No need to call the fire department, but John Carnes is running a homemade kiln at 1,500 degrees in the spare room in his Toronto apartment.
The kiln is tiny and Carnes, 45, keeps a fire extinguisher nearby. He’s never had to use it.
He’s using it to create jewellry in an ancient technique called mokume gane, which means “wood-grain metal.” Few in Canada use this technique, which was invented in 17th-century Japan.
Carnes was born in Los Angeles, and grew up in Hawaii. He liked to paint and draw, but gave up art as a teen to focus on playing bass. Back in California after high school, he became a full-time musician.
That craft took him to New York in 1993 where he played jazz, big band, reggae and funk. But he tired of the lifestyle and decided to explore art again.
Living in Woodstock, N.Y., at the time, he set up a studio in his attic and began taking courses in jewelry making.
Eight years later, he heard about mokume gane. He was teaching jewelry making and his students encouraged him to figure it out — they wanted to learn too.
On his own, using copper, silver and inexpensive Japanese alloys called shakudo and shibuichi, he taught himself. Since his jewelry style was minimal, the wood-grain look of the style suited his work, and set him apart. “I realized what a nice little niche this was.”
In 2005, Carnes and his wife at the time moved to Toronto. He began doing his jewelry full time — along with some music on the side.
The process begins with sheets of metal — he uses the Japanese metals, silver and red, white and yellow gold — cut into small rectangles. Carnes clamps the sheets together, heats up his kiln with a jeweller’s torch, and puts them inside. They get very hot, and just before the melting stage their molecules move around a lot. The metals fuse and the colours blend.
The temperature has to be just right. “They all have different melting points. It’s difficult, and I’m doing this all visually.”
Carnes then starts twisting and drilling into the block to create patterns with the fused colours. When that’s done, he uses his traditional jewelry making equipment to roll out the metals, file and form the piece of jewelry.
Carnes does mainly custom ordered rings and sells them through his web site and high-end stores across Canada. “There are not many others doing this work. You have to get good enough to not worry about melting a thousand dollars worth of metal in your lap.”
Diane Peters once hawked magic pens at the Canadian National Exhibition. She’s now a writer and part-time journalism instructor.