The Horseman Who Became a Goldsmith: Meet Michael David Sturlin

Exacting is an understatement that tells only part of the story. Michael David Sturlin’s beautiful jewelry is exacting, but what I sense most about a piece is that it is intentional and complete. It’s very satisfying to see, handle, and wear jewelry that feels so absolutely solid as an idea whether the object is hefty or not.

ABOVE: Michael David Sturlin’s Interlude Cuffs 1, Continuum sterling silver, 18K gold, chrysoprase, pink spinel; photo: Michael David Sturlin

Recently, I asked Michael for a glimpse into his decades-long practice as a goldsmith. He shared some of his thoughts on the craft, plus a bit more — as he phrases it, about “the horseman who became a goldsmith.”

Why are you a goldsmith?

Michael David Sturlin: Of all the visual arts and crafts I have pursued, working with noble metals is the most technically compelling and the most aesthetically satisfying.

What are you most proud of about your jewelry work?

MDS: That it has touched people in a positive way and brought enjoyment to wearer and viewer alike.

In Sawing for 3D Effects, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist September/October 2019, Michael David Sturlin gives instructions for building rings with settings that not only hold stones securely but add visual interest to a design; photo: Jim Lawson

In “Sawing for 3D Effects,” Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist September/October 2019, Michael David Sturlin gives instructions for building rings with settings that not only hold stones securely but add visual interest to a design; photo: Jim Lawson

How do you know when you’re finished with a design, and do you consider that done, or just done with that piece?

MDS: I generally have the design concept figured out before I start to execute a piece or a series. That said, intricacies of design are often an evolution of subtle variations within a cohesive body of work.

What do you like most about teaching?

MDS: I most enjoy that moment when the student realizes they are becoming skillful, and that first glimmer of confidence arises and helps propel them forward.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from teaching?

MDS: That learning is a never-ending process for both student and teacher alike.

Michael David Sturlin goldsmith Geo drop earrings

Forged 18K gold Geo drop earrings by Michael David Sturlin, a new series that emerged from a design class he taught; photo by the artist

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from a mistake?

MDS: Starting over and doing it properly the second time is the best way to correct an error.

What design ideas are you currently exploring?

MDS: I am currently working on a new silversmithing curriculum for my 2020 workshop calendar focusing on making utensils, serving ware, vessels, hollow ware, and functional objects.

What are your favorite tools or techniques, and why?
Michael David Sturlin jewelry design goldsmith drawing

Part of a design sketch for the three rings above, shown with tools — including dividers, Michael’s favorite; photo: Jackson Sturlin

MDS: My favorite tool is the dividers, because this is the goldsmith’s most important tool and enables precision and exactness in our work. My second favorite tools are hammers, because it is through these that we understand the malleability of our material. My third favorite is the torch. For a goldsmith, jewelry making starts with the torch: melting and pouring ingots and preparing our metal for fabrication.

What is the thing you like most about being a goldsmith?

MDS: The nature of my material — noble metals. Our material is endlessly recyclable. A goldsmith can start with raw, pure precious metal and transform it into anything we wish. I enjoy the autonomy and self reliance this enables as the fundamental nature of our craft.

Michael David Sturlin hand forged and fabricated this cantilevered neckring and bracelet in 18K gold. Neckring features tanzanite, red spinel, purple sapphire, and diamond; bracelet features pink tourmaline, green tourmaline, yellow sapphire, and diamond. Photo: Robert Diamante

Michael David Sturlin hand forged and fabricated this cantilevered neckring and bracelet in 18K gold. Neckring features tanzanite, red spinel, purple sapphire, and diamond; bracelet features pink tourmaline, green tourmaline, yellow sapphire, and diamond. Photo: Robert Diamante

What do you find the most challenging, and what do you do to help yourself work through it?

MDS: The thing I find most challenging is part of the responsibility that comes with being an educator. That is, helping students overcome their own self imposed psychological impediments, and assisting them in transforming perceived obstacles into an ascending staircase.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

MDS: The craft of goldsmithing is an ancient pathway to dynamic creative expression which does not require fancy tools or expensive accouterments. Success on this path is paved by highly developed skill, material fluency, and understanding the process of design and execution.

Michael David Sturlin goldsmith 18k gold star ruby and spinel necklace

This necklace by Michael David Sturlin includes 18K gold, a star ruby, and a red spinel; photo by the artist

The Horseman Who Became a Goldsmith

I did not ask Michael about how he grew up, but I should have. Fortunately, “just for fun,” as he put it, he sent me a little write-up he created about his early years. It is a fun read; it also has a lot of bearing on his chosen profession. Here are excerpts from this charming and insightful account.

Wilson, WY, Population: 36
The Grand Tetons; photo: Mike Goad/Pixabay

The Grand Tetons; photo: Mike Goad/Pixabay

MDS: I was born in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 1955, in an ancient log building which was the hospital in that era. I grew up in Wilson, at the foot of Teton Pass, on a horse ranch. In 1960, Wilson had a population of 36 humans. The town had a post office, general store, filling station, the Stagecoach Bar, and rodeo grounds.

My grandfather built the cabins we lived in. We did not have modern plumbing or an indoor flush toilet [though] the kitchen and shower house were plumbed. Ranch work is an endless series of chores. One of my first chores, at the age of five, was starting a coal fire in the cast-iron water heater in the shower house. A galvanized pipe ran through the little stove, and when the stove got hot, the pipe got hot, and we had hot water.

Ranch/Metalworking Chores
Photo: Momentmal/Pixabay

Photo: Momentmal/Pixabay

Another chore was the repurposing of nails. When we tore down an old shed, outbuilding, or section of fence, we would have a pile of debris to burn in the fall. After the fire had done its work, I would sweep through the ashes and recover all the nails and spikes. I then straightened and work hardened them on an anvil, with a hammer that always seemed pretty big and heavy for a rather small lad. The tools I worked with all through my youth were hammer, saw, pliers, files and rasps . . . the same basic assortment I have used ever since for the 45 years of my professional career.

Working with Others
Appaloosa horses; photo: Sven Lachmann/Pixabay

Appaloosa horses; photo: Sven Lachmann/Pixabay

We raised Appaloosas and trained them to be gentle saddle horses for pleasure riding. I worked with a group of brand new foals and several young adolescent horses each summer, training them as well as myself. Working with horses is a great way to grow up and learn how to cultivate positive and cooperative relationships with other sentient beings.

I often think back to my first real job – horse training 101. I fully realize the things I learned from that are endlessly helpful in learning new skills. It has also been of enormous benefit in my role as a teacher and educator.

Your Best
Michael David Sturlin’s Interlude Cuffs 2, Continuum sterling silver, 18K gold, chrysoprase; photo: Michael David Sturlin

Michael David Sturlin’s Interlude Cuffs 2, Continuum sterling silver, 18K gold, chrysoprase; photo: Michael David Sturlin

The part I find most relevant as a horseman who became a goldsmith is that the basic structure of horse ranching and goldsmithing are the same. They are both equally predicated upon self-reliance, patience, perseverance, and making a commitment to doing the very best you can at everything you choose to do. They both require making do with what you have, and making what you have do what needs to be done. I have not ever relied on fancy tools or expensive accouterments in either of these pursuits. My studio practice for all these decades has been a continuation of the exact same minimalist journey on a very parallel path.

Michael David Sturlin goldsmith 18k gold diamond bezel drop earrings

Diamond and 18K gold drop earrings by Michael David Sturlin; photo by the artist

MICHAEL DAVID STURLIN is an accomplished goldsmith, writer, and teacher. His jewelry has been exhibited in premier galleries across North America, is featured in Masters: Gold, and in more than a dozen national and international jewelry magazines. His award-winning work has been recognized by the World Gold Council, the American Jewelry Design Council, and Jewelers of America New Designers Gallery. You can learn more about him on his website, www.michaelsturlinstudio.com, and on social media, @michaelsturlinstudio.

Merle White is Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

Learn More from Michael David Sturlin

This accomplished artist has shared his expertise with us in the pages of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and in our videos. You can find them below.

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