Funny you should mention Phillip and Niello. I was Phillip’s student
from 1973 to 1977 and his friend until his death in 1997. I recieved
a B.F.A. in metals from Wayne State in 77. I went on to get an
M.F.A. from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale much later,
1991. Here’s a good story that continued today, making your e-mail
perticularly pertinent. I work in Traverse City as a jeweler in a
retail store, in the northwest corner of the lower peninsula of
Michigan. About a year ago, an elderly couple came in needing the
woman’s ring sized. The sales associate came to me, asking if there
would be any problem becuase of the strange dark pattern on the band.
I took a close look (you guessed it, niello). I decided to go talk
to them. I told them they were lucky to have brought the rings here,
since it was unlikely that anyone in this area would have correctly
identified these rings as having niello inlay. The other town
jewelers would have simply assumed it was antiqueing and tried to
size the ring thinking that the black would burn off and they could
easily re-paint it. That would have been a disaster, as you can
imagine what niello would do to 14K gold at soldering temperatures.
I told them I had learned how to work with niello from one of the
foremost niellists in the country, Phillip Fike. They informed me
that Phillip had done the neillo work in these rings, which the man
had carved and cast himself. What do you think the odds are that
these people, who were from the lower part of the state, would have
located probably the one jeweler in 300 miles who could do this kind
of work? Here’s where it gets even weirder. Today, I was casting,
and I always wash out the flasks before I even look to see how the
casting came out, as this was what Phillip insisted his students do,
and I do this out of respect and in rememberance of him. I thought
about him as I put away the clean flask, and I wondered if I should
tell Claire Morrison, the woman he was with till the end of his life,
of this strange encounter with the couple and their neillo rings.
Guess who came in today? The man with the neillo rings, without his
wife with him, need his rings sized up too! Guess this means I
really should call up Claire and tell her the story and let her make
of it what she will.
I have a few other great stories about Phillip (he didn’t like being
called Phil) . . .like the time at the King Tut exhibit in Chicago
when Phillip appeared in full shaman’s regalia and we IMMEDIATELY
went to the head of that very long line to get in, and the time in
the Circa bar when he was going to pull the tablecloth out from under
all those beer pitchers we had emptied, and how we all fully expected
that if anyone could do such a thing, probably Phillip could . . .and
the time. . .
Anyway, I hope we’ll meet some day and can swap stories. Keep in
touch, any student of Phillips automatically is invited to become one
of those “kindred spirits” who followed that will-o-the-wisp Phillip
often hinted at.
David L. Huffman