Gold on Steel Jewelry Design: Q&A with Jewelry Artist Bette Barnett

One look was all it took. When jewelry artist Bette Barnett of Studio Migoto in the San Diego area contacted me about writing a jewelry project for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist, I didn’t hesitate. She came highly recommended, and her sample designs and the additional pieces I saw were fascinating. I just loved their unexpectedly bent or undulating shapes or delicately textured surfaces, their surprise accents of stone or negative space. What immediately demands notice and runs throughout her jewelry design aesthetic, though, is the use of blackened steel in combination with gold. The other features then converge in different ways to draw attention to that simple but arresting contrast of metals.

Above: Close-up of fused gold on an etched steel cuff by Bette Barnett; photo courtesy of the artist.

We exchanged a few more emails about a project design: what to include, what kind of jewelry, and most of all how to approach her signature technique of fusing gold to steel. The conversation was so interesting, I decided to ask her a bit more about her approach to jewelry making and design and share her answers with all of you.

gold fused onto steel jewelry by jewelry artist Bette Barnett

Bette’s etched steel cuff with fused gold; photo courtesy of the artist.

Merle White: What kind of jewelry did you start out making?

Bette Barnett: In 2010, I visited a wellness resort in Mexico where I took a class in beading and absolutely loved it. For about a year after that, I made beaded jewelry and enjoyed the creativity involved. Then I took a class in soldering, which opened up creative opportunities with metals. I never looked back!

MW: What kind(s) of jewelry do you make today?

BB: I work primarily with steel and fused gold to create pieces that have an industrial feel with the glow of gold and other metals. It’s sort of a yin and yang look.

gold fused onto steel jewelry by jewelry artist Bette Barnett

Bette has gone on from fusing to other gold/steel techniques, including the use of keum boo, as on this cuff; photo courtesy of the artist.

MW: How did you get from where you started to where you are today?

BB: In 2013, I took a workshop from the late Chris Nelson, who pioneered steel and fused gold jewelry in the U.S. I was smitten with the technique! After that, I took two more workshops from Chris to further my skills and have spent the past five years exploring ways to combine gold and steel—for example, through keum boo and nunome.

gold fused onto steel jewelry by jewelry artist Bette Barnett

Bette applied the gold to this steel pendant using nunome; photo courtesy of the artist.

Nunome (or nunome zogan) involves using a chisel to create a very fine, fabric-like texture on a metal surface and burnishing a thin sheet of gold or other metal into that surface. I’m also experimenting with fusing other metals to steel, such as copper, shibuishi, and shakudo.

gold fused onto steel jewelry by jewelry artist Bette Barnett

Shakudo, a traditional Japanese alloy, is fused onto steel in these earrings by Bette Barnett; photo courtesy of the artist.

MW: What marks your style, and how did it evolve?

BB: In my early years of working with steel and gold, my designs were fairly simple. As I became more experienced with various techniques, such as piercing, stone setting, and forming, my style transitioned, becoming a bit bolder and more interesting.

gold fused onto steel jewelry by jewelry artist Bette Barnett

Bette’s early designs with steel and gold are fairly simple, such as this Urban ring; photo courtesy of the artist.

My work also has a lot of influences from Japanese metalsmiths who have developed many exciting techniques with mixed metals. In fact, Studio Migoto means “beautiful/splendid studio” in Japanese. My goal is to make each piece a small statement of art, something that is different and surprising in some way.

gold fused onto steel jewelry by jewelry artist Bette Barnett

Her later work with fusing gold onto steel has become more complex, such as this overlapping bangle; photo courtesy of the artist.

MW: What gives you the most personal/artistic satisfaction?

BB: Occasionally a piece I create will take on a life of its own. I plan my designs with sketches, but sometimes the end result evolves and the final work displays something beyond my original vision. Maybe it’s an exceptionally graceful balance, a really dramatic contrast of the gold and steel, or an etch that is particularly sharp and artistic. It’s that special something that gives me great personal satisfaction.

MW: What works best for your business?

BB: I have found that a combination of sales channels—art shows, galleries and web sales—is necessary to build exposure. In addition, I have started teaching steel and fused gold workshops, which is particularly satisfying. But growing the teaching business has meant that I’ve had to take a temporary hiatus from art shows this year.

gold fused onto steel jewelry by jewelry artist Bette Barnett

Bette is particularly pleased with the way this keum boo on steel pendant came out, which she made as a gift for her sister; photo courtesy of the artist.

MW: How do you reconcile these differences?

BB: Artists always face the challenge of balancing creative work with the business side. When I first started out, I had no idea that things like marketing, inventory, and sales management would require such a huge investment of time. To reconcile the challenge, I have learned to dedicate a certain amount of time every week to managing my business and a certain amount to the creative process.

MW: What’s your most popular jewelry design among customers?

BB: It’s really all over the place. At any given art show, I might sell a bunch of pendants and then at the next, cuffs will be a bestseller. Pieces in the mid-range price seem to sell better than those on either the low or high end. Occasionally, someone will be swept away by a stand-out piece and price is not an obstacle. That, of course, makes me very happy.

“Pieces in the mid-range price seem to sell better than those on either the low or high end.”

MW: Any advice to aspiring designer/makers who are trying to go pro?

BB: Years ago I read a short piece on BeAJeweler.com by James Binnion, a world-renowned jeweler and mokumé gané expert who offered the best advice I could give: never give up! He emphasized that running your own jewelry business, wearing all the hats, means that “you really need to live it. It has to be your whole life.” Successful artists accept that the business side is a necessary trade-off for the opportunity to keep creating beautiful things.

MW: Anything else you’d like to add?

BB: Being an artist and a successful business owner requires time, persistence, and attention to the work. It’s not going to happen overnight, and often the setbacks can seem overwhelming. I have a “jewelry bone pile” stocked with work that is either too flawed or unattractive to be put up for sale, but I don’t think of that work as wasted time. As long as you’re creating, learning, and moving forward, you’re going in the right direction.

MW: Where can people learn more about you?

BB: You can learn more at StudioMigoto.com. In 2019, I will be teaching workshops across the U.S., and as my schedule firms up, I’ll publish it on my website. I also teach private lessons in my studio in the hills above San Diego. Anyone who is interested should email me.

Watch for Bette Barnett’s tips on making jewelry with steel and her cuff-making jewelry project in the January/February 2019 Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. Subscribe now to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and never miss an issue!

–Merle White
Editor-in-Chief, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

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