Fans of Ben Dory call him a “metal wizard” and a “mad scientist,” names that suggest speed and flair, but he approaches his work with an easy patience and is happy to let ideas evolve gradually. Many of his family members work with their hands—his grandfather, who had a farm in Nebraska, refinished antique furniture, his aunt paints, his father has a woodshop, and his mother sews—and he is used to seeing diligence and beauty combined in everyday life. He grew up on the Kansas side of Kansas City and attended the University of Kansas. Because of his interest in how things are structured, he considered majoring in linguistics or taxonomy, but settled on metals because it satisfied both a desire for research and his interest in making.
A few years after graduating, Dory visited Penland School of Crafts for a summer workshop. He describes Penland as “a place where you meet your heroes on a regular basis,” and continues to relish being in its orbit with other metalsmiths. Encouraged by Penland’s immersive environment, he applied to graduate school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In his application he expressed a desire to “industrialize his process,” meaning that he wanted to use readily available and affordable materials as a practical way to “navigate this world of expense involved in traditional jewelry making.” He graduated in 2014, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and then Savannah, Georgia, for a few years, and now is relocating to be the Metalsmithing & Jewelry Artist in Residence in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Arkansas Little Rock.
Technically challenging processes like damascene, mokume-gane, and salt (or electrolyte) etching attract Dory, and his current obsession is granulation, a technique closely associated with the Etruscans, but dating back about five thousand years. The technique was prominent in Dory’s educational experience because his teacher at Carbondale, Jon Havener, was a student of John Paul Miller, a jeweler renowned for his work with granulation. Typically, granulation involves pure gold or fine silver, and artists melt small bits of metal to form the tiny granules (surface tension pulls the molten metal into spheres) and bond them to a metal substrate. Dory likes the repetition of granulation, observing that you “see something new each time because there is so much visual texture.”
Dory’s twist on this ancient technique is to use machine-formed bearing balls of stainless steel. He emphasizes the importance in his work of “thinking in modules,” both for materials and process. At the moment, he has a set group of base shapes that he uses in combination with the balls. Much contemporary granulation appears as simple lines or jumbled mounds, and while Dory allows his granules to gather organically, their precise geometric forms naturally fall into regular patterns (like the molecules of a crystal) that impart an industrial aesthetic.
To create his granulated steel work, Dory micro welds the shiny bearing balls to the piece of jewelry or to each other. He uses a narrow, tube-shaped vacuum with custom silver tips to pick up the granules, and when he presses a pedal, electricity moves through the tip and ball. An arc forms where the ball is in contact with the working surface, and the focused application of heat causes the elements to fuse together. A slight miscalculation in the alignment, and the four-thousand-degree discharge can melt whole areas of work; Dory notes that the learning curve was painful, and he endured numerous shocks and tiny burns as he refined his technique and modified his tools.
Many of Dory’s recent works combine stones with the steel granulation, including a large, faceted amethyst set high in a ring, inverted green tourmalines in a three-lobed brooch, and, in a pair of earrings, pearls with a silky luster that interacts enticingly with the reflective surfaces of the metal orbs. He even uses granulation as a form of stonesetting, creating lattices around stones to hold them in place.
Dory appreciates the pervasive presence of digital technology in modern life and views his work as part of a cultural moment that emphasizes computational and parametric design. He also enjoys that we are surrounded by hidden technologies like welding that, while old and overlooked, still provide fertile ground for investigation. He plans to continue studying the possibilities of granulation with steel and maintaining the modular approach, methodical repetition and work ethic that lend his creations an air of scientific magic.
Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York; Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens; and a history of chenille fashion. In her exchange with Ben Dory, she appreciated his eagerness to explain the intricacies of welding and granulation, and Mary Hallam Pearse’s willingness to provide further technical consultation. Dory’s work is a surprising mix of industrial and organic and reflects an impressive amount of innovation in his use of materials and modification of his tools.