In 1983, when I quit my day job to pursue my dream of designing jewelry, I really had a lot to learn…not just about marketing and running a small business, but also about the craft of working with metal. I had taken a couple of classes at a local college, but the things I wanted to learn were still a mystery to me. I spent several of the summers of the 1980’s going to metalsmithing workshops at various craft schools in the Southeast. I took classes at Arrowmont, Penland, and the Appalachian Craft Center.
Penland is by far one of the very best schools of its type in the country. Hidden in the mountains of North Carolina, it feels like a step back into another time. Some of my happiest memories are from Penland, where I went for four different summers. I learned a lot at all these workshops but one of them completely changed my approach to jewelry. That class was taught by Heikki Seppa, a modern master who developed not only techniques, but invented the tools to execute them. He was a gruff man who walked into the classroom and slammed down a big satchel full of hammers on the worktable. He was rumored to be very difficult to deal with and I had heard these rumors before I attended his classes. This only made me more determined to learn what he had to teach. And what he had to teach opened up a vocabulary for the style that characterized the jewelry I made from that time on. The work was very sculptural and simple, which meant that every hammer mark was visible. And here was where the master and I parted ways. I loved the funky, organic feeling that comes from seeing the human touch in any work of art. He was more into the aesthetic of having work that was done by hand look like it was produced by a machine. I think he appreciated my determination, but he was quite critical of the fact that I really loved hammer marks. But, I learned how to hammer out amazing, magical shapes. I learned how to make metal do things that metal isn’t supposed to be able to do.
At one point during the classes he asked us what we wanted to do as far as our work was concerned. I was always drawn to jewelry as fashion. I think the main point, after all, of jewelry is wearing it. So, I told him I wanted to see my jewelry in major fashion magazines. I could tell he thought that not only was that a silly, insignificant goal, but that it would not be possible for something as big and funky as the direction my things seemed to be taking for my work to ever achieve national attention.
But it did. Shortly after I returned from this class at Penland I went home and designed the collection that still defines Margaret Ellis Jewelry. It was a combination of the skills I learned from him fused with my own crazy joy in hammering these shapes. I taught the people who worked in my studio how to do these techniques, bought the hammers and stakes that Mr. Seppa had invented, and we started whomping out big bold earrings, necklaces with handmade chains, and bracelets that looked like they were from an ancient African culture. The timing on this was perfect. In the ’80’s everything was big and bold. It was a natural.
Over the years between the late 1980’s and 2012 (while I was still at Margaret Ellis Jewelry) the vocabulary and style evolved with time. But, the inspiration of Heikki Seppa was always there for me. I sold the business when I retired in 2012 to Mclaine Richardson, who had worked as a metalsmith at the studio for 3 years. She has done a great job carrying forward with her own design sense, which reflects the same style vocabulary that was started all those years ago. She has kept many of the classic pieces in the line. In most ways, the transition has been seamless.
Recently I started the process of cleaning out my attic, which was filled with many large posters of magazine editorials featuring Margaret Ellis Jewelry from the late 1980’s. Vogue, Bazaar, Elle, Mademoiselle, Glamour, W, Women’s Wear Daily, Interview…..all the major fashion publications of that era. The jewelry was sold not only in exclusive fashion boutiques, but also in Neiman Marcus, Saks, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom—the Majors. I had managed to attract the attention of Janet Goldman, the best sales representative in the business, who had the most sophisticated showroom in New York—Fragments. It was a very exciting time. The attic clean-out prompted me to take the picture featured with this post. When I spread all this out in my dining room it was such a trip down memory lane.
As I took some time to look at all the posters, the smaller tear sheets, and from later on, some of the promotional pictures that I had done, I thought about my school days at Penland, with the teacher I will never forget.