What you’ll learn in this episode:
- Why every introverted artist should have a partner or patron to help them promote their work
- How Kent developed a line of reproduced pieces while maintaining his artistic passion and integrity
- Why young jewelers must have experience doing handwork and not just designing with CAD
- Why it’s important that jewelers make time to play, even if it won’t generate income
- How Kent has maintained his enthusiasm for the craft for decades
About Kent Raible
Master goldsmith and jewelry designer Kent Raible first started working metal in 1973 in a high school jewelry class, and has since become one of the leading studio goldsmiths in the country. Largely self-taught, Kent sought out talented teachers over the years to learn different aspects of jewelry making, and also went abroad in the 1980s for two years of study in Germany. He always worked in his own studio, never apprenticed under a master, and over time developed a unique style of fabrication using eighteen karat gold, fabulous colored gemstones, and the ancient technique of granulation.
His work has won many national and international awards, and has been featured in two
important national exhibitions. The major neckpiece named Floating City is part of the
permanent collection of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, and his object called Pregnant Chalice was included in The Art of Gold, a survey of the work of eighty contemporary American studio goldsmiths that toured the country throughout 2005.
Since the 1980s, Kent has also been teaching his craft through workshops at various institutions such as the Penland school of Arts and Crafts in South Carolina and the Revere Academy in San Francisco, California.
Kent currently resides in Washington state with his wife and partner, Lynn.
Captured Universe AJDC Theme project Tension
Cosmic Clam Ring 2004 AJDC Theme project Hidden Treasure
Floating City 1991 Permanent Collection American Art Museum, Smithsonian
Floating City Closeup
Crystal Sky City 2020 AJDC Theme project Secret Garden
Floating City 2002
From the Deep Side view showing clasp
From the Deep 2015 Saul Bell Award 1st place winner
Kent Raible is living proof of the adage that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. He’s spent nearly all his life honing his talents as an award-winning goldsmith, favoring ancient techniques and creating jewelry that inspires him rather than jewelry that’s trendy. He joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how he learned his skills, why his wife and business partner Lynn was crucial for the development of his business, and why he encourages young jewelers to keep practicing their craft even when pieces don’t turn out as expected. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is award-winning goldsmith Kent Raible. Kent has been a goldsmith for 50 years. In addition to compiling a roster of awards, he occupies several unique niches. He’s a master in the ancient art of granulation and is known throughout the industry for the classes he holds both in person and online. We’ll hear more about his jewelry journey today. Kent, welcome to the program.
Kent: Well, thank you, Sharon. I am very happy to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your jewelry journey. Were you creative as a child? Is this something that everybody expected of you, what you’re doing today?
Kent: Well, it was all kind of serendipitous events that brought me through this journey, but I was raised in a family of artists. Both my parents were painters. My father made his living from teaching art at the junior college level in Marin County, California, which is where I grew up. My mother was also a painter. They met in art school at the California College of Arts and Crafts, at the time, in Oakland, California. They were both Bohemian types, and they were very open-minded and were always supportive of anything creative that I might want do as I was growing up, and the same with my one sister. She went on to become a very successful doctor. Both the kids went on separate paths, but they were very supportive in whatever we chose to do.
From an early age, I was very aware that I had abilities that other people didn’t have, musically and artistically, and my parents were always open to me becoming a musician or an artist. There was never any question that that was a possibility, because I grew up in a situation where there were successful artists all around me. My dad taught for many years, and some of his students went on to become very successful artists. I got to meet them and see their workshops. Some of them were painters; some of them were sculptors. My dad had a very broad base of experience in crafts and in art. He actually dabbled in jewelry and gave me his first set of jewelry tools, which was a ring mandrel and a soft frame, which I still use today, and some of the basic tools he got while he was doing his class at the College of Arts and Crafts in the 50s or maybe even in the 40s.
I took my first jewelry class in high school at the behest of my girlfriend. She said, “Kent, take a class with me.” I said, “Oh, I don’t know. Jewelry wearing, you know.” My first jewelry teacher was a former student of my father. He was teaching the high school jewelry class and we hit it off. I was a sophomore; I was 15 when I took my first class. By my senior year, I was taking two periods of jewelry a day as my electives, one before lunch and one after lunch, and I worked through lunch. I was getting three hours a day. I was a lab assistant, so I was in the back room there, and I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. I was having a blast.
Then I went on to the college at Marin, which is where my dad was an art professor. He had just hired a young guy named Glenn Miller. He just passed recently. This was 50 years ago, so this is all ancient history, but Glenn Miller—he wasn’t a jeweler himself; he was more of a sculptor. But he was very much involved in getting things right, craftsmanship, design and integration of clasps and things that went into design rather than just as an add-on. These were concepts he was hammering into me early on, and that’s how I started.
I had many interests as a young person. I wanted to be a rock star. I’ve been playing guitar longer than I’ve been making jewelry. I’m pretty good at that, but I didn’t devote my life to that as much as I have to making jewelry. At some point in my early twenties, I made the big decision to make that my livelihood. I was maybe 19 or 20 and I decided to go for it, so I started doing craft shows. It was hard to put my work out there; that was really the hardest thing. Making it and designing and having fun making things was easy, but when it came to stepping out into the world, because I was very shy, that was the hard part for me. I struggled with that for a number of years. I won my first national award at the age of 22 with the National Sterling Silversmith’s Guild of America Annual Competition for College-Level Silver Design. I made a sculptural piece; I actually have it here, but since this isn’t usual, I’m not going to pull it out.
Sharon: We’ll post a picture if you’d like.
Kent: You can post pictures. It was a silver waterpipe. I was taking hollow ware and bringing it into the 20th century, basically making a silver bong. That won me a national award. At that point, at 21, 22, I thought, “Well, I could actually do this.” I was getting a lot of support from my family and from my teachers. Then I got my first teaching job at the College of Marin, teaching in adult ed. I didn’t have a college degree, but I could teach in adult education. I started teaching at the age of about 23, 24, teaching casting and basic jewelry techniques. I hadn’t really gotten into granulation at that point, but I was very adept at fabrication, soldering and casting, so that’s what I taught my students. That gave me a foothold into the realm of teaching, which I have done my whole career. Not in a big way; I’m teaching more now than I probably ever have, but that’s how I got started in the teaching realm.
There are a couple of major things that happened in my life that made the biggest differences to my career. The first was in 1982; I went to Germany. My girlfriend broke up with me and I was devastated, so I sold all my possessions to raise money. I took my bicycle and started riding from Frankfurt, Germany. The first place I went, of course, was Idar-Oberstein, which is a good, long, one-day ride from Frankfurt. I went there and looked at all the gem museums; I visited stonecutters and things like that. From there, I rode through the Black Forest down to Pforzheim and went to the Schmuckmuseum, the jewelry museum in Pforzheim. I puttered around for about four or five months, but serendipitously, right before I left from America with my bike, I met a couple of goldsmiths who were visiting from Germany. They said, “Why, don’t you come see us when you’re here if you’re in our area?” When it started to rain and I’d ridden through seven or eight countries, I was in France and the weather just turned bad; it was October. So, I called them and they picked me up. They had a little Volkswagen Bug, and I stuck my bike on the top and they drove me to their place in Stuttgart. They were very kind to me. They let me stay with them for six weeks. In the process of that period, they invited me to come check out the school where they had studied, which is in a little town called Schwäbisch Gmünd of about 60,000 people.
Sharon: Would you repeat that?
Kent: Yeah, Schwäbisch Gmünd. It’s about 50 kilometers east of Stuttgart, a beautiful location in the hills. The hochschule there, which is basically a state-run trade school, had been teaching jewelry there for 250 years or something. They were in the process of phasing out the jewelry program, but they introduced me to the head instructor who could speak English because I had very little German. He introduced me to the goldsmithing teacher who didn’t speak any English, and he invited me to stay as a guest. So, it was a free year of education. I had only to buy health insurance. That was it, $30 or month or something. That was my only cost. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, and that is where I learned my granulation technique.
I buckled down. I had six weeks before the semester started, so I learned as much German as I could. I bought a big, thick dictionary and learned every word pertaining to jewelry; I learned how to put sentences together as best as I could, so I could communicate with the goldsmithing teacher. They showed me a list of things I could study, and on the list was granulation. He basically took me through a series of exercises in silver and then we moved into gold. I had some gold that he taught me how to alloy. I started using a rolling mill. I’d do all these basic things that I had never done before in fabrication. The wizard was handing me the key; I just took off from there. I loved the technique he taught me so much that I pretty much designed my whole career around this one technique. It involves—well, I’ll go into more detail about that.
I want to go over the one thing that made the most important difference for me in my career, and that is when I met my wife, Lynn. She was a jewelry buyer—this was in 1985, 86. It was a couple of years after I had returned from Germany. I was making beautiful jewelry. I had reached a level of mastery after 20 years. This was about at the 20-year mark. I was in my early to mid-thirties, and I had reached a level of mastery by then and I had my own look; I had a feeling. I was very excited about the complexity of the things I could make. I’d really gotten good at stone setting and other skills, not just granulation. I was still having trouble getting myself out there and presenting my work, but one day, I walked into this store in Big Sur, California, and there was a new jewelry buyer there. I’d gone there before, but the old jewelry buyer did not bite. But Lynn was there, and she bought my work, and not only did she buy it, she was selling it like there was no tomorrow. That’s not why I became attracted to her—I mean, it might have had something to do with it—but over the year, we became friends. Then we were both in a situation where we weren’t in relationships and I asked her out. That was 32 years ago, and we decided to create a partnership. We both came into the relationship with similar levels of assets and liabilities and those types of stuff, so we came in and said, “Let’s share everything and do this as a team, 100%.” And dang, it worked out! We’ve been doing this for 30 years.
Lynn had a natural sense of marketing. She used to run clothing stores; she was into fashion. As a jewelry buyer at the Phoenix Shop in Big Sur, she knew how to deal with galleries, what they were looking for and how we could present ourselves to them in a way that made them more likely to buy. That was hugely important for me as a shy person. I had my heart and soul invested in my work, and I needed somebody who could be removed a little bit from that and help me do what I needed to do to make it work, as far as being able to make a good living from it.
We started doing tradeshows, which I would have never considered doing. I saw my work as art rather than a manufactured item. We did Las Vegas; we did a lot of the biggest shows. The Design Center in Las Vegas was just happening in the 90s, and that’s when we started doing shows like this. That enabled us to get our work out to a much wider audience. We were showing in galleries all over the country, and it helped us develop a clientele, some of whom are still buying to this day. That was the other major thing that made the difference for me: having a partner I could totally trust. That’s probably the main thing that’s helped me actually have a successful career. That aside, of course I have always loved making jewelry. Now I can let you ask me questions.
Sharon: So, you and Lynn established Golden Sphere Studios?
Kent: That was more the teaching arm of the online classes. Golden Sphere Studios is the evolution of Kent Raible Jewelry. We sell our work online. We also sell our work through 1stDibs and of course privately. We don’t show a lot in galleries anymore, but we’re thinking of doing that again, although I am semiretired now. I’m not producing like I used to. Right now, I’m making pretty much just what I want to make. I’m not designing so much for the marketplace as much as I am for myself.
What Lynn got me to consider more was doing repeated items so I could make things without the labor and time involved. With a one-of-a-kind piece, the time involved is largely in the building of the piece, not even in the granulation. But the time involved in creating a one-of-a-kind piece can be cut down dramatically if you mold a piece, cast duplicates of it and then granulate them, and that’s what we did. We came up with a line we could sell at a much lower price point and then presented that to the galleries. Also along with that, we had one or two really nice, one-of-a-kind pieces they could sell to their higher-end clientele.
Sharon: Are your one-of-a-kind pieces mostly custom for people who know you already? Do they come to you and say—
Kent: I do commissions once in a while, but mostly I prefer to make what my heart’s telling me to make. I’ll get ideas and go, “Oh, got to make that one.” They all come out of the blue. I never know what’s coming next, and now I’ve got such a wide repertoire of techniques and ideas. Things combine in different ways now that I would have never guessed 10 or 20 years ago. Now I’ve gotten into stonecutting, which is a whole other ball of wax. Cutting my own stones; that’s a lot of fun.
Sharon: Is that something where you said, “O.K., I’ve mastered this aspect, so I’m going to move onto stonecutting”?
Kent: That’s part of it. This is a field where you can spend three or four lifetimes and there’s still more to learn. I like working the old-fashioned way; I’m not really into the new technologies that are coming out. I’m not into CAD. I’m not into laser welding and all that stuff. I’m still the old-fashioned, dinosaur jeweler that does things the very old-fashioned way. What I do is 3,000 years old. You don’t get much more old-fashioned than that. I’m doing things that have been done for thousands of years, but I’m trying to do them in a new way. The fun part of cutting stones is working consecutively—I shouldn’t say consecutively, but working simultaneously in both metal and stone. I can alter things as I’m working. I wasn’t able to do that with gems before or with shapes or forms of stones. I’m only doing very simple cab forms at this point, but I can fine tune a form I probably couldn’t buy, or if I need to change it as I’m working, I can do that.
Right now, for our 30th anniversary and her 60th birthday, I’m making her a pair of earrings. I cut some rose quartz bullet tongue shapes, but they’re so precise and they’re very well matched. On top of them, I’m putting this incredible apricot precious topaz. The combination of the light, translucent pink background with the topaz over the top, it makes the topaz pop out. Then, the translucent background—it’s very feminine and lovely. It’s her colors, so I can’t wait to see them on her. They’re about halfway done now, but the cutting of the stone required that I carve out a notch in the back so the culet of the topaz could fit into the stone so that it’s compact. It brings it in together. There are things like that I can do now with stonecutting that I would have had to order from a lapidarist, which I have done in the past, but this way I can cut as I’m going. You don’t know exactly how deep you need to cut or what the exact shape is going to be. Now, I can do that to a limited degree with stones as I’m working in gold or platinum, whatever I’m working in. That’s a big design. It opens up a whole new possibility for me. That’s pretty exciting, that I can get that excited about something 50 years into my career.
Sharon: I can understand that, because we’re in a time where you can’t stop learning or you can be left behind, whether it’s learning how to use a computer or whatever. But how do you feel that passion for decades? How do you keep it going?
Kent: That is a very good question, and I really don’t know. There’s a part of me that just has to do this. Not so much now; like I said, I’m semiretired. I have other things I’m doing. I’m got a huge vegetable garden, and that takes up a lot of time. I love growing plants. I like doing things that take time. But I also have the most beautiful workshop in the world right now. I love going out there and hanging out, and I have this whole lapidary setup in the back. I have it set up so it’s a beautiful space, so that keeps me interested.
The other that keeps me going is my students. I like sharing what I know. Watching other people progress is also inspiring to me. When I see what I can make and I go, “Wow, I made that,” that’s part of what keeps me going. Sometimes I have a vision in my head that’s like, “Wow, I could probably make that.” I’m always trying to challenge myself a little bit as I go, not a lot. It’s an evolutionary process, making jewelry. Every time you make a piece you learn something, and then you take what you learn and then you make something else and you add something, like, “This is what I learned. This is what I don’t want to do next time. This is what I want to try next time.” Slowly, over the decades, you become adept at a lot of different things. The excitement comes when I’m able to combine things I’ve never done before or put things together in a way that’s unique or new. I recently did a major piece for the American Jewelry Design Counsel. Are you familiar with the AJDC?
Sharon: Oh, yes.
Kent: Every year we do a theme project. We did one last year that is to be displayed in conjunction with the opening of the new Gem and Mineral Museum in Tucson. It isn’t open to the public yet, but it will be opening in—I’m not sure if they have an opening date, but by the next Tucson show I’m pretty sure it will be open. Anyway, I did a floating city. The first floating city I did was in 1991 or 1992, which is now in the Smithsonian at the Renwick Gallery. I’ve done different versions of this theme over the years. This time, I put it together in a whole different way than I’ve ever put it together before. I’m not 100% satisfied with how it came out, but I am very excited with the possibilities of what I’ve learned from putting things together in that way. It’s a very complex fabrication, so it was a learning process. I also cut a lot of the stones that are in the piece. It’s successful in some ways, and in other ways, I go, “Well, I’m going to do it different next time.” That’s how I work. I try different things. Sometimes they’re successful; sometimes they’re not as successful as what I see in my head, but that’s part of the creative process. You have to be willing to try things and have it not be—I’m rarely 100% satisfied with anything I make.
Sharon: Would those be some words of wisdom to younger jewelers?
Kent: Oh, definitely. You have to give yourself room to play. You have to be willing to fail, and you have to be willing to have a meltdown every once in a while. But the main thing you need to do is always make time. I know money is always an issue if you’re trying to make a living from it, but even so, you have to have time to do things that may not make you any money. You have to make things for the sheer joy of doing them and for the exploration involved. That’s my number one piece of advice to anybody doing anything creative; you have to have time to play and enjoy the process. Jewelry making is a thousand different processes that you can combine in infinite ways. R&D time is really important for the artistic expression. If you want to do something that’s unique, it’s imperative.
Sharon: You joined forces with Lynn, so did you assign her the external part?
Kent: No, we collaborated. She is the one that got me to move away from one-of-a-kind to move into the marketplace. We had a child together, so we needed to support a family. It was a monetary decision. There was a little bit of a push and pull between my artistic side the wanting to make money side. There was a realty involved. I didn’t want to compromise my artistic sensibilities and I did my best to do that. What I came up with, what we call line pieces, the reproduced or the limited-edition series pieces, they’re all really beautiful. I’m still adding to that collection every once in a while, but it was a decision on my part that we needed to make money, so let’s move into this different type of production. In this way, I could actually hire help, too. I could have eight pieces cast and have people work on the castings rather than fabricate from scratch, which is very difficult to train.
Sharon: Yeah, especially if you’re trying to—
Kent: Although I have trained people that have done very well for me.
Sharon: I know so many artistic people face challenges showing their work and selling their work. How would you advise getting past that?
Kent: Well, if it’s something that’s not innate for you, you need to find help. That’s what I did. I really had to push myself because, as a very shy person, it was very uncomfortable for me to go out into the public eye. What I did after I got back from Germany and found myself in tears because I wasn’t able to get out and sell my work, I started taking personal growth workshops. I took all kinds of different stuff where I had to get into my discomfort zone and put myself out there and be uncomfortable. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see what I needed in a partner. It’s really hard to make it as an artist on your own. You have to have somebody supporting you, whether it’s a gallery owner or a patron, whatever. You need people that believe in you, and you need to believe in yourself first. Your work has to be good, but you need to have help getting you to the marketplace, I think. That is very important if it’s not something innate. For some artists it is innate, marketing, and I think it’s more the exception rather than the rule.
Sharon: From what I’ve heard you say, yes. I give you a lot of credit. You have a lot of personal work.
Kent: Oh yeah, when you have a dream and it’s a big one—the work in itself is very small things, but if you look at my work up close, they’re huge. Visually, in scope, they’re really big. It’s like I try to cram as much hugeness into the smallest space possible. My vision is a lot larger than the actual pieces. That’s kind of an interesting part of what I do.
Sharon: Yes, your work is so complex and intricate that it takes a big scope, even though it’s so small.
Kent: As I’m making them, I’m working very close up, but in my mind these things are huge. That’s how I can get into so much detail, because I see it as a much bigger thing than it actually is.
Sharon: What would your advice be? You’ve won so many awards, like the American Jewelry Design Counsel. I presume they come to you and say, “We’re here. Can you do something for us?” What is your advice? Do you think that’s something emerging jewelers should consider, entering contests?
Kent: Oh, of course. I started doing that in my early twenties; I started entering or doing shows and I started winning awards. It gave me a lot of self-confidence. If you don’t win, it’s O.K. You need to see what’s winning and ask yourself why. You have to be honest with yourself: “Is my work up to this level, and what do I need to do to get there?” It’s mostly about putting in the hours. I put in my first 10,000 hours probably by the time I was in my early twenties because I was so into it. I never had a job—well, that’s not true; I worked at a recycling center on weekends and at minimum wage for a number of years, but in those days, you could work minimum wage and pay your rent and buy food. Then my father allowed me to have a workshop in his garage. That’s how I started. I didn’t own a car. I rode my bike everywhere. I would ride to work and I would just make, make, make, make, make. I would take classes. I went to the College at Marin for three or four years so I could use their shop, but I also took evening classes with an artist in the East Bay whose work I saw at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. His name was William Clark. He’s a sculptor and a jeweler, but what he was able to do with metal so inspired me. I heard he was giving an evening class once for a week for six months. I hopped on that, and I learned things there I never would have learned anywhere else. I don’t know. I kind of got off my train of thought there. Time for another question.
Sharon: You have a very inspiring story. I’m sure you’ve inspired, besides teaching, legions of people in the field. What other pieces of advice would you have for people who are on the cusp of saying, “How do I become you?”
Kent: Well, you know what I did: I just started learning different techniques. I’d focus on one at a time until I achieved a certain level of mastery. The first thing I learned was casting because you can do so much with casting. Nowadays of course you have CAD, but I highly recommend for people getting into jewelry now not to devote themselves too much to CAD. You need to have actual experience doing handwork, because that’s the basis of solid jewelry knowledge and design knowledge. You can’t just design on CAD. You can do some beautiful things, but you’re not going to have the overarching experience of having handwork behind your belt. I see a lot of CAD stuff being done, but unfortunately it all looks the same. You need to have a broad variety of techniques under your belt.
What I did was study casting. I went into forging, raising, tube forming. I started doing repoussé, learning how the plasticity of metal can be used to create interesting forms, relatively quickly if you’re good at it. There’s something about working spontaneously in metal that is so different than anything you can do on the computer. It’s great to have that broad understanding of what the metals can do, not just with casting, but with forging, forming, learning how to make your own stock; I mean, making your own sheet in wire, tubing. I do a whole class that’s just based on tubing online. It’s very successful. People love it. If you want to learn how to fabricate or do things that have moving parts or even for stone setting, being able to make a tube is a huge thing. It has unlimited applications in design. I would say there are so many incredible techniques out there. I’ve only touched the surface myself, but pick the ones that make your heart sing and focus on them. Bring your own flavor, your own heart into it so it’s unique.
That’s how I did it. I started doing granulation when my father showed me a picture of John Paul Miller’s work. If you’re not familiar with John Paul Miller, he was one of the first American granulators in the 20th century. He started doing beautiful granulated enamel pieces in the 50s and 60s. It was his work, among others, but mostly his work, that inspired me to learn granulation. His technique is very different than mine, but I made the technique my own just by doing it, playing with it and learning how to fabricate without solder so I could granulate really intricate, fabricated forms.
Sharon: It’s a very inspiring story. I really appreciate your being here today, Kent. Thank you so much.
Kent: Oh yeah, my pleasure.
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