Studio Notes: Soldering Maven Finds Working Class Haven
Art critics say Philadelphia jeweler Stacey Lee Webber has the vision and soul of a gritty American working class laborer. But under her Batman costume in her studio, she’s also got a sharp sense of humor. And the patience of a saint.
The 35-year-old is known for making life-sized power tools, hand tools, even a step ladder out of copper pennies that she saws and solders together. Big time. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She’s participated in their exclusive 40 under 40 Craft Futures show. She’s trained five years on the job as a fine jeweler at Bario Neal. Stacy is also busy making new work for galleries, exhibitions and collectors, and has an international following. All while living with her equally talented husband, Joseph Leroux, in a converted factory/studio space.
The germination of her work occurred in 2006. While earning a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stacey spent a year building a life-size pair of round nose pliers, a jeweler’s saw and a ring clamp out of silver filigree.
Me: What the heck were you thinking? (Yes. I actually said this.)
Stacey: In an effort to thoroughly learn the technique of filigree, I made this set while exploring the history of metalsmithing and jewelry making,” she replied. “It’s a technique, which is very laborious, but materials costs are not very high. Filigree, found all over the world, often looks elaborately decorative and of high value. But it’s generally made in areas where labor is cheap. I chose to make the tools to celebrate the tradition of jewelry making and to highlight the work it took to make them.
Me: How did you make your first tool?
Stacey: After months of making filigree samples it dawned on me that the double round-nose pliers was the only tool I was using to roll the silver wire shapes. I decided the best way to commemorate the long history of jewelry and specifically the technique of filigree was to recreate the tool I was using to accomplish the technique. Eventually I followed through with two more jeweler’s tools – the jeweler’s saw and the ring clamp. In my mind, these are the three essential tools needed for jewelry making.
The filigree technique is a long process. I would begin the day by preparing my wire for filigree shape making. I annealed, twisted, and slightly flattened bundles of fine silver wire. To construct the tools, I broke each shape down in flat patterns. After the paper pattern was made, I produced those flat pattern shapes in filigree. Each piece’s pattern had to be carefully considered to figure out what and how many filigree shapes would seamlessly fit inside the pattern and then painstakingly solder each shape together. After all the flat pieces were made, the metal was then carefully fabricated into three dimensional shapes using wooden forms, mallets and my hands.
Me: Did you experience failures?
Stacey: So much of the filigree process is soldering. While soldering, especially in the beginning of my filigree explorations, I would melt the silver wire. In the beginning of making a large flat sheet of filigree the shapes are very delicate and small, so they are very likely to overheat. When a piece or pieces were melted I would have to cut out the shapes and redo the area. After a few shapes are soldered together, the metal is less likely to melt – it starts to act like one big piece of sheet metal and less like one single, very small shape. Learning filigree vastly improved my soldering skills with a propane/oxygen Smith Little Torch, which has helped me throughout my jewelry making career.
Me: What kept you going?
Stacey: I was driven to see the project through. I often dreamt of the three filigree tools finished and sitting on a pedestal. It was these visions of knowing how beautiful they would be that made me push myself to complete the set.
To get a feel for Stacey as an artist, check out this video
Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. Her story on Colorado diamonds appears in the September-October issue. Betsy will also be writing about her experience in Kate Wolf’s class in 2018 and her grant-writing adventures as a silversmith. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.