Jewelry Journey Podcast

Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is goldsmith David Anderson, based in Taos, New Mexico. David is on the board of directors of the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos. He is entrusted with maintaining and repairing all of Millicent Rogers’ jewelry exhibited in the museum. We’ll hear about David’s jewelry journey and his connection to Millicent Rogers today. David, welcome to the program.

David: Thank you very much.

Sharon: So glad to have you. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? How is it you came to jewelry? Did you come directly to it, or did you take a more circuitous path?

David: That is a good question. It’s a path of trial and errors, meeting people and finally jumping into it. You could say the beginning of my jewelry career started when I was in high school. I had a friend give me a silver watch band. The watch band broke, and—my father’s a cattle rancher in Taos—and I had a Navajo Indian that was my best friend across the field. I told him about the watch band, and he said, “Oh, my uncle makes jewelry. Why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you how to fix it.” So, I did; I went over there. I had no idea his uncle had done jewelry. He showed me how to take the stone out, a turquoise, and there was a little claw there. We took that out, and then he talked me through the intricate process of repairing this little wire. The fun part about it is that it’s a tiny wire, and he had me do the soldering. I found out later that he had me do it because it was a kind of complicated repair. I’d never made jewelry before, and I know he wanted me to do it so, in case I melted it, he wasn’t responsible. But, it turned out, and I was thrilled and he was thrilled. That was first bug. A couple of years later, I graduated from high school and I went to Albuquerque to UNM to study. 

Sharon: UNM, University of New Mexico, right?

David: Yes, indeed. I was on the ski team there. My father in Taos was the first hired ski instructor in Taos Ski Valley, so I grew up skiing on the mountain. In Albuquerque, we were in a van headed to ski race somewhere in Colorado. There was a guy in the backseat who had this apron over his lap, and he was filing this silver and gold bracelet. I was awestruck by it. I started talking to him about it, and then he finally got car sick and put it away, but he said, “Hey, if you like making jewelry, just take a class,” so I did. I took a class, and that semester the head of the department—his name was Ralph Lewis—he was on sabbatical. He came back, and he was such a laidback guy. He was wonderful. He gave this lecture in our class and I showed him this belt buckle I was making, and he looked at the belt buckle and he looked at me, and he finally asked me, “David, do you have a major?” I said no, and he looked at that belt buckle and said, “I want you for a student.” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard this yes come out. That was it. I remembered my time repairing my bracelet with Herman. For the next few years, I made jewelry and did a lot of drawing and painting classes, and then I graduated. Then I realized I didn’t know anything about management. I had gone through school, and nobody ever told me anything about making money or managing or running a business. I’ve been playing catch up ever since.

Sharon: I’m curious, was this part of the art department, or did they have a metalsmithing   class? Did UNM have a metalsmithing major? Not every university does.

David: Yeah, they did have a metalsmithing department. I graduated with a bachelor of arts in fine arts and jewelry. 

Sharon: I don’t know if you were playing catch up more than other people, because so many people have spent a lot of time honing their skills artistically, but nobody told them you have to get your stuff into a gallery or develop a clientele. You’re on the board of the Millicent Rogers Museum, and you’re responsible for taking care of the jewelry there. A lot of people, I’m sure, have never heard of Millicent Rogers. Can you tell us who she was and why people should care about her?

David: Yeah, Millicent Rogers, she’s a very fascinating woman. She’s been known as the Standard Oil heiress. Her grandfather, Harry Huttleston Rogers, and John D. Rockefeller started Standard Oil. He made a lot of money in the oil business refining oil, and then they started U.S. Steel and Anaconda Copper. This was in New York, so they made a lot of money and became very wealthy. He had a son, Harry Rogers, and Harry had Millicent and her younger brother. Millicent grew up with a lot of money around her. They would travel all over Austria, Italy, Europe, Paris, France. She was part of the upper class. 

When she was eight years old, she had rheumatic fever. The doctors didn’t quite know what to do with her and said, “Look, if she makes it past 10 years old, she’ll be lucky.” It damaged her heart, it enlarged it, so she spent a long time in bed. Over her lifetime she was bedridden for weeks and weeks at a time. This changed her life and made her very calm and relaxed. Where other kids would go out and play and have this boundless energy, she would be in bed at home reading and learning how to draw and teaching herself languages. I think she knew six or seven languages. Her mind expanded. During these bouts of being bedridden, she taught herself how to draw, and she was very interested in clothing and how she looked. 

She grew up having a lot of money and being able to afford the best fashion, the best clothes out there, being in socialite circles. She was in places where she could start showing off who she really was. She got more interested in fashion, and Vogue would photograph her; Harper’s Bazaar would photograph of her. She did a lot of modeling. She loved jewelry. She loved big, huge, clunky pieces of jewelry. Cherie Burns has written a couple of books about Millicent. One is “Searching for Beauty” and the other is “Diving for Starfish.” Millicent bought this Boivin starfish pendant that was massive. It had five articulated gold and gem-encrusted legs, and she was photographed in it. Cherie Burns’ book, “Diving for Starfish,” is the story about Cherie trying to find this starfish. She never did—I think there were only five of these starfish made—but it’s an exquisite piece of work.

Millicent became a collector of lots of different fancy, top-line jewelers from around the world, and she would design clothing to be made for these pieces of jewelry she had. At one point in time, I think she also collected Fabergé eggs. She had a flair for the best of the best, so she became known for collecting these fascinating things because she had the money to buy them. It was said that she bought her way into the jewelry industry in New York, but once she was in that society, in with the jewelry designers in New York, she could influence them. She was a woman who influenced society in a tremendous and wonderful way. I found this article from Connoisseur Magazine in 1984. It’s entitled, “A Woman of Some Importance.” It’s really fun. 

Later, Millicent got bored with jewelry. She always wanted to change it and make it hers, so she started designing jewelry. The Millicent Rogers Museum is a collection of everything she bought from 1947 to 1952, when she passed away.  She came to live in Taos and traveled around, fell in love with this area, and started buying jewelry and weavings and baskets and art from the Southwest from all the cultures here. The Millicent Rogers Museum is a tremendous collection of what she collected. The mission statement of the museum is to share and celebrate the arts and cultures of the Southwest, and it really does. The back story to the Millicent Rogers Museum is that my grandfather, Claude Anderson, came to Taos in the early 1940s, built a house, lived here for a while, knew Millicent when she was here, and later decided to move to California. He donated that house to Paul Peralta-Ramos, Millicent’s son, to be used as the Millicent Rogers Museum. So, I have a close connection to that building. That happened when I was seven years old. From that point on, I remember my parents taking us to the museum a lot. We’d look around, and I was most fascinated with the jewelry. I didn’t know this at the time, but the jewelry that was displayed there was a huge influence on me becoming a jeweler. They had this display of Navajo tools and pieces of jewelry and turquoise, and I was fascinated to see how these tools were used. Then, it turns out my first experience making jewelry was with a Navajo. I found that really touching.

Sharon: She collected a lot of very large Southwest jewelry, right? I’ve only been to the museum once, but I remember very large pieces. She started designing in that genre, if I remember. 

David: Yeah, she makes the style of jewelry I call “Millicent large.” It’s funny, because she has these huge breastplates that nobody else in their right mind could pull off, but she would have costumes and outfits made to be able to wear these huge pieces. She’s got one called “Crocodiles and Birds.” It’s this repoussé silver paned-in necklace. It’s this massive breastplate made of really light and thin metal. I don’t think she put it together, but she actually did some of the hammer work in the design. In the early 1940s in New York, she befriended a couple of people. One was Joseph Freed. He taught her a lot about metallurgy and how to make metal and cast metal, and this really intrigued her. She started designing her own pieces. They were sometimes Mayan, sometimes otherworldly, sometime monsters. She did this whole series based on stars, and she called them running stars and introvert crosses. At that point in time, $35 for an ounce for gold was inexpensive compared to now, and she loved working in 22 and 24-carat gold. She loved hammered textures, rugged textures. Somebody said in one of the books I was reading that she had unassailable taste; she would put these big, massive pieces of jewelry on and feel perfectly comfortable in them. She liked to work in wax. She went through her lifetime having lovers and husbands. She was told not to have any kids. Well, she did, but because she knew her life was short-lived, she lived it to the fullest.

Sharon: Yeah, she did. 

David: You can tell in the photographs of her and the stuff she’s done. By the time she got to Taos, she was heartbroken. Clark Gable broke her heart. She was struggling when she got to Taos, but she discovered wax working, so she would work wax and make jewelry and have it cast. Friends of hers in New York would cast her things for her. She would have house parties, and she’d give her guests pieces of wax and they would make something. Later on, she’d grab this little piece of wax and take it to her people in New York and they’d cast it in gold. She’d come back and finish it, and then she would give it to these houseguests as gifts, something they had created in gold. She was very generous that way.

Sharon: When you said $35 was inexpensive now, were you making the point that it was inexpensive at the time? I want to make sure I understood. At that time, that was very expensive? Was it outrageous? 

David: No, back then, it wasn’t outrageous. It was a little bit expensive, but Millicent was wealthy and she could afford anything she wanted. $35 an ounce, I don’t know what that would translate to now, maybe $80 or $100 an ounce for gold instead of 2,000 an ounce, which is quite a bit different. She had a passion for red gold, too.

Sharon: Red gold?

David: Yeah, red gold has a little more copper in it. From my jewelry-making experience, red gold has its problems. It’s difficult to work in certain regards. If you don’t cool it off after you heat it in such a way, it can get really brittle and break. There are very problematic things with it, but she loved red gold and she designed a lot of red gold stuff. About four or five years ago, I approached the museum. My wife used to work for my father at the Ski Valley as a ski instructor. I didn’t know her at the time, but she quit ski instruction and started working in the ski shop. She worked with another woman I knew, but we didn’t really know each other. She didn’t know I made jewelry; I didn’t know she wanted a job at the museum. Well, she ended up getting a job at the museum and later became the store manager. I didn’t know it, but they were looking for somebody to reproduce Millicent’s designs, so my wife says, “Hey, didn’t you know David made jewelry? Why don’t you talk to him?” We got together, and I started doing bits of repair work for the museum through the store. A stone would be broken, I’d fix that, and then I started reproducing Millicent’s designs for sale in the gift store. There wasn’t much at that point. I started learning about Millicent, then I put some of my jewelry for consignment there. 

Over the years I kept doing this, and I got more used to working with the museum, but I didn’t know much about the inner workings. Finally, I got to the place in my life where I approached them and said, “Hey, I’m interested in being a trustee. What does that entail?” I said, “The museum itself has a bunch of Millicent’s jewelry. Is there anything that needs to be repaired?” There wasn’t much information there, but I joined the board early this year. I went to a couple of board meetings last year, and then in December I was voted onto the board. I got to know the curator and we got to be pretty good friends. We talked about all the jewelry, and I was shown the vault and we talked about the broken jewelry back there.

And at the same time, I was voted onto the collections committee. At one of the first collections meetings, Christina Peralta brought in this necklace that had little gold tubes on it. It was broken and in bad shape, but I looked at it and my eyes rolled back and I heard my heart pounding, and I was like, “Wow, look at that!” They accepted the piece, and rightfully so, because it was spectacular. I asked the museum, “Now that I’m a board member, can I fix that?” I signed it out and brought it home and studied that thing. It’s a technical marvel. I found out later its name is “Sunset Straws,” and it’s now on display in the museum. This 1984 edition of Connoisseur Magazine has a picture of it. I don’t know if it’s whole in the picture, if it’s been repaired or damaged, but when I studied it, it had been damaged and damaged badly. I think it was in eight different pieces. It’s made of 313 little gold tubes that were all cast. There is a tube that would go around the neck, and there are three strands of these. From each tube, there are six other tubes dangling from each other. It’s this massive gold necklace of fringe, so it has an incredible amount of movement to it. It’s highly textured and hammered. I could see fingerprints in it, and I know those are Millicent’s fingerprints. 

I spent 25 hours working on this piece, analyzing it. There were some tubes missing, so I had to figure out how to replace the tubes. I studied it under a microscope and realized it had been repaired several other times. Whoever repaired in the past didn’t know it was red gold, and they had replaced tubes with yellow gold. I noted all this stuff with meticulous notes while I was working on this piece. Then I realized when I take pieces out of the museum, it’s a technical thing. I’m taking a lot of responsibility when I get this piece out of there, because I’m working on a priceless piece of jewelry that can never be replaced. If I make a mistake, whoa, what does that mean? I can’t just melt something down. I have to be able to repair it to perfection. It’s taken me 40 years as a jewelry to build that technique and that ability to decide to how to repair it to its best advantage.

Sharon: That is a lot of responsibility, but you have 40 years behind you. You didn’t graduate yesterday. The museum has an annual miniature show, and I know you’ve won several awards there. What does that mean, a miniature show? 

David: The miniature show is a yearly production they put on. It’s a fundraiser, and they invite all different kinds of artists, sculptors and ceramicists, painters, photographers, jewelers. The idea is for painters—some painters work really large. The show has minimum standards. I don’t know what the minimum is—it might be 10×10. So, you create this painting or photograph or something that’s 10×10, and the idea is to hang it on a wall and have an opening reception and have people bid on it and purchase these things. It’s so there’s enough space in the museum to hold all these pieces of art. One of the years I won Best of Show. I made two silver wine goblets for a jeweler, so I actually went big. That was funny, but again, it has to be smaller than 10×10. It’s a great fundraiser. You see all kinds of people you haven’t seen in a long time and get to talk to people and look at and buy art. It gets crowded in there during this wonderful event, so if you’re really interested in looking at art, you go back. The show is up for a month. My wife and I, for a while, I would win one year and she would win the next year, and then I would win and then she would win. It was fun because they have different categories, a jewelry category, and sometimes I’d put up wall hangings or 2D sculpture or things like that. 

Sharon: And you share a studio with your wife, Gail Golden, who’s also a goldsmith?

David: Yes.

Sharon: How is that, sharing a studio with your spouse? 

David: We’ve had our moments. We have learned to work things out. We have different roles in our businesses. She’s got her own business; I’ve got my own business, but we work our businesses as though they’re one. We just put our websites together into one website, and she manages the website for the most part. She does a lot of social media stuff; she’s very good at that. I’m not so good at that. I’m better off as a fabrication practitioner. We have our different aspects, and it really works wonderfully.

Sharon: That feels like a great combination. You’re also an expert in—how do you say it? Mokume-gane? I’ve heard of it before. What is that, and how did you come to be an expert in it? How do you say it, first of all?

David: Mokume-gane. Mokume-gane is a Japanese word. It means wood grain or wood-eye metal. A technical definition for it would be metallurgically bonded, multi-layered (meaning four or more layers) of metal, made into a product in which the layers are manipulated to produce a decorative effect. You laminate four or more layers of different metals together, and then you can manipulate the surface, grind off the surface, hammer them down. The end result is multi-grained. It kind of looks like wood-grained metal. We’ve all heard of Damascus knife blades. That’s a form of mokume, laminated metal. It was designed originally to be used in sword guards in Japan. I think 1650 to the 1700s was the first time it was used, and then it moved to lacquered boxes. People would put different colors of lacquer down and then carve through them and expose the layers underneath. 

I’d seen some mokume samples and I thought, “If I’m going to get into this, I’m going to do something different that nobody’s done.” I bought a couple of books and started doing research. I spent four or five years playing around with different things and I got a sample of things together that I liked, so I started pursuing that more. Then somebody told me, “Oh, the style of work you’re doing is called guri bori.” In Japanese, that just means carved metal. So, what I do, I make mokume rings and earrings. I decided to stick with two different metals, 14-carat palladium white gold and sterling silver. Those two metals, when they’re laminated together, you get this gray and white layered mix that, to me, looks wonderful. I create rings out of this and then carve into them. I don’t smooth them out like a lot of people do when they carve into it, and then I hammer it down flat and expose this wood grain. My whole idea is to leave it carved and cut into it in a very precise manner that makes this distinct pattern.

Sharon: It sounds beautiful. I wanted to mention to everybody that we’ll have pictures on the website of your work and some of the Millicent Rogers pieces, the ones you’ve worked on and the ones in the museum. Where do you want to take your business from here? What’s your vision?

David: With the journey I’m on, this has expanded our careers tenfold. My wife and I, we just designed a new website and got a grant to have a shopping cart put on our website, so we’re in the process of developing that. We just want to grow and get art out into the world. I’m really looking forward to doing more of my stuff, making more of the jewelry for Millicent. Last year, Gail and I were invited to the museum. I’d never seen the collection before, but they wanted to create a couple new pieces for the museum to sell for their once-a-year gala fundraiser. They invited us to look at Millicent’s drawings. We went through thousands and thousands of her drawings, and it was incredible. I was able to put together a proposal to create new pieces she had designed. We’re going to keep going forward with that, recreating Millicent’s designs and creating our own designs. I want to keep delving into the vault and fixing things. 

I have to laugh, because this is funny: I was given three squash blossom necklaces by the museum to repair. The dates were 1958. They were broken then, so since 1958, they’ve been in bags. These three squash blossom necklaces, Millicent had bought herself and collected and wore them. I took meticulous photographs of every little thing and I rebuilt them all, and then I wanted to put them on my website and blog about it and have these photographs. But after I turned them back in to the museum, all the photographs except for one disappeared off my computer completely.

Sharon: Oh my gosh! 

David: No hint of them. That’s just Millicent playing with me. She’s done that before. I was designing this piece for one of the galas, and I had this piece of copper I was hammering on and I couldn’t get the texture right. It wasn’t speaking to me and I was getting really frustrated, and all of a sudden, in the back of my head I hear this whisper, “Use a bigger hammer.” I know that was Millicent. I just started laughing. I grabbed a bigger hammer, because I know she’d love to bash it. I started hammering on it and it’s like, “Look at that. There it is.” 

Sharon: Well, that’s great, that she supports you in that.

David: She does. I don’t care for her cigarettes. Sometimes she’ll show up, and I know she’s been here because I smell her cigarettes. That’s funny.

Sharon: I think it’s important to mention that when she came to the Southwest, nobody was out here. She was marching to her own drummer. This is just from what I’ve read—I’m sure you know a lot more—but when photographs of her would appear in Vogue or somewhere with the Southwest jewelry, people thought she was crazy. Why would you live out here and wear this weird Indian jewelry? The museum itself is wonderful. No pun intended, but it’s a gem of a museum. It’s small. It’s digestible. You get the whole story. I hope everybody listening gets a chance to get out there, besides the fact that the skiing, I’m sure, is great. I’m not a skier, but I know Taos is the land of the skis. 

David: Yup.

Sharon: David, thank you so much for being here. To everybody listening, that’s all for today’s Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget that we’ll have pictures posted on the website when we post the podcast. You can find the podcast wherever you download them, and please rate us. We’d really appreciate that. Join us next time when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and their expertise. Thank you so much for listening.