Frequently Asked Questions Part 2 – Advice For Getting Started in Jewellery Design or Manufacture

(Updated November 2018)

(This continues my series of Frequently Asked Questions. See the rest of the FAQ pages.)Frequently Asked Questions Part 2 – Getting Started in Jewellery Design

For part 2 of the FAQ series, I’m going to address another question I get asked quite often—How does one get into the jewellery business (either hand-made or jewellery CAD)?

When I first wrote this article back in 2012, the best advice out there to be found would have come from asking as many different jewellers as possible. However, since then, there have been more and more initiatives and support sites put in place to help new jewellers. I’ve updated this original article to include some of those great resources.

For this article, I’ve gathered good advice given to me both as I was building my career as well as advice my other fellow tutors have given to students, and included some pointers of my own. For the sake of efficiency, I have sorted the suggestions into a list of Do’s and Don’ts. Also, I’ve included advice for both those who are coming out of school for a new career as well as those who are already working in a different field and who which to change their career.

Advice for Getting Started in Jewellery Design or Manufacture

What To Do

DO Learn to Draw!!!

Being able to think on paper with sketching and drawing skills is an essential skill for any designer.
Being able to think on paper with sketching and drawing skills is an essential skill for any designer. (Images courtesy Arabel Lebrusan and Jack Meyer)

The first question my colleagues and I ask anyone who is interested in getting started in jewellery or product design is: “Can you draw?” I’m not saying you have to be as good a draftsman as Albrecht Dürer, or that you even have to necessarily be good enough to draw a convincing human being. The key is being sufficiently good at drawing that you can “think on paper”, as it helps you to be able to work through and experiment with design ideas much more efficiently than you ever could on the bench or in front of a computer screen. (Contrary to popular belief, CAD is not a particularly good initial conceptualisation tool, although it can help people see already thought out designs in 3D.)

The more I think about it, the more I really cannot stress this enough. Any time you spend getting good at drawing will help your creative and conceptualisation skills overall. No matter how bad you think you are at this right now, if you do it often enough, you will get better.

DO Get Your Hands Dirty (as much as possible)

The next question my colleagues and I ask: “Have you worked at a bench?”
Strange as it may sound, manufacturers can always tell the difference between a design drawing from someone who has never touched a piercing saw and from someone who has. The insight you gain from knowing how certain manufacturing processes are done (and from what my colleagues call “having a feel for the materials”) makes a big difference in the design drawings you make– the more you know about how jewellery is assembled, the more likely you are to draw something which can actually be made.

Again, I’m not saying you have to become a master craftsman to be a good designer, but you do need to know what the craftsmen are actually doing at their benches, and what they can and cannot get away with in your assembled and set jewellery pieces.

DO Learn As Much As You Can

There’s an old saying among teachers: The time put into learning skills is never wasted. Even if it seems like what you’re learning won’t be immediately relevant, nearly any skill you could learn has some part of it which can be transferred over into another field. Richard N. Bolles called these “transferable skills” in his fantastic career guidance book What Color is Your Parachute (which I heartily recommend to those of you who are changing careers.)

For example, you spend 6 months at the GIA learning to be a gemologist, but then decide to become a designer. Does that mean your gemology training is wasted? Not at all. Your knowledge of applied geology and ideal proportions informs your drawings of gemstones, as well as your ability to set those stones in the most visually pleasing way with the least risk to cracking the stone.

Or as another example: suppose you put the time into learning 3D CAD modelling, but then decide to go back to the bench and fabricate jewellery by hand. Your time working with computer aided model making tends to affect the way you plan ahead and approach building jewellery, as you now use more measurements and layout drawings than you did before, and you more carefully consider whether certain components are more efficiently made by hand or computer for your purposes.

DO Consider Art School (but not necessarily for reasons you’d expect…)

Another related question to our main topic would be: Do you go to art school or not? If you can take a few evening classes and practice on your own, why should you pay thousands of pounds and take several years off just to live the university life?

This one is a harder question to answe, and would of course be based upon how much money you have to help you make the career change. Interestingly, I’ve talked about it with my colleagues, and most of us come down firmly in favour of going to art school, but not for the reasons you might expect.

The most common criticism I’ve heard levelled against BA degrees in jewellery design in the UK and USA is that while these art schools do teach some jewellery making techniques, they don’t give a thorough education in proper professional skills for manufacturing jewellery. Most people expect that if you’re going to spend 3-4 years at art school learning jewellery design, you should be able to work as a professional jeweller when you’re finished, right?

Not quite. Here’s why:

Most professional designers (and design tutors) will agree that creativity is a separate skill from manufacturing. Each one takes years of work depending on the student, and even then it can take years of application to get good and efficient at it. The problem is (and this was definitely confirmed by colleagues of mine both at technical courses as well as design courses) is that it’s nearly impossible to teach both technical skills and creativity at the same time. It seems each respective type of training goes in opposite directions and interferes with the other– learning how to be technically precise can cramp budding creativity, and vice versa.

And this brings us to the importance of the existence of both art schools and technical training courses, and why both types of training are necessary.

Art schools teach you more than just design drawing, they teach techniques to help with creativity (image courtesy jgearing.m.webs.com)
Art schools teach you more than just design drawing, they teach techniques to help with creativity (image courtesy jgearing.m.webs.com)

It seems to me the whole point of studying an art degree is not necessarily to learn how to work with specific tools, but rather to give the students the protected environment they need in which to learn how to really be creative without having to answer to professional deadlines. In this environment, there is no penalty for making mistakes or taking chances. Later on in your career, that time is gold dust, as you’ll be much more willing to try bigger ideas or take risks.

If you were to visit any art school, regardless of the curriculum, the biggest thing they all seem to have in common is how strongly they protect their students. You can almost feel when you enter the art department of a university, as the rules and tensions of the real world are discouraged from entering, and students are encouraged to explore whatever ideas strike their fancy.

This is why art school is valuable. Once you have that kind of creativity in you, then you can learn the practical skills from a technical diploma from a trade school, work experience, or even short courses, and you’ll benefit all the more.

Now as to whether you should start with a technical diploma or a more creative degree, that’s a good question. My colleagues are divided about this, and I’m kind of on the fence itself. For now though, I’ll simply say that it doesn’t seem to matter which one you do first.

DO Practice What You’ve Learned After the Course

I’ve long suspected the whole reason why art instruction book writers make so much money is because so many students seem to confuse buying the book or taking a class with learning a craft. Ever been to anyone’s house and found a perfectly pristine copy of an art or jewellery technical manual on their shelf which has never been opened? Funnily enough, I’ve found the more books on a subject I’ve seen at someone’s house, the more likely they are to have never been used.

While I will never understand how it happens, my colleagues and I have seen students on courses who have the same mindset. Perhaps they’re taking the course on a lark, or perhaps they’ve been pushed to take this course for some external reason. Either way, the student just shows up, does the course work, and that’s the end of it. And of course six months later they’ve forgotten everything.

One limitation with any sort of training or instruction is that there’s only so much time we can spend in class letting you try what you’ve learned. Past a certain point, it’s always going to be up to you to apply what you’ve learned in your own ways. Indeed, the big differentiator in terms of how students do in any of the diploma courses I or my colleagues have taught is how much that student practices on their own.

In short, the more you practice what you’ve learned out of class or after a class has finished, the better off you’ll be with that skill. While there is a chance you may do a portfolio worthy design in your design class, your best portfolio work will nearly always be the things you do entirely on your own. And that practice will make a difference in how soon you get hired more than anything else.

What NOT to DO

DON’T Try to Take Shortcuts Into Industry

I lost count long ago of the number of prospective student who came here who thought if they could just learn CAD, that will be all they would need to know to make jewellery. It doesn’t help that many CAD salesmen whom I have met will sell any prospective students CAD software whether it would be useful to them or not. (No names, but you know who you are.)

Theoretically, you could make simple jewellery with just about any piece of 2D or 3D CAD software. However, without any knowledge of manufacturing, the odds of your successfully making a piece of jewellery in CAD which could actually be physically produced are fairly low, as I have discovered the hard way whenever I’ve tried to teach CAD to someone who knows nothing of jewellery making.

Think about it from another perspective—if you were to ask a bespoke shoe designer to make you a shoe, you’d expect him to know something about how shoes are made. The same goes for furniture design, car design, architecture, etc. Jewellery is no different, and the fact so many people try to take a shortcut with the craft shows how underestimated jewellery design often is.

Quite simply, put the time in. Even if it seems like you’re learning to suck eggs, that time is never wasted. Every good master goldsmith I’ve ever talked to agrees that being a good jeweller requires a tremendous amount of knowledge, and nobody can learn it all at once.

DON’T Limit Yourself to One Area or Design/Manufacturing Style (or, at least not at first)

Another common mistake with people who haven’t fully learned the details of a new field is knowing about all the nuances and specialties in that field. Not only that, but often new students don’t yet fully see what going into certain specialties really means.

As often happens, you never know whether you’ll still like a field or not after you’ve tried it out. Also, there may be another specialty you didn’t know exist which could turn out to be the right one for you. And since (saying it again) no training is wasted, having tried these various fields will make you a better overall jeweller, even if you don’t directly use them yourself.

Sarah Herriot in Class at Holts Academy
Award winning design Sarah Herriot trying the Geomagics Sculpt sculpting CAD program (with haptic device) for the first time.

DON’T Be Afraid To Take Work Experience

Now for the bad news about working in the jewellery industry—contrary to popular belief, jewellers rarely make good money. It’s a step or two above fine artist, yes, but it’s definitely not a field you get into if you’re financially motivated.

Not only that, but becoming a professional jeweller requires a LOT of knowledge. Unfortunately, much like other types of commercial design, getting this experience is hard to come by.

The solution? Take any chance you can to learn the craft from a tradesman. Is there an apprenticeship? See if they’ll take you. Is there work experience? Go for it! Basically, get the practice in anywhere you can, with anyone you can.

This is precisely why The British Academy of Jewellery reinstated the UK government-backed apprenticeship scheme, to help industry newcomers find a way to pay for their learning. Likewise, their various professional certificates and diplomas can be taken with government subsidy or other financial aid.

If you’re not in the UK, don’t fret, there are international counterparts to us in other countries. Let me know which country you’re in and I’ll see what I can find out.

DON’T Get Discouraged

Stephen Webster didn't become a success overnight. He worked hard to get there. (Image courtesy FT.com)
Stephen Webster didn’t build a successful jewellery business overnight. It took many years and hard work to get there. (Image courtesy FT.com)

Every professional designer I’ve ever talked to can share a story about how hard they worked to get where they are. For some strange reason I don’t know if I’ll ever understand, there has always been something intensely competitive about the creative industry. it’s a struggle to get noticed by the admissions board at the art school. It’s a struggle to get customer’s attention. It’s a struggle to come up with a new idea to stay one step ahead of the competition or the next season’s trends, and so forth.

I’ll let you in on a little secret—there’s one trait all my best students have in common. It’s not talent. It’s not intelligence, it’s not even coordination.

…It’s desire.

I’ve found the single attribute which makes the most difference in terms of a student’s ability to progress and succeed is how badly they want it. Sure, the other attributes help, but without desire, all the talent, intelligence and skill one person can hold are basically wasted.

I remember one artist saying to me a few years back: “The first thing I’d say to an aspiring artist? You will never succeed. Just give up now. Now if they still didn’t give up after my saying that, then they may have what it takes. You will cry blood to get an audience to listen to you, and you will work insane hours, which will make it all the more sweeter when you do finally get a customer…”

So, don’t give up. One of the senior management at Garrard once told me: “I’ve found the jewellery field tends to reward loyalty. If you can stick with it long enough, you will get there.”

Conclusion

Whether you’re changing a career or starting a new one, it never hurts to find out as much as you can about what you’re getting yourself into. It is my hope that the information above proves of some use to those looking to get started in jewellery.

For further reading, one great resource for providing newcomers to the jewellery field has been the getintojewellery.org website (run by CCSkills.co.uk). It is a wonderful resource for allowing students to ask for advice and look for opportunities for education and experience.

CADJewellerySkills

Bespoke jewellery designer, and specialist in jewellery CAD/CAM and emergent technologies that affect jewellery.

3 thoughts on “Frequently Asked Questions Part 2 – Advice For Getting Started in Jewellery Design or Manufacture

  • 14 May, 2015 at 3:50 am
    Permalink

    Hi,

    I was wondering if you are aware of any government backed apprenticeship schemes in Canada. I would love to enhance my knowledge of the trade through a professional workplace.

    Reply
    • 14 May, 2015 at 6:33 pm
      Permalink

      Dear May:

      While Holts Academy has not yet expanded the apprenticeship scheme to Canada as of this time, there is a trade school out in Canada who I’m happy to recommend. Talk to the jewellery department at George Brown College in Toronto. Tell them that Jack Meyer from Holts Academy says hello.

      Regards,

      Jack

      Reply
      • 14 May, 2015 at 7:05 pm
        Permalink

        Thank you so much for the information! I will definitely check it out and give my regards to them from your side.

        Best regards,

        May

        Reply

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