Heavy Metal: How Atelier Zobel Uses Traditional Goldsmithing Techniques to Create Beautiful Jewelry with Peter Schmid, Owner of Atelier Zobel in Konstanz, Germany
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- The process Atelier Zobel uses to fuse different metals together in innovative and beautiful ways
- How Peter has maintained Michael Zobel’s legacy while modernizing and refining the Atelier’s designs
- Why Peter is attracted to imperfect gems, and how he designs jewelry that highlights the beauty of imperfection
- Why passion and a willingness to push boundaries are necessary for aspiring jewelry designers
About Peter Schmid
Peter Schmid owns Atelier Zobel in Konstanz, Germany. Original owner Michael Zobel was a master craftsman who honed his skills and talent to create pieces that are arresting in their visual impact and remarkable in their goldsmithing and soldering technique. He combined metals in new, sensual, even erotic ways. The effect was electrifying. Working at his side was protégé Peter Schmid.
Like Zobel before him, Peter is both artist and craftsman, and he brings that special blend to every piece he creates. His chief inspiration is character: the character of place, the character of material, even the character of intent. Mountains and rivers inspire him. Precious stones inspire him. And the idea of what he is making inspires him, whether it’s a ring or a brooch or a bracelet, or one that transforms into another.
For Peter, every piece is about the interaction of visual elements with invisible inspiration. His work is revered worldwide for its attention to detail, its fusion of gold and silver, his gemstone settings, and the fluid movement all his pieces seem to share.
Jewelry from Peter Schmid:
Peter Schmid might have become a corporate manager if he never walked past the window of Atelier Zobel in Konstanz, Germany. Peter was instantly mesmerized by the jewelry on display, and he made it his goal to leave business school and become an apprentice for Michael Zobel. After a few years of jewelry design school, that dream came true, and today Peter is the head of Atelier Zobel. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to share what advice he would give young jewelry designers who want to follow his path, why he loves using stones with imperfections, and how he has refined Atelier Zobel’s designs and process. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is Peter Schmid, head of the well-known firm Atelier Zobel in Konstanz, Germany. Although he didn’t set out to become a metalsmith and jewelry designer, his work is shown all over the world. Today we’ll hear all about his jewelry journey. Peter, welcome to the program.
Peter: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Sharon: Glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. They’re all interesting, but this sounds like a very interesting one.
Peter: Yeah, I don’t know. When I started, I was basically thinking about what I was going to be in my professional career. I was thinking, “Well, I’ll be an accountant or manager of something,” so I went to school. After that, I found out it’s not actually exactly what I wanted to be, because I was always painting and interested in sculpting things and making things, but I never knew what to make; I just wanted to make something. So, a friend of my dad was like, “Well, why don’t you become a goldsmith?” and I was like, “I don’t know.” I looked at the jewelry of my mom and it didn’t appeal so much. It’s not what I wanted to do, the jewelry she had.
Then another friend was telling me about Konstanz, the town I’m now in, that there are so many goldsmiths here. It’s a big tradition in Germany and in Konstanz especially. Then, I walked up to the window of Michael Zobel—this was in 1995—and I saw the window. It was amazing, with crazy decoration and big pieces in there. This is how jewelry should look like. It’s an expression. It’s an artful piece. It’s a piece you wear for yourself and not for anybody else. It’s a personal thing, and I think that got me more into this experience, what is jewelry and what to make out of it.
Sharon: Were you always creative, or were you always painting and doing other things? Up to this point, were you doing things with your hands?
Peter: Yes, I was always painting, but the paintings I did, I was playing with colors. It was a lot of just paint on the canvas and melting colors into each other. I was always fascinated by that. I didn’t like my paintings that much, I have to say. I had an exhibition once here in Konstanz because people were pushing me into that, but I didn’t feel like I was a painter. I didn’t feel like this was my career or I was good enough for that, the play of color.
Sharon: I’m jumping around now, but today do you feel like you’re a jeweler? You didn’t feel like you were a painter. Do you feel like you’re a designer, a jeweler?
Peter: The designing for me is the pleasure of being free with my thoughts. I don’t know if I’m a designer in the sense of designing. It’s hard to say. Maybe I’m more an artist. But in the first place, that’s the tradition here in Germany. How I learned metalsmithing and goldsmithing was basically traditional. It’s more about the techniques and refining those techniques. It’s also what our atelier still does. We’re really working on the bench with the metal, melting them together and fusing them together. We basically use the metal as a paint as well as the stones and the color of the stones. I use this as a color palette, but with the skills of a goldsmith. It’s nice to be able to do that and to use those traditions as well.
Sharon: So, you combined everything, in a sense.
Sharon: So, you looked in the Michael Zobel window. Tell us why you saw this jewelry and said, “Oh my god, this is it.” What did you do from there? You became an apprentice, but how did that happen?
Peter: I became an apprentice. I was very convinced that this was it. It never occurred to me that there is something else. What happened was I had a résumé made, and I walked into the shop and met Michael Zobel. I’m like, “I want to be your apprentice,” and he was like, “Well, you first have to go to school and learn the basic techniques of sewing and filing and soldering and all of this. This is what I need of somebody who comes to us. They need to know how to work with the tools.” I’m like, “O.K., sounds good to me.” So, I walked out again and applied to a school which offered a design course that was just a year longer than the regular school.
After that, I graduated as a jewelry designer as well as a theoretical goldsmith from that school. In Germany, you have to do both; you have to do school and learn with a master goldsmith. I did everything theoretically in school, learning how to file and do all the basics. I came back to him and said, “I’m done with my school and I want to apprentice with you.” He was like, “Well, I have an apprentice already.” For me, it was so clear that I was going to practice there. I never looked for anything else. I never thought of anything else, because that’s the jewelry I wanted to make. Somehow I think he felt that I was really passionate about that, and he was like, “Well, I think this is the first and only year we’re going to have two apprentices.” That was it, and he took me in as an apprentice. It was so interesting to learn, and yeah, it’s different. You’re on the lowest level when you start as an apprentice. You have to clean the workshop and supply basically all the other goldsmiths with whatever they need. If they need coffee, you have to go and run out for coffee.
Sharon: Go get Starbucks, yes.
Peter: Exactly, that’s how it works.
Sharon: So, you already had a career in a sense. You were on a different career path before you did this, right?
Peter: Yes, I was in business school. I didn’t really know what to do, but I felt like, “Well, business is always good. It sounds perfect.” My dad was also an entrepreneur and I felt like it was a good path, and I knew a lot about it already and how it is to work for yourself. Then in school, the whole time it was, “You’re going to be manager of Zieman’s and you’re going to be manager of this and that company,” and I was like, “I don’t want to be a manager of any company.”
Sharon: When you decided to switch, did you meet resistance from family and friends? Like, “How are you going to make a living?”
Peter: No, actually, everybody knew already.
Sharon: They were happy you found something that made you happy.
Peter: They were happy I finally realized that.
Sharon: Wow, that’s great! What is it about jewelry that attracted you when you saw it? They sound like statement pieces.
Peter: There was a fusing of the work back then. Gold was not as expensive as it is today. There was a big cuff which was about, I don’t know, like a Wonder Woman cuff, but all in gold with platinum on top of it. I looked at it and I was like, “This is so strong and mesmerizing,” because I didn’t know how it was made, that the platinum on top was fused and it’s all done by heat only. I could not believe how to make a piece like that. It was unbelievable.
Sharon: I love that word, mesmerizing. That is really great word. I don’t hear it too often, but it just drew you in. I’m not a maker—I’ve done some soldering and stuff, but when we look at your pieces with the gold on top of the—I don’t even know what the other metal is.
Peter: It’s sterling silver.
Sharon: Is it just heat that makes it stick together?
Peter: Yeah, and magic I guess, but basically it’s just heat. It’s a heating process. We heat it up. It’s like a granulation, which is also just heat to heat, and you granulate it. It’s gold on top of sterling silver, and then we do gold with platinum on top or gold with gold on top. That works as well. Then there’s sterling with palladium or sterling with platinum all together also.
Sharon: That would be mesmerizing. Is this a technique that you learned outside of your schooling?
Peter: It is a tradition we have here in the studio and at Michael Zobel. When I came here as an apprentice, we already did a lot of the sterling with gold on top. I think Michael started that in the 80s, the first pieces, when I look back in our archive. Then, there were a lot of tryouts with different material on top, like copper and bronze. There was already a lot of trying of these things, and some worked out really well and some didn’t so much. When I started working here, I learned all of these techniques to make jewelry in that way, with the fusing and basically painting on the piece.
At the beginning, I was just executing designs for Michael Zobel. Later I graduated as a goldsmith in the studio, and I worked here for a while as a goldsmith and in the shop, so I was in contact with the clients. I always liked to travel, and at one point we started traveling more in the U.S., building out more contacts there and doing shows in Baltimore. I think it was the late 90s when we were in Baltimore. It was fun, and I met Todd Reed. I met all these people. It was super fun. I had a great time, and for me, as a goldsmith, it was amazing to see all that. Michael liked to have somebody to travel with, so we built up that market together and it was nice.
At one point I took over the business, because I think he saw that I’m very passionate about it. I started to design my own pieces and work from there. It was very interesting to step forward into designing and making. I wasn’t hired as a designer; I was hired as a goldsmith, but it was kind of a liquid transition to it. It’s a flow. It went on. It’s like a master and an apprentice, and then the apprentice becomes a master. It’s quite an interesting way of moving on, with an atelier like that.
Sharon: So, you were transitioning from being one of the hands-on people to translating your ideas, your vision into something that somebody else was making.
Peter: Right. I became the head of the atelier later because Michael retired. I did my own work, and we moved on with a lot of the designs and the process. The fusing became more refined. I don’t know how to describe it, but it became more textured on the surface. In the early days, we only had strong graphic designs. Now, they’ve become a bit more poetic because we do flowers and paisley, stuff like that. That wasn’t possible before. It was interesting to work in the studio with the goldsmiths and push them into going forward in the making process and discovering new techniques in how we work. It was really cool.
That happened when I saw an exhibition of Japanese kimonos. Parts of them are stitched. There’s stitching and printing on the kimonos, and they have these beautiful patterns. I thought, “It’s amazing. I want to do something like that. I want to bring a pattern onto the surface of our jewelry.” We actually have been able to do that, to put a real pattern on it. The first pattern we figured out looked a bit like a koi pond. It’s sterling silver as a base, and then we figured out how to print koi onto the figure in gold. We had golden koi printed on top.
Sharon: It sounds beautiful.
Peter: It was a beautiful piece with aquamarine, beautifully carved. There were aquamarine slices carved from the back on the surface, which was the water of the pond, and then the koi, which was a little reminiscent of the kimonos.
Sharon: Wow, that sounds beautiful! You mentioned aquamarine. I know you have a real interest in gems. How did you develop that? Did you just start incorporating it, or was it already part of the atelier?
Peter: It’s interesting because now I love gems, but when I was in school—I don’t blame the school, but when you learn about gems and have class about gemology, you look at these tiny little stones and they all look alike. I mean, one is blue and the other is red. O.K., this is tourmaline red and this is ruby red, but they all look alike. You have to use a microscope and all of that. I couldn’t really grasp them as a piece of jewelry.
Now what I love about stones is the imperfection. I love a stone which is completely perfect; that’s amazing, but I actually do like the imperfection in the stone. I feel like it’s more personal. It’s a unique stone and I’m always drawn to that one. I’m like, “This is off. The color is off,” and I want that. I want to have something that is not expected to be that color. Now I love stones and I use them as my color palette, but it was not so easy to get into gems.
Sharon: Do your clients embrace the fact that you like the imperfections? Do they see it in the same way you do, that it gives the work personality, or are they like, “Oh, that’s not a perfect stone”?
Peter: No, I think they see what I do with it. For me, when I see this beautiful stone, it’s not that it’s sitting there as a flaw. It comes into a composition with the piece itself. I want to put it on a pedestal and show off that it’s beautiful and that it has this imperfection. Sometimes, when there is an inclusion in the stone, for example, I repeat this inclusion onto the metal as an echo of the inclusion, so you really see the inclusion. I don’t want to hide the inclusion; I want to show the inclusion. The cool part is the inclusion because that makes it real. A perfect stone could be synthetic, but nature is amazing, how that inclusion is in there. Hydroquartz or inner quartz is amazing, I think. They do great work with that.
Sharon: You’re probably surrounded by fabulous stones, both perfect and imperfect ones.
Sharon: Tell us about your clientele. Is there a demographic of women of a certain age? Is it younger people? Is it men?
Peter: I don’t know. Most clients, I think they like the jewelry because it is a personal piece. It’s something you wear for yourself, and you don’t have to show off with it. I mean, you show off; you get attraction with it. It’s not something that hides. If you wear a piece of my work, you can definitely see it, and I think the clients appreciate it. They also like that people don’t understand what it really is. It’s an interesting piece.
I have one client, she never wore jewelry and then she came and was so in love. We had this exhibition on lucky charms. Lucky charms are usually these tiny things you wear around your wrist or your neck, but we made big ones. I made a really big brooch with a Buddha inside. There was an ancient Buddha about two or three hundred years ago inside, then rays of gold going away from that, and then rough diamonds as a frame, almost like a picture frame. It was a round brooch, and on top was a tourmaline cat’s eye just to have this magical light, because the Buddha was in a triangle, sitting there in a niche. It’s quite a big brooch, about 12 centimeters in diameter. The client came and she was like, “This is an amazing piece of art.” She didn’t wear jewelry at all, but she bought the piece and she wears it all the time. When she doesn’t wear it, she has it in a frame at home. I see her often in the city wearing it. Just like that, they go to a beer garden and she’s wearing that piece around her neck, and it makes her feel good and lucky. It’s amazing.
Sharon: A different kind of lucky charm. If it makes her feel like she’s lucky, that’s half the battle. Do you do custom work? Do you do jewelry for men?
Peter: Yes, I do custom work. I love to do that. I love to explore special pieces with people when they tell me a story for what it is. We talk a little bit, and usually I get a sense of this person, if they like a big piece or a smaller piece. I’m not only making gigantic pieces. It has to fit to the person. The person has to be comfortable to wear it. It shouldn’t be something which is wearing you; you should wear it. You should own it. That’s what it should be, so I love to make custom pieces for people.
Men are also super fun. I have a collection of Ashanti gold weights. They’re from a tribe in Africa. Nowadays, I think it’s in Ghana. The tribe of the Ashanti, they used to have these gold weights for trade back then. It was a different time, so they traded the gold with these little pronged weights. I think they’re super interesting. Each one is different. I make a lot of men’s jewelry with that, like a ring or a pendant, adding some rough diamonds to it and giving it an edge. Men tend to like the story around that. Also meteorite jewelry is often used for men.
Sharon: I’m sorry, what kind of jewelry is used for men?
Sharon: Oh, meteorite. Yes, that would be interesting. There’s a masculine element to that.
Peter: Yeah, or opal. I love opals for men as well.
Sharon: Who doesn’t like opals? For those people just starting out, for the next person who knocks on your window and says, “This is really cool. I really want to do this,” what advice would you give them, besides make sure you know how to saw and all of that? That’s important.
Peter: It is important.
Sharon: Oh, my gosh! It takes a lot of patience and you have to be very detail-oriented. You grew up with an entrepreneur as a father and you’re an entrepreneur. What advice what you give somebody, besides that they have to have the foundational skills? What advice what you give somebody starting out?
Peter: The first that comes to my mind is you have to be passionate about what you do. You must follow the passion in what you do and be true to that. I also think curiosity is important, to push it always a little bit. I think that’s important to just push a little bit. I have a little story about pushing, because I have that in mind. When I was in school, we had pottery class and we had to make a flowerpot. You just have a flower in there. I started off making that flowerpot and I was like, “This is so boring. I can’t even tell you how boring it is to make a tubular flowerpot out of clay.” Clay felt amazing for me, and so I started drifting off into clay. I ended up with—how do you call it, for watering flowers?
Sharon: Like a watering can?
Peter: Yeah, like a watering can out of clay. It was really amazing, and my teacher loved it because it was well-done and beautifully made. She had to take one point away from me because it was supposed to be a flowerpot, but it’s always pushing a little bit, pushing the boundaries. I don’t know; I love that. I think it’s hard to stay within the parameters. I think passion is a good thing.
Sharon: It’s so important. It’s clear that’s what has driven you and continued the firm’s success and made your jewelry so well-known. Peter, thank you so much for being with us today.
Peter: My pleasure. That was fun.
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