At the Drawing Board: 15 Cent Pens and Other Advice from a Fine Jewelry Designer

I’ve been very lucky to have generous mentors throughout my career who’ve shared their wisdom about jewelry making, metalsmithing, jewelry design, and gemstones. For the past decade, much of what I’ve learned about fine jewelry design and the jewelry business has come from my dear friend Chuck Bowman, who worked in product development at Stuller.

Chuck Bowman

Chuck Bowman

Chuck occasionally shares his sketches with me, and seeing how he draws images from multiple angles has helped me remember, when I’m making a piece of jewelry, to consider design principles like balance and unity. Even a simple thing, like how he divides some of his sketches with a dotted line to maintain symmetry, helped me improve my own attempts at sketching all the jewelry ideas that flit through my mind (it’s no secret that I can’t draw). In addition to jewelry design, he has a strong understanding of the jewelry business, having grown up in the industry, so I figured it was time I shared some of his wisdom with all of you. Enjoy!

JMD: What role does drawing have in your work as a fine jewelry designer?

Chuck: “Sketching is the aesthetic foundation of 90% of our initial concept work. CAD and various fabrication methods quickly come into play but hand-drawing is quick, efficient and experimental in nature. There are certainly ideas that need to get into CAD sooner rather than later because the software is better at some early tasks. But most of the time, concepts are first developed on paper.”

JMD: How important do you feel your ability to draw is to the success of your new jewelry designs?

Chuck: “It’s been important for a couple of reasons. One, whether first blocking in rough proportions and the overall feel of a design–or refining the detail and flow of a line–sketching is often more efficient than other approaches. Second, in a design environment it’s naturally much more effective to communicate both verbally and visually. Particularly when defining and demonstrating subtle details, being able to sketch is obviously useful.

“Even so, I’d definitely encourage designers who don’t feel they draw well to practice and make the most of what they have to work with. It’s a cliché in this digital age that some of the world’s most successful designers and mentors across numerous fields lament the loss of drafting skills in education and in ‘professional’ practice. Technology is brilliant and irreplaceable for what it does well. So are talented eyes, minds and hands.”

JMD: You come from a family of jewelers spanning multiple generations and grew up in your grandfather’s jewelry shop. Was drawing a large part of your childhood or was it more of a hands-on learning environment? Did your grandfather and other jewelers in your family sketch jewelry designs or design them “live,” right at the bench?

Chuck: “Most designs were worked out at the bench when I was growing up. Ironically, I’ve been both drawing and working with jewelry since I was a small child but didn’t marry the two and get serious about jewelry design until I was in my twenties. I simply didn’t understand the possibilities before then.”

JMD: Many designers say they are inspired by nature. Are you? What else inspires your jewelry designs?

Chuck: “Once I get my head into the right place, I gather ideas and possibilities from almost anything. I spend a lot of time in left brain mode, so it generally takes a deliberate effort to put myself into that creative ‘design space.’ Once I do, I see things everywhere that I find interesting kindling for the design process.”

JMD: How do you capture and manage the inspirational imagery that you see–sketch in a book, snap a photo, or…?

Chuck: “If something very specific occurs to me, I may sketch just enough in the moment to record the idea but I prefer to just make a mental note to draw from later.”

JMD: What do you believe is the most important skill a jewelry designer needs in order to be successful?

Chuck: “A head for business and market analytics. A person may be a brilliant designer, but they may find it a challenge to translate that proficiency into financial success without business skills and the ability to methodically discern what their market wants and is willing to pay for. Aesthetic sensibilities, a thorough understanding of jewelry, a personal vision, and so much more . . . those are all critical, but you asked what was most important.”

JMD: How do you determine which designs will succeed in the jewelry marketplace and which won’t? Is it just a matter of taste or are there specific skills that help you? Do you design toward trends?

Chuck: “Taste is an element of it but mostly it’s all the left brain stuff.

“Studying the obvious facts of past and present trends is critical, of course, but what’s key is trying to understand the durability of styling–its lifecycle–why it’s doing well or why not. For example, does this [trend] really have a reason to exist or is it just new for newness’ sake? If you can accurately answer that and similar questions, you have a much greater chance of making sound product development decisions and anticipating what’s going to happen next in trends.

“On the other hand, occasionally a design is simply so fresh, appealing and well-done that you’re pretty sure it almost can’t fail. But that’s rare. Mostly it’s the analytics I mentioned above guiding the aesthetic and merchandising decisions.”

JMD: I say that I make rather than design jewelry, because I feel I can’t draw. Do you have any advice for those of us who feel we can’t draw but who want to design jewelry?

Chuck: “First, there are plenty of people that draw far better than I do. Talent, if we want to call it that, is obviously a continuum. And I’d repeat what I mentioned above about drawing, even if you feel you’re not great at it and making the most of (and improving) what you can do. Many people underestimate how functional they can become at drawing if they’d just push themselves.

“Also please realize that most of my answers herein reflect work within a larger company and a very specific product development effort. In my retail years (and certainly in my personal work), there have been countless times I began designs at the bench, not at the drawing board. An idea isn’t a design until it’s fixed in some tangible form. That means we need to get it out of our heads and onto paper, into the computer, into wax or metal–whatever. However best works for you, but find a way to explore and define your idea.

“I’m sure you’d agree, Tammy, most of the time the idea evolves along the way-whether I’m sketching on paper or you’re hammering on metal, when we first begin, we rarely know exactly where we’ll end up. It’s completely legitimate to follow that exploratory path in whatever medium works best for you.

All sketches/designs are copyright
Stuller 2011-2012.

JMD: Do you have any serendipitous design moments you can share?

Chuck: “One of my favorites: Years ago I was working with a close partner, Terrell Vincent (an amazing, brilliant CAD guy and accomplished designer in his own right) on a new solitaire collection that involved some really subtle geometry–very much a ‘God is in the details’ project. We hit a rhythm with the back and forth refinements and prototypes we were working through–I would meet with him for an hour or two a day, review the progress, ask him what he thought about how it was coming and so on.

“We were getting really close to the solution and a growing understanding of the relationships between several very interdependent elements of the design. As the discussions progressed, we were eventually completing each other’s sentences and I knew he was going to rock it that night. And he did.

“The next day when I stopped back by, I asked him where we were. He got this pleased, almost amused look and said: ‘It just all came together. It’s like it’s what it was supposed to be.’

“All sound design has that potential–to be what it’s supposed to be–and it’s our job to find it. Design is a problem to be solved. While it’s important to push hard to understand the issues and to put forth the effort, if you know what you’re doing and you still find you’re trying too hard to make it work, it often means the concept isn’t really that sound in the first place.”

JMD: Now the most important question of all: pencil or pen?

Chuck: “Pen. For 20 years, 95% of the initial design concepts I’ve done for Stuller have been done with 15-cent Paper Mates.”

If you’d like to improve your own drawing skills, master art jewelry design basics like creating highlights and shadows, and get expert help in the fundamentals of drawing common shapes and details, consider subscribing to Drawing magazine. The lessons you’ll learn will help you transfer your jewelry design ideas from your mind to your sketchbook and then to reality!

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