In the Studio

Cornelia Goldsmith

We recently had the opportunity to visit the studio of jeweler Cornelia Goldsmith, located in an industrial building in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco.

Cornelia started her jewelry making career 30 years ago. She went to art school in Houston, and later to Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Cornelia’s process runs deep and harkens back to ancient metalworking techniques. She makes her own gold alloy, and pours her own ingots to turn into gold wire. She even makes a lot of her own tools. “You see, you also have to be a toolmaker and that’s a whole job itself”.

Her process is meticulous, and requires immense focus. She uses an old Italian technique of engraving, and the granulation technique she uses hails from the Egyptians and Etruscans. It’s an intricate, exacting method that few master. The first step is to make the granules. Then these are carefully placed and adhered using an organic glue before being fused with a torch -- which she controls using her mouth for precision.

Her work itself is a sight to behold, and reflects her intensive process. The decorative motifs in her work make heavy use of commonly held uplifting symbols. A standout piece from her “Nature” collection, a cuff that comes in either gold or oxidized silver, features a gemstone sun in the center, and is adorned with tiny stars, birds, fish, and other icons of nature. Another piece from that collection is a tree pendant. “The trees come in different seasons, and it’s important that they look like they’re still growing. They represent the life force”. She showed us a fascinating traditional technique of temporarily mounting the piece in shellac so that texture can be applied to the surface. Using deft fingers and her arsenal of engraving tools, she is able to transform the smooth metal surface into any variety of minutely detailed patterns and textures--in this case, veins of bark coursing up the tree trunk.

Her most challenging project to date is a piece called the “Iceberg Ring”, which features a 36 carat custom-cut blue topaz as well as white and blue diamonds. The ring took two years to complete, and presented technical and material challenges each step of the way. No torch was hot enough to fuse the tiny slivers of platinum--meant to represent a fracturing iceberg--and they kept falling off. When she found a method hot enough to fuse the metals, she had to create special glasses that protected her eyes and allowed her to see what she was doing through the intense fire and heat. “Sometimes you need these very unusual projects to know why you make jewelry”. Cornelia’s persistence paid off, and for a time this ring even lived in a museum!

When asked if she had any advice for aspiring jewelry makers she said “The main things is you have to sit down yourself and make it. Unfortunately there is no fast road for making jewelry the old way. You can’t pick up these techniques fast, it takes years of making mistakes. But you learn through fixing those mistakes.”

Holding out a lovely, pristine pendant for us, she glanced up and apologized demurely for her hands. “When you make jewelry, you have dirty hands,” she said, smiling “If you look at the hands of a jeweler, and they look too perfect, they didn’t make it.” This dichotomy was in many ways the perfect distillation of our studio visit. Cornelia is a splendid jeweler and her work represents a master’s realization of their delicate, polished craft. To get there, she works in a studio filled with arcane tools, tall flames, and millenia old techniques. And she is very willing to get her hands dirty.

Niamh Lyonhart