Find Your Medium: Advice on Being a Successful Jewelry Artist from Suzanne Williams
Finding your medium as a jewelry artist can sometimes take years of trial and error. For Suzanne Williams, owner of Suzanne Williams Jewelry, it took many mediums and several years to discover she was meant to work with metal and create art jewelry. Here’s more about her journey and the advice she gives to any jewelry artist looking to start their own business.
Q: Can you please describe yourself and your work as a jewelry artist?
A: I have considered myself to be an artist at least since the age of seven. Until many years later when jewelry became my preferred medium, I drew, painted, worked in clay and many other mediums. I studied printmaking in college where I learned to etch and engrave metal. I worked as a graphic artist for a printing company, did some commercial illustration. Later I worked in two bronze-casting sculpture foundries, where I learned to solder. I took a one-semester jewelry-making class. I fell in love with the medium, and decided that was what I really wanted to do as a career. All the pieces of my art background came together in that. When I started making jewelry, I was looking for a way to translate the kind of imagery I had created in my printmaking and drawing. Making three-dimensional jewelry was the perfect way to accomplish that goal.
For the past 26 years, I have been hand-fabricating my three-dimensional constructions primarily in sterling silver sheet, wire, and tubing. I layer both representational and abstract imagery into or over a frame or box. My pieces sometimes include gold, bronze, gemstones, or glass.
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: Whatever it is that drove our ancestors to pick up interesting bits of shell or stone and turn it into a form of personal expression is still at work in me. That artistic expression can be beautiful or stylish, or represent empowerment. It can be a protective talisman, a symbol of love or affection, or a symbol of spiritual/religious belief. It can allow the wearer to connect with others and communicate something about them.
I connect with others through my jewelry by creating imagery and compositions that I think people will respond to. Many of my pieces are small dioramas that contain representational subject matter that is often narrative. It is my intention to create jewelry pieces that can offer a small visual vacation, giving people a little transcendent experience. My work can also act as a catalyst for social interaction. People who wear my work see something in it that allows them to express a little about who they are, what they value, or other ideas.
Ultimately, I do what I do because I enjoy the creative process and seek to generate a connection between the wearer, the viewer and myself.
Q: What would you consider your specialty as far as your process goes?
A: My specialty is fabrication, applying many techniques and bringing many components and parts together to create three-dimensional constructions that are wearable.
Q: Can you please describe a real life experience that inspired you as a jewelry artist?
A: Several years ago, I saw Read My Pins, a touring exhibit of pins belonging to Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. She had collected pins, antique to modern, from all over the world, created by amazing jewelry artists. It was such a treat to see her incredible collection. But what really struck me was how she used her pins to communicate things, such as diplomatic statements to world leaders. She would indicate her mood or feelings about something by the pin she selected to wear on a particular day.
Q: What is your favorite part of your work and why?
A: Designing is definitely my favorite part of work, particularly when there are no restrictions on the kind of subject matter or materials I can use. Although I do most designing before I create a piece, things don’t always go together the way I’d planned. I sometimes find myself redesigning while in progress and going in unexpected directions with a piece, so that both the design and functionality work properly. I see troubleshooting as being an extension of design.
Q: What part of your job as a jewelry artist is your least favorite and why?
A: Doing office work, record keeping, and bill paying are on my least favorite things list. The unavoidable stresses of deadlines and accompanying lack of sleep, particularly around the holiday season, are also on the list.
Q: Can you please describe what failure means to you?
A: Not being able to get on the same page with, or fully meet the expectations of a client. Missing a deadline or not getting into a show that I really wanted to do are others. I no longer accidently melt pieces down as I did early on in my career, a benefit of having done this for 26 years.
Q: What does success mean to you?
A: Success means that I can spend my days bringing my ideas to fruition while enjoying the process, with others sharing in the enjoyment of the end result. I feel that I have achieved success when a piece of work comes out just as I hoped it would, or when I work with a client on something special and create just what they want. Success is also: knowing that many people will enjoy receiving something that I have made, having someone tell me that they met someone wearing my work, or that because they were wearing my work, it sparked a positive interaction with someone they’d never met before.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?
A: The best advice I have received is when I am confronted by adversity or discouragement, to pick myself up, put one foot in front of the other, and keep on going, no matter how bad things might seem–that things seem to resolve better through effort and perseverance.
Q: What career project do you consider your biggest accomplishment as a jewelry artist to date?
A: This one came before I started making jewelry. One of the bronze-casting foundries where I worked landed a contract to create two 16-1/2-foot tall matching sculptures. The artist had us create these from a 1-foot-tall maquette. Creating these required the incredible teamwork of seven people. We had to build a full-size model complete with scaffolding from which we took dozens of fiberglass reinforced mold sections. Then, using the lost wax casting method, cast every single section separately, welding them all together, do the metal chasing and then put a patina on it. It was the ultimate fabrication and casting project that we successfully pulled off, although it was almost impossibly difficult at times. I learned so much doing this project. It certainly helped to hone my troubleshooting skills. When I’m struggling now with a jewelry project, I remember the BIG ONE and current challenges seem much less daunting.
Q: What is one key thing you do every workday that helps you be successful?
A: When I think of an idea or concept, I write it down or sketch it, no matter how busy I am. By doing this for the last 26 years, I have created a resource with thousands of sketches, ideas, notations and sources of inspiration to which I can always refer. I’m able to see the genesis of ideas I’ve developed over the years in much earlier sketches. I can go back and get information on how I put something together. I can build on the foundations of my own previous work. Taking a new approach to an older idea or combining ideas can lead me in unlimited new directions.
Q: What were some of the unexpected hurdles in your career as a jewelry artist?
A: The recession of the late 2000s was particularly difficult. Jewelry sales dropped considerably, while at the same time the price of precious metals skyrocketed. Seasonal dips in sales can be challenging, as well as fighting burnout after working too many long hours during busy times of the year. Keeping my personal and business lives balanced has not always been easy. Also, tastes can change inexplicably, making the representational/narrative imagery that appears in much of my work less desirable one year and of greater interest the next. Getting into some shows can be exasperatingly difficult and unpredictable.
Q: What were some of the unexpected benefits in your career?
A: I have developed close personal relationships with many of my clients/customers as well as with many fellow jewelers. Being a jeweler has enabled me to become part of a personally enriching social and professional network. Doing shows gives me the opportunity to meet new people, sometimes in new places. Working directly with my clients can also be a great source of ideas/inspiration, when someone asks me, “Have you ever tried making that?” People I meet will often think of ideas related to jewelry making that I haven’t.
Q: What advice can you give to our readers that are aspiring to make a living at jewelry making?
A: If you are truly motivated, and in a situation where you are able to, go ahead to do it! When I started making jewelry, a number of long-established jewelry artists told me that it would be a struggle. I would probably work very long hours (true for most small business owners) and that it would be tough to make a living at it. All that turned out to be true. But hearing those things from others wouldn’t have stopped me from trying. It is a matter of how much you want to make your living this way and if you’re willing to accept what you will have to give up in order to do it.
Photos courtesy of Suzanne Williams.
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