Jewelry designers/jewelers/gemologists of MF: career advice needed!
December 9, 2020 6:23 AM   Subscribe

What are realistic enough-money-for-groceries-and-health-insurance career options for jewelry designers vs. jewelers vs. gemologists, etc. and do you need a college degree for that or something else?

My awesome creative son, who is interested in jewelry making, will start Big State U next year because there are compelling logistical and financial reasons to do so. He will likely major in graphic design, but since there is no dedicated degree or coursework in jewelry design how can we best support his interests? GIA courses? Other online schools or in-person courses we could pay for in the summers? We want to support him as best we can but of course getting a bachelor's degree (especially if he can do it with no student debt in the end) seems like a wise choice to have lots of options later in life.

Jewelery designers and jewelers and gemologists of MeFi: can you help me understand this constellation of professions surrounding jewelry and how you make a living (without a trust fund or a wealthy spouse ;) ) Thank you for your real-world advice!
posted by SinAesthetic to Work & Money (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I’m not sure where you are located but I would contact Steven Hanna at Accents Jewelry in Santa Monica for advice. Not only is he incredibly knowledgeable, he runs a high-quality jewelry store that features many designers who got their start in his lost-wax carving class. He is incredibly helpful and friendly and even if you’re not in the area I bet that either he or one of the staff in the store could point you in the right direction. (All the staff are designers featured in the shop.) Accents is truly one of my favorite places in all of Los Angeles, both for shopping and the carving/design class and for the welcoming feel that the whole shop exudes.
posted by corey flood at 8:28 AM on December 9, 2020

Best answer: I worked as a bench jeweler (the person who does the work of creating jewelry in a shop). We primarily did custom jewelry in fine metals with gemstones.

Lots of jewelry is created these days using a 3D design program and then it is printed or carved out of wax. The wax is then used to create a mold for the molten metal. (Lost wax process, as above). Experience with 3d modeling will be massively useful.

He should also be aware going into it that jewelry is generally not a 9 to 5 and go home type of profession. Working evenings and weekends is standard because that is when the customers are shopping. Before the Christmas season, he should expect to work solid from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve. You are Santa's elf and elves don't take days off before Christmas. ;) There's a shorter but equally intense busy season before Valentine's Day.

For me, it did not pay enough to cover the cost of child care while I worked so I quit when my first child was born. Also, there are many toxic chemicals and compounds used in jewelry making, so please encourage him to use a dust mask and proper ventilation. Stone setting is generally a much cleaner process compared to casting metal and cleaning up new casts.

Classes and techniques to pursue:
3d modeling
3d printing
Lost wax process /metal casting
Photo editing
Basic web design
Metalworking: fabrication from scratch
soldering with a torch
First aid for burns :)
Gemstone stuff (GIA, yes)
Gemstone setting (if he can find a class that teaches them to work under a microscope, that's the best)
Use of a flexshaft / dremel / rotary tools
Metric system
Laser welding
Time management and scheduling of jobs

Tangentially useful:
Glass working

If you look at the art department's offerings, they may have metalworking classes or similar. They may not be advertised as jewelry classes.

In my job, I also often used a lot of my old DOS knowledge but that was because my boss's 3D printer was from the Stone ages.
posted by WowLookStars at 8:56 AM on December 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm not in the US, but here in Canada we have colleges (unlike in the US, colleges here typically focus on specific employment skills, career training and trades) that have excellent courses in jewellery design, goldsmithing and silversmithing. A good friend did a 2-year program and is now doing very well as an entrepreneur. I'm sure similar programs exist in the US that can be completed after a undergrad degree. (I attended college after my undergrad to gain extra employment training myself - it was a great experience.)
posted by Lescha at 8:57 AM on December 9, 2020

A friend got a job as a diamond grader at GIA after college circa 2012; my recollection is that they basically hired a bunch of people to do their initial training course that you had to pass to get long-term hired. She was an anthropology major and I don’t think she had any specific college background relevant to the job other than being a generally smart person. The coolest part of the job (other than looking at diamonds all day) was that not long after starting, you could sign on to go work for like 3-6 months or so at other GIA campuses around the world.
posted by MadamM at 9:08 AM on December 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Does Big State U offer an industrial design degree, or related courses? Seems like that would be much more relevant to his jewelry interests than graphic design, since it will focus on the design of tangible objects and provide practical skills involving 3D modeling.
posted by oxisos at 10:00 AM on December 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

If he's interested in carving out an unusual niche, then minoring in something that also interests him (geology, biology/botany, insect biology/arthropology, astronomy, social psychology, medieval literature and arts, music, anything really) can give him inspirations and _deep understanding_ that will make his work stand out.
posted by amtho at 10:01 AM on December 9, 2020 [5 favorites]

Slightly different tack but in terms of making the most of the university's offerings, he might benefit from some business or accounting classes if he's thinking of being self-employed at any point.
posted by trig at 10:03 AM on December 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Interesting question. My sister and I were able to take jewelry-making while in undergrad, from the Fine Arts program at our university. Sadly no longer available. My sister always made jewelry as a hobby, and had renewed interest in silver-smithing in her 30s. She started taking classes at a local jewelry-making workshop and now has an arrangement where she cleans the shop for credit towards classes. So look towards community colleges and local resources for classes in jewelry-making if his university doesn't offer anything.

I'm not sure I would majoring in graphic design over other fine arts areas, unless your son has an strong interest there. He could be equally well-served by taking art history and sculpture and painting as he would be by graphic design. He should have training in 3D as well as 2D.

Apparently, the GIA (Gemological Institute of America that offer gemologist certificates) is very interested in obtaining more participants with science backgrounds, and to that end, the university I work at is adding a Gem Sciences track to its Geosciences BS. Students will take classes on minerals, marketing, material science, chemistry, and art. The program starts in fall 2021 and should be one of only a few (possibly the only) in the US. If he's strong in math and science, and you're interested, memail me and I can give you a little more information.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 10:22 AM on December 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My sister had a roommate who was (is?) a jeweler who eked out a living that was decent though not amazing. She probably would have done better if she had the right... personality for the job. The two things she made the bulk of her money on were

- fancy custom wedding rings. You don't get a lot of repeat business but it's a lot of word of mouth referrals and customer service is HUGE. In this case having a really nice website with a way to have people give recommendations etc was useful. So your son's graphic design classes will help and so would other related topics like web design, photography, social media & marketing, that sort of thing.
- mass market things that were low-cost to make but unique and special to the people who purchased them (think a very timely RESIST button or similar) in which case an art background and being able to get your finger on the pulse of what the market is interested in was a good selling point

She also went to a LOT of trade shows, all the time, and in these cases being able to make an eye-catching display, have good brochures, be able to talk/patter with people and potential vendors, was a useful part of all this. So this may be part of graphic design but thinking about other engineering-type classes where you'd be building things, product development and etc. Also unrelated, but we have a small jewelry store in town and one of the things that gets people in the door is that the guy replaces watch batteries. I know this is kinda small stuff but once people go inside, meet the guy, see what his shop has (something for everyone!) he winds up with repeat business for higher ticket items. So with that in mind nthing that he get good at accounting and figuring out how to balance stuff like low-end high-value services with the stuff he might prefer to be doing.
posted by jessamyn at 11:26 AM on December 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

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