The Lost Art Jewelry making in the modern world

What means more to you; a birthday cake from Walmart or your favorite cake handmade by your grandmother? A wedding dress passed down to all the women in your family or one that you picked up from David's Bridal a few weeks ago? Or how about something even simpler, breakfast in bed or a quick meal from McDonald's? The point is, you cherish things that someone took the time to make, things that were designed and made specifically for you with individuality and quality. So why wouldn't you apply the same concept when you are looking to invest in something a meaningful and symbolic as a wedding ring? People on the hunt for jewelry for a special occasion go to places like Kay Jewelers or Jared or even Tara & Co. because they are overwhelmed by the prospect of having to choosing an expensive and meaningful gift, and they don't know there are other options. That's where companies like JPratt Designs come in.

JPratt is a small jewelry company out of Dallas, Texas that has specialized in "Old World Design" for almost 30 years. The designer, Jennifer, creates and intimate atmosphere with her clients, getting to know their tastes, their story, their personality so she can then design a piece of jewelry that is more perfect for them than they could ever imagine. Then her husband and the companies' jeweler, Jeff, sits at his work bench and carves each piece by hand. This is what makes JPratt pieces stand out. Their tagline, "old world craftsmanship" harkens back to the artisans of old that had no choice but to carve every piece of jewelry by hand, but that, in turn, made them masters of their craft.

In an interview earlier this year, Jeff recalled how he got started in the business and how it has flourished since then. "I kind of got into this by accident. I guess it was the summer of my junior year in high school, my father owned a retail jewelry store. I just started messing around in the back with the guys that worked there, then goofing around the shop, tearing things up and decided I really loved that line of work, so I stuck with it after that. Maybe two years or so after we got married, Jennifer was in transition between job at the time, so she started helping me out where I was working, just managing the books, paying bills and stuff like that. She gradually just transitioned into what I was pursuing, and it has just grown and blossomed form there," said Jeff.

"When we decided to start our own company, we really didn't have a clue what we were doing. We didn't even really have a big picture goal in mind at all. In the late 80's and early 90's, what we did wasn't special or different, everyone carved jewelry by hand. But I did it really well, and after we had gained a pretty good clientele, when other companies started using machines to produce their jewelry, our clients kept coming back. From there, we just gained a really good reputation in various circles all throughout Dallas, and kind of throughout the world. Because of our intimate relationships with our clients, we have multiple generations of families that will all come to us and they tell all of their friends about our business. The fact that we do make everything by hand is now a really unique niche that we have, but I definitely credit our success as a company to our incredible clients and friends, and always to the providence of the Lord. It's been an immense blessing to be able to provide such an intimate and friendly environment for our clients, but also to be able to work beside my wife for almost 28 years and raise our kids here," said Jeff.

"Old World Craftsmanship...we chose that tagline because it implies that we make everything by hand, like has been done since diamonds have been mined.

The process for each piece to get from Jennifer's sketchpad to the ring bearer's pocket is a work of art in itself. First, Jennifer will sit down with the client and sketch as many ideas as it takes for the client to be thrilled with the design. Then, she gives the design to Jeff, who proceeds to carve the piece out of beeswax. He carves the ring or pendant to it's exact dimensions, the way it would look if you were wearing it. He even puts all the stones in the was temporarily. The client then comes in for what is called the "wax preview", basically, they try on the piece to make sure it fits, that its as tall of short as they want (if it's a ring) and to make sure there isn't anything they want to change. From there, there are two options;if the client is unhappy with the piece, they'll sit down with Jennifer and redesign until they are happy, or, if they are pleased with the wax preview, Jeff then sends the wax to a caster. What the caster does is he takes the wax carving and then makes a mold of it. When the mold is dry, he pours the preferred metal, i.e. gold, rose gold, or platinum, into the mold and waits for it to harden. When he pulls the mold apart, he is left with an unpolished version of the ring without the stones. From there the caster sends the piece back to Jeff and Jennifer to look at. If all looks according to the design, Jeff will then polish the piece to perfection and either send it to an engraver if the client wants a message scrawled on the piece, or if no engraving is required, Jeff will set the stones into the metal. After a final polish and cleaning, the piece is finished and ready to be worn!

Each piece that Jennifer and Jeff create is unique; they do not do any reproductions or mass market sales. How often do you find authentic, handmade pieces in any area, much less jewelry? But even more than their incredible designs, JPratt has flourished because of the fundamental relationships they have built over the years. They have earned a great reputation among both their peer in the business and their high-end clientele.

"We develop rich relationships with our's a much more personally involved way of doing business than a big box store. I don't think there's any comparison.

JPratt draws the inspiration for their style of design from antique metalworking motifs that have been around for centuries. If you look at Art Deco pieces, renaissance jewelry, and even some Western belt buckles, traces of each can be found in the pieces. As the engraver, Roy Deloza says, hand-made jewelry is "a lost art." What truly sets apart hand-crafted jewelry from mass-market pieces is the meticulous attention to detail, which differs with each different piece.

"This is like a lost art. Old people used to do it all by hand,but machines replaced the hand engraving. Machines can make perfect lines..but when you compare one hand engraving to another, it's different. Nobody does the same."
Hand engraved piece by Hayden RIckett

One way that JPratt truly marries the old with the new is through their refining process. Lots of people inherit jewelry, diamonds, and precious gems from relatives when they pass. However, these pieces can seem old and out of fashion. So one service that Jennifer offers to her clients is taking the old jewelry, and using it to pay for the new piece. Jennifer collects the old metal and stones, send the metal to a refiner, who then melts it down and send the money back to Jennifer. The client can then put the money they got from the refiner towards whatever new piece they wish to design. Not only does this allow clients to keep the sentimental stones while still getting a new piece, but it also significantly cuts down on the cost of the new creation.

Before After

As you saw in the interview with Jennifer earlier, jewelry has been hand-crafted pretty much since the beginning of time, and Jeff and Jennifer Pratt are not the only people delving into the world of hand-crafted jewelry in this modern world. Many people are starting to get involved in a craft movement towards only buying and selling things made by hand.

"In his 2008 book The Craftsman, the sociologist Richard Sennett makes a case for homo faber (or "man as maker"). Harking back to the workshops of the medieval guilds and to the studio of violin-maker Antonio Stradivari, Sennett set out to prove Immanuel Kant's dictum that "the hand is the window on to the mind". It is only through making things, he says – by trying and failing and repeating – that we gain true understanding. He is not, like some latter-day John Ruskin, arguing that handmade things are better than machine-made ones. He is simply saying that skilled manual labour – or indeed any craft – is one path to a fulfilling life. Sennett's idea of a "craftsman" is highly inclusive, but, at least since the industrial revolution, the designer and the craftsman are traditionally different roles. In the world of the Fordist production line, the designer created the templates that industrial craftsmen would replicate in the hundreds or thousands. The conspicuous consumption that defined the second half of the 20th century was driven by mass production; by men (though not always men) in charge of machines. And what Karl Marx called "commodity fetishism" – that ineffable something that gives an object a perceived value greater than its actual material cost – is best exemplified by machinic perfection: the sheen on an iPad, the techno-treads of a Nike trainer. But it seems that increasingly we are swapping one fetish for another."

Below are some images of the tools used by jewelers that carve by hand.

Surprisingly a lot of people getting involved in the craft movement are people 30 yrs and younger, young up and coming artists that have a passion for going back to a simpler time. I don't mean they want the world to look like Pleasantville, just that they have a respect and desire for quality products that are the result of hard work and true talent. One of these young artists is a man named Hayden Rickett. Hayden is a senior Fine Arts major at Harding University, and he started delving into the world of jewelry making after spending some time in London's jewelry district a semester abroad in Florence, Italy.

"When I was a senior in high school, I went to this little highlight tour of Europe, but in London, I found this jewelry store called Wright & Teaque and I just fell in love with it. It showed me a type of art that I never knew you could do, I just hadn't been exposed to metal as a form of art. But after that, I didn't think much about it for the next couple of years. But when I came to Harding and spent the semester abroad, when I was in Florence, I met this incredible man named Guiliano Ricci, one of the last true artisans of jewelry in the city. And then a year later, I went back an worked as an apprentice under Guiliano.

"There used to be so many artisans, but there's so few now... It's sad to me in a lot of ways that that careful masterful approach to hand making making things is just not as common. There's something important to me about hand-done art."

The jewelers and jewelry companies that do not carve by hand most often use a computer software called CAD, or Computer Assisted Design. This program is used by architects, engineers, drafters, artists, jewelers, and even some people in the medical field. The program allows you to create very precise drawings that you can then transform into 2-dimensional images, or 3-dimensional models. What this allows the designer to do is make the engravings and cuts in the metal as precise as possible. Most companies, especially the ones that mass produce jewelry, find that the CAD program increases efficiency hugely. The program allows you to design perfectly symmetrical pieces and some say, because of the precision of the computer, you can make even more detail on a piece than if you leave it up to human hands.

This is an example of a CAD engagement ring

The point of this article is not to knock the CAD program or shame anyone who buys jewelry from a big name vendor, but rather to urge those of you who are interested in buying fine jewelry to take another look at where your piece is coming from, and what experience you wish to have with the vendor. If you are just looking for something quick and easy that's no hassle, that's fine, go to Zales. But if you want the piece to be created just for you or a loved one, something that reflects your personality and maybe incorporates elements of your love story, think about going to a smaller, handmade vendor. There is something to be said for actively participating in the hand-made creation of something beautiful to show your affection for another person.

"Jewellery occupies a unique place in consumer culture. No other wearable item has so much emotion and romance tied in with it. We like the idea of jewellery being forever, something unchanging. This way of thinking even spreads to the way we perceive jewellery being made—the archetypal hidden craftsman at his timeless wooden bench, forming gold with tools which haven’t changed in thousands of years. Perhaps there is something seductive about that idea, that what you wear on your finger is the handiwork of a master who has done nothing else but make jewellery for the last 20 years." (Jewellry Monthly Magazine)

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Abigail Pratt

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