I survived Thomas Mann (the artist, not the author)

I survived three days of classes with Thomas Mann. And that’s not a small accomplishment from where I’m sitting.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs

Some people call him “The Rock Star” – he sort of looks like one, doesn’t he? Tom is extremely well-known in the art jewelry world, at least as much for his amazing business model (which has stayed ahead of the curve for 40 years) as for his stunning work. He is possibly best known for his “techno romantic” style, which looks to my untrained eye like a more elegant precursor to steampunk and – in some instances – goth styles of design.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs
I can tell you that experiencing these pieces in person was really something. That ring, for example, was a piece I returned to over and over again throughout the weekend. Each of them was a work of art unto itself – and yet it was possible to see how so many of them connected to the others. I apparently missed taking some photos of his amazing chains, the links of which were each astounding and unusual in their own right. It was exciting and a little overwhelming to see them all collected in one place, to feel their heft (because every single piece is solid and substantial, even the ones that were visually delicate) and I was sorry not to be bringing one of them home with me.

Tom has also written perhaps the only definitive book on the proper use of the jeweler’s saw, a book I highly, highly recommend – it contains all the information he shares in his “Learn to Saw” workshop, which I also highly recommend.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs
The first night was all about learning to saw. Tom has an engaging, direct style of teaching – and he moves very quickly, so it’s important to pay attention. I was very grateful for the first hour and a half, which was primarily lecture and demonstration. It was enormously helpful to be given an understanding of the way in which a jeweler’s saw blade is radically different from other saw blades, and applying that understanding to the mechanics of sawing meant huge leaps forward in being able to saw effectively.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs

That said, I still managed to win the award for breaking the most saw blades in a single evening. (I think at the end it was like 8 or 9. Seriously.)

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs

Just from the sound of the saw blades working, Tom could tell who needed help. And clearly I did. “Are you taking the other class this weekend?” he asked me. Yes. “You have homework,” he said and ran off to get me some supplies. I’ll be honest and say that I was so tired when I got home, I seriously considered skipping the homework, but then I thought about how much trouble I was having and made myself go upstairs to work. The homework was to complete sawing out these teeny-tiny pieces from a sheet of 22ga brass, so that the panel could be put back together again like a puzzle.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs

OMG. I’ll just say that my panel will never be put back together again and the next time I looked up it was 2:00 in the morning, but darn it, I’d learned how to saw and over the rest of the entire weekend I only broke two saw blades. That felt like a huge leap forward for me. And I was so excited by the prospect of the upcoming class that I literally couldn’t sleep (which made Saturday a little tough).

Bright and early, we started on our first project. More demos and an introduction to how we would be applying our newly-learned sawing skills, plus a new fastening system which meant some new tools to get acquainted with as we dug into our materials kits.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs

The project involved taking copies of our own photos and creating a metal and acrylic sandwich that enhanced aspects of the photo – and then embellishing it. This was (1) way more complicated than it sounds, and (2) completely outside my usual design aesthetic. Some of the students got really creative and used photos and drawings from cut-up calendars, or combined things using their photos and other drawings. As I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the technical aspects of the projects, I stuck to a less ambitious design approach. As it was, I didn’t get that first piece finished until Sunday morning.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs

That sweet, happy couple is my in-laws and it’s one of my favorite pictures of them. I never knew my mother-in-law, since she died before Nick and I met, but I see Nick in both their faces and it makes my heart smile to look at them. The expression on his dad’s face is a very “Nick” look – my dear husband is fairly shy and more reserved that this with most people, but that fun, sly, open expression is one I see a lot.

The second piece went together a lot faster than the first, and included a dimensional piece of frosted acrylic on the front.

Handmade Artisan Jewelry by Francesca Watson Designs

That sweet face is my mother, at the beach. She died in 1989, and I miss her still.

I realized as I was putting this post together that the number of “in progress” shots dropped dramatically as the weekend went on, and I don’t have a photo of the finished second piece. It’s clear I was really stretched by this class, in mostly very good ways, but I also didn’t get as experimental as I might have because rather than being in a creative groove, I was far more focused on not becoming overwhelmed by the technical aspects of the project. Tom is an excellent if very demanding teacher, and my sense is that he doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who need to ask the same question more than once. I think this has nothing to do with whether he’s a nice guy or not and everything to do with being accustomed to teaching more advanced students than we were, so I tried hard to be focused on what needed to be done as opposed to expressing myself through the project. That kind of focus can be exhausting, and it was for me – I was in a post-class coma for two days after, and I slept A LOT! But in the end, although I am not sure the “metal sandwich” itself is something I’ll add to my own work, the individual techniques involving layering, piercing, sawing, and dimensional design are things that I look forward to practicing in other ways.

So if you ever have an opportunity to take a class with a highly-experienced national-level instructor, I highly recommend it – with one caveat: make sure you understand and possess the technical skills necessary to participate. Wired Designs offered the “Learn to Saw” class so that people who didn’t know how could still participate in the class – and I am eternally grateful that Tom singled me out as someone who was struggling and gave me directed homework to do before the next day. It was hard, but it was worth it – and I wouldn’t have missed this class experience for the world! I’m hoping that Tom will come back to Wired Designs – or perhaps we should be organizing a trip to New Orleans to take a class in his studio! What about you? Who’s in??

12 replies
  1. B'sue
    B'sue says:

    I really enjoyed your post, Francesca. Similar experience but you had far more success than I. I can do the project now, and yes, he will come around and offer all sorts of assistance and suggestions. I still hate the jeweler’s saw—I actually took a class before I went there—but he is definitely the master of it. I remember he told us that if you use the right blades and get the saw in the right position, there is no need for bur life or similar agent. I still can’t get by without it. It was a head banger for me but I have never regretted the experience. Ever.

    Reply
    • Francesca
      Francesca says:

      Nice to know I wasn’t alone in the experience, B’Sue! There were moments when I despaired, but it was worth the frustration to push through and learn as much as I did. Tom really is an extraordinary artist and a wonderful teacher – in spite of how hard it was, there was nothing to regret about the experience. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Mary
    Mary says:

    I wish I were closer to a large are that would offer classes such as this! What a wonderful opportunity, and I think your 2 pieces are a great tribute to 3 very wonderful people.

    Reply
  3. PollyAnna
    PollyAnna says:

    Love this blog entry. I was in the sawing class too & was exhausted when I got home so can’t believe you managed to do homework! I didn’t take the week-end class but am taking one with him at AdornMe! in Houston. This post makes me realize I’d better practice between now and then!

    Reply
    • Francesca
      Francesca says:

      LOL! I was exhausted too – and then because I was up practicing until 2:00 AM, I got to that over-tired place where you can’t get to sleep, you know? I literally worked through Saturday on 3-1/2 hours of sleep. I was so tired!!!

      What class are you taking in Houston?? Whatever it is, I recommend practicing a lot between now and then. It’s worth the effort. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Brandi
    Brandi says:

    Don’t feel bad about breaking those saw blades, Francesca!

    Once upon a time, I took Jewelry (metalsmithing) during college, and all I can say is that I’m glad it was only a summer class versus a full semester.

    I just never got the hang of sawing metal – it was excruciating. I would break so many blades that I not only used up the entire class supply and had to buy more, but I would also break them right onto my hand. The teacher ended up moving the first aid kit to my desk to save time!

    She also wasn’t the most helpful of professors, so that added a layer of further frustration to it all. I sometimes wonder if it’d be worth my while to try it again, with a teacher people had better experiences with…

    Thanks for sharing your experiences! I’ll keep an eye out for his classes, to see if maybe I can take one someday.

    Reply
    • Francesca
      Francesca says:

      Tom is a demanding instructor and he isn’t touchy-feely. He expects students to be prepared and to pay attention. Everyone has different needs in a class, so as long as you know about that dynamic going in, it can be a really rewarding experience. He is also unique and absurdly creative and original – I found great value just marinating in that for three days!!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Add your comment love here!