The Radical Jewelry Makeover: Ethical Metalsmithing at CCA

Victoria Montgomery's earring-back necklace

"Garbage in, garbage out," or so they say. But CCA's students this past fall turned out some impressive exceptions to the rule.

San Francisco was the third city to host the Radical Jewelry Makeover, coordinated by Ethical Metalsmiths in conjunction with multiple Bay Area art schools, galleries, and metalsmithing groups.

First came a Bay Area–wide call for donations of unwanted jewelry. "We filled a table with it," says Curtis Arima, a faculty member in the Jewelry / Metal Arts Program, "not just gold and silver but lots of junk jewelry, earrings without mates, et cetera. The students had a great time picking through everything and selecting parts for their projects."

Every student currently enrolled in a Jewelry / Metal Arts course spent 10 intense days remaking the jewelry into new creations—either collaging existing elements together, or completely melting them down and re-forming them. Their finished pieces were exhibited and sold at Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco, a highly regarded jewelry and metal sculpture gallery. Donors received a discount in proportion to their contributions. Everything that hadn't been appropriated was sent on to the next stop on the project's tour.

Switching up the script

The Radical Jewelry Makeover was a great way to start the semester, as one student put it, by "switching up the script." CCA's program usually emphasizes a balance between concept and craft; weeks might be spent articulating what a new piece will communicate before any physical work begins. The Makeover's 10-day time frame demanded a dramatic shift in both aesthetics and modus operandi.

Many reported feeling a sense of collaboration with unknown jewelers of the past, and with the pieces' anonymous former owners. Sophomore Jean Saung observes, "I wanted people to recognize some of the parts taken from the old jewelry, and to appreciate the recombination of their past and history to create new meanings. I made a necklace from pieces of an old watch by prying apart the metal wrist links and re-forming them into cubes, which I slipped onto a neck wire. I wonder if people will recognize the 'beads' for what they truly are.

"Certain parts, which used to belong to completely different pieces, actually seemed like they were meant to be together. I was also surprised to find myself gravitating toward the costume jewelry and the non-precious materials. I liked the idea of making something that was not very valuable into something someone would want to keep."

Senior student Victoria Montgomery agrees, "Metalsmiths, just like any other artists, sometimes get stuck in their own ways of creating. That week was a way of breaking free from the rut. It felt like a week dedicated to play. The studio came alive with a constant buzz of artists sharing materials and ideas.

"Some of the donated items were over-the-top costume jewelry. They were visually daunting, but once I started simplifying, that's when my pieces started to take form. For example, the donation box contained endless costume earrings from the 1980s, most missing a mate. I started collecting all the clip-on mechanisms and studs and treated them as links in a large chain. I liked the surprise of something so forgettable as the back of an earring suddenly taking the stage."

Mining the drawers

Ethical Metalsmiths views this project as a way to get young jewelers thinking early about their materials—first and foremost mined metals such as gold and silver, but also the stuff at the back of people's drawers that would otherwise become landfill. The organization is working on several aspects of mining reform, including the establishment of standards for certified recycled metal, which can be advertised to consumers who want to buy responsibly.

A trip to Malakoff Diggins up in California's gold county is a reminder of how destructive mining is. According to Ethical Metalsmiths, to mine the gold for one new ring creates a staggering 20 tons of waste rock. Mining is a core industry in many countries, and the arsenic, lead, and other chemicals required to process ore cause serious health problems and pollute the land and the water supply. Not to mention the terrible child labor practices and other human rights violations that often plague mining economies. In the United States, hard-rock mining produces more toxic waste than any other industry, and 80 percent of all mined gold is used to produce jewelry.

Senior student Russell Larman found great inspiration not only in the project, but also in the organization behind it. "It's important to remember that the history of our new pieces did not begin with the people who made the donations," he says. "They were only temporary custodians in a larger life cycle. Objects have an inherent history that often becomes separated from them when they are packaged as consumer products. As consumers of gold, silver, platinum, and gemstones, we have a responsibility to make sure we're not supporting unethical labor conditions in the communities that make these materials available to us."

Sustainability in metalsmithing

Surprisingly, even though gold and silver seem expensive, many jewelers do not recycle their metals. The Radical Jewelry Makeover was an occasion for an open dialogue about issues of sourcing, and for Arima to give demonstrations to the students showing how easy it is to melt down gold and silver and reuse them.

MFA student Anna Adair remarks, "The project's focus on sustainability and our ethics as practicing jewelers was, for me, the most important component. It's not something we can afford to ignore, on either a commercial or a conceptual level. A couple of years ago I wasn't thinking about my studio practice in these terms, aside from basic recycling and proper disposal of chemicals. Scrutinizing my studio habits was an eye-opener."

Saung echoes, "I had thought about sustainability and reuse for some of my smaller crafts and hobbies, but I never really had the motivation or courage to incorporate the concept into my studio work. My jewelry metal was always just processed metal I could easily buy. Now I am changing that, and I think it was my experience with this project that gave me the courage."