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Jewelry design - what & where to learn

An earlier discussion by Indika, an engineer getting started in the
jewelry business, really struck a chord with me. I too, am an
engineer, doing after-hours work in a home studio. I’ve never had
aesthetic design classes, and I feel it shows in my work.

What advice would the forum give to people who want to be more than
just a technician, soldering part A to part B? As much as I would
love to run away for 6 months to Alan Revere’s academy, it ain’t
gonna happen… I either learn here at home, or not at all.
Engineering is paying the bills, and there’s that love-hate
relationship with my mortgage.


What advice would the forum give to people who want to be more
than just a technician, soldering part A to part B? 

Kelley, you might as well ask how to become an engineer!! Long
process… A list of good things to think about, though:

Much of what you need to know you already know as an engineer.
Jewelry design is no different that auto design and bridge design.
Structure, strength - the longer the part the thicker the material,
stuff like that. That’s what many beginners lack, so you have a head

Much of design you can learn from books - there are many good ones
with titles like “The Principles of Design” or something. A lot of
design is composition, proportion and arithmetic. How to break up
space, when to use threes, when to use fours, the nature of curves
(Grace, Strength, etc.). How to break up circles and squares, how
they become cones and other shapes, that sort of stuff. White space
versus dark space, the use of silence. That’s the kind of design
fundamentals that can be taught and learned.

You are an engineer, so maybe you need to learn how to color outside
the lines - maybe not.

Study everything in nature, which is a lifelong study.

Very importantly - I know some might take this askew, but it’s true.
Jewelry is 3 dimensional. You’ll never be a great jewelry designer
in 2 dimensions. Don’t think about what you will do with a silver
disk, think about what you will do with a ping pong ball (virtually
speaking). Two dimensional jewelry is only half designed by nature,
though there’s certainly a place for it. But the more you can think
like a sculptor instead of a painter, the better off you’ll be.

Design cannot be taught. What good school can do is to show how to
use what you already have. And I do have to congratulate you on your
observations about your work. The first step in learning is to
recognize when things do not look good.

If you can recognize that, it mean you probably have a sense of
taste and proportion. Next step is to develop it. Do not waste your
time on schools !!! Spend your money on going to museums, art
galleries, and similar venues. Look and try to understand the logic
behind choice of color, composition, and etc.

Do listen to experts, but develop your own opinion; and if what you
see is different from experts and you can justify it to yourself, go
with your own intuition. With time, you will be able to recall and
use what you learnt in your work.

It is only when you develop your artistic intuition, a school can
help you to understand it formally, but in this case enrolling in
general art course in your local college, would be more productive
than going to specialized jewellery school.

Leonid Surpin.

Bonjour Kelley,

I don’t know where you stay and if there is any design evening class
near you. Neither did I ever heard about design class through
mail…(though it must exist somewhere!)

However there are lots of things that you can do by yourself. These
are the advices I often give to my students :

If you want to improve your design skills, you’ll need to build up
your own “vocabulary”.


Take evening lifedrawing classes if you can.

Carry a sketchbook everywhere you go.

Drawing is not only a good skill to have, it is also eye-mind-hand
discipline. It teachs to watch, to understand what you see and to
accuratly move your hand according to your will.

It is a skill that you will bring back to your bench pratctice.

Make collage with everything you fancy in magazines, or fabric
offcuts, or plants, take pictures or molds of textures you like…
try to reproduce it on metal.

When you see an object that you like, draw it again and agian until
you undertstand why you like it… is it for its outline, its colour
or its texture… is it because it reminds you of something else?

Explore jewellery through the five senses.

You can look at artist’s sketchbooks and observe their design
process… not only in jewellery, You’ll find lots of them on
illustrations, movie making-of…

You can also look at history of art and design, feed your mind with
it. Are you an Art Deco, Art Nouveau or rather a Post Modern person?
Give some thought to what jewellery means to you, what it means to
others or in other cultures…

You could also challenge yourself : instead of thinking : “I am
going to make a ring with a cabochon stone” you could give yourself a
diffrent brief like…

A pendent featuring two different textures and one coloured
element… What piece of jewellery can I make if I want to carry a
secret meaning or message with me… or… start with a title… how
would a piece called “evening rose” or “oedipian distress” look like?
or start just with a word : “Flight” for example, research and sketch
everything related to this word : creatures, devices, symbols,
homonymes,…you’ll come across so many inspiring stuff!

Have fun, maybe you could tell a story or a riddle with your work…
or maybe you are drawn to pure aesthetic experiments.

Discover who you are as a jeweller.


As all this will gradually sink in, you will devellop your very own

I hope this will help a little…
Have fun!

Juliette Arda
Aix en Provence, France

I've never had aesthetic design classes, and I feel it shows in my
What advice would the forum give to people who want to be more than
just a technician, soldering part A to part B? 

Take non-jewelry classes at your local community college or college.

Take drawing, take Sculpture 101.

Find the closest metals guild and take all the workshops you can.

Read books on Design, start with Tim McCreight’s Design Language,
the illustrated one.

I have a book review on my blog that mentions two more design books.
The title of the post is DIY Design Education, the name of the book
escapes me at the moment.

Take an art history class or two if you can.

Increase your vocabulary of art.

I am assuming that as an engineer, you are behind on these things,
so play catch up.

And learn design on your own and apply it to jewelry.

There are no “design jewelry classes,” that I know of. (There are
probably some in college programs somewhere, RISD, for example.) So
chart your own course.


If your brain is oriented to engineering it probably would be a long
task to retrain it to think in, for lack of a handier word, ‘art’.

I dunno what sort of engineer you are but I’ll bet you see beauty in
structural relationships. The drape of the cables on the George
Washington Bridge, the balance of the triangular shape of The
Pyramids of Giza. You could probably populate quite a long list
yourself. Personally, I doubt the Pharaohs thought let’s make a big
triangle in the sand, but rather how can I make a huge structure that
lasts forever?

So who says jewelry(or other media) has to be (not to start a row
here but) art in the formal art school sense? I may get panned for
this but I see beauty in WWII aircraft design. I mean, just LOOK at a
Messerschmidt 109 or a Supermarine Spitfire. That beauty arose out of
a mechanical contraption. Did the engineers think, “um, let’s design
a sweet lookin plane”? Nah, they had a purpose and a goal in mind and
the symmetry, grace and balance that makes it look sweet was the
byproduct of perfect mechanical design, like the pyramids. I mean, in
war nobody is all that concerned with aesthetics of weaponry. Take
the horror out of these weapons and the beauty remains.

I know I maybe lost some readers there but what the hey.

My brother, Hans The Jeweler is an award winning model builder and
he combined his knowledge of aircraft(in particular) with his skill
at jewelery and made the most outstanding sterling replicas of
airplanes and helicopters and sold them for good money. They were
outstanding because he cared about it, loved it and it showed in the
finished pieces.

So Kelley (he said in his best go get 'em tone of voice), why don’t
you harness the training and talent you already possess and design
something YOU like? based on your inherent understanding of whatever
field of engineering you’re in.

What advice would the forum give to people who want to be more than
just a technician, soldering part A to part B? 

I recommend the book by Elizabeth Olver, *The Art of Jewelery Design
*, Emerson’s Handmade Jewelery, and Rose and Cirino Jewelry
Making and Design
as well as books on the History of Ornament and
jewelry history. A. R. Emerson was a master goldsmith and his now
out-of-print book (though it can be gotten on Alibris or ABE books,
or amazon) has exercises that may seem basic but give one a great
foundation in assembly and design steps, rather than working from
sketches with out a grasp of the basic techniques necessary for
executing a successful piece. The designs per se are a bit dated,
but the techniques timeless and not simply A to B soldering…Olver’s
reads encyclopedic and is a handy reference and you should not be
without a copy of Harold O’Conner’s Bench Reference for Jewelers.
It is the single most used book in my (quite extensive ) library-
His formulas, recipes and alloys are indispensable and alone, or in
combination with Tim McCreight’s Complete Metalsmith (any edition-
for me the 1st ed is my favorite as I appreciate the hand lettered
and drawn illustrations and feel of the book) may be the only books
you ever need purchase if only two were allowed.

I disagree with Elaine on the point of taking all the classes you
can take- I emphatically feel that many classes out there all miss
the proverbial mark, particularly for novices as many of the
instructors are simply sharing their new found knowledge with no real
experience in x technique or material…I have been to many schools
where the students all report that they are taking Silver 1 ( in
example) for the 3rd time…All because they don’t feel anyone covered
the basics or materials and they keep spending money on these classes
( often at the same schools) over and over hoping they will glean the
they seek without asking prior to the class, the level of
or exactly what material will be covered…I have found this true in
most schools springing up in the past 5-10 years…While most are
designed for people beyond the novice level and specific, the
attendees fail to research the teachers backgrounds, or lesson plan,
if you will, for the course they are taking based solely on the
course’s titles.

When I offer an open studio night at our small school, I get
responses from novice jewelry students that they have taken x courses
in the past but no one covered, say, annealing, or spring-hardening,
or alloying, or any number of basic topics the open nights center
around in addition to the opportunity for constructive criticism from
others present that present the student or attendee with objective
perspectives and problem solving in a forum -like setting. Also a
former teacher and colleague of mine pointed out that many classes
are just a tool for self-promotion and more akin to inflating the
instructors sense of their worth than actually educational. Imirror
that sentiment - many courses that i have audited or co-taught seem
to be a tool for teachers to promote their lines, or sidelines…when
an instructor offers a course to profit from, aside from their fee
for teaching and time, per Diem, etc. the entire affair is more about
economics than addressing the needs of a given group of students. One
instructor that I have seen actually tailor classes to the group in
attendance is Patsy Croft.

Butin Patsy’s case she has a background in fine arts, experience over
many many years as an enamelist of the highest caliber, and jeweler
with world-class recognition and awards and distinctions that truly
qualify her to teach jewelry making, design and sub-genres of jewelry
arts and crafts to an group or individual that can clearly identify
what it is they want to learn- Patsy has the talent and education to
back it up and experience to provide a successful learning experience
whatever the topic. this is also true of Tim Creight, Dee Fontans,
Carles C. Armegnol, Elinor Moty, et al and not specific to Patsy as
there are many that have ample background to be considered jewelry or
metal smithing educators and whose classes are not only l
and experiential but inspirational. I do agree that whenever possible
the support through attendence at one’s local community college in
arts programming is beneficial not only to the continuation of those
types of programs on local levels but for the wide range of arts
educaton one can gain from out-of-genre courses.

Drawing in particular: perspective in rendering is an important skill
to have in ones repertoire as a jewelry design professional, and
stages of development of a piece or a collection is dependent on that
skill particularly if you are hiring a casting service to execute
your designs until one becomes proficient in casting on their own, or
can afford the equipment necessary to execute the process. However,
one should not simply enroll blindly in classes wihtout checking out
the instructor’s background, looking at their work when possible or
speaking to former students or at least reading their comments
regarding past classes that were offered by x instructor. Those can
be most telling, when the students are honest enough to go past
flattery and actually assess the quality of the programatic content.
I feel quite strongly about this topic of education as I think far
too many “classes” are out there at premium prices that offer little
or no foundation or are simply a survey of the materials used in a
given technique, rather than knowledge about the materials and their
properties before attempting to use them.

I for one think it ridiculous that some schools require 2 or 3
repetitions of say, Silver 1 before allowing a paying student to take
whatever course he or she wants to take with a particular instructor
( although in the particular school that I am referring to this
"process" can be circumvented by contacting the instructor directly
and advising the person of your intentions and skill level without
having attended that particular school in the past). In that case it
is simply that school’s covert, if you can go that far, method of
covering their costs of modernizing the facilities and renovating the
site…though the school is purportedly staffed by "volunteer"
instructors that are willing to play that game with the schools owner
to be invited back repeatedly. Some other schools are far differently
operated and have a functional board that oversees and eliminates
game playing as regards the educational content offered in various
arts and crafts genres- those are the schools to seek out for
specific instruction in specific topics that interest you or help
build your own techniques arsenal to a level in which you wish to

So the notion of taking all the classes you can doesn’t work at all
in my experience of the jewelry school circuit. In seeking an
education do a bit of research before enrolling in any class that
comes along not only to receive the best education you can afford,
but to weed out the “schools” that have little to offer in helping
you build your techniques and understanding of processes that are
useful to the type of jewelry making you want to practice and
execute in the long-term goals you set for yourself regarding your
profession or your passion in creating adornment for whatever your
target market may ultimately be.


Bonjour Juliette!

Very good!! I love those ideas and try to implore them. I have come
up with my best work when I do those things. Sometimes for days I
will walk, draw, go to the library or museum, look at magazines and
just brainstorm and barrage myself with sensory overload. What
dribbles down from those exercises is SO interesting isn’t it.


So who says jewelry(or other media) has to be (not to start a row
here but) art in the formal art school sense? 

Neil (unnecessarily apologetically) pretty much nailed it. I (and
some others) said before to study design principles. There are some
that are invaluable and necessary to be successful. There is a
difference between art and design that I personally can’t define
well, but there is. Design is basically an aesthetic division of
space - an interior designer is simply breaking up space with shapes,
light, color, texture… It simply does not matter whether it’s
jewelry or a Messerschmidt, the concepts are identical. The design
revolves around the function, true, but that’s also the same for the
ring and the airplane, they just have different functions. Jewelry,
furniture, clothing, architecture and much more all use the same
concepts. It’s what one does with the fundamentals that makes them
something. Someone else said it, too, and I’ll stress it - don’t
study “jewelry design” so much, study the subject of design, and the
jewelry part will come. A deco ring=a deco building=a deco lamp=a
deco sofa.

particularly for novices as many of the instructors are simply
sharing their new found knowledge with no real experience in x
technique or material.. 

I took the college jewelry class in 1970. The instructor said to
make a pendant, and we could make anything we wanted, but what she
found useful was to scribble on a sheet of paper randomly, pick out
a likely portion of the scribble and transfer that to metal and saw
it out. So, come the day, every single student had a scribble
pendant except one - guess who? Mine was strange, but at least it
was original. She told me I had good skills and I might be good if I
ever learned how to design! Like a random pattern is great

Jewelry Class:

Saws saw, hammers hammer, punches punch, torches heat, flex shafts
drill and ream and other things, pliers squeeze and shape, gravers
engrave. The rest is up to you, and will take many years to
accomplish to any level…

I see beauty in WWII aircraft design. I mean, just LOOK at a
Messerschmidt 109 or a Supermarine Spitfire. That beauty arose out
of a mechanical contraption. Did the engineers think, "um, let's
design a sweet lookin plane" 

Very good observation.

Good design is always functional. Airplane has to fly, which means
it has to be aerodynamically correct, and this rightness makes it
beautiful. Compare it to modern “fly by wire” planes. They do not
to aerodynamic and most of them are ugly.

Leonid Surpin.

I haven’t ever taken any design classes either. My method is to play
with my designs as I create them- I don’t plan anything out at all.
Perhaps that’s why I used to call my business "Wing’n’It CDJ, lol! A
willingness to experiment is paramount- the spontaniety does wonders
for making pieces “come alive”. Unorthodox ideas and approaches work
well too. Free your mind and what will be will be- and you will be
frequently amazed at the results.


what about the “Golden Spiral”? or the mathematical patterns in
nature as in sunflower heads or the 5 sided nature of leonardos
vitruvian man sketch? PHI, or 1.168? all of you people thinking of
yourselves as designers ? good design is not willy nilly, heely
feely or all peace love and bell bottoms. look at bach’s corals and
the 9 or ten rules of counterpoint in music. GOOD design is
foundational are most of the MFA programs the result of the blind
leading the stupid? all designers who want respect for thier thier
work must seek knowlege it is not a big hit or miss game and IF you
are fortunate enough to have money backing you up then you may become
popular in your own lifetime - goo

good design is not willy nilly, heely feely or all peace love and
bell bottoms. look at bach's corals and the 9 or ten rules of
counterpoint in music 

There is absolutely no way to give justice to this topic on the
internet forum. Those who really want the answers, should undertake a
study in Fractal Geometry. There is a lot of websites kind of related
to Fractals, but besides displaying nice pictures, very little
insight. Get yourself a nice thick book and give it a go. It may be
rough at times, math can get very deep, but at the end the things
will be clearer.

Leonid Surpin.

A willingness to experiment is paramount- the spontaniety does
wonders for making pieces "come alive". Unorthodox ideas and
approaches work well too. Free your mind and what will be will be-
and you will be frequently amazed at the results. 

I agree with you Kenton… My favorite creations were mostly
improvised, starting by playing around with silver and gold offcuts
and sinking into a twelve hour creative euphoria! However I believe
that my experience of design is the backbone of this very freedom and


While not disagreeing with Leonid, fly by wire planes look ugly, but
cool-ugly as in deadly and dangerous like Darth Vader. Form follows
function and there is no question that when you see a present day
war plane as an opponent (if you see it at all) you will feel a
certain apprehension. Reminds me of a quote from an old sci-fi movie;
“And now I am going to kill you. There may be a slight ringing in the
ears… fortunately, you will be nowhere near them”!

What to learn in design? Understand the function, then devise a form
that delivers the function in a most direct and pleasing manner, and
then devise a way to profit or earn a reward for having done that.
The profit and reward part is not automatic after succeeding in the
first two steps; it is very slippery and prone to plunder by others.
Take care to study some business and law.

Regards, Alastair

This is what I love about creating jewelry. It is the marriage of
art and engineering. It requires both the creativity and
free-thinking of an artist and the analytical mind of an engineer to
create a piece of jewelry that is not only beautiful and functional,
but that can survive the daily life of the person that loves it, and

In my experience, and I’ll probably get some flak for this, time at
the bench trumps formal art training in the real world of jewelry
design, big time. You can do many things with pencil and paper that
look great, like make a diamond “float” over a ring, but when it
comes to making the diamond “float” over a customer’s finger, you
have to deal with things the non-goldsmith “designer” doesn’t. Take
gravity for instance. Pendants and earrings always hang straight on
paper, wherever the bail and posts are, and you never have to worry
about knocking a stone out of a drawing.

I have worked with jewelry designers that have multiple art degrees
but haven’t ever put torch to metal. I have also worked with
goldsmiths that have no formal art training and are not particularly
skilled with a pencil and paper, but have an understanding of the
interaction of colors and shapes and the experience of engineering
and constructing wearable jewelry. Almost always, the experienced
goldsmith’s design is superior in every respect, especially when it
comes to actually making, marketing and wearing the piece. The best
design ever drawn will look like crap if the goldsmith making it
doesn’t have sufficient skill, but an accomplished goldsmith can make
even the most questionable design look good.

Pay attention to the world around you. Nature is the universe’s
consummate artist and engineer. She understands that form follows
function and uses that knowledge in everything she designs and
builds. (Since Neil brought up WWII airplanes, Willy Messerschmitt
borrowed from the shark and the swallow when he designed the fuselage
and wings of the ME 262 Schwalbe [Swallow], the world’s first
operational jet fighter. He knew it’s hard to beat Mother Nature when
it comes to streamlining and going fast. Beauty and previously
unattainable speed naturally followed.)

Start learning to sketch by sketching. Sketch everything. Study the
designs of others by drawing them as two dimensional three-view
drawings, and then change them. These are good drawing exercises, but
it is much more important to spend the bulk of your time perfecting
your bench skills. If you feel the need to take courses, take courses
in stone setting and wax carving. Your design skills will come with
improved bench skills. You will find that it takes much less time to
learn to draw a curved and graduated channel than it does to learn
how to carve, cast and set one well. As you learn how to do it, you
will learn how to use it in your designs.

To become a great guitarist, you must first learn to play the
guitar. Some of the world’s best had no formal training in music
theory, in fact they never had a single lesson and couldn’t even read
music. Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn come to mind. Same with
jewelry design. To become a great designer, you must first become a
great goldsmith. The art is within you. You just need the skills to
let it out.


i just have to throw this link in this subject and with the numbers its visual and
there is sound one, four, five…every single popular song is
1,4,5 its the chords the progression it is design ! even if you
believe you are playing around and experimenting and doing somthing
new you will unknowingly be doing it according to the rules !!!
because the rules are what make humans feel good.


i think one that is trying to make jewelry should get modeling
clay (or PMC) and model things from it, feel it in your fingers, and
shape intuitively, things, and not things, twists, what YOU call a
design, etc. etc., score it with tools, cut it, pinch it push it,
make symmetrical pieces, make many, many models, also carving
wax, melt it, carve it with, dullened knives, tool it, etc.
etc., between those 2 mediums, you will learn amazing things to
apply to your further knoweledge,


what about the "Golden Spiral"? or the mathematical patterns in
nature as in sunflower heads or the 5 sided nature of leonardos
vitruvian man sketch? PHI, or 1.168? all of you people thinking of
yourselves as designers ? good design is not willy nilly, heely
feely or all peace love and bell bottoms. 

I think it’s important qualify Goo’s statement by saying that good
design is also not pedantic. The Golden Ratio is important to
understand, but ultimately it doesn’t mean that much in design - it’s
much more important in mathematics, and there it’s largely a
curiosity - “Look how all this stuff just falls into place
naturally.” Someone who slavishly uses it in design is, well, a slave
to it. I think the biggest problem with untrained people is that they
only do what they do. Lot’s of people carve dogs or make dolphin
pendants, but they don’t know where to start with something that’s
outside the box, and that’s where an understanding of the overall
concepts and techniques comes into play. I also think that many are
unable to deal with parameters and constraints, which is fundamental
also. Freedom is all well and good, but discipline is necessary too.