Sunday, January 29, 2012

Artist’s Journal: Kuppa Stone Setting

Posted by Yvonne Yao
Guest Blogger

I must first start out by saying that this type of stone setting (which I call Kuppa), was not an original design, but was inspired by a recent trip to Alexis Bittar’s jewelry boutique in Venice, California. The spikey look of her inverse gemstones so captured my heart that I could not help but want a piece of my own recreated in a similar style. Since I have been bursting to try stone setting in a PMC project, this seemed like the perfect opportunity for experimentation.

I started out with a simple pair of ‘Kuppa’ earring studs. I rolled out two small balls of clay, flattened them slightly to give them a plump, oval, cabochon shape, and started setting 1mm and 2.5mm round CZ’s into depressions I made with my fingernails and a set of fine point pliers. I had to re-roll and re-set the first ball of clay a couple of times before getting a feel for the minimum distance required between each gemstone, keeping in mind that shrinkage during firing would bring everything closer together and reduce the gaps between each setting.

The time spent during my ‘trial and error’ stone setting technique meant the clay was a bit more dry than is ideal for setting stones. This made it difficult to set the girdle of each stone slightly below the surface of the clay as I’ve learned to do. But at the same time - I found that I really liked the dimensional look that the upside down stones gave. Since I didn’t have a bur or other tool that would allow me to set the stones in dry clay by drilling holes, I decided to reinforce any loose gemstones by scratching out a deeper foundation with my pliers, re-attaching the stones with slip, letting the piece dry, and hoping for the best during firing.

Editors note: Most stones can be set easily in wet clay or by using a stone setting bur in dry clay. The unusual orientation of this setting might have been made easier with a diamond coated cylinder drill. If the clay is too dry to press stones in, but too wet to drill – either rehydrate it by kneading water into the clay and letting it rest for a few moments or let it dry completely so you can drill a seat for the stone.

Once both studs were completed, I used a drinking straw to cut two circles from clay rolled one card thick to act as the backing for each earring stud, and to function as a base in which to insert 22 gauge fine silver wire posts. I realize that fine silver is a very soft metal to use as earring posts, however, I have never tried it personally and wanted to fire at a higher temperature than sterling would safely allow, again, hoping for the best.

Editors note: Most earring wires are 19 or 20 gauge and would have been a better choice for fine silver posts.

Having made the pair of earrings I decided to try a matching ring as well, practicing my ring sizing for custom pieces. As you may remember, my very first ring turned out to be a baby pinky ring, so a friend of mine told me her easy method for calculating sizing was just to make the ring 2 sizes bigger than desired. I rolled out a fresh ball of clay in a bicone shape, flattened it slightly, and shaped it into an arch to act as the decorative top of the ring. Then I cut a ring band 3 cards thick, taped a sheet of plastic around a ring mandrel, and placed the clay strip on the mandrel. I used the bi-cone topper to join the ends of the freshly cut band before starting to set the stones.

What I did not anticipate was that as I worked, I was unintentionally enlarging the ring both as I used my fingers to press the ends of the decoration onto the open band, and as I pressed the stones deeper into the clay to make sure they stayed set as the piece dried. This probably caused me to enlarge the ring by one whole size.

Editors note: Fine silver metal clay ring bands are more fragile than those made with milled metal or by casting. The usual formula is to use PMC3 and make the bands at least 5 cards thick and 2.5 sizes larger than the final size. I always do complex designs in stages, letting elements dry in between processes so I can perfect each part before adding another and to make sure I don’t accidentally make unwanted marks or stretch the clay.

After firing my pieces, I nervously did a fingernail test on the gemstones to see if any were loose. They all stayed! My next test was polishing the piece by wire brushing. Not too shabby - I lost only one gemstone. Then my friend suggested I twist each earring post once or twice with a pair of pliers and work harden it with a rawhide mallet to lend it more strength. Finally I sanded the post tips to round them, added a pair of ear-nuts - and I was done!

Another beautiful project Yvonne! Thank you.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Introducing Janet Alexander - Our Newest Senior Instructor and Technical Advisor

How long have you been working with metal clay?
Steadily for two years, but I started in 1999 when I asked Art Clay instructor Karen Dore to teach a class for the Craft Guild of Dallas.

What did you do before that?
I was trained in traditional metal smithing with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in metals, at the University of North Texas. I'm also a certified diamond grader and stone setter with the Gemology Institute of America (GIA). Additionally, I was a bench jeweler for Service Merchandise, and the store manager and jeweler at Fast Fix Jewelry Repair.

I have a degree in Multimedia and have been working as a technical writer, web content writer, and programmer in Flash, RoboHelp, HTML, Director, and Premiere Pro (film editing) for 11 years. I also wrote user documentation for computer systems, which is why my tutorials are very detailed.

What other mediums do you work with?
I like to work with warm glass, creating wall art and slumped dishes. Right now I'm spending my spare time filming and editing jewelry making training videos.

How did you come to be a PMC Connection Senior Teacher? What year?
I decided to look into working with metal clay again when my students wanted to learn a quicker way to make prototypes for casting without the expensive tools and massive time it takes to carve waxes and cast them. So in 2010 I took Level One and Level Two certification with Marlynda Taylor. Soon after that I taught a fabrication class at PMC Connection's main office, and was "discovered" by president Jennifer Roberts. After completing the certification program with Lora Hart in LA, I became a Level One certifying instructor. Two weeks ago I was made a full fledged Senior.

What do you think is the most exciting aspect of teaching?
It's very gratifying when my student “gets it”, when they understand how to do something they thought was unattainable and now see it as an easy task.

Do you have a studio in your home? What does it look like?
I have a small workshop my back yard. It's a portable building that has room for three students and my bench. It stays cluttered because I always have several projects going at one time. The only time it gets cleaned, is when I misplace something!

Do you teach at home or another venue?
I teach locally at WiredUP Beads in South Lake TX and in my home studio. This June I'll be teaching 8 classes at the Bead & Button show in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - some in metal clay and others in metal fabrication. I've also taught at Bead Fest TX.

Do you like to take classes yourself? What kind?
I take classes that can improve my teaching knowledge. This month I will be learning intermediate photography skills for jewelry.

Do you sell your work? Where?
I make one-of-a-kind, commission jewelry for personal customers and sell through local fine jewelry stores. My work has also been displayed in the El Paso Museum of Fine Art, Wichita Museum of Fine Art, and in the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

Where do you find inspiration?
I am inspired by gemstones. I find a stone I like and then design around it. Additionally I'm inspired by nature. I go for hikes and try to look for objects and textures that may not have been noticed by most people, which I then like to incorporate into my work.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am experimenting with the new sterling silver metal clay. I want to see how much I can push it. I am also playing with carving metal clay and then adding enamels.

Where has your work been published?
Some of my work has been published in American Craft Magazine, Metalclay Artist Magazine, and in the New Directions: Powder Metallurgy in a Sheet Metal World book and on-line exhibit. I was also a contributor to a book being published August 2012, called Metal Clay in Color by Kalmbach publishing.

Tell us about an artistic hero or influence.
My beginning jewelry teacher in high school, Mr. Ed Barker! He got me started in all this!

Thanks Janet! It's so great to have you on the team and to learn more about your background. I can't wait to see the wonderful posts you come up with.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Making PMC Sterling Silver Slip & Syringes

by Janet Alexander

Technical Advisor

I am honored to be the new Technical Advisor for the PMC Connection. For this first post, I thought about writing about myself and my experience. But in the end, I decided you’d be more interested in learning some tips! With over the 35+ years of making jewelry I’ve come up with some shortcuts and tips for getting odd things done. I hope to pass some of these ideas on to you in my new role.

So, how about making slip and syringes from PMC Sterling?

With the new sterling silver metal clay, there is a lot to experiment with. Limits to push and uses to discover. The first thing I wanted to do was make some sterling silver slip and syringe clay. I am used to working with PMC3 and I like using these two clay forms. Yes, slip can be made easily by taking a wet brush and painting it on the lump clay, but I don’t always want to spend my time making slip each time I need it. Having some made and stored can be a real time-saver.

Making Slip

Here's what you’ll need:
  • Small container with a lid
  • 6mm round ball of lump sterling silver clay
  • A very small amount of distilled water (start with ½ teaspoon)
  • A clay shaper, flat or round

Place the lump clay into the container, pressing it flat inside the container.

Add a small amount of water.

Mix by pressing the clay against the side of the container until it is diluted to a smooth consistency.

Allow it to sit overnight and it will become very smooth.

Making A Sterling Silver Clay Syringe

You will need:
  • An empty syringe (I recycle my used PMC3 syringes.)
  • Snake roller
  • Small amount of Sterling Silver Metal Clay

Using the snake roller, roll the clay into a tube shape so that it can fit into the syringe tube.

Place the clay into the open end of the syringe, pressing it down into the tube with the plunger.

Keep pressing until all air is out.

Place clean tip on syringe.

While I am working with the clay, I keep my syringe sitting in a small container with a sponge and water. This keeps the tip from drying. I also store my brush there too, keeping it moist.

I am looking forward to sharing ideas and tips. Please ask questions and share your ideas too!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sage Advice From the Gambler

by Jennifer Roberts

Like many artists who make a living from their craft, I have learned some hard business lessons over the years. There are days when I feel like I have made every mistake out there. And then I prove myself wrong and execute some new bone-headed move.

This year, I will be sharing some of those lessons with our readers. Too often, talented artists are forced into other fields to make a living, simply because they fail to manage their business affairs. We’d like to help increase the numbers of successful full-time artisans, so . . .

Lesson No. 1
Know When to Walk Away and Know When to Run

. . . from people and practices that are not working for you.

This is a tough one for me. I love creating new projects, new partnership, and new programs – not ending them. This is especially true when bringing a project or a position to a close means ending a business relationship. But I have learned the hard way, sometimes it simply must be done. Moreover, if you wait too long and let things become more and more dysfunctional, you reduce the chances that you will be able to end a business relationship with grace and without hurting people unnecessarily. This has obvious consequences for the people with whom you are dealing, but you may also be hurting yourself by foreclosing your opportunities for future collaboration.

I tend towards two big sins in this area. First, too often I take up for the business or person who has failed to meet expectations. They will do better next time, I just know it. Second, I cling to what a product or a partnership “could” or “should” have been, instead of what it is. So, I have developed a process for myself, one I have to actively walk myself through when I sense something isn’t working for us.

1) View the situation from a buyer’s point of view.

This is a great tool that one of my favorite legal mediators uses. It goes like this: We are playing Let’s Make A Deal. Behind the first curtain is your lawsuit; behind the second, the settlement proposal. Giving up curtain two (the settlement) is essentially “buying” you lawsuit for that amount. Would you buy your lawsuit for that sum?

In business, the curtains are the costs and benefits of product, person, or project at issue. The question is, knowing what I now know the costs and benefits to be, would I buy this situation again? If the answer is no, I move on the step 2.

2) Take a hard look at what isn’t working and do everything reasonably possible to fix it if you think there is still real potential value.

This is probably where I diverge from many business people who engage in the analysis, make a decision, and the cut the fat. Game over.

I tend to think that if you thought that idea had enough merit in the first place, you owe it to yourself and others involved to try to figure out where you went wrong and fix those things, if possible. Relationships matter in business. A truth too often forgotten these days and a topic for a future post. I believe that building strong and lasting relationships means that you are honest with each other and you fight for each other. I include the word “reasonably” because there are limits. If there is no reasonable way to make it work, you move on to step 3.

3) Call it quits with as few casualties as possible.

What does this mean? You may decide that there is no way you can continue to provide work for a gallery, but you can give them some warning so they are not left with empty shelves. You can tell a vendor that you can no longer use their services, but tell them why before you just go elsewhere. Often, vendors are more flexible that we give them credit for.

The hardest of all, if you have to stop using the services of a real live flesh-and-blood person, be clear. If they ask for second chance, set clear parameters and a timeline for measurement. And when you part ways, don’t mince words and don’t assume that they will interpret your silence as the end of the story. Save room for future endeavors if you like, but don’t lead people on.

My first job as an attorney was with an estate planning firm that had recently added a litigation department, of which I was a part. It wasn’t a good fit and it wasn’t working. They weren’t happy. We weren’t happy. When the decision was made to dissolve the litigation section, we were given plenty of notice and I wound up taking a case on a free-lance basis that turned out to be the most rewarding and fascinating case I ever tried. That little bit of time the firm gave us allowed me to search out my next chapter with an open mind instead of panic. It was the difference between a casualty and a success. It's not always possible to end a relationship on healthy terms. But, where possible, it can be in everyone’s best interest – e.g., I still refer estate planning clients to my old firm.

An important Note
Artists have resources available to them that many other businesses do not. In most states, nonprofits designed to provide free or low-cost legal and/or accoutring advice to artists can help you engage in this sort of analysis, while avoiding potential legal liability where applicable. This is particularly true when dealing with contractual relationships and when dealing with employees, who must be treated very differently from independent contractors, vendors, and customers.

When in doubt, seek legal advice. Always. You’ll thank yourself.

Disclaimer: The materials available on this blog are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of this blog or any of the e-mail links within does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Kudos to Janet Alexander

by Jennifer Roberts

I am happy to congratulate PMCC Instructor Janet Alexander, who today takes on two new roles: Senior Instructor and PMCC Technical Advisor.

Hollow Ring - Tourmaline by Janet Alexander

Janet was appointed a PMCC Certification Instructor last Summer and has quickly become an invaluable part of our team. Janet's extensive background in metalsmithing and her insightful tutorials featured in our newsletters make her a natural choice for the role of Technical Advisor.

Gold Tone Slider by Janet Alexander

As Technical Advisor, Janet will be a resource for us, for our teachers, and for our students. She will also write for the blog and continue her popular tutorials.

For those of you wondering about former Technical Advisor Mary Ellin D'Agostino, never fear, she is hard at work on a new education degree. She is on hiatus from teaching and writing for now, but plans to remain active in metal clay.

Monday, January 9, 2012

First and Last

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

Announcing the first CornerStone challenge for 2012, and the last one before Metal Clay Artist Magazine's "Metal Clay Plus..." design competition deadline of February 29th.

Use one of these four images as inspiration for your design. Keep in mind that inspiration doesn't mean that your piece needs to resemble the source image (although it can). You can use any tiny aspect of the image - the color, a shape, or the feeling it evokes. Sit for a few moments and gaze at the image that most intrigues you. Think of a few words to describe it. Is it whimsical or moody? How 'bout avante garde or peaceful? Does your chosen picture suggest movement or permanence? How might you use those words to fuel your design? Sketch a few variations based on the details that caught your imagination and transform one of them into reality!

Images sourced from Pinterest and Flickr

In keeping with last week's post, and MCAM's own design requirements, we'd like to encourage you to upset your own apple cart a bit and use a second, non-metal material, that you may not have worked with before. We'd really like to see you take a risk, think outside your box, and push yourself to do something new.

Make any piece of jewelry or table top item using metal clay (any color) and another material and post the results in the CornerStone Challenge Flickr group.
  • Each material must be featured (almost) equally, visually if not in mass.Include a description of how you made your piece and tell us about your inspiration. There's a space for text right under the photo.
  • Be sure to write your real name with the description of the piece.
  • A winner will be chosen based on their interpretation of the image, innovative use of the second material, and quality of craftsmanship. The winner will be notified via Flickr mail.
  • The quality of the photograph will not be taken into consideration, but busy backgrounds, out of focus pictures and shots that are too wide will make viewing the details of your work difficult. Remember that cropping is your friend. Picnik offers free photo editing software that will help you color correct and crop your photos online.
  • The final day to post your work will be Saturday, February 4th. The winner will be announced right here on the blog on February 6th and will also be featured in our newsletter.
As an extra enticement - PMCC is happy to offer the winner a $25 gift certificate to

Happy Creating!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Using the Right Tool for the Job

Posted by Janet Alexander
PMCC Certification Instructor and Guest Blogger

I began experimenting with Precious Metal Clay (PMC) two years ago. Metal clay offers a quick way of making a piece of jewelry, saving the jeweler hours of work. In one day I can make a prototype and send it off to a casting company to have duplicates made. A jewelry designer can easily texture or hand-carve a piece in just a few hours with metal clay, whereas traditional metalsmithing techniques would take days to complete.

In my early experiments with Precious Metal Clay, I decided to make a contemporary ring by rolling two snakes to use as a band. The idea was to have them hold an oval plate by notching the coils as if they were prongs for a stone. It didn’t work. I spent an entire day trying to make a material do something that it wasn’t designed to do. Unfired PMC is not springy enough to hold a tension setting, so the ring broke. It would have been faster, easier, and better to make the two ring bands out of thick sterling silver wire, the platform out of sheet metal and solder them together.

It is important to know simple fabrication techniques and when to use them. Having both basic fabrication and metal clay skills gives a jewelry designer the ability to use the best technique for creating a particular piece of jewelry. When making this kind of decision I consider which techniques will save me time, money, and result in the strongest piece of jewelry. I don’t want a customer coming back because the piece broke after wearing it the first time.

Here are some fabrication skills to consider when making metal clay jewelry.
  • Implant milled .999 wire instead of extruding syringe clay to make connective links.
  • Solder bezels together instead of using metal clay slip. It only takes a few seconds to solder and the join is nearly as strong as the bezel wire itself. Joins made with metal clay slip may break or crack.
  • Solder earring posts onto the back of an earring instead of firing in place using slip. The join is stronger and sterling posts won’t be compromised by the high kiln temperatures.

    (editor’s note: When using sterling silver with metal clay you have to make a decision whether you want the clay or the wire to be stronger. Metal clay fired at 1650ºF to it’s most dense form will begin to melt the sterling from the inside out and make it brittle. Sterling fired to 1300ºF will be strong, but the metal clay won’t have sintered to its best advantage.)
  • Don’t use fine silver wire for earring wires. It’s too soft and won’t hold its shape no matter how much you try to work-harden it. The copper content in sterling silver wire makes it stiffer and allows it to be work-hardened. Learn how to work-harden metal with a rawhide or plastic mallet to provide additional strength.
  • Solder jump rings closed instead of using metal clay slip. Solder holds better, looks better, and that is what it was designed for. If you don’t want to solder jump rings, then make them out of heavy gauge wire so they don’t accidentally bend open.
  • When making a negative space design in dry clay, use a jeweler’s saw and blade in a traditional ‘piercing’ application instead of filing the design out. A saw will save a lot of working time and there will be less dust and waste material. The cut out piece can even be used in another design.
  • Instead of making a round hole in wet clay using a straw, dry the clay and then drill the hole with a drill bit. This allows you to place the hole exactly where it needs to go, choose an exact size for the hole, and create a perfectly round and professional looking hole.
I hope this information gives you all a good start on understanding why you should learn some fabrication skills if you are a metal clay artist.

(editors note: Learning basic hard metals skills is not as intimidating as you might think. Some Jr. Colleges, specialty schools and bead shops offer beginner classes in fabrication, and You Tube is overflowing with well-presented how-to videos. At the very least, learn how to make some simple solder attachments and be mindful of when a butane torch will get the job done and when you’ll need a hotter torch to complete more intricate joins.)

Janet is a PMCC Certification Instructor and has been a traditional jeweler for over 35 years. With a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree in Metals and a GIA certification in diamond grading and stone setting, Janet is familiar with a wide range of production techniques and has a unique insight into the nuances of good jewelry design.

Monday, January 2, 2012

I Double Dog Dare You!

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

America's Next Top Model, Project Runway, Iron Chef, Design Star, Work of Art, Face Off, Shear Genius. What do all of these reality shows have in common? Challenge! Adventure! Innovation! Self satisfaction! Models, designers, cooks, interior decorators, fine artists, make-up artists, and hair dressers are all clamoring to participate, to stretch their imaginations to the limit, to take advantage of the training; expertise; and passion they feel for their chosen field (yes, yes - I'm sure the lure of fame and fortune doesn't hurt).

I've been fascinated with these public tournaments for years, inspired by each new opportunity to create beauty out of chaos and stimulated by each maker's ability to take unusual (sometimes seemingly impossible) materials or themes and transform them into wonderful confections of artistic expression.

Some of my unusual materials have included a plastic spoon, papier mache,
plants (thanks neighbors), and a Coke bottle.
Challenges and contests are a fabulous way for an artist to step outside their usual comfort zone to imagine new and exciting designs. There are a plethora of opportunities in cyber space to take advantage of. Groups of jewelry makers from all over the world have taken part in ring making challenges hosted on Flickr for the past couple of years. The first version, Ring a Day (RAD) asked makers to imagine and photograph one ring per day in 2010. The concept was so popular that Lark published a book featuring 700 (out of 16,000) of the entries. Last year the challenge went down to 52 rings via Ring a Week (RAW). For 2012 I dreamt up Four a Month (FAM) which allows makers to explore multiples by making either a parure (set) consisting of any combination of matching ring, earrings, necklace, bracelet, or pendant OR four of a kind - using the same theme, shape or materials in 4 similar but not identical objects. It's open to everyone and I hope you'll join in!

Magazines and jewelry supply companies offer fabulous prize, publicity, and peer admiration incentives to encourage jewelry makers to stretch the limits of their design imaginations. In fact, PMC Connection is partnering with Metal Clay Artist Magazine in their annual design contest. The deadline for "Metal Clay Plus..." is looming at the end of February and to encourage all you enthusiasts take part, we here at CornerStone have been trying to inspire you with images of PMC combined with glass, porcelain, found objects, enamel and other materials.

I've paired hydraulically formed copper, a porcelain doll,
a natural cocoon and a paint brush with metal work.
We've also encouraged you to prepare by participating in this blog's CornerStone Challenges, and we'd like to give you one last chance to push your creativity to new heights. The first challenge of 2012 will be announced next week and will again use the theme of metal clay (any color or brand) paired with innovative inclusions. Hope you play along.