It takes the time it takes: unabridged.
It takes the time it takes.
I went to bed after reading a post from a fellow MT smithy last night feeling very frustrated and sad about the state in which we understand ‘handcrafted’ and the misunderstandings that surround a silversmith’s bench work in particular. Not just hers. But mine. Ours. Everyones. All the makers out there who struggle with timelines and creativity as a commodity, feeling stretched and over capacity in a thousand ways. Especially during December, which is the highest output month and biggest sales month of most any small business I know. So maybe there's actually a LOT of misunderstanding around the nature of this craft. I know that hopefully this is most likely not the case for you reading this, as you come to find my musings and silver somehow resonant in your life, so I assume you understand the heart and soul that this work of mine, and just creative work in general, requires and deserves. And for that I am UNBELIEVABLY grateful and lucky. I would not be here without that support. But here’s the rub. The internet is full of people. And some of them, well, they just don’t see it. And they feel it’s cool to be jerks to makers who just can’t keep up with their demands. As we head into the busiest and most stressful seasons for artists, makers, and shoppers alike, I thought I’d kindly remind us all of the time and skill it requires to build art. For me, this is jewelry. But for anyone who is a studio artist or maker, whose livelihood depends on the thoughtful purchases and support of wonderful patrons around the world, this reminder rings true for all of us during a time when production is high, and demand even higher. Small businesses are scrambling to make dreams come true for customers in December. Especially makers.
So I’d like to set this record straight in ONE example. As a jeweler. For you to read and understand, and maybe, impart a little patience and kindness when waiting for your purchase to be delivered. Because jewelry is not the example here as much as it is an example in handcraft process in general. Potters. Printmakers. Weavers. Painters. Bakers. All people making stuff could break down something they make into a timeline that would give you a better understanding of the time it takes. Here’s mine.
The reality of beautiful jewelry metalsmithing feeds you see on the regular, many full-time artists working solo in their studios, some with help, some bigger studios with many bench jewelers, is this: In order for me, OR ANY SMITHY, to make that Turquoise ring. The big one-of-a-kind with the leaves, the one whose design and process took me A DECADE to perfect. That one. It’ll take me parts of a day just to cut, sand, saw, form a ring shank, make a bezel, file edges, and clean up my metal to build the pieces I need for a first round of solder. I dunk each tiny constructed piece into boric acid, and wait for them to dry. I then meticulously re-build the piece I had in mind onto a hand-cut backplate, adding liquid flux with teeny tweezers and even teenier chips of hand-cut solder to wherever these pieces need connecting. In order. Without fail. It will take me some time just to position these pieces correctly. Once I have everything in place, I light my torch, turn on the fan, and say a prayer. This creation of components, and the arrangement ready for fire, can take anywhere from 1-3 hours.
These intricately placed handmade components create a ring that might require over 20 individual seams that must be closed with solder, flux, and fire. In order. From Hard solder to Extra-Easy, or 4 steps of solder. When this process of torch soldering goes well, the pieces stay put and things are securely positioned so that you don’t snag, break, or bend your piece when wearing it. And each step of solder, or every time you take heat to your metal, requires a chemical warm-acid bath to clean off the ‘burn’ from each step. And each chemical bath takes anywhere from 10-60 minutes, depending on the piece, and the heat of the acid.
SO. From nothing to something. My ring takes me anywhere from 4-6 hours to build. IF things go exactly as they should. And this is a ring, so far, WITHOUT a stone or a patina. And most of the time a build will need revisiting to re-solder or to push a wonky component more into place.
So now I have…..ONE ring built. But what about 3? IF I AM LUCKY, and IF I HAVE THE SKILL, I might be able to build 3 or so pieces at a time in a round-robin sort of process, making the best of my time in the studio, keeping things rolling as efficiently as possible. But this takes skill, time, and triple the material on hand. When I was a beginner, I could only see one piece through at a time. It was too much to tag team big pieces without ruining them because I either was tired, got sloppy, or just had bad luck. But if I can pull it off these days round-robin building rings, the goal is to be finishing and setting THREE rings the next day….But usually that doesn’t happen.
(When you work intimately with liquid glass and fire, it’s a sure thing that things will go…not your way. A lot. It's part of the job that no one sees. The melted pieces. The abandoned nonsense. The trials and quirky shit that no one can see. That no one SHOULD see. But all of these starts and stops. These melty bad bits who were supposed to be something you could sell...is now absolutely never going to see the light of day. I've lost a few days of production in my failed attempts JUST THIS WEEK. I can't count how many days where you just kinda had to chalk it up to a day of experimentation. There are just about a billion ways a build can go sideways. Solder doesn't flow. Bezels partially melt. nBackplates reticulate. Ring shanks slump. The list goes on. But that isn't to say the day was lost. That's just the bitch of constant learning. These failures ARE THE ESSENCE OF CRAFT AS YOU HONE IT. There's alllllways bad stuff on the bench. It's just that no one really wants to photograph the bad stuff for an online audience. We've forgotten that artists usually have a closet full of bad work that took up A LOT of time in their day. We've forgotten that we are all really bad before we're really good. And EVEN WHEN WE'RE GOOD. WE STILL MAKE UGLY SHIT. WE still lose good work days to a constantly evolving critical eye and the good common sense NOT to continue on a failed attempt. And many good attempts are not bills paid.)
(Back to Rings x 3.)
The next day, I inspect these 3 rings. Did everything flow? Are there gaps? If I have done everything perfectly, I can move onto hand-finishing with a silicone wheel, and then onto patina and tumble. Approximately 2 hours of clean up with hand tools and wheels leaves me with the process of patina. As a smithy who uses Liver of Sulphur for a patina, I sometimes have to do this patina process a few times to get the darkness I like. I can then put my pieces in a tumbler with #honeandhighlight to get the initial ‘look’ I like, usually a 2 hour tumble. I wash my pieces with hot water and soap, so that FINALLY I can set stones. My favorite. Approximately 1 hour if the rock gods are shining on me. I clean up bezels. Another say 20 minutes. I hand-finish every piece with a Brillo pad for a nice even gunmetal shine, which can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes per piece.
So. These 3 rings I’ve built. Over a decade of time to perfect and a skillset that allows me this kind of cycle. IF I AM LUCKY. Ends up a minimum 2 days of work. If things go perfectly. If I am in perfect health. If the phone doesn’t ring. If I don’t have a headache. If the trash is out. (And I don’t have kids.) Yes. I can round-robin build other things in the process of making these 3, or go about other studio chores, but what I’m getting at is that the process of this one piece is VERY start-and-stop. The process is VERY labor intensive. And it’s just the build. This is a piece currently without a home, that literally only I know exists. What about alllll the other things artists do. Beyond a build. This ring is not going to sell itself.
Photography. Lighting. Set up. Studio Maintenance. Social media. Emails. Marketing. Inventory. Bookkeeping. Billing. I could add to this list for hours to make it sound like artists are professionals and not just hobby kids running around in the forest with cameras and big bags of dreams. Because we ARE professionals. There is a long list of things that must be done to run a business, too. We are currently two days into 3 rings built, but no transaction yet. Get my drift? If I could make 3 rings every two days perfectly for the entire year, working EVERY DAY without sick leave, or anything in my way from making perfect pieces in a perfect life, I would have 546 rings. A YEAR. If I have 3,500 (wonderful!) followers (which we all know is not that many anymore lol), that means that NOT EVEN 15% of you would get a ring. NOT EVEN 15%.
This is not a complaint. Merely an exercise in a time-table. Math. And a request to be cognizant of the work involved in something that seems so readily available in this world of squares. SO when you are upset by the lack of work, or the quickness in which it sells, or the ways artists fail you as a factory. It is because we are not. I am a professional bench jeweler making things with my own two hands. I am ecstatic to do so, and regularly jump with joy when someone buys something from my online shop. I dream about jewelry. It is my passion and my biggest challenge. And that is enough for me. For the 15% of you who get to buy my work, and cherish it, I am so damn grateful.
And for the other 85% of you, I hope I don’t have to explain my love for you in a time-table of ring making and some stupid math. I’m SO damn happy you’re here.
But it's also why you probably still don’t have that one ring you saw.
Be kind this season, friends. Thanks for your support. Erin.