Saul Bell is the patron saint of all jewelers and metalsmiths, past and present. For over fifty years, from the moment he opened Rio Grande, a wholesale jewelry supplier, on Route 66 (now Central Avenue) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1944, Bell became known as a trusted mentor and teacher, sharing his knowledge of old-world techniques and always ready with unstinting guidance and support for legions of artisans, jewelers and metalsmiths. By the time of his death, in 1996, Saul Bell had helped an industry grow up, and Rio Grande had become a megalith, the largest jewelrymaking supplier in the world. Now part of The Richline Group, Rio Grande in 2000 established the annual Saul Bell Design Award (SBDA), an international competition to honor distinction in jewelry design. The 2017 winners, in nine different categories, were announced this past May. For an artist, winning much-deserved recognition by a jury of peers carries with it an intangible feeling of validation—the judges above all know and understand the skills and craftsmanship it took to succeed.
The competition stages two rounds of judging: the first to winnow entries down to a select group; the second to decide finalists and winners. Judges, white-gloved and armed with loupes, are charged with evaluating the creative originality, technical excellence and degree of innovation undertaken by every entry. Among the five 2017 second-round judges were Michael Good, an award-winning metalsmith and a pioneer in anticlastic-raising techniques; Debbie Sheezel, a name to conjure with as an internationally known Australian enamelist specializing in cloisonné on silver and gold, and a previous SBDA winner; Kent Raible, one of the country’s most acclaimed studio master goldsmiths and a two-time SBDA winner; forty-year jewelry industry veteran Mark Mann, the GIA senior director of Global Jewelry Manufacturing Arts; and Kaminer Haislip, a Charleston, South Carolina-based silversmith.
Italy comes calling in Valerie Jo Coulson’s bracelet, Firenze, receiving 2017 Best of Show. Employing hollow fabrication and stone inlay in sterling silver, the sculptural-looking Firenze is a masterpiece of construction and composition, meant as a tribute to the octagonal roof structure of the Renaissance-era Battistero di San Giovanni [the Florentine Baptistery]. The bracelet’s upper pattern celebrates pietra dura, an Italian inlay technique of cutting and fitting stones together to create illusionistic images. Coulson calls her first trip to Florence, in 2011, “an apex of my life.” In her jewelry, the artist says, she seeks “a purity of design with an aesthetic which is intrinsically governed by the principle of sacred geometry.” A veteran studio artist and 2014 SBDA winner, Coulson makes her home in rural Pennsylvania.
Click on Photos for Captions
Winner of the Enamel category for 2017, Sandra McEwen’s triumphant triptych brooch, Fool’s Errand, impressively re-interprets classical techniques in a vigorous, contemporary form incorporating faceted pyrite and a lavender moon quartz. The brooch seems cinematic in its shifts in perspective, while the irregular rhythm among its champlevé and cloisonné panels poses the niggling question: what is the foolish errand? McEwen, from Raleigh, North Carolina, studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. Fascinated with medieval illuminated manuscripts, she also has a notable reputation for her color sense. About Fool’s Errand, McEwen says, “I love the precision of the [twenty-four karat gold] wirework and the color of the sky. The colors travel from morning at the top to evening at the bottom. The blues are the unifying element.”
A thirty-year-old memory of an eighteenth-century church in his native Ukraine inspired Aleksandr Maryaskin to win his second SBDA in Hollowware/Art Objects with his entirely hand-fabricated Discovery of Eggcellence. Maryaskin’s ethereal, bejeweled gold-filigree egg, reminiscent of Fabergé’s golden Easter eggs, opens up to reveal an exquisitely detailed, three-dimensional church. The egg sits above a half-sphere of polished lapis lazuli enclosed in a filigree base. Maryaskin gave himself the personal challenge of using only a laser welder to make the piece. A self-taught jeweler and metalsmith from Carrollton, Virginia, Maryaskin has a passion for manipulating metal and creating one-of-a-kind designs; he dislikes earrings because he has to make two of them. His filigree work, as fine as spun sugar made from fourteen karat white, yellow and red gold, alone is a feat of artistry; Maryaskin is especially proud of how he solved the engineering of the design to make all three components work together.
If you have got it, flaunt it, especially if you can show off the glamorous prize-winning ring, Passarola, by Arturo Sanfelix Garcia, of Valencia, Spain, participating in his first-ever competition. Garcia describes Passarola as a cocktail-type ring, inspired by traditional Georgian-era jewelry. The ring is cast and hand-fabricated in Argentium® silver with yellow and white gold plating, set with simulated amethysts and created diamonds, and crowned with a checkerboard-cut natural citrine. Garcia, who trained in his father’s jewelry studio, took two years to create the piece on weekends; the design kept evolving as he worked. Because it took so long, Garcia says, he has learned, “It is better to have a plan.”
Jason Baide admits he is in love: Montana Yogo sapphires “are near and dear to my heart. Their rich color is completely natural, never treated. Plus they are found just a couple of hours from my hometown” in Bozeman, Montana. For his second SBDA, the Montana State University student won First Place in Emerging Jewelry Artists 22 Years or Younger with Flexibility, a hand-fabricated ring of fourteen karat yellow-gold wire and tubing set with his favorite sapphires. He has always been attracted to making flexible jewelry, going back to growing up working in his father’s custom jewelry gallery, where he got some early training. Baide said his greatest challenge was problem-solving the mechanics of how to “add the stones without hindering the smooth flexibility of the ring.” The chance recently to study in Italy had a huge influence on his aesthetics, reflecting what SBDA, in naming Baide, called “a sophistication well beyond his years.”
The next Saul Bell Design Award ceremony takes place May 20, 2018, in Albuquerque. For 2018, the competition has upped the ante and introduced two new categories: Jewelry Collection Couture/Fine, and Jewelry Collection Fashion/Bridge. The event is held during the four-day Santa Fe Symposium, which brings together jewelry professionals from all over the industry and everywhere in the world to talk about work, business and the future. For craftspeople it offers a chance to network and swap trade news, brainstorm ideas, and hear about new techniques: exactly what Saul Bell set out to do.
Leslie Clark is a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based freelance writer. While learning about the winning artists for the 2017 Saul Bell Design Award, Clark was intrigued to discover that “women mostly learn jewelrymaking in classes, while men often have been taught by their jeweler-fathers. All the artists loved entering the SBDA competition for the chance to try something different. Almost everyone listens to something—music, or a podcast—while they work. And, fortunately, nobody pays any attention to trends.”