I have a bit of metal sculpture in my bedroom. One palm-sized, smooth, shiny, aluminum, elephant-headed Hindu god from India on the nightstand. Minimal design on a black wood base. None of that garish neon drapery and beads and vests and jewels and things. This Ganesha is not decked out in pink and yellow. The artist has restrained himself.
I do not believe in divinity, but I do believe in the beauty of metal. And a bit of decoration. A souvenir from a place.
And I wonder who made it, this small thing that I have, that I love.
Could I do it myself? Make a thing. Something to think.
Ganesha is the god of arts and letters, the god of new beginnings, and the remover of obstacles, among other things.
A new beginning would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?
But how to start again and do something different? Do I need to travel? Further/farther/where? Is it possible to become someone better? Something serious? Something like a man of arts and letters. I mean a person. (But beware “the eternal spectacle of becoming,” that’s what Nietzsche said.) There are so many things to consider. What about a magician? Who would have thought? What about a sculptor working with aluminum? Probably not.
Why not? I’d love to live in a loft with big windows and a view of the city. A bit of silver river nearby if I’m lucky. A space to work and a sense of purpose. Devotion and practice. As if in a temple. (Art as contemplation.) And then, in the end: one final, finished product. Proof of accomplishment. Proof of life.
But I need something small to fit inside the apartment I live in already. Something portable, personal. A kind of ornament.
My guide to style says there are ten pieces of jewelry every woman should own by the time she’s thirty-five. Things you can pull out night after night.
I have registered for a class called Jewelry and Metals. Beginners welcome.
I hope I’m not too late.
On the way to the metalsmithing workshop, in the subway, the car stops in a tunnel. An announcement comes on. “If you see something, say something.” But everyone is quiet. The car has gone dark. There is a monk in saffron robes. I saw him before in the light. There is a girl with a cherry blossom tattoo on her shoulder. But there are no more announcements. No statements. We move on.
At the next station, a passenger comes on with a song: ”There’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York.” And then the music from the mariachi band starts up at the end of the car. People hanging on poles struggle to get out of the way of the small velvet men who will not be discouraged by bags and skateboards and canvases held together with string. Everyone has something.
There is a wizard with a wand, believe it or not.
I have the course catalog with the class description in my bag. I take it out and reread about Forging. Annealing. Drilling. Riveting. Bending. Breaking. What does it all mean?
Metalsmithing sounds serious, ancient, mysterious. It sounds dangerous. Maybe I’m mistaking it for alchemy.
My class meets on Friday nights in the middle of Manhattan, and I hope it will be glamorous.
Goggles and masks hang on hooks for the executioners. I see a rolling mill and a buffing machine. Punches and files. Large tree stumps in the middle of the room are used to form the metal and provide texture.
I try to remember: the beauty of a blank sheet and how I might shape it. That’s why I’ve come here.
I dream of the shine and the finish: the bangles and rings. Silver and gold.
Until the instructor startles me with small squares of copper. This is the material for our first project. Draw a design on the copper (using permanent markers, which last long enough, though not forever), then cut out that design with a saw.
We have to draw something with a hole, something easy like an oval—or something more intricate with curlicues, if we want, if we can. I can’t draw anything, so I come up with a circle, a doughnut, somewhat. (A cipher, a symbol.) It will be a pendant, maybe. (I already have the velvet cord at home.) And I hope that I will learn to love simple jewelry.
The saw blades we’ll be using are so thin that they look like strands of hair, and I have to use a magnifying glass to see which way the teeth are running.
After drawing on the copper, I drill one small hole inside my circle. The start of an opening. I thread the thin, thin saw blade through the copper. And try to begin.
But I can’t cut. I can’t move. My blade is caught.
Metal is harder than I thought.
I break too many saw blades, one after the other. The instructor tells me where to buy more. I will have to go to the metals store and stock up. She can supply me with only so much.
Side street, late night. The windows in the skyscrapers by the highway are dark. Except for one, near the top. Bright task light and no curtains. A man in his underwear sits at his desk with a suitcase by his side. Maybe he is going somewhere. To another island. Maybe he has just arrived. His computer screen is blue. No typing. He hasn’t conjured up anything, not yet. The room around him is the color of oysters. I mean, pearls.
I buy a bright task light with a magnifying glass attached. I set up a studio at home. So that I can commit to this kind of work. So that I can work at home, alone.
I buy a table and a bench pin and packs of saw blades. Files and hammers. Vises and clamps. I don’t know what I’m doing.
I buy magazines and books.
In a biography of Emerson, I read that he admired Michelangelo for his single-mindedness. Michelangelo had “lived one life, pursued one career.” He was committed to being an artist. (Emerson, at the time, felt unsure about what to do.) I understood. I also admired (I still do) those men dedicated to their passion: surfers, samurai, high-wire walkers, and bullfighters. “Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bullfighters” (Hemingway).
How wonderful/beautiful to delve into a discipline so far that all other parts of life became eclipsed. Or illuminated, depending.
Life could be an illuminated manuscript, with vignettes, embellished.
I consider taking a class in medieval manuscript techniques. There is a workshop that promises students will learn all the old skills before creating some small illuminations based on our own designs. Unlike the workers in the Middle Ages who had no say in what to illustrate, who filled in the flourishes that had already been decided. Smoothing down the gold leaf using a hound’s tooth. Monks had done this work in the past, but then demand increased, and workers in London and Paris were employed. They faced the same materials day after day. Never taking a vacation. Doing one thing well, forever.
Concentrate on the metal in front of you! Confront your work directly: this is what the instructor says, as she repositions my shoulders so that I am facing my saw at a right angle, at the right angle. She tightens the tension on the blade. Then shows me how to move the copper around with my left hand as I keep the sawing motion consistent with my right. And then I cut out my entire doughnut design, both inside and out, without breaking another blade (more or less). My saw slides into the metal. As if the metal were liquid and I were swimming through it. Flowing. Leaping. Across the gap from inexperience to knowledge.
Imagine creating something more than a circle now, something open-ended, like scrollwork or filigree. With an intricacy of intersections.
Walking home from class, in the evening, I see chandeliers in townhouses turn windows to citrines, scattered down the side streets.
Stop and wait for the light, a signal, a sign.
There is an advertisement for flights to Iceland that I catch out of the corner of my eye.
Somewhere is a landscape that is the perfect place to be, the background to a life of mastery.
It is probably New York City. Where I live already.
If you don’t want to ruin the metal, sketch your designs on paper first, the instructor tells the class. Take notes. Think about the problems of symmetry. (If you want to make earrings.) But does everything have to match? Some people like to rebel. And what about embellishments?
The instructor provides us with a list of stores in Manhattan that sell pearls and chains and gems. Gather up your own materials.
I wish I’d bought more old jewelry at the flea markets when I’d had the chance. Things to pick apart later. Things from the past. I could have used some things. Even though I’ve decided to give up junk and clutter. Make my bedroom nightstand more streamlined. Remove some obstacles.
But one must have something.
I remember ruffling through piles of white shirts with crystal buttons in Brussels. Then buckets of hardware—handles, locks, hooks. I bought a small door knocker in the shape of a dolphin. Made of some sort of base metal, but I don’t know what. I don’t even know what that dolphin signifies. What daydream, what ocean.
The metals store in midtown Manhattan is located on an upper floor and without a sign at street level. I have to look up to find it while people flow around me. This is one of those places that you never knew existed until you need it. A cramped space with wires and chains. Boxes are spilling over with mandrels. Plus things that I can’t even name. I’m here to find dead soft silver sheet, blades and bits, flux and snips. Someone yells out something about solder. I am in another country, where everything is interesting. Where everyone else knows what to do, how to make herself understood. How to make metal beautiful.
After sawing out the inside of several copper circles, I learn that filing will take care of the rough edges. Because there are rough edges all around, inside and out.
But should I first try to saw some more and even things out? How much work would that take, and is it worth it? Maybe I should try to fix my attitude instead. And learn to enjoy something awkward, asymmetrical.
Back home, I read about wabi-sabi—the Japanese appreciation of things rustic, imperfect, and inconspicuous—in order to prepare myself for more metalsmithing. “The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else,” says Leonard Koren in his handbook Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, something that I bought, once upon a time, one afternoon after daydreaming about becoming something.
I am told to invest in escapement files, what watchmakers use, if I have in mind more fantastical designs for my future.
But what I want right now is for others to become enchanted by this copper circle
I hold in my palm as if it were a pearl.
On my way home through the city,
pearls of wisdom set in a store window:
Jewelry is a necessity.
God rewards those who spend money on luxuries.
I buy sheets of thick sterling silver and cut out more irregular pendants. Somewhat circular. I stamp quotes around the edges and hang them from velvet ribbons. “All truth is crooked” (Nietzsche). “We each have our circle” (Gertrude Stein). “Everything is a cipher” (Nabokov). I add pearls to the velvet. A stranger says “charming” when I wear one out to dinner.
I make notes of more quotes for future reference.
“Style is life,” said Flaubert. “There is still time” (Baudelaire).
The door to the pearl store (wholesale) is covered over with white paper. Passersby can’t see inside. Because the space inside is inviting, with strands of pearls hanging from the ceiling to the floor. Tiny grain-of-sand pearls, coin pearls, gumball pearls. Dyed in pastels and dark garnet and silver like river water. I look around for something to take. Always looking for something new to make into something else. Never satisfied with what’s given. Pearls dangle like carrots. Orange and yellow.
Not only New Yorkers, but also the Romans and Egyptians were crazy for pearls. There is a story about Cleopatra in which she decided to impress Marc Antony with her wealth by dissolving one giant, extravagant pearl earring in a goblet of vinegar and then drinking it.
I would like to buy huge black Tahitian pearls to add to my metal, but they’re too expensive for amateurs.
I keep working with what I have, increasing production, gathering incantations, hoping to create something that works, learning more tricks, discovering how to solder silver circles together.
Solder, when it flows, seeps into the structure of the hot silver and instantly unites everything around. Solder does not fill a gap, however. The edges have to be flush for it to work.
I make thick silver rings from strips of silver by placing each flat strip around a mandrel, then hammering it into a circle. Solder the seams. I spend some time filing away the lumps of excess solder that didn’t flow correctly. Then sand the metal, using five grades of sandpaper, until, like magic, the seam disappears. The connection is invisible. A circle is formed that looks as if it will last forever.
I polish my silver ring with steel wool and soap and water, rubbing inside and out until I have a satiny, shiny thing of beauty. I slip it on and wear it out into one flawless sapphire night with the Chrysler Building incised.
In the History of Jewelry exhibit at a museum in London, I once found a stick pin in the form of a skull (French, circa 1867). The label explained: “Gold and enamel with diamond sparks. Contains electric terminals so that, when connected to a battery concealed in the wearer’s pocket, the eyes roll and the jaw snaps.”
But I was safe, on the other side of the glass.
The ivory enamel on that skull was not even chipped. Maybe the owner kept it in a box. Maybe he hoped his heirs would sell it one day and buy some Art Deco turquoise bracelets when those became all the rage. Maybe he was a lover of arts and letters. With a red leather copy of Hamlet on his nightstand. Maybe there were other memento mori scattered around.
I have a copy of the Hagakure (Book of the Samurai) on my nightstand, among other things, some souvenirs. I read about the warriors who prepared themselves every morning for that day’s life by imagining death.
Every day, I continue to cut out circles and put circles together and string circles onto velvet. I keep making necklaces and rings.
A feeling of accomplishment and progress. I imagine that I am getting somewhere. I imagine traveling elsewhere, maybe Venice, maybe Fez, while wearing something of my own design. That would be something.
I have discovered a designer who makes jewelry that mimics caffeine molecules, and I am jealous. This is jewelry created from flat circles soldered together, and I could have done that. If I’d thought of it, of course, which I did not, which is a disappointment.
Which means I have to come up with something else. To rely on my own obsessions. Everyone has something. Yeats said something about every man having some recurring image in his heart that he keeps coming back to, over the years, something that can fuel a lifetime of poetry. But what is it?
There is plenty of jewelry out there already. I’ve seen bracelets inscribed with uplifting quotes and pendants dripping with HOPE and LOVE, bangles that say CARPE DIEM and BELIEVE IN MAGIC, but that’s not what I want.
Do I think I can make something better? A better statement? A statement necklace in sterling silver? Rose gold, maybe.
I learn that it’s impossible to create a perfect circle while cutting sheet metal, by hand, with a saw, following an outline drawn on with a thick black marker.
I remember inky circles in Kyoto drawn on thin paper. The Zen Buddhist practice of drawing an open-ended circle, the enso, happens quickly, in one stroke, without pretense, that’s what I read. The enso is a symbol of movement, grace, tranquility, and the possibility of perfection, among other things. It is not a scribble. It is not nothing. The end does not meet the beginning. It doesn’t have to.
I buff my metal circles to a mirror finish with the polishing machine, which provides more shininess than steel wool can. There are warnings on the machine to watch out for loose clothes and long hair and to drop your piece immediately if it gets caught in the rolling buffer. You don’t want to be dragged under.
I wear a new silver circle pendant through the evening
, on the town. Maybe someone will notice its flash in the dark. A bit of art before good night. But what are the chances? That I can make a piece of jewelry so precious that someone would want to kill me in order to steal it from me on the subway?
Why do we wear jewelry at all, especially late at night, when something might happen? To forge a connection? To start a conversation?
Although I am not the kind of person who likes to talk to strangers.
Jewelry as an exclamation point, maybe.
“No more words” (Rimbaud, who gave up poetry for gun running).
The instructor tells us to think. About what we want our pieces to say.
You don’t have to use the letter stamps to embed messages. Sometimes, the design conveys everything.
Ancient peoples wore jewelry to tell people who they were. Also to ward off evil, to prove their wealth, to show commitment to someone else, to have a weapon (think of a hairpin), to instill confidence, and for the love of decoration. Several books about the history of jewelry say the same thing.
I continue to cut out circles. Copper and silver. Sometimes a bit of thin gold sheet, if I’m lucky. I want one shape, like a role model that I can follow, that I can repeat. Something that I can do forever that makes sense.
I want to make something that I can believe in.
And now I have a lot of necklaces.
A friend sells them for me at her jewelry stall at the holiday market.
A customer asks about the text that I have stamped around the edges. Wonders what the words are about. What’s the story?
“No need of a story, a story is not compulsory, just a life” (Beckett).
Before Christmas, I box up silver earrings made from some of my hand-carved circles that I’ve embellished with turquoise beads bought in Arizona. Where I followed a sign by the side of the road that said: “Beads, turquoise, and some.” The same sign several times, every few miles, until I realized what it must mean: “Beads, turquoise, and more.”
Because maybe there isn’t any more. But there is always some.
But the beads that I bought came from another shop.
I have tiny bags of them, shored up.
I thought I had made something thoughtful/artful, but now I don’t know. Maybe people would have preferred earrings from a store?
On vacation in New Mexico, in the parking lot of a souvenir shop in the Zuni Pueblo, someone rushed up to the car, out of the dust, with a tray of stone fetishes that had to be wiped off before anyone could admire them. Slivers of rock carved to look like animals. Small enough to carry, powerful enough to protect you. Or help you. Do whatever. These are the fetishes that everyone wants. They can be incorporated into earrings and statement necklaces. Shops are overflowing.
When selecting your fetish, you cannot pick an animal with the characteristics you want but do not actually have. If you’re a coward, for example, do not think the bear’s courage will help you. Your fetish should reinforce those traits you currently exhibit, to help you use them to your best advantage.
What about a raven? Black (jet) with specks of turquoise for eyes. The raven is curious, devious, a trickster, a fan of transformation, will make things work, and wants bits of glitter.
Although everyone says something different.
On the street, in the snow, class is over. Everything is black and white, momentarily.
I stop for a moment before turning a corner. Feel the bricks behind, the prongs of skyscrapers all around. There is a fine line of smoky amethyst along the horizon.
In Berlin, the heavy hotel curtains were lined with dusty silver silk. I looked past them, looked out, at the gray river with chunks of black ice. I could see the Altes Museum, with a bright red sign over the entrance that said in English: All Art Has Been Contemporary.
I went inside the museum. One of the items that I had wanted to see was an example of Cleopatra’s handwriting, just a short official phrase on papyrus. But there was a photograph of the piece in its place on the wall. The accompanying text said the original is elsewhere. As always.
Cleopatra wore gold jewelry and, like other people, also loved turquoise because it was the color of the sea, which represented happiness. That’s what people believe(d). Think of sunsets and dolphins and daydreams.
In New York, New Year’s Eve confetti appears in the ice on the morning sidewalk. Like glitter in resin. Someone had a good time last night.
There are warnings not to wear chunky silver jewelry when it’s freezing. It will chill you. It could kill you. Opals might crack in the cold. Opals might be bad luck. Who knows. So go without adornment! Could you do it?
But I don’t want to. I need something to take. A bit of decoration. A souvenir from a place and time. The trip of a life. A string of words, a string of pearls. A pebble from the beach to sit on the desk. A view of the river. Among other things. I once saw a necklace of polished river rocks with diamonds set into them, flush against the smooth. Something like that would be beautiful. I have an idea for something else. Can’t I just keep going until I finish?
The instructor said: Now that you know how to work with metal, how to think at the bench, how to carve, connect, form, and burnish, you can do anything, theoretically.
p;Alimentum, failbetter, Tampa Review Online, and Washington Square Review, among others. And her shortest story can be found in Hint Fiction (Norton). She lives in New York City. Find her online here.