The Higher Education of a Jeweler

Q: Is it worthwhile getting a college education if I want to be a jeweler? Which is better, Tyler or the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)? What about Yale?

A: Let me fill you in on my background. I first went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I’d grown up. I found the art metals department with Fred Fenster and Arthur Vierthaler almost by accident, but knew instantly I’d found a home. I’d studied jewelry for a couple of semesters in high school, and had a part time job at a local lapidary shop, but oddly, had never known that it was taught in college art departments too, till I got there. I finished in ’74 with a BS in art education.

A year later, I went to Cranbrook for an MFA, studying with Richard Thomas. Health, money, and emotional problems led me to not finish it at Cranbrook, and I left with only one semester to go.

But after spending the next ten years in commercial jewelry store practice as a goldsmith, as well as a number of years part time teaching in local adult ed programs, in ‘86 I decided to try again, in hopes of teaching at the college level. Since at this point, Richard had retired, this time I went to Philadelphia, and studied with Stanley Lechtzin and Vickie Sedman at Tyler School of art. I finished my MFA there in ’88.

I found the post-MFA job market to be a slim and brutal one. At that point, there’d be only a half dozen or less teaching jobs opening up each year with some relationship to metals at all. Only a couple would be for full time or tenure track. Most would be semester replacements. Keep in mind that this was only ten years ago. It’s not much better now, if indeed it is at all.

All would also be starting at salaries under 25K. Sometimes way under. More than a few would be at lower levels than a beginning public school teacher with a BS would start in in teaching 1st grade, despite that these positions all required an MFA, the terminal degree in the fine arts. Pretty discouraging too, when I recalled that one roommate I’d had at Tyler was an undergrad civil engineering student. The fellow had all the creativity and personality of a brick, only average grades, and all he had basically learned seemed to be the ins and outs of pouring concrete to build bridges and roads. When he graduated with that BS degree, he had companies lining up to interview him, and was able to choose from among several job offers. He ended up with the Pennsylvania highway department at a starting salary of almost 40K.

Me? Well I found that for each of these Spartan jobs I was interested in (those that paid enough for me to eat more than pet food) there’d be between sixty and a hundred applicants, all eager, all well-trained at good schools, and a few with substantially more teaching experience than me. These jobs didn’t care at all for the experience I had in the commercial jewelry world, or my graduate gemologist diploma etc. In the three years before I gave up trying this hopeless rat race, I never got one decent interview with a school worth actually working for, even as a temporary appointment to build up the resume…I still have a thick folder full of all the Xeroxed “thanks but no thanks” letters. Some of the schools weren’t even polite enough to return my slides.

So since then, I’ve again been back in the commercial jewelry world, again working as a silversmith, goldsmith, platinumsmith, bullshitsmith, or whateversmith. Plus a bit of gemology and lapidary thrown in. Frankly, after all these years at it, I’m pretty good at this stuff, so it’s easy to get or keep a job.

But in all the jobs I’ve had in the industry, not a single employer has ever cared that I had any college training at all. They tended to respect the GIA GG diploma, but they usually have had no concept of what an MFA is or means in terms of training. If they do, then they get suspicious, ’cause you’re there, generally, to do their designs, not your own.

It’s a bit sad. The industry folks appreciate the fact that I now and then seem to know a bit more about jewelry and metals than many of their other employees, and I end up fielding a bunch of questions and the like, but they really judge me not on what I know, but on what my hands can do for them. Most of the knowledge I gained in college, both at the undergrad level and from graduate work, is frankly, above their heads, or is about stuff they have no interest in. They never seem to realize that creative designs, with their trademark, are better if they are designed with creativity in an attempt to do something new or unique. Instead, most end up circling some admired design in the latest JC-K or Platinum Guild magazine, and telling the wax carver to do something “like that, only change this part a bit so it’ll be ours”—or not even bothering to change anything, just knocking it off. Who cares. Everyone does it, right? This bothers me more than anything else about the commercial jewelry industry, but my opinions on the matter, while generally falling on sympathetic ears, don’t seem to change much. This basically points out the difference between how I was taught and what the industry does. I had a great deal of widely varied technical training and opportunities, yet most of those techniques and understandings are either incomprehensible, misunderstood, or of no interest to the commercial jewelry world.

Now mind you, this is not universal. If you are planning to become your own boss, design your own line, and shoot for the front of that pack, then the college level training, either bachelor’s or master’s level, is great. But even then, it’s not complete. Consider all the questions we see in Rec Crafts Jewelry, or in the Orchid list, or elsewhere, about how to sell ones work, how to deal with money, how to deal with galleries, and all the rest. Truth is, though many art schools attempt to teach some of this, they teach the making of art much more than they teach how (the hell) to survive as an artist. I’ve trained personally at three colleges myself. and worked with people from many others. The sad fact is that unlike graduates in many other fields that are (supposedly) training you for a profession, in metals, and many of the other crafts and arts areas, only a small percentage of graduating students, even at the graduate level, end up actually working in that field and making a living at it. This is just not an easy field to get started in, no matter what your training.

The bottom line is that college level programs (sorry, even those at RISD) are simply not quite what the industry wants. Graduates come to the industry with some training, and a big chip on their shoulders. Industry yawns, and says “can you size this ring?, or set this stone?, or build this platinum trellis-top three-stone ring?” And while there are indeed openings now and then for someone who actually can not only spell the word design, but is trained to do some, they are far fewer than the number of graduates looking for jobs. And meanwhile, few of the college programs adequately teach commercial survival skills to the level that the industry wants. You don’t learn these unless you’re willing to start at the bottom for five bucks an hour. For that, why (pray tell) did you go to college?

Now. All this sounds very negative. And in it’s way, it certainly is. Undoubtedly, this whole picture is one big part of why enrollments in these programs has been declining for at least a decade now. Students are realizing that while these programs teach wonderful stuff, they don’t make you able to support yourself all that much better than you already could have done.

However, and please don’t skip this sentence: I’d do it all over again.

You see, once you forget about the employment picture, which sucks, there is a whole other dimension to collage art school training. At least, for me, there was.

In grad school, both at Cranbrook and Tyler, I found myself feeling more alive, more vibrant, and more excited about what I was doing than at any other periods in my life. I was exploring not only art, metals, technology, etc, but most importantly myself, in ways that I’d not have been able to do in other less intensive and creatively charged environments.

Yes, I’d do it all over again. I’d change, were I do be able to do so, many of my expectations of the programs, as well as the way I handled the finances thereof (which damn near crippled me, financially, for a decade after grad school) But the programs, while disappointing me in my career, gave me much, much more than I ever imagined I’d come away with in terms of personal development and creative growth, both as an artist and as a human being. For all that, if for no other reason, I’m glad I did it, and feel I got my money’s worth, even if not in the ways I’d hoped.

I should also mention that some people have had better luck than I did. I’ve noted that some women seem better able to get those jobs, perhaps because so many of the established art departments have too many men in them…And I ought to mention that though I’m a very good teacher, I’m not especially assertive or much of a go-getter when it comes to my own needs. I’m a bit too shy for this biz. Those who’ve been more agressive about getting the jobs they wanted have sometimes had a bit better luck. I know one girl (Shana Kroiz, in Baltimore), who literally walked into an administration which had closed its metals department, and gave em a presentation on not only why they had to reopen it, but that she was the one who could do it and make it work. They gave her the job. She was rescuing large silversmith’s raising stakes from the scrap iron pile in the sculpture department, where those wild welders hadn’t a clue what they were or what they were for (much less the fact that some of ‘em cost several hundred dollars each). Frankly, I could never have done what Shana did. I’d not have had the audacity to do that, or even to think it could be done. When I bemoan my own failure to land the job of my dreams, I have to also say that probably some of it is my own fault. Some other people will no doubt do better than I. The point, though, is that success is a very long way from being easy, and is in no way guaranteed.

Now, as far as these different schools are concerned…

First off, to my knowledge, Yale doesn’t have a jewelry metals department worth mentioning. If anyone knows different, please let me know, as well as, perhaps, mentioning who’s teaching there, and a couple examples of successful graduates of that program, please…They do have a well known painting department, but its reputation does not equal Yale’s reputation in other areas.

RISD is indeed, a fine school, with a fine rep. I chose Tyler instead of RISD (I was accepted to both, as well as San Diego State, and a couple of others, when I decided to go back to grad school in ’86). One of the reasons is that RISD (at least at the time) was charging about three times as much as anyone else. Touring the shop, I couldn’t see any particular advantage over other fine departments. While they’ve got a good program, and one that’s a bit unusual in the degree to which they’ve involved the jewelry industry, I don’t think the RISD graduates have much better luck in the academic metals field than those of other top-ranked programs. RISD’s strength actually seems to be a bit more in the preparation of students to work in the field, rather than to stay in academia. This is quite laudable, though, and recognizes many of the problems I’ve discussed above. But do keep in mind that the industry doesn’t place much (if any) value on college art school training, whether from RISD or anywhere else. They judge you on what you can actually do, not on where you studied. RISD provides fine training, but it’s hardly the only school to do that. I won’t get into listing names (that would take many paragraphs) but I can easily think of a dozen metals departments as highly-regarded as RISD’s—just the ones I’ve got some personal knowledge of.

One program I think deserves special mention, though, is Tyler’s. (And of course, as a graduate of Tyler, I’d be expected to blow its horn. ) Note that the current program at Tyler is quite different than the one I graduated from. I finished my MFA at Tyler in one of the last years that the program concentrated on handwork in the traditional sense.

You see, Stanley Lechtzin, the department head, has long been quite aware of, and disturbed by, the disparity between what graduates of college jewelry programs expected versus what they could actually find once they got their degrees. Why try to convince students to pursue a diploma that was as likely as not to lead to unemployment and disillusionment when they tried to use it? As noted above, that’s been the end result for the majority of BFA graduates nationwide for the last couple of decades. Tyler’s being one of the first college programs to offer specific courses in business practices in the arts helped some, but didn’t really solve the fundamental problems of the industry not really wanting art-school graduates.

The introduction of computers, though, had fascinated Lechtzin, and early on he saw it as a logical next step in the arts, with the potential to affect 3D art and jewelry just as it was rapidly proving itself in the 2D world. At this time, it was still a fledgling technology, but now it’s a lot more widely used than it was even a few years ago. And Stanley realized that people trained in CAD/CAM, digital design, and 3d modeling would be on a par, job-wise, with those graduating in technical fields (like my old civil engineer roommate). I’m not sure it’s quite there yet, but things are rapidly opening up. Lots of folks are learning CAD/CAM. The ones who’ve learned this technology in conjunction with the formal arts and creativity training of an art school may be at an advantage in the design field. At least, this is the hope. The dream is that this technology will not only enable us, as jewelers and designers, with a greater freedom and productivity in our own art, (just as digital imaging has opened now doors of creativity and productivity for 2D image makers, ) but that training and a degree in this technology, combined with the craft, jewelry and artistic creation skills that have long been the hallmarks of our field, would lead to highly employable graduates. To date, so far as I know, the success of this has at least equalled the success rate of graduates prior to this change in focus, and may actually be exceeding it. And this field is just now beginning to take off. For graduates wishing to teach, too, it becomes a useful advantage, since college administrations are eager to offer faculty with this type of high-tech ability…

It’s an experiment. It’s probably a little too early to tell whether Prof. Lechtzin’s vision is actually correct. I tend to believe it is indeed valid, and certainly his students are ardent supporters. At worst, it can’t be any worse than was the case for many graduates prior to this change. (Like me, ending up, after getting my MFA, at a bench job for a dollar an hour more than I’d been earning before I’d quit to go to school…)

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.