On Great Barrington’s Main Street, up a narrow staircase in an office building and down a blank, white hall sits a green door, indistinguishable from its neighbors except for the number 304. Looking at it, one can scarcely imagine that anything creative is happening inside. But just beyond lies the studio of James Kennedy, one of a growing number of Berkshire artisans who is challenging the notion that fine-quality handmade jewelry can’t be found outside big cities.
Over millenia, jewelry has evolved from a form of currency to an indicator of status to a talisman, fashion accessory, and means of personal expression. Today, craftsmen have become increasingly sophisticated in their approach to coaxing form and meaning from metal and gemstones.
Kennedy—lean, handsome, and quiet spoken—has been drawn to jewelry since taking metalworking courses at his Detroit high school. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he worked in New York City and landed in the Berkshires 14 years ago. For the past five years, his jewelry-design classes have been a fixture at IS183 Art School of the Berkshires. Inspired by various artwork, Kennedy creates everything from moon-like dangle earrings to chunky, interlocking, metal-bead necklaces and pendants of silver that embrace smooth stones—all in a signature, geometric-meets-organic style.
Kennedy, who designs through his company, Collective Metals, primarily uses the lost-wax casting technique. He first sketches out the concept, then carves a three-dimensional model from wax, which is used to create a plaster mold. Kennedy injects the mold with molten silver, gold, or platinum and allows the metal to harden.
Best-sellers—available at LOCAL in Lenox, Museum Facsimiles in Pittsfield, and The Red Door in Great Barrington—include cuff bracelets and rings, especially wedding bands. “It’s very satisfying to be part of an important piece of people’s lives,” Kennedy notes.
Down a rutted, south-county dirt road is the studio of Tokyo-born and -educated sculptor Dai Ban. He relocated to the U.S. in 1985 and worked as a sculptor’s assistant. In 1993, he came to Lenox Dale as head model maker for visual-effects company Mass Illusion on the movie Judge Dredd, and got hooked on the easygoing vibe of the Berkshires. He and his wife, Robin, made the move permanent shortly after.
Ban flourished as a model maker, crafting everything from the T. rex that swallows Marty McFly’s DeLorean on the Back to the Future ride, at Universal Studios in Florida, to ice cream that never melts and tomatoes that stay ripe even in the dead of winter. “I started feeling guilty because those things are fake. I thought, ‘I have kids. I don’t want to do that anymore,’ ” Ban says. So he turned to something more authentic: making jewelry for his wife. It attracted immediate attention from Robin’s customers at Seeds & Co., her gift shop in Great Barrington.
Ban is self-taught and, like Kennedy, uses lost-wax casting. He has even modified the nozzle of a wax gun, a common tool of model makers, to extrude intricate looping forms. He compares this to mehndi, the ancient Indian art of applying exquisitely detailed ceremonial henna decorations to the skin. A recurring theme in his work are the tiny, sculpted hands he uses in pendants and clasps, many of them strung on strands of richly hued, semiprecious beads. “Each hand has a meaning,” says Ban, hovering like a new father over a studio display case.
When asked about the neighboring skull pendants made in the likeness of Lucy—otherwise known as AL 288-1, the 3.2-million-year-old fossils that represent one of the earliest human ancestors ever discovered—Ban runs a hand through his spiky black hair and laughs. “I like organic,” he says. “Handmade pieces are timeless. It’s not a fashion trend.”
Lisa Anderson, who works out of a cozy space filled with warm woods and the glow from a large skylight in her southern Berkshire home, has a similar take. “Sometimes when I see the mass-produced stuff, I think, ‘Okay, I can’t compete.’ Anytime I’ve tried to step away from my aesthetic and do the less expensive, it hasn’t worked. As artists, we have to be completely true to ourselves.”
The daughter of an art professor and a Foreign Service secretary, Anderson traveled from an early age and became fascinated with jewelry on a trip to India. She earned a degree in Asian Studies from the University of Minnesota and worked for 13 years for the American Refugee Committee. She also took a series of courses with master jewelers.
“I like things to look like they’re very ancient,” she explains. “If they’re too perfect, it’s not as interesting to me.” This rough-hewn approach has resonated with a wide range of customers at LOCAL and at the annual Shire City Holiday Shindy in Pittsfield.
The designer uses a combination of forging and casting, along with precious-metal clay (PMC), a medium composed of particles of silver, gold, copper, or bronze mixed with an organic binder. After sculpting and often stamping or carving designs into the clay, she fires the pieces in a kiln, where the binders burn away to reveal solid metal.
Rocker-chic in jeans, a black blazer, and black eyeliner (a nod to her side gig as a singer/guitarist in the band Bell Engine), Anderson insists she doesn’t pay attention to fashion trends in both her clothing and jewelry design. Her sole aim is to make “something you can put on and feel really fantastic.”
Bart Arnold knows a thing or two about making people feel fantastic. As a master’s student in painting at NYU, he tried his hand at jewelry courses and found he had a natural aptitude. He taught art in a New York City elementary school before moving to the Berkshires in the early 1970s, where he honed his jewelry designs. He then relocated to L.A., where his work was a hit among Beverly Hills boutiques and Hollywood stylists who used it in movies like Baby Boom and The Big Chill. He also sold to Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel in New York City.
Arnold returned to country life in the Berkshires in 1990 and now focuses on the regional market, including Lauren Clark Fine Art in Housatonic and the Don Muller Gallery in Northampton.
His sinuous designs are made entirely through hand forming, including a centuries-old technique called repoussé, in which sheet metal is heated in a bowl of pitch and then hammered into smooth, rounded forms. He uses silver, gold, copper, and nickel to create deceptively minimalist pieces, from serpentine cuff bracelets to shiny, elongated silver dangle earrings tipped with brushed-silver domes.
“I’m influenced a lot by modernism, having something boiled down to its basic elements,” Arnold explains. “I always go back to Brancusi and some of his shapes. They’re futuristic, but have a primitive simplicity as well.” Although he looks the model of New England preppy in polo shirt and crisp twill shorts, his mind is constantly turning with unconventional ideas. That mix of personalities, the ability to convey many meanings and emotions to many people, is exactly what makes handmade jewelry as appealing now as it was when it was first introduced thousands of years ago.