"Teaching" Jewelry Design - 3 Approaches

I’m sure, when you’ve taken classes at different places, that you sometimes come away with some questions, if not concerns.

Why didn’t they tell you about such and such stringing materials, or the problems of using on type of thread over another? Why didn’t they more fully explain the directions? What do I need to do next? How can I apply what I’ve learned to other types of projects? Why does one teacher at one shop tell you to do a bead weaving stitch in a different way than the teacher at a 2nd shop?

There are 3 different approaches for teaching “Jewelry Design”. Each approach makes different assumptions about the process of making jewelry and about the skills/ abilities/ and capabilities the jewelry designer will require. If your goal was to bead a Rogue Elephant, each approach would suggest different strategies, techniques, materials and skills-to-bring-to-bear.

It’s important to understand how you are being taught and led – that is, where the teacher (or how-to author) is coming from – so that you can appreciate what the teacher is saying and trying to accomplish, and how this may or may not apply to your own goals as a jewelry designer.


A customer came into the shop. She wanted to buy a pattern book to make a small amulet purse that would hold a credit card. She wanted to peyote stitch part of the purse. Bead-net the bottom. Spiral rope the strap. Bead-embellish the sides. Do a very elaborate fringing, to create leaf patterns in the fringe. And she wanted a single pattern. One in a book. With detailed instructions. When I told her that, for something like that, she would have to invent the pattern herself, she balked. “I don’t want to have to think,” she opined.

A crafter! The example above isn’t a put-down. It’s a fact. Crafters want to have fun. They’re not inventors. They don’t ride elephants. They want to have fun.
When looking for teachers and/or instruction books, by far, the most typically-encountered approach is called the Craft Approach. Here you are taught a set of specific steps to follow in order to complete a very defined project. You might be expected to follow a set of step-by-step instructions in a class or read a pattern in a book. You are not taught how to apply those steps to any other project. You are not taught the consequences for choosing one type of bead or clasp or stringing material over another. You are not provided any kind of evaluation about the steps -- for example, are they clear, well-written, relevant, pertinent, user-friendly?

You find the Craft Approach taught most often in a bead store or crafts store, or as the basis of how-to books. These stores are in the business of selling classes, books and kits -- basically, selling you "STEPS". If the student has difficulty completing the steps, the Crafts Approach teacher usually suggests going back and re-doing the steps, buying another book of more steps, or taking another class to learn more steps.

Some students enjoy learning from this approach. It's relatively straightforward. It's easy. There's no pressure to create "Art". The only challenge is to finish. You don't have to make a great commitment to the craft. You can concentrate on having fun. “So many kits, so little time….”

The Craft Approach assumes:

1. That you are either born with creative talents or are not. They can’t be taught in any way.
2. The only thing that matters when stringing is to complete the task.
3. Jewelry is a craft that anyone can do. It is not art.
Some consequences:

a. No thought is given about the durability and functionality of the piece, or how, through the choice of parts and stringing materials, the student may enhance this durability and functionality

b. Appeal and beauty are based on simply completing the project – no matter how it looks or feels or holds up with wear
c. The jewelry artist is taught to start with a set of instructions or a pattern.

d. No concern that the beader truly learn anything. A better beader is one who does more and more steps (that is, follows more and more patterns). In most of the places that teach from a Craft Approach, the primary enterprise is the selling of kits and beads and collecting class fees.

e. Easy to define an acceptable outcome. Easy to respond to a student who says s/he doesn’t understand the directions for the project. Tell them to go back and re-do the steps, or take another class to practice some additional steps. The steps may be incomplete or poorly written. The student may learn better with other techniques than following steps. No matter. Because the only thing that matters is finishing the steps.

No elephants in the room here.


A second approach to teaching jewelry design is called the Art Tradition. If you were studying beadwork or other fine crafts at an art school or most jewelry design programs or community college or university, you would probably be taught from the Art Tradition.

The Art Tradition believes that you need to learn a set of rules that you can use to apply to any situation where you are making jewelry. Artistic expression cannot be learned as a set of steps. It is less important that you follow a set of steps. It’s more important to know how to apply art theory to your project at each stage of the process, whatever that process is, and wherever that process takes you.

The types of “art theories” or “rules” you are probably most familiar with are those involving color. What colors go with each other? Which colors are “spring” and which are “fall”? There are also rules involving texture/pattern, shape, balance and harmony, distribution of sizes and colors, interplay of light and shadow, perspective, dimensionality, and the like.

These art theories detail what defines successful (and unsuccessful) manipulation of design elements within a piece of art. The Art Tradition, however, very narrowly defines what it considers an acceptable medium for art work. "Jewelry" is understood either as a subset of painting or a subset of sculpture, and subjected to those theories only. "Jewelry" is not seen as its own discipline and medium, with its own special rules, theories, techniques and approaches.

Art, Jewelry Design and Fine Craft programs teach from this perspective because they are in the business of selling classes where they teach art THEORIES. The student is encouraged to learn more and more theories, and to experiment with different ways and strategies for applying them. The Art Tradition views jewelry as a subset of either painting or sculpture. There need not be special jewelry design classes, per se, because learning theories from painting or sculpture is sufficient. Achieving "beauty" is paramount. What matters most is how successfully the student has incorporated art theories within the final piece -- as it sits on a pedestal or rests on a mannequin.

Thus you see in magazines, galleries and museums, many pieces that are visually stunning, but often not wearable. For example, the bracelet with spikes that would kill the wearer, should she let her arm down; or the ring that would never stay upright on the finger in real life; or the 35 pound necklace that would drag the wearer down by the neck.

What is nice about the Art Tradition, is that the goal is Beauty. The artist is not encumbered by having to follow specific steps or patterns. Nor is the artist encumbered by the structural and functional properties of all the pieces she or he uses -- only their beauty. The artist does not have to compromise Beauty for Functionality.

The Art Tradition assumes:

1. While different people have different creative abilities, everyone has some creative ability, and can be influenced in how to apply these creative talents.
2. What matters in bead stringing is how you approach the process. If you apply the rules correctly at each step of the way, your end result will be a very beautiful necklace.
3. Jewelry as art is really a form of sculpture, and should be judged by the rules of sculpture. The focus is on how you think through the process. There is no concern about following a set of steps. It doesn’t matter if the jewelry sits on an easel or on a person.

Some consequences:

a. While some thought is given about how to choose parts to achieve beauty, little thought is given about durability and functionality of the piece, or how, through the choice of parts and stringing materials, the student may enhance this durability and functionality

b. The beauty of the piece is as if it had been painted or sculpted. This is paramount.
c. The jewelry designer is taught to start with a palette of colors and textures.

d. The beader should focus on the process of making jewelry. More insights about the process (meaning how to apply rules of art theory) makes a better beader.

e. An acceptable outcome is one that is beautiful and appealing. It doesn’t matter what specific steps you went through to create your jewelry. It matters how well you applied the rules of art theory. It doesn't matter if the piece would hold up or wear well, as it is worn.

Some corralled or more tame elephants in the room, perhaps circus elephants or those in a zoo. At least elephants which are very patient with the artists who are trying to capture them, and have them pose.


A third approach to jewelry design is what we teach at Land of Odds, Be Dazzled Beads and The Center For Beadwork & Jewelry Arts – the Art and Design Tradition. This approach isn’t widespread. This approach began in schools of architecture.

These schools of architecture originally were “departments” in Schools of Art. Their students were initially taught in the Art Tradition. They designed and built buildings and bridges, without thinking about and dealing with how people, cars, the weather, and the surroundings and context interacted and were mutually interdependent with, with-in and with-out these buildings and bridges.

These buildings and bridges often turned out to be “failures”. People couldn't find the entrances, or the elevators. Buildings, like one in lower Manhattan, were set on vast plazas that people were afraid to walk across. Ultra-modern buildings were set in the middle of historical districts. Buildings suffered the fates, such as when the John Hancock Tower in Boston lost all its window panes to the winds, or, in the high-rise apartment building in Chicago, where residents replaced the installed white drapes with those of various colors, and "ruined", at least from the architect's point of view, the outside aesthetic. Bridges, like one in Tacoma, Washinton, undulated in the wind and collapsed, or other bridges that had to be closed to small cars for fear of them blowing off. Aesthetics were more important than functionality and usability and workability and durability and environmental fit and appropriateness. Buildings and bridges were judged as models sitting on a table, or three-dimensional images depicted on a computer screen.

"Departments" of Architecture rebelled, and became "Schools" of Architecture. And hence, a new teaching philosophy – Art and Design – was born. Design was merged with Craft was merged with Art.

The focus became teaching design principles and their applications. Some of these design principles are applied in similar ways to all art forms, such as painting and sculpture, no matter what the medium. For other principles, architecture (and in our case, jewelry) creates it’s own challenges, because all architecture, (and by extension, jewelry),

- functions in a 3-dimensional space, particularly sensitive to position, volume and scale
- must stand on its own as an object of art
- but must also exist as an object of art which interacts with people (and a person's body), movement, personality, and quirks of the user (wearer), environment and context
- serves many purposes, some aesthetic, some social and cultural, some psychological

The Art and Design Tradition believes that you teach steps, like in the Craft Approach, and you teach rules, like in the Art Tradition, but that you approach teaching and learning from a developmental perspective. That means, that certain steps and rules should be learned before others, and that continual learning keeps building upon itself. The focus is on the process of construction, so a lot of attention is paid to all the parts, and how they should be chosen, how they should/could and shouldn't/couldn't be used, and how they may or may not be integrated within the whole.

The development approach is centered on first teaching a core set of skills, then another set of skills, and how these link back to the core. And then a third set of skills, and how they link back to the second set, and back to the core. And so forth.

The Art and Design Tradition is very relevant for the education and training of jewelry designers, as well. Here, the Jewelry Artist is seen as a multi-functional professional, similar to an engineer who designs and builds bridges. The jewelry designer must bring a lot of very different kinds of skills and abilities to bear, when constructing a piece of jewelry. The professional has to be able to manage artistic design, functionality, and the interaction of the piece with the individual as well as that person's environment. This approach also believes that “Jewelry as Art” should be appreciated as its own discipline – not a part of sculpture or painting. And that Jewelry can only be understood as Art as it is worn.

The Art and Design Tradition assumes:

1. Everyone has creative abilities, but for most people, these need to be carefully groomed and attended to. Expressing creativity is not a matter of turning a switch on and off. It’s a process that can be influenced by ideas and situations. The challenge is to teach people to become more intuitive in expressing their creative abilities and ideas.
2. What matters in bead stringing is that your project be judged as a work of art. In this case, the definition of “art” is specific to jewelry and its design, in anticipation of how it will be worn.
3. Jewelry can only be understood as “art” as it is worn. This means that the wearer’s own body, clothing, hairstyle influences the sense of the piece as art. The context influences this sense. How the jewelry moves when the wearer moves influences this sense. How the wearer feels and thinks about the piece, when worn, influences this sense.

Some consequences:

a. This approach focuses on design issues. Functionality, wearability, durability, context, movement are all key considerations in selecting parts and interrelating these parts in a design. Very concerned with how you select parts and materials.

b. The beauty of the piece involves it’s construction, it’s lay-out, it’s consistency with rules of art theory, and how it holds up (physically and aesthetically) as it is worn. The focus is on how you organize your construction, piece by piece. The beader needs to bring many talents to bear in order to achieve a successful outcome. Here the beader is similar to an architect or engineer.
c. The jewelry designer is taught to start, not only with a palette of colors and textures, but a palette of parts and components, as well.

d. More experience – especially learning skills developmentally – are required to be a better beader. You learn how skills and techniques are interrelated. You start with a core set of skills. Then you build upon these, and learn how to link your new set of skills to the core. You learn the next set of skills, and link them back to the second set, and link them back to the core.

e. An acceptable outcome is one where the piece of jewelry maintains a sense of itself as art, as the piece is worn.

Watch out for the Rogue Elephants, especially if they start to stampede.

Where the Craft Approach is systematic, and
the Art Tradition methodical,
the Art and Design Tradition is systemic.

Each Teaching approach has its own traditions, rituals and adherents. And, apparently, it’s very difficult for anyone to break with tradition. It’s difficult to see another point of view. Or acknowledge it. Or study it. Or empower yourself to step out of your box for a bit.

I used to live in Mississippi for awhile. One of my friends was a gentleman in his 70’s. Ralph had grown up in Oxford, Mississippi, moved away for 40 years after college, and had been a physician in Manhattan. When he retired, he returned to Oxford. It was at that point I met him. In Oxford, he worked as a physician in several mental health and primary care centers, helping the poor, primarily black, population. He tutored three black adults in his home several times a week, teaching them to read. He was very vocal about protecting human rights and dignities.

Yet, one New Year’s Eve, he was very distraught and upset. A black physician and his wife were going to attend one of the local society’s New Year’s Eve Ball. “That just wasn’t done,” he told me. There had never been a black couple who had attended. And he didn’t think it was right. It violated tradition. “I wish they had never done this,” he complained. I would never have thought that Ralph had a racist bone in his body. But when confronted with “tradition”, he became a very different person.

In a similar, but much less dramatic, example, was the time my mother decided NOT to make turkey, stuffing, yams, dressing and cranberry sauce for a Thanksgiving dinner she was having for a dozen of her friends and another dozen of her relatives. She decided to go with veal, stuffed with a lamb and wild rice dressing, a pasta dish, and a fruit compote. The food was delicious, but very few people touched the food on their plates. Their faces and mouths were frozen in horror. This just wasn’t done. On Thanksgiving. To them. Or anyone else. They wouldn’t do this to anyone. And even though the smells were wonderful, they couldn’t possibly let anyone else there know that they were nothing less than horrified.

What a disaster. My mother’s shameful Thanksgiving. And what could people say afterwards, as they left? Nothing really. Just a quick exit, and some mad and scrambling strategy for finding some Turkey. Somewhere. Some place. So, when their friends asked them how their Thanksgiving was, they could respond in some very traditional, yet very reassuring way, that it was fine. They had had Turkey. And the fixin’s. And stuffing.

Jewelry artists and beaders get caught up in their traditions, as well. It’s hard to break out of the mold. But occasionally, you need to, if you want to grow and develop as a successful jewelry designer.

CBJA most decidedly comes from the art- and design tradition. It does not support a craft-orientation to training, where the student merely learns a set of steps to complete a particular project. It’s more focused on functionality and its interplay with beauty, not beauty alone, as is the Art Tradition. But, many of the courses and training provided still acknowledge the Craft and Art Traditions, because CBJA needs to attract and retain students. And most students, either are unfamiliar with the Design Approach, or are wedded to the Craft or Art approaches, and don’t necessarily look for courses and training embedded in and infused with the Design Approach.