It Started with a Bezel: Meet Jewelry Tool Designer and Artist Bill Fretz

Of course I know it has to be more than “a few” years since I first met Bill Fretz, but I was stunned to calculate it’s been more like 15! It was in Tucson, and I stood in a tightly packed group watching and listening as Bill demo’d his then new line of hammers and stakes. Story of my life these days, miscalculating years gone by, but enough about that. Here’s the story of Bill Fretz and his fabulous jewelry tools. It’s adapted from a feature written by long-time (oh, yes!) Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist contributor Terri Haag, which originally appeared in Lapidary Journal July 2006.

ABOVE: Not only are Fretz hammers prized for forming, they are fabulous for texturing metals, too; photo courtesy Bill Fretz.

Fool for Cool Tools

by Terri Haag

I will admit that I am kind of a fool for cool tools. Not only do I have every kind and size of hammer, from 10-pound sledge to an inky, dinky thing, I’ve got a whole range of dental picks, clay carving instruments, a myriad of little knives and engraving points, a couple of Dremels with all the accoutrements, and a lot more. Even though I’m kind of a little tiny person, the bigger, meaner, and more powerful the tool, the better I like it. But that was before I saw Bill Fretz’s little tiny jewelry tools.

Instant lust.

Bill was first inspired to design his own jewelry tools after the famous tourmaline strike in Newry, Maine, in the 1970s. Shown: Bill Fretz’s 18K gold corrugated ring with Newry, Maine, tourmaline, fabricated and cast; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

Bill was first inspired to design his own jewelry tools after the famous tourmaline strike in Newry, Maine, in the 1970s. Shown: Bill Fretz’s 18K gold corrugated ring with Newry, Maine, tourmaline, fabricated and cast; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

Terri Haag: How did you end up making little tiny jewelry tools?

Bill Fretz: In the early 1970s, I began making small stakes for bezels after I was asked to make jewelry for the large Newry Mine tourmaline strike. The gems were large and unusual in shape, but having been a student of Hans Christensen, who trained in the Georg Jensen silversmith workshop in Denmark, I approached jewelry making from a silversmithing perspective. Christensen had shown me how to select the proper stake for the job at hand using available stakes. So using small stakes for forming bezels that did not fit on mandrels seemed logical. Also, I had no idea how to do it any other way!

I spent about half a day on each hand-ground and filed stake, and slowly built up a set. These stakes were held in a vise and were made of O-1 tool steel — useful, but springy. They also twisted in the vise if struck from the side.

Pink pear-shaped tourmaline from Newry, Maine, in an 18K gold ring with diamond by Bill Fretz; photo courtesy of the artist

Pink pear-shaped tourmaline from Newry, Maine, in an 18K gold ring with diamond by Bill Fretz; photo courtesy of the artist

What was startling was the realization that a very accurate bezel could be made with sharp corners just by stretching the metal over the stake. The trick was to match the curve of the stone to a similar curve on the stake. By starting with a bezel formed around a stone but slightly smaller and in a slightly heavier gauge sheet, the hammering stretched the metal to a tight fit. A stake with an undercut also allowed for the metal to be hammered into a trillion, marquise, or pear shape with sharp edges.

Instead of balancing mandrels and tippy bench anvils, everything was solid — one hand held the bezel and the other could planish the metal smooth. Mitering corners became unnecessary. Everything became easy.

These four stakes originally designed to make hollow rings are also useful as jewelry tools for general forming and large bezel work; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

These stakes originally designed to make hollow rings are also useful for general forming and large bezel work; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

The first set was developed for hollow rings. This is a traditional project European apprentices are required to master, usually using dapping punches as stakes. By making stakes that fit the curves of a ring, the forming becomes much easier and leaves the formed blank very smooth.

This hollow formed bezel ring features a chrysoprase cabochon, and originally appeared as a project in Lapidary Journal, July 2006; photo: Todd Murray

This hollow formed bezel ring features a chrysoprase cabochon, and originally appeared as a project in Lapidary Journal, July 2006; photo: Todd Murray

Stakes useful for forming hollow vessels and bracelets followed. Mushroom stakes were added to round out the forming capabilities of open cupped shapes. Finally, a mandrel holder was added that brought the stakes up to a full forming system.

Everything fits in the same holder. It can be bench-mounted, screwed to a stump, or placed in a block to be held by a vise. The accurate fit means there is no stake vibration or movement when being used. A heat-treatable stainless steel was the alloy of choice to eliminate concerns of rust from work that would be constantly annealed and rinsed.

A sample of Bill Fretz’s tool collection, with bezel, raising, forming, and mushroom stakes with mandrel holder and universal holder. All of Bill’s jewelry tools are hardened stainless steel; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

A sample of Bill Fretz’s tool collection, with bezel, raising, forming, and mushroom stakes with mandrel holder and universal holder. All of Bill’s jewelry tools are hardened stainless steel; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

TH: How did you get started in jewelry, and who helped or inspired you?

BF: I started making jewelry in high school, in 1963, and was self-taught. My foundation in silversmithing came from my four years at the School for American Craftsmen, part of the Rochester Institute of Technology [where Hans Christensen taught]. The other students in that class were also an early design influence. Glenn Simpson, from Fairbanks, Alaska, really impressed me. After graduating, I got to be a teaching assistant at the Cleveland Institute of Art with Fred Miller and John Paul Miller. It was like graduate school for me.

To form this silver vessel,which transitions from 14 gauge metal at the top down to a 19 gauge body, Bill used multiple stakes; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

To form this silver vessel, which transitions from 14-gauge metal at the top down to a 19-gauge body, Bill used multiple stakes; photo courtesy Bill Fretz

TH: What’s been the hardest part about developing these jewelry tools?

BF: Deciding if there were enough craftspeople who would find the tools as useful as I did.

TH: What’s been the easiest part?

BF: I’d have to say designing the shapes from sketches to carved wax models. Each stake represents multiple possibilities. At least that’s one of the fun parts.

TH: What was the scariest thing?

Bill: Tool steel selection, and figuring out what hardness to have them heat-treated to. In the beginning I did not realize how many kinds of stainless steels there are that could be heat-treated and made shock resistant.

Freeform sterling silver bottle by Bill Fretz; photo: Jim Lawson

Freeform sterling silver bottle by Bill Fretz; photo: Jim Lawson

TH: Tell us what you like the most about the tools.

BF: Hammering on stakes and forming metal puts one in the tradition of metalsmithing, but you get an immediate result. Hammering is why most people become smiths in the first place — hitting things is just plain fun. It also gives the craftsperson the honor of saying the piece was hand-wrought.

Terri Haag is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona, and a frequent contributor to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist; Merle White is its editor.

Fretz Design now produces over 200 hammers, stakes, anvils, holders and more, and recently introduced a Maker line of jewelry tools in addition to the Fretz Tool line. Bill Fretz has also contributed many projects to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and appeared in numerous videos on how to make jewelry using hammers and stakes.

Learn to Make Jewelry with Hammers and Stakes from Bill Fretz

You can find Terri’s complete interview of Bill Fretz in Jewelry Making Using Hammers and Stakes: Projects and Techniques by Bill Fretz, a compilation ebook that includes eight jewelry-making projects and demos. Also check out his teaching videos and tool offers below.

If You’re Going to Tucson . . .

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