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Tech for the Bench: Why the Santa Fe Symposium Matters to Our Future

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It offers something for everyone who designs, creates and sells jewelry or watches.

Four years ago, during Las Vegas Jewelry week, I found myself ending a long day on the show floor with a long night of socializing at a little-known bar called Eye Candy. By “little-known,” I mean “the place where everybody winds up,” and by “socializing,” I mean “kicking back a scotch or three.” It was there that my friend Michael Schechter of Honora Pearls introduced me to Arien Gessner, the marketing director at Rio Grande, who began to tell me about the Santa Fe Symposium.

Even though I’d started my career in the jewelry industry learning the ins and outs of the bench, the Santa Fe Symposium was an event I’d never heard of. Over the next four years, Arien and I would run into one another at events and he’d say things like, “We really would like to get you out to the SFS at some point.” The more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me, so when I received an invite from Arien and Rio Grande to attend the Symposium this year as their guest, I didn’t hesitate to accept it.

As an industry writer, I often get caught up in what jewelry designers are doing. What the Santa FeSymposium reminded me, however, is that designers need metalsmiths as much as metalsmiths need designers, and that if you happen to be talented enough to be both, you still need to keep up with the latest technological advances.

With intense seminars like Nanz Aalund’s “Identifying Long Term Trends for Future Jewelry Design” and John Korbin’s “How Will X-Ray Computed Tomography Impact Your Future?” the Santa Fe Symposium offers something for everyone who designs, creates and sells jewelry or watches. Education is the No. 1 one goal of this event – now in its 32nd year – and those who keep it running smoothly make no excuses for how well-executed it is.

Held in the convention center of the Hotel Albuquerque in Albuquerque, NM, the Santa Fe Symposium brings together some of the masterminds behind the biggest jewelry brands in the world.

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Tiffany & Co. and David Yurman sent delegations to the event. Attendees and speakers range from metallurgists to wax carvers, bench jewelers, enamel experts, engravers, gemstone cutters, CAD-CAM software creators, retailers and jewelry historians. You can learn just about anything that has to do with jewelry-making at this symposium, with the ultimate bonus being that speakers must turn in a “paper” well before their session, which is then published in a War and Peace-style hard-cover book (seriously, it’s pretty thick) and given to each of the attendees upon their arrival.

The Santa Fe Symposium is focused on the future of the jewelry industry and the interests of those who continue to create jewelry. The speakers discuss up-to-date processes for methods such as guilloché, die-making for hydraulic forming, powder processing for precious group metals, and alloy microstructure. If that all sounds foreign to you, then it may mean you’re not familiar with bench work. But here’s the thing: Why not get familiar with it? As a writer, the more I know about how jewelry is made, the better I’m able to educate my readers about it. Do you not think the same applies for retailers or jewelry designers? If all you do is draw doodles on paper and hand it to your metalsmith to create, then you’re no more a jewelry designer than I am a novelist. If you can’t talk the talk about what you’re selling from behind the sales counter, then what makes you different from your competitors? How are you special compared to everyone else?

To learn is to grow. To grow is to expand your network. To expand your network is to aid in your successes more quickly and more deliberately. I have heard story after story of brick-and-mortar retailers who blamed the changing times (and even millennials) for their failures, when the reality is that they just couldn’t keep up with all the technological advances that today’s customers require. We must, as jewelers, know how CAD-CAM technology works. We much know how to use it and even if we don’t, we must work with those who do, but that also means we should still understand it. We should know all of the terms used in jewelry making, no matter how tech-oriented or French-sounding they are. We mustn’t be afraid of machines, of AI, of digital processes, or of experimentation, because when we become complacent, we lack the environment and the atmosphere to nurture ourselves and in the long run, bloom.

I want to thank my hosts, Rio Grande, for inviting me to experience such an eye-opening and educational event, and for also inviting me to be a guest at the Saul Bell Design Awards. The past week in New Mexico was one I won’t soon forget, and it’s an experience I vow to repeat in the future.

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