It’s 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 22, and a few brave (if doomed) snowflakes are cutting through the crisp New Mexico sunlight. Despite the winter chill, it's warm and comfortable inside Los Poblanos Historic Inn, a sprawling compound of accommodations and farmland just a short dirt road away from the Rio Grande.
One by one, five travelers drift into the inn's formidable library. They greet each other over grilled bacon-and-cheese sandwiches and frisée salad crowned with jammy, golden egg yolks. But these are no ordinary hotel guests. Each person is a world-class jeweler in their own right; the collective body of knowledge among them could fill up just about every bookshelf in that room.
These esteemed jewelers are this year's final-round judges of the Saul Bell Design Award.
Without a doubt, the most experienced among these experts is Jose Hess, a jeweler who's kept his hands in the industry for nearly 70 years. Jose has earned that time as a master goldsmith, gemologist, designer and consultant, as well an instructor at FIT. Renowned for his work with diamonds, his numerous accolades include the De Beers Diamonds-International Award.
Paula Crevoshay, also known as the "Queen of Color," is presiding here as well. As the eponymous jeweler, designer and owner behind the Crevoshay brand, Paula travels the world in search of vivid gemstones and design vernaculars to weave into her museum-quality jewelry line.
Then there's Lee Krombholz, a custom jeweler and the third-generation owner of Krombholz Jewelers in Cincinnati, Ohio. Starting as a child tinkering in his father's shop, Lee has grown the family business to include nine employees. And he's done it by bridging the old-school world of bench jewelry with the industry's future, administering several traditional apprenticeships while embracing cutting-edge technologies such as CAD/CAM and 3D printing.
Hearing the name "Alan Revere" would turn just about any jeweler's head; he's here, too, sitting in a cozy corner nook of the library. A European-trained goldsmith, Alan founded the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, in 1979.
Last but not least is Jeanette Caines, a goldsmith, author, instructor and owner of New York's Jewelry Arts Inc. Academy. With colliding passions for gold, granulation techniques and the history of ancient jewelry, Jeanette has gained a reputation as a kind of "gold whisperer.""
Unlike her colleagues on the panel, Jeanette is making her first foray into formally judging a design competition. But she has no doubt her expert jewelry sleuthing, honed over nearly 30 years of inspecting student work at Jewelry Arts Inc., will serve her well today.
(Case in point: The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently gave Jeanette access to a piece of Etruscan-era gold jewelry, charging her with re-creating the priceless object using historical techniques. In the process, Jeanette single-handedly discovered the "Etruscan" was an imposter.)
It's 1 p.m., and the five judges have pulled together in a sun-drenched multipurpose room. The Saul Bell Design Award finalist jewelry pieces are meticulously arranged on nearly 100 displays; here and there, the room glints with a supernatural brilliance. Now the work begins.
The judges will evaluate 45 submissions spanning nine categories: Gold/Platinum; Silver/Argentium™ Silver; Enamel; Alternative Metals/Materials; Holloware/Art Objects; two Emerging Jewelry Artist categories for high school and college-aged jewelers; and two new "collection" categories—Jewelry Collection Couture/Fine and Jewelry Collection Fashion/Bridge. In total, there are more than a hundred individual pieces.
Each judge wears white cotton gloves, turning over the jewelry in their hands and in their minds until a winner begins to pull away from the pack. Every member of the panel exhibits their own unique style as they scrutinize the artistry on display.
Jeanette, spying some profoundly difficult technique or excitingly underused material, lets loose a salty exclamation in her New York/New Jersey accent. Half thinking out loud, half leading a discussion among his peers, Alan weighs the artistic merit and drama of a cuff against its not-imperceptible heft. Lee is thoughtful and curious—like a Socrates in Converse sneakers, he asks questions that casually plumb the depths of his colleagues' knowledge and experience.
A black-clad model emerges with a pair of voluminous earrings dangling from her earlobes. The judges draw close around her. Paula, speaking as both a designer of earrings and an avid owner of them, asks the model about their comfort and wearability. Are they heavy? How do they feel? The model gives her honest assessment as the judges examine the earrings in their new, more natural context.
Another model appears a few minutes later, also dressed in black, This time, she's wearing a bracelet. The balance isn't quite right. The panel asks her to flip the piece upside-down, reorienting a gemstone toward her hand instead of her forearm. "Ahhhhhh," the judges breathe collectively. "That's how it's meant to be worn," Paula says.
Jose has been fairly quiet up to this point, absorbed in the details around him, but his eyes flash now. "If you're doing a cha cha cha," he asks the model in his Continental-Colombian patois, "would it be secure?" And when a large necklace appears before the judges, Jose asks the model, "Did you put it on yourself?"
Both are astute observations disguised as questions. After all, what fun is a bracelet if you can only wear it gingerly around the house? And though the large necklace is lovely to look at, it can't be worn without help from an assistant. (Thankfully, the models do have help from a stylist, should they run into an especially tricky piece.)
Some pieces that seemed to steal the show while perched on a display don't look as good or lay as well when worn. Other pieces come alive when they're on the models. It's almost dizzying how the sense of space, line and proportion is altered by the human form. ... But then again, the judges ask themselves, that's the beauty of jewelry, isn't it?