with
    practice of course. I would also be doing their stringing and
    learning how to use the computer engraving machine plus being the
    only one running the show sounds very nice to me. Downfall in my
    opinion is working alone. I will not learn from anyone more
    experienced on this path since there is no one else there but me to
    show me things when I get stuck.

  2. Working in a repair shop with several other bench jewelers. Here
    is your box of repairs for the day and go to it. I have not
    officially gotten the job yet here, have to go next week for a bench
    test so they can see exactly where I stand. After 15 years in the
    business I know a lot but am finding out that it isn’t that much,
    very depressing…but do I just want to do repairs all day?

  3. Working with 2 amazing jewelry artists on a part time basis. ( I
    actually do tube setting now for one as a free-lancer) The things
    that they make will blow your mind, they would show me new
    techniques, skills, I would have an input into their designs, and it
    would be a very creative environment. They are also excited because I
    can teach them things they do not know how to do, for instance…tube
    set etc…

So there are 2 paths here…the safe, typical bench jeweler path.
One can learn a lot from repairing jewelry that is for sure and it
will hone skill level which is what I am looking for…but the other
path is an amazing break, very creative, learning new skills as far
as fabrication and assembly go.

Any thoughts would be most appreciated. It’s either feast or famine
in this business. Last week I thought my life would be just the same
as always…what did I know, haha.


Hi Laurie:

I am not a bench jeweler, but I thought to write a little from the
"making choices" perspective.

In the first 2 paragraphs of your post, you used language to
describe the positions that made it seem as if you were choosing to
go to prison. In the third paragraph, you used words like "amazing"
and “creative”. It would seem as if you have already made your
choice, but there is something holding you back. Is it the lack of a
definite paycheck? I’m just guessing. For many people, the choice
between a regular paying job and a job for an entrepreneur would be a
no-brainer. It’s scary take risks. You spoke of levels. Someone very
smart wrote to me once and said “remember, if you want to go to the
next level, you have to jump”.

Is there any way you can take both positions? You can do the work of
the bench jeweler by day and do free-lance work for the
entrepreneurial artists at night and on the weekends? You didn’t say
anything about a family so, I’m presuming you have a lot of time
(please don’t be offended if I have it all wrong). Entrepreneurs
sometimes don’t care about the 9 to 5 part, just that the work is
done well and on time.

I wish you the best. Change is scary, but I have changed paths a few
times now and I can tell you that it is also exhilarating.

Best Regards
Kim Starbard

Personally, I would take #1 some for economic (job security)
reasons, others because it sounds like the ‘owners’ are more
understanding and willing to support you. The other 2 sound like they
have expectations of you coming in the door which sets you up to
’disappoint’ them (maybe) which would not be good in my opinion. The
first one sounds a bit more ‘established’ and interesting at well.
Having others to work with is a double edged sword, sometimes it
helps to have people around but that’s assuming those people are nice
and want to share their knowledge. Also, that there are no 'politics’
in the workplace. Working alone makes you free of that crap.

The 2nd one sounds boring to me. You would get a lot of experience
in the short run but it would become boring. I can’t imagine the
repairs you would be doing would be that varied to hold your interest
for a long period of time.

The 3rd one sounds more ‘fun’ than something to put food on your
table in the long run. The problem I see with that setting is if they
aren’t selling their pieces you may not get paid. I’m not sure of
this, just going by the description you wrote.

Just my .02.


Hi Laurie,

You are so fortunate to have such an interesting dilema. I think
that you already know in your heart what is best for you. Any answer
that I give would be my personal answer if the opportunities were
presented to me. I have a few favorite quotes that provide my

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more
painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin

There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far
less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction. –
John F. Kennedy

Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for
those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for
yourself. Face the truth. – Katherine Mansfield

I hope you find personal fulfillment in whatever decision you make.

Nancy Stinnett
Geosoul Arts

Hi, Laurie,

Maybe it’s me, but I get the sense that you’re looking for
permission to take the leap into the art jewelry situation. If that
is what excites you, you owe it to yourself to try to make it

You don’t say what kinds of financial obligations you have… no one
can decide this for you. But you did say that “option 3” was a
part-time basis. Maybe one of the other places would let you do
"safe" work part time as well, and you could hedge your bets.

good luck, and keep us posted.


Dear Laurie,

I have done both- I worked in a trade shop, where I learned that for
cheap jewelry, 90% of repair is salvage. I then worked in an upscale
jewelry store that made all their own jewelry.

One memorable day in the trade shop, I was given a ring that needed
its pave settings repaired. I turned the ring over, and there was
junk up under the stones. I poked the junk with a scribe, and it
oozed. I threw up on the floor.

Later I worked for a fancy jewelry store that taught me far more
about jewelry than I’d ever learned previously.

Unless you’re absolutely desperate to have similar experiences, I’d
go with the artists. Especially since they’re willing to learn from
you. With your many years of experience, you deserve that kind of
respect. You might not get this respect in a store that does

I apologize for the gross-out, but nobody warned me, and if you’re
going to do repairs, forwarned is forarmed.

Good Luck, whichever decision you make!

Susannah Page-Garcia
Moonshine Metal Creations

if possible, i would pick #1 and #3

working alone (for me) is a must at times, but then with three, you
get the fun and creativity and getting to work with other people.
best of both worlds. but maybe doing both is not possible, if #3
would be enough financially, that is the one i’d go for. #2 sounds
like about as much fun as shooting myself in the knee caps.

good luck, it is great you have so many opportunities!
beth cyr


ok let’s look at each situation doing the pros and cons of

1 working as lone jeweler in a store’s shop


a. being your own boss

b. learning repair trade

c. working with retail customers (time to time)


a. are you able to do repairs in a timely manner? and do them well?

b. you melt or break something can you remake it?

c. do you know what you can and cannot do?

d. do you get to decide what you can say no to or will the store
owners do that for you?

f. working with retail customers (time to time)

g. will the store owners expect you to replace any broken or damaged
goods cause by you.

Also make sure you know if you are doing mostly repairs or
custom…it is very hard for a beginner to do both and have a

2, Working along side other jewelers in shop.


a. will learn how a shop runs.

b. build accuracy

c. experience. you will pick up years of experience (if working with
other good and helpful jewelers) every professional should do some
time with bench jewelers…sales people, designers and owners as

d. jewelers are mostly a fun group of people… being we sit in
close quarters and need to get along and play well with others.


a. repair work is demanding work is much harder than fabrication (you never know what
the last person did until you are already elbow deep)

c. repair work has got to be done in a timely mannner and done well.

d. you can get stuck in a rut or only get to do certain repairs
because another jeweler can work circles around every one else on
the easy or more enjoyable task.

I love repair work, i am known for being able to do much harder and
time consuming jobs better than most of my peers/friends…don’t
ask me about pave’!

e. sometimes you sit in close quarters with someone you’d rather not
be in the same room with… and last but not least

  1. Working with two amazing jewelery designers!!! so what’s the


a. learn from others

b. free from repairs and time clock! what you love all day along side two other kindred spirits.

d. do what you love and the money will come.

e. design and make what you want…hire a repair jeweler when


a. you will feel entreme guilt when your friends and loved ones
complain about their boss, co workers, pay or lack of…

b. you won’t feel guilty…

Whatever you decide will be good for you,remember it’s the

lisa mcconnell

Hi Laurie,

Many of us have had to face this exact decision at some point(s) in
our careers. One thing that I didn’t find in your post is a sense of
where you ulimately wish to be? Do you see yourself ideally as an
independent metalsmith, a bench jeweler, a custom person in an
elegant store. Or maybe you wish to be on the cover of Metalsmith
magazine or, conversely, Jeweler’s Circular Keystone or Modern

Regardless, all of the scenarios you listed have something to offer.
But with the benefit of hindsight I’d take the opportunity presented
by the independent artists. There’s much to learn there, not the
least of which is how to conduct yourself as an independent designer/
artists/ craftsperson and run a business. You also have the
opportunity to do a little teaching. The other jobs that you
mentioned will come around, in some form, again.

I’ve included an essay that you might find helpful or maybe just
amusing. At any rate give it a read, if you like. There’s more
writing on my web site–

Good luck and keep us posted.


Andy Cooperman 2006

True story: Early spring 1987. My first official solo custom client
after moving to Washington State. 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.
Having finished the ring, which also involved the making of a rubber
mold, I cheerfully drove my 1979 V8 GMC gas lovin’ pickup somewhere
into the country and delivered the completed piece to my client, who
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 the off time.

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 piecework
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 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 for
ever 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 may tend to make 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, 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 20 th 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. (Slide dupe and
scanning costs can add up, but it’s pretty cheap advertising when you
think of it.) 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 people 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.

Laurie, wonderfull letter, I think that going to the repair business
for a period of time, even a month or two, to get the education and
an understanding of how much you like or dislike that environment
would be invaluable. None of these paths are for ever anyway. If you
decide after some time in the usuall “safe” setting you can always
use that to your advantage in any other path. If you for instance,
strike out on your own you can fall back on that repair knowledge to
fill in cash flow holes by taking repair on a limited basis as a
trade shop to businesses who know you. Then you would also have the
time to do your own work or work for more exciting artists. Maybe a
career can be made doing all three until you become a rich designer
and shower financial gifts on all those who gave you such wonderfull
advice! I think a career with some usual, safe repair tradeshop work
plus your own artwork plus working with other artists is fantastic,
I do that myself as a matter of fact.

Sam Patania, Tucson

Hi Laurie,

Sounds like you have 3 very interesting options, feel lucky that you
have 3 vs. 0. I have a couple of thoughts on your direction. I would
not mind if you emailed me to discuss them.


I just want to be sure, in case anybody missed it. There is an
article in this thread by Andy Cooperman. I would suggest that
anybody and everybody on Orchid who is trying/struggling to find a
direction in the Jewelry field do a search for it and read it very
carefully. It puts a career in focus about as well as I’ve ever seen.
I would add an addendum to it, also. People want to learn, and
there’s this cynical, “Where do I learn it?” edge to some things.
First, you just have to pay your dues. There’s no substitute for
practice, repetition and experience. Second, you will never learn by
yourself. You can grow, of course, but a person just can’t know the
things about jewelry by working in a vacuum. Hand-in-hand with that
is tradition: jewelers almost always understand that it is their
responsibility to pass on knowlege to the next generation. They may
be more or less forthcoming, but mostly we all understand payback
time. Which leads us to the last: That is precisely what Orchid is,
of course…


All I have to say is THANK YOU ALL who responded to my query. I
read, re-read, printed and read again your responses. I can not
believe how well thought out and emotional they all were, you have
no idea what it meant to me and how HELPFUL they all were in having
another opinion on the subject. Ultimately of course the decision
was mine. I made lists, pros and cons. I agonized…here goes…my
leap of faith…

I talked to my boss about my decision (that was very scary to say
the least!!) She does not want to loose me totally and is going to
let me work for her 2 days a week while I also get the experience
and technical knowledge of working with the other 2 jewelry artists
3 days a week. They are all going to chip in help pay for my health
insurance, parking fees etc. This way I still have my foot half way
in my present job and one foot out the door into another career

This way I can see what works and what doesn’t. Learn as much as I
can from the new while still doing what is familiar. If the new does
not work out, I have wind of a position opening after the Holiday’s
(which is perfect timing) as a bench jeweler in a prestigious
jewelry store, working with several other jewelers doing repairs,
etc…so my next opportunity to get my other foot out the existing
jobs door will be then.

I feel confident in my decision now. Learn what I can from the 2
creative people while the opportunity has presented itself, if it
does not work out, go for the other end of the business and learn as
much as I can there. Ultimately the combination of all my skills
will be invaluable to me and my future employers.

Again, thank you all.