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Going for gold, silver, bronze and beyond: student jewellers hone their craft

TORONTO - Kathleen Kerr was halfway through a four-year program studying kinesiology, likely bound for a future career as a physiotherapist. There was just one problem - she realized it wasn't for her.

TORONTO - Kathleen Kerr was halfway through a four-year program studying kinesiology, likely bound for a future career as a physiotherapist. There was just one problem - she realized it wasn't for her.

"I was not enjoying myself at all," she recalled. "I can handle hard subjects ... but I didn't enjoy it, and I didn't really see myself doing it in the future."

She made the switch into interior design, graduating with an honours diploma. But after moving back to her hometown of Kitchener, Ont., and looking for work, her search was coming up short and she realized it wasn't her passion.

It wasn't until she signed up for a continuing education course on jewelry basics that she finally tapped into what would become her future calling. Kerr is graduating from the three-year Jewellery Arts program at Toronto's George Brown College.

Kerr had long had an inclination toward tapping into her creative side. She made jewelry for friends and family, crafting beaded pieces using everything from semi-precious stones to glass and wood, and also studied art in high school and attended summer workshops.

"I guess I'd always played around with artistic things like painting ceramics ... but I kind of thought 'There's no way I can make a living out of this."'

Now she has aspirations to carve out a career in the field, with dreams to perhaps one day own her own studio and to make pieces to sell at shows or on consignment to boutiques.

Kerr, 29, has gained broad-based skills, including the basics of sawing, soldering and filing, progressing to learning goldsmithing and gem setting. She also learned how to use different modes of equipment from handling a torch to anneal metals to polishing using a large lathe and a small handpiece.

"It's a very broad jewelry education, but there's always room to learn stuff," Kerr noted. "Even if you're 50 and you're in the jewelry business, you can still take workshops, learn from other people."

As if creating an original piece wasn't challenging enough, Kerr said they sometimes make brass models before setting to work on their finished product, which can take at least a day depending on the complexity of the pieces.

"After you make the model you get faster and better at the technique, so it's really useful," she said. "If you plan things out you're not going to make mistakes and you know that it's going to work."

Kerr has created a vast range of diverse items, from a necklace fashioned from sterling silver, 14-karat yellow gold and freshwater pearls, to cuffs formed from acryclic and disposable polystyrene food containers.

The work of Kerr and her fellow Jewellery Arts graduates is being displayed as part of an annual show held at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, running until May 9. The showcase then moves to Mitton's Jewellers in Ridgetown, Ont., near Chatham, from May 22 to June 5.

Charlie Mitton is a fifth-generation jeweller in the family business which was established in 1897. He started off in Grade 9, working out front on the retail side, then learning about watch and jewelry repairs while also spending a lot of time on the polishing wheel.

"I do enjoy working with my hands. I get some real satisfaction out of that kind of work," said Mitton, who graduated from George Brown College in 2000. "It's sort of rewarding when you have a craft like that that you can take a torch to somebody's family heirloom and have some confidence in repairing it or making a new piece."

Interest in the field seems to be gaining momentum. Jewellery Studies professor Paul McClure said the student body's size has doubled over the past 10 years. Each year, there are about 200-plus applicants for the three programs - Jewellery Arts, Jewellery Methods and Jewellery Essentials - from which 60 are accepted into the programs, with Jewellery Arts Program typically accounting for about half of those spots.

Students use precious metals on a credit system, which allows them to work in more expensive materials. The college owns the pieces and students are able to purchase them back for their weight in precious metals, he said. If they choose not to buy them back two years after graduation, the metal is recycled and put back into the system for other students to use.

Up until relatively recently, most goldsmiths were trained through an apprenticeship system or within a family, but that has changed as schools started training in crafts like goldsmithing, McClure said.

The last decade has also seen the impact of the digital revolution with computer-aided design. Students gain hand and computer skills in addition to designing and outputting jewelry digitally, he noted.

McClure said there has been a noticeable increase in the percentage of female students, pointing out that this year will mark the second time in his 10 years with the program where the graduating group is all women. Traditionally, the trade was dominated by men and families of goldsmiths, he noted.

"This is something that's developed in the last 20, 30 years that now there's an opportunity for women to study this," McClure said. "In some ways ... there's an aptitude that's there with women that hadn't been tapped into before so that's one theory, I suppose, why there's more women."

Students also get an education on the business side of the trade. For example, a craft show management course outlines the process of putting a show together, including categorizing, pricing, building, designing a booth, writing a media release and physically working at a show.

McClure said as students progress, particularly in third year, there is always a jump in their technique as well as their confidence.

"They reach a point that they can not only design a piece of jewelry but actually have the hand skills to realize it," he said. "When that happens, it's quite an amazing thing to see."

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