Since its inception in 2001, the Saul Bell Design Award competition has honored innovative design and impeccable craftsmanship, empowering jewelers and attracting artists, newcomer to veteran, to compete. It is something that would've delighted Saul Bell, founder of Rio Grande and namesake of the awards.
Saul Bell was a skillful jeweler and watchmaker, a patient and good-humored teacher, and a strong advocate for the art of jewelry making and the jewelry makers who do it. He was renowned for sharing his time, talents and knowledge and paying forward the skills he learned and the support he received as a young boy when he started on the jeweler's bench at 8 years old as his uncle's apprentice.
Saul applied the apprenticeship philosophy in his business approach, sharing know-how as part of his service to his customers. In teaching, collaborating with, and supporting his customers, Saul built strong personal relationships that kept his business growing and customers loyal. The Saul Bell Awards competition celebrates Saul's servant leadership that encourages artisans to take risks.
"My father would've had so much admiration for every metalsmith who has entered this competition," beams Molly Bell, Rio Grande Executive Vice President and daughter of Saul Bell. "He would have been deeply interested and encouraging to every entrant. The spirit of the competition embodies not only his passion for making jewelry and his appreciation for the creativity and technical challenges of the work these artists do, but also his respect for those striving to learn more, pushing past obstacles, and thriving in doing what they love."
The seed of the idea for this competition was born in March 2000 at a party celebrating what would've been Saul's 100th birthday, as customers shared stories of how Saul influenced, supported, taught and encouraged them, tells Molly. Among the favorites is the story of Emily. While attending the University of New Mexico on a pre-med track, Emily chose jewelry arts and sculpture as her "easy" elective credit. The department head and professor at the time sent his students to Rio Grande to get class kits and supplies. Saul loved to engage with the students. Emily began bringing her class projects in to show him and ask for his advice. She said he was so encouraging and willing to problem-solve that she'd walk away with new knowledge and heightened confidence in her talent. Emily credits Saul as a big reason she chose to become a jeweler instead of a doctor, opening her successful gallery, Emily Benoist Ruffin Goldsmith, in Taos in 1980. A celebrated artist, Emily is a Saul Bell Design Award winner, which is particularly fitting, Molly says, as she is one of few recipients that knew Saul.
Like Emily, Ralph Sena began shopping at Rio Grande in the early 1970s, tells Molly. Ralph was making jewelry before he graduated from high school. He told a story of how Saul impressed upon him the importance of mastering a mirror finish on his pieces. The encouragement, he says, as well as the nudge he received from Saul to focus more on the finish of his pieces, made a noticeable difference in his journey to become a master jeweler.
Central to Saul Bell's philosophy was a great pride of craftsmanship. "He was passionate about the importance of spending the time and effort needed to achieve an impeccable finish," describes Molly.
Not surprisingly, the Saul Bell design competition is unique for its intensive judging process. Two panels, comprising 10 master jewelers and industry leaders, assess and rank entries through two rounds of rigorous judging.
In the first round, five judges look for design originality, proposed use of materials, and aesthetics to select finalists. These finalists then make the jewelry, which is examined by a new set of five judges, who examine the pieces in hand and see them worn by models. They are looking for successful incorporation of materials, wearability and craftsmanship. Finalists must produce art that is not only beautiful, but also technically impeccable.
"I appreciate the two rounds of judges in the competition," says Sophia Hu, whose entry, "Origami—Window with a View Collection" received the 2018 Saul Bell Award Best of Show distinction. In 2019 her "Helices" collection took First Place honors in the Collections category. "They have the eyes and tastes to see deeper, to identify and appreciate all the design efforts I put into each piece in this collection."
In fact, for Victoria Gomelsky, Editor-in-Chief of JCK magazine, who served as a judge years ago, the experience while daunting, was revelatory in that it opened her eyes to esoteric jewelry techniques such as Mokume-gane. "I eagerly look to the winners to see what inevitably qualifies as jewelry art."
As one of the most recognized and distinguished competitions in jewelry design there is much anticipation to see the pieces produced, echoes Trace Shelton, editor in chief of InStore magazine. "One of the coolest aspects of the Saul Bell Award is the way that Rio Grande rewards winners and finalists with widespread promotion and coverage of their jewelry, as well as gift certificates and classes so they can continue to grow and progress in their work. I'm not surprised that even after two decades, the top jewelry designers in the world vie for a Saul Bell Design Award year after year, because it has been and continues to be such an incredible, rewarding honor to receive."
Because of this, the competition is especially beneficial for emerging designers and artists to get their pieces and names out into the industry, underscores National Jeweler Editor in Chief Michelle Graff.
"Entries come from all corners of the world and represent human ingenuity and creativity at its finest," says Shane Hendren, a first round judge for the 2019 awards, and member of Rio Grande's Jewelry Tech Team. "I'm blown away by the diversity, as well as the quality and craftsmanship of the entries. I encourage all jewelry artists to enter the Saul Bell Design Award competition!"
"The connections with the jewelers Rio Grande serves have been nourished and made more meaningful as a result of the Saul Bell Design Award competition," says Molly. "It provides an opportunity to stop, look, listen and appreciate the work of our customers on a personal level. Our job is to provide materials and tools for jewelers to make beautiful wearable art, but we do not always get to see what becomes of that. This competition enriches the sense of purpose for all Rio Grande associates. There are pictures of finalists' work that adorn the walls of our building. The connections feel very personal and inspire associates to take great pride in the work that we do."
This collaborative spirit is reflected in the competition, year after year. Categories have been added and retired. "We always conduct a retrospective and discuss what works and what doesn't," Molly describes. "Much of what guides our decisions is informed by our customers. We're keen to see whether entries in any category is rising or trending down. We're open to feedback and responsive when we have a clear indicator."
That has always been the genius of Saul Bell: To listen and share, to encourage and empower. "He often said that we are so fortunate to work in this industry because we get to deal with people who are commemorating positive moments in life. Feelings of happiness are likely a part of every transaction," says Molly. "Jewelry has been part of the human story for thousands of years, heirlooms that transcend time. Other than an ever-growing awareness of the caliber of the Saul Bell Design Awards, its spirit remains constant