Radical Jewelry Makeover

Radical Jewelry Makeover


At the first Radical Jewelry Makeover workshop at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, in 2007, students look through donated jewelry for material to use.

Radical Jewelry Makeover IV
Penland School of Crafts

Penland, North Carolina
June 21-July 3, 2009

If you’ve ever rummaged in a drawer and found necklaces, rings or brooches you no longer wish to wear but which have intrinsic or sentimental value, you’re a likely candidate for the donor phase of Radical Jewelry Makeover, a “traveling community mining and recycling project,” which is now going into its fourth incarnation in this two-week workshop at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. The central aim of RJM, as set forth by its originators, Christina Miller, and Susie Ganch, both professors of metalsmithing, is to teach makers at all levels how to produce innovative jewelry from recycled sources and proudly place responsible jewelry in the hands of the consumer.

RJM is an outgrowth of Ethical Metalsmiths, an organization co-founded in 2004 by Miller with the metalsmith Susan Kingsley, to create awareness of the toxic effects that mining for metals used in jewelry making is having on the environment and to “stimulate demand for responsibly sourced materials as an investment in the future.” The idea behind RJM is to create, as Ganch and Miller say, an alternative supply chain” by asking the public to “mine” their homes to discover gold, silver and other jewelry and deposit their “lode” with participants in the RJM workshops.

The first and second RJM workshops were held in 2007, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, where Ganch is head of jewelry and metals, and at Millersville University in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Miller is an assistant professor of metals. The third, held in 2008 in San Francisco, involved a number of different schools and arts centers. These projects each took about a week, and the first step was to receive donations of used jewelry from the community, and give donors a dollar discount which could be used toward purchasing a makeover piece. Then the workshops were held, in which participants were taught various techniques with which to transform these found materials, and the final step was an exhibition and sale. Quirk Gallery was involved in the Richmond RJM, and Velvet da Vinci Gallery in the San Francisco event.

The forthcoming Penland RJM, say Ganch and Miller, will differ from the previous events in taking place in a concentrated two-week period in a craft school with an intimate group of students. Another difference is that donations will be coming from across the country, not just from the local community. And unlike in the earlier projects, the students will be taught how to evaluate the donations—a task previously handled by trained volunteers. They will learn how to track down materials and hallmarks, how to check for plating, base metal content or how to tell a glass stone from a gem or a real pearl from a fake.

As for the making of works, a range of techniques are taught because of the variety of donated materials. There’s a lot of cold connecting, but also melting down, stone setting and casting. “We’re trying to create a deeper understanding of the entire life cycle of material, says Miller. We like techniques that prolong the life of a piece so it doesn’t end up in landfill or someone’s drawer.”

Asked if they could see a particular style emerging, Ganch and Miller noted that “if there is one object that seems part of the RJM aesthetic, it is the variegated chain, which is asymmetrical. It’s a vintage re-make aesthetic that is also pervasive in fashion today. Also the strong use of color and the mixing of materials, precious and non-precious, such as “diamonds used alongside Mardi Gras beads.”

Ganch and Miller believe that through this project they are not only teaching jewelry making skills but also educating students on mining issues. They ultimately hope to influence mining companies to reform their practices with the environment in mind. “We hope to harness the unified voice of the community of makers.” Miller and Ganch say. “If new students are shown an alternative model from the beginning, they’ll think differently from then on.”

As with all the RJM projects, the Penland workshop will have an exhibition and sale—July 1 and 2, at the school, and online in July at ethicalmetalsmithsorg. The next RJM is planned for Australia in August 2010.