Santa Fe Symposium Spotlight: Phil Poirier

Santa Fe Symposium Spotlight: Phil Poirier

Ever seen a straightline engraver? Ever even heard of one? Be at the 2018 Santa Fe Symposium and not only meet Phil Poirier, but discover straightline engraving and imagine what can happen for your jewellery-making when what was old becomes new again.

G. Phil Poirier, designer, innovator, owner of Bonny Doon Hydraulics & Tooling
G. Phil Poirier, designer, innovator, owner of Bonny Doon Hydraulics & Tooling

Phil is endlessly curious and inventive about new ways to bend metal. This year, he brings his enthusiasm to Santa Fe Symposium (to be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, May 20–23, 2018). The title of the presentation he will make at this year's Santa Fe Symposium, “The Straightline Engraving Machine,” got our own curiosity going, so we went and asked him questions about life, his work and his views on the Symposium.

Bracelet formed in the Bonny Doon press after being patterned in the straightline engraving machine.
Bracelet formed in the Bonny Doon press after being patterned in the straightline engraving machine. (Design by Brooke Barlow)

Tell us a little about your education and how you got into the jewelry industry.

I started making jewelry after taking a silversmithing class in high school. It was the beginning of the silver and turquoise rush in the early '70s, and I had a successful business running out of my parents’ garage. Over the years, I apprenticed with various masters. One was a master stone-cutter, another a master engraver.

Intricate and beautiful pattern created by the straightline engraving machine.
Intricate and beautiful pattern created by the straightline engraving machine.

What is it about your work that keeps you loving it every day?

I love the creation of work and the problem-solving that goes with it—creating new work is all about problem-solving; each new design brings its own unique set of needs and constraints. I have always had the desire to push the limits of what can be made or done in metal, so, by addressing the problems of a new design or idea, I see many more possibilities and directions that can be traveled. It’s an exploration of all the possibilities of design and creation, and I get to explore with every new idea.


What is your go-to process or technique when you're challenged in your work?

I use hundreds of techniques, and thousands of tricks I've picked up over the years, to accomplish my end goal. Most of them overlap one another at least a small amount...selecting the right technique for the job is just one part of my day-to-day problem solving.


What is the most memorable piece you've created to date?

There are many, but the most recent is an 18-karat gold locket that is designed to look similar to a pocket watch with enameled guilloche on both covers. One side is engraved with a pattern I created called “Woven Lightning,” and the other side is engraved with an eccentric sunburst, both inspired by my New Mexico background. It'll be featured at an upcoming jewelry show at the Albuquerque Museum in June.

18-karat yellow gold locket with guilloche on front and back covers.
18-karat gold locket with guilloche on front and back cover.

What led you to a straightline engraver in the first place?

Studying Fabergé cases and eggs was my first attraction to guilloche, or engine turning, which is what these machines do. My first straightline machine came to me in the mid-90s when I purchased a pair of engine-turning machines, one a rose engine and one a straightline. They were almost 100 years old and in dire need of rebuilding. I rebuilt both and started engraving patterns on pieces. From that point I was hooked. Over the years, I have bought many old machines and restored them to fine operational condition.


What was the most challenging part of re-learning or refurbishing that first machine?

By rebuilding that first pair of engine-turning machines from the ground up, I was able to interpret the design intentions of the engineers who built them. This gave me the perfect insight into how the machines work, what their capabilities are, and where their vulnerabilities lie.


How does this piece of equipment fit into the work you do with your press?

Many of the parts that I engrave on the straightline machine are then shaped and formed with the Bonny Doon press. Using the above example of my locket, the parts were first engraved and then they were formed in the press. The beauty here is that the fine bright engraving was not marred at all in the process due to the methods we use with our press.


What inspired you to develop a presentation for SFS on the line engraver?

Straightline engraving is a rare method of creating beautiful patterns on metal. Few jewelers know of, or have heard about, these machines as they went out of use and disappeared almost completely nearly a century ago. With this presentation, I want to bring this technique to the larger group of metalsmiths.


What will attendees learn from your presentation?

They'll learn a bit of the background and history of the straightline machine, how it works, how patterns are designed and executed, and how these machines are being used by a few modern craftspeople today.


Do you have a favorite story among your SFS experiences that you are comfortable sharing?

No one story...the most memorable events for me, though, certainly come from the speakers trips! Seeing the sun through a hydrogen alpha filter in Cloudcroft, zooming around a racetrack at more than 160mph at the Texas Motor Speedway, riding a vintage rail car around St. Louis while drinking and dining with fellow speakers, these are some of my brightest memories from the Symposium.


Register today, to take part in the Santa Fe Symposium. And, while you're at the 2018 Santa Fe Symposium, be sure to catch Phil's presentation and meet him in person—both your network and his will be the richer for it!