Meet Jewelry Artist Harold O’Connor
Meet jewelry artist Harold O’Connor and see how his extensive travels (teaching in over 20 countries!) have inspired his museum-quality work. Learn about his use of themes in exploring jewelry design and his advice for aspiring jewelry artists.
Jill MacKay: Please describe yourself and your work as a jewelry artist.
Harold O’Connor: Born in 1941 in Utica, New York, and moved to Colorado in 1958 to study psychology and sociology at Western State College. I was influenced by a visiting professor and subsequently changed my major to anthropology and transferred to University of New Mexico to complete my B.S. degree in 1970. I then attended the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for a MFA, which enabled me to teach college. In between New Mexico and Mexico, I journeyed to Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Austria to study goldsmithing. During my 56 years in the field, I authored five books including The Jeweler’s Bench Reference (affiliate link), which has sold over 45,000 copies worldwide.
I have taught workshops on various metal techniques in over 20 countries. Some 20 museums worldwide have acquired my works for their permanent collections, including the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), and the Victoria and Albert Museum (London).
I usually work on a theme: starting with inspiration from ideas, progressing to drawings and occasionally making paper models, then to fabrication of the works. Examples of some themes are: “A Matter of Time” on how society thinks of time,” “How to Wrap Five Eggs” based on an exhibition of Japanese packaging,” “New Zealand Beaches,” “Mountains and Valleys – aerial views of the Rocky Mountains,” “Backyard Muses – inspiration from yard plants,” and “Meandering through a Japanese Garden in Denver.” Other inspiration comes from my travels and my social and physical environment.
JM: Why do you do what you do?
HO: I was attracted to jewelry and metalworking during my last year of university. I dropped all other classes and took as many courses in metal as I could. Making small objects has always been attractive to me. I remember as a young child a teacher remarked to me, “Are you trying to write the Bible on the head of a pin?!” I was tired of academics in university and wanted to go in a direction where I could combine both my mind and my hands together–jewelry was it.
Once I found jewelry, all I wanted to do was to become a craftsman. This is my passion and I’m lucky to make a living. After all these years working for myself, I still love what I do; every day is different. Upon seeing my work, people often remark, “You really like what you do.” Learning new techniques and design approaches appeals to me. I don’t know of anything I would rather do.
JM: What would you consider your specialty as far as your process goes?
HO: I’m known for several techniques employed in my creations: reticulations of silver, rolling mill embossing, gold and silver granulation, gold lamination on silver and copper, and setting stones and shapes from a different perspective. My works have an organic feeling to them. Spectrolite (Finnish variety of labradorite) is used almost exclusively in my work. I also make use of geodes and small pebbles.
JM: Please describe a real-life experience that inspired you.
HO: In the summer of 1972 I had the opportunity to attend the jewelry class at the International Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Austria. At the time my life is was turmoil and during the 4-week course I was so upset that I could not complete a project. However, the assistant to the professor showed me some of his works. He was approaching his designs from an artistic point of view rather than one of commercial value. Upon returning home that fall, my works took a whole new direction–more thought went into the pieces. Some 13 years later I was in another “slump.” Fortunately, this time I had the opportunity to meet Charles Lewton-Brain at a metals conference. I was overwhelmed with his work and once again inspired to change direction. Inspiration often comes from people crossing paths in life.
JM: What is your favorite part of your work and why?
HO: My favorite part of creating is the fabrication of the jewelry. I enjoy putting things together, fitting, soldering, and forming sheet and wire. The most difficult part of the project is getting started. Selecting what design you want to work on from many ideas is hard, but inspiration will lead to the development of a design theme.
JM: What part of your job as a jewelry artist is your least favorite and why?
HO: The least favorite aspect of any artist’s work is dealing with the public. That’s why I let the galleries deal with them. I have a saying: “How do you want to spend your time? In the studio or on the road.” Doing commission for me is no fun either. However, I have goldsmith friends who love doing them, so I send people their way. I find that if you do a commission, then you have to “jump” out of your head space into a different one. It usually takes three times as long to do a new project. Also, you might just have to do the piece again if the client doesn’t like it. You have to please two people.
JM: Please describe what failure means to you.
HO: When you fail at something, it is a learning experience. Failure provides a chance to make improvements, like when my full-time teaching job was terminated. That door closed but a new door to doing travelling workshops, writing articles and books, and freeing myself to more time in the studio.
JM: Please describe what success means to you.
HO: Success to me is to be able to keep doing what I love doing, having new experiences, artistic travels, learning new techniques, being my own boss, and sharing my knowledge with others.
JM: What is something we may not know about you?
HO: My dog and cat are in cookie cans on my bookshelf. I drive a 28-year-old Honda Civic. In 1963 I biked through Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Came home 148 lbs. and 28” waist.
JM: What is the best piece of advice someone has ever given you? This does not have to be work related.
HO: “They can take everything away from you, except what’s in your head.” My dad.
JM: What career project do you consider your biggest accomplishment to date?
HO: Being included in the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art, Oral History Program, “The life story of Harold O’ Connor.” Teaching a workshop to the Inuit people on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic.
JM: Please name one key thing you do every workday that helps you be successful?
HO: Eliminating “clutter” on the workbench
JM: What were some of the unexpected hurdles in your career as a jewelry artist?
HO: Biggest hurdle for any artist is “getting your name out there.” This can be done by entering competitions, doing festivals/shows, writing articles, creating a distinctive style, getting work in galleries, and today having a website and selling online.
JM: What were some of the unexpected benefits in your career as jewelry artist?
HO: Unexpected benefits have been the many different roads have travelled since my first studio in Crested Butte, CO. It’s allowed me to venture into the world to conduct workshops at over 260 schools worldwide, to have my works valued by museums, and to create for so many years.
JM: What valuable advice can you give our readers that are aspiring to make a living in jewelry making?
HO: “Do what you love and the money will come. Get good design and technical skills. Develop a unique style and NEVER GIVE UP!”
JM: Is there anything you would like to add?
HO: “Your art will never fail you.”
See more of Harold’s work as a jewelry artist on his website.