11 Things to Expect from a Jewelry Apprenticeship
Every year, training in the jewelry arts—at high schools, community colleges, and universities—is shrinking. Even where there are jewelry apprenticeship programs, they may not be close by.
Even if you come out of a university program, your experience is quite possibly more art oriented than bench oriented. Hopefully you’ll have a basic idea of processes and safety issues, but you may want to learn the ropes in a practical situation.
In either case, if you choose to follow a career in jewelry making, you may have to look, hard, for a jewelry apprenticeship. Few jewelers offer them anymore, thinking that apprentices cost more than they can earn. Some don’t have the space or the time. Yet the truth is, jewelry apprenticeships can not only open a path to a fulfilling career for the apprentice. They can increase a business’s bottom line and provide the business with a well-trained, responsible employee. During their training, apprentices can supply support for the master/mentor—cleaning the studio, injecting waxes, taking photos of jewelry, and doing other jobs that allow the master to use his or her time more profitably.
And that right there should tell you, an apprenticeship is not going to be glamorous. So what should you, realistically, expect from an apprenticeship?
Jewelry Apprenticeship: What to Expect
1. Expect a background check.
You should want one so that all parties know you have nothing to hide. Clean up your Facebook page, Twitter feed, and any other social media you use, especially if you’re known for whining about your employer, teacher, etc. Yes, people check.
2. Expect to be able to work safely.
Jewelry making can be dangerous, with high-powered equipment, acids, fumes, dust, high heat. You should be taught correct safety practices and be supplied protective clothing, goggles, masks where appropriate. Don’t skimp on safety. (If you are not provided proper safety supplies, buy your own.) If the jeweler skimps on safety, find another place to work, or make yourself conversant with safety. (You should do that anyway. Seek out a copy of Charles Lewton-Brain’s book The Jewelry Workshop Safety Report.) Getting scalped, poking gravers into your fingers, or sawing through them are things best avoided.
3. Expect to be tested.
Be ready to prove yourself, whether you’re new to this all, or if you’ve spent four years in college. This is how the jeweler knows your skill level. If your skills aren’t up to standards, or aren’t complete, expect to go back to square one. This isn’t punishment. This is training.
4. Expect to learn the tools.
Learn their names, what they do, how to use them safely and correctly, even if you never expect to use them in your future. You may want to be a setter or engraver or CAD designer. But while you’re training for that craft, you may be doing repairs to earn a living. Be a sponge. Learn everything. Dismiss nothing.
5. Expect to start out about as far from a jeweler’s bench as you can get.
You’ll be sweeping, cleaning equipment, shooting waxes, tagging and photographing jewelry, counting parts. These aren’t demeaning tasks. “Sweeping gives you the ability to move around and see what people are doing,” says Jim Grahl. In fact, this is part of the test. Sarah Graham was told to go away for a year before she could even start her apprenticeship. She was being tested on her resolve and commitment to the career.
You’ll probably get the dirty work. Nanz Aalund was set to work refining scrap into pure gold, then re-alloying it into karat gold. Don’t grouse. Do it well. Keep your eyes open, write down questions, and ask them when appropriate. Remember what Grahl says: “Hunger marks a good apprentice.”
6. Expect to go beyond what is expected.
Even when you are put to simple, repetitive tasks on non-precious materials, or when you are asked to clean something up, do it to the best of your ability. Think of how you’d want it done in your own shop. “Demonstrate you are adding value to the shop,” says Grahl. Every task you do and do well, is one less the jeweler has to do. This gives him or her more time to do the work only they can do. This makes you valuable to them. Show them you are worth keeping and training.
7. Expect to work on nonprecious metals and stones.
You’ll learn using brass, copper, synthetics, the things you can do the least damage to, says Graham. Remember you’re learning or being tested. You won’t learn diamond setting the first day. Or maybe even the first year.
8. Don’t argue with the way you’re being taught.
Even if you think you know a better way. “You have to give up something to receive something,” says Grahl. What you give up are preconceptions and opinions. Be open and willing to learn. Even if you’re sure you have a quicker, easier way to do something, it’s best to keep it to yourself, says Grahl, until you can demonstrate that you can do whatever you’re being taught.
9. Expect to have a program.
With a series of set benchmarks and tests, a clear explanation of the standards you are to meet, both you and the jeweler know when you’ve successfully accomplished your training at any level and are ready to move on. You should both be clear about what you will learn during the apprenticeship so that you will both know when your apprenticeship is finished and you have become a journeyman.
10. Expect to have regular instruction.
Regular instruction with the person training you at the time, whether it’s in polishing, casting, setting, or whatever, is essential. You should have regular evaluations by the master/mentor.
11. Lastly, expect to be treated fairly and with respect.
You aren’t an indentured servant. You’re an apprentice eager to learn a craft. You should be paid the same wage as other apprentices or journeymen at the same level in the shop—regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, or disability. And you have the right to expect to be paid a bit more as your skills increase.
How to Find a Jewelry Apprenticeship
When looking for a jewelry apprenticeship, start by being prepared. Jewelers may be reluctant to offer apprenticeships because they don’t know how to structure them. Get a copy of A Jeweler’s Guide to Apprenticeships by Nanz Aalund. Though meant for jewelers, it will help a prospective apprentice help the jeweler set up an apprenticeship so that you both get the most out of it.
The best places to look for jewelry apprenticeships would be in a trade shop that offers a variety of services to retailers (getting rarer nowadays) or in a production house that offers a range of services. The work “is repetitive and there is no glory, but you are subjected to the constraint of time and the skill to do a certain job, to a certain quality within a certain time,” says Grahl. In a production house, you’ll likely be exposed to all aspects of jewelry manufacturing from model making to casting through finishing and setting. “The breadth of those skill sets is worth a fortune,” says Grahl. And production houses are more inclined to hire those with fewer skills and train them.
Learn more about apprenticeships in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist September/October 2019.
Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.