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Jerry Scavezze: Smithing in Salida

Article by Ed Quillen

Local artist – June 2001 – Colorado Central Magazineo Publishing Co. All rights reserved.

Return to June 2001 table of contents.

AS A STUDIO, the back room at 150 West First Street _in Salida looks more like the village smithy’s shop — massive antique anvils of horseshoe-forging dimensions, bench vices that could hold a car transmission, scores of punches and dies, extruders that form wire from solid metal ingots, pedal-powered hammers, and a panoply of other tools for shaping metal.

Scavezze in his studio
[Jerry Scavezze in his studio]

This resemblance is no accident, since the blacksmith and the goldsmith are in the same line of work — making metal conform to a desired shape — and so the tools and processes are much the same, no matter whether the metal is sold by the ton or the troy ounce.

The goldsmith is Jerry Scavezze, whose work appears in fine jewelry stores across the United States, and beyond into the Caribbean, Europe, and even New Zealand. He designs and creates earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, mostly from gold and platinum.

Scavezzi was born 51 years ago in Denver, and grew up on the southwest side of town, where he was graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in 1968. The name is Italian, “but that’s about the extent of the heritage. My grandparents were immigrants, but my parents were mainstream American. Sometimes I wish they’d kept more of the Italian culture.”

Scavezzi went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, majoring in science, “but I hated being at a desk.” After a year, he dropped out. The military draft was in full force then, at the height of fighting in Vietnam, and Scavezzi avoided the draft by joining the Colorado National Guard — where his MP unit got called out to deal with campus disturbances.

But it was the Army that started Scavezzi in his career, even though the military didn’t train him for it.

He was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training. After the first two weeks, trainees got a short weekly break — a four-hour pass every Saturday afternoon.

There wasn’t a lot to do — the base is known to soldiers as “Fort Lost in the Woods” because it sits in the Ozarks far from either St. Louis or Kansas City, and nearby towns like Waynesville offered little except dives and tattoo parlors. “You could stay on base and go drink beer over at the PX, but I really didn’t like being in a smoky room with 200 other loud, drunk soldiers.”

While looking for an alternative, he discovered a craft workshop at the PX. He could buy materials and make things in the shop on Saturday afternoons, and he enjoyed that. “But when I worked with leather, everything I made looked like a belt. I tried pottery, and everything looked like an ashtray. Then I tried metalworking, and I really liked it. It was like I had an inborn feel for it.”

At the time he was married to a woman whose father was a jeweler, and upon his return to Colorado, Scavezzi started learning the craft from his father-in-law.

But the marriage foundered, and he moved to a Capitol Hill apartment. By then, he knew enough to get a job at a trade jeweler’s. A trade jeweler serves the trade — the wedding ring set that you see at a retail chain jeweler’s shop like Zales was made by a trade jeweler.

“It was all very traditional work. Besides making wedding sets, we sized rings, and we repaired just about everything — watches, chains, settings, bracelets. It’s not creative at all, but you really learn the skills and the materials.”

He also met Susan Bethany, whom he worked with, and they were soon married.

[14-karat gold bracelet with diamonds]

By 1979, the Denver air “was so dirty that you couldn’t even see the mountains. I’d always taken pretty good care of myself, physically, and I knew the Brown Cloud couldn’t be good for me.”

HE AND SUSAN had visited the Salida area on camping trips and the like, “and it had clear air, and it was beautiful. Plus, I’d become acquainted with a few local people, and I liked them. Salida looked like the place to go when it was time to get out of Denver.”

So they moved to the mountains, and Scavezze started his own career — designing, fabricating, and selling his own line of jewelry. He wasn’t a conspicuous success at first — some of us first met him when there were gas pumps in front of the Jackson Hotel in Poncha Springs. He was in a little wooden shack nearby, making jewelry when he wasn’t being interrupted by people trying to pay for their gasoline.

But jewelry stores, as well as local customers, began buying his creations, and he opened a studio and gallery in downtown Salida, next to the Unique Theater. Then he went into partnership with another jeweler, Tony Aiello, to refurbish a handsome old downtown structure — the Sandusky Building at 128 F Street — and open Designer’s Mark Jewelers on the bottom floor.

As with many construction or renovation projects, the financing came in two parts. There would be a short-term loan to finance the remodeling, which would then be rolled over into a long-term mortgage.

But the short-term loan came from Buena Vista Bank and Trust, which failed. The federal government’s Resolution Trust Corporation took over the note, and when it came due, “they didn’t give us any time to find long-term financing. We had to pay right away, or lose the building.”

They lost the building, and “after the Designer’s Mark disaster, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to work with jewelry again. I thought I should be a plumber.”

Unemployed, worse than broke, and forty years old, Scavezze was at loose ends when a catalog came in the mail. It was from the Perland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and featured the work of jeweler Heikki Seppä. Scavezze admired the work, and he could learn the technique — a way of simultaneously stretching and compressing metal known as “anticlastic raising” by attending a two-week workshop there.

“Susan kept telling me, ‘You should go.’ And I kept thinking, why should I waste any more time or money pursuing a career that has taken me nowhere? But finally we decided to max out the credit cards, and it was like that craft shop at Fort Leonard Wood — one of those things that changed my life.”

It’s probably no harder to understand an explanation of anticlastic raising than it is to understand the vectored interrupts in your computer, but there isn’t space here for either.

It’s whether the technique accomplishes a goal that matters, and that’s easier to comprehend. Scavezzi sees jewelry as a three-dimensional sculpture, to be viewed from all sides, rather than just the front. “I like it to appear to be in motion, and to have interesting surfaces no matter where you see it.”

BUT PRACTICAL MATTERS intervene. Consider a pair of earrings. They can’t be too heavy to wear, yet they need to be big enough to be seen. Gold is attractive and fairly easy to work, and it doesn’t bother most people’s skin. But gold is also heavy — one of Scavezzi’s soaring designs would be suitable only for masochists if it were solid gold.

[EARRINGS: 18-karat gold with diamonds and platinum wire]

So the earring is made from a tube, rather than a thick gold wire. But you can’t bend a tube without it collapsing, so Scavezze starts with sheets of gold, which are cut with a saw into shaped blanks. The blanks are then curved before being rolled into a tube with anticlastic raising — a process that requires a lot of intricate hammering with ball peens, square peens, cross peens, and the dozens of other specialized hammers in the shop.

“My shoulder started to get sore from all the hammering,” Scavezze said, “and so we got some old foot-powered hammers and rebuilt them. Now it’s my leg that gets sore, and maybe we’ll have to figure out something else.”

When he says “we,” he’s referring to Toni Tischer, who’s worked for him for the past 11 years. She’s not just a technician — she has jewelry designs out under her own name.

They work mostly with gold and platinum. “People won’t pay nearly as much for silver jewelry as for gold,” Scavezze said, “and yet the labor is basically the same for either metal.” As for platinum, it’s even heavier than gold, “and it’s a pain in the ass to work with, so we use it mostly for accents.”

After the workshop in North Carolina, Scavezze’s career took a turn for the better; in 1993, he was one of a dozen jewelers featured in the Jewelers of America show in New York City, and about that time, he bought the old Office Bar building for a studio — his workbenches are on the old dance floor.

[NECKLACE FOCUS: 18-karat gold with black pearl]

Selling jewelry is a little more complicated than putting it in a store window. Scavezzi has a catalog, but most of his marketing effort goes into trade shows at various convention centers around the country — New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas, etc.

“I rent a 10-foot by 10-foot booth space,” he said, and “I put my samples on the table. Sometimes Toni models the jewelry, so they can see it in motion. Retail jewelers from all over the country come to these shows, and if they like my work, they place orders.” He has about 140 customers who carry his work in their stores.

That’s the main income stream, although three years ago, he quit renting out one of the storefronts in front of the studio, and opened Gallery 150 in it.

It carries more work than his and Tischer’s. “We have some other local artists, as well as several lines of glasswork,” he explained, “and it’s coming along pretty well as Salida grows as a place to buy art.”

As for that growth, and Salida growth in general, “it’s one of those two-sided things. It brings problems, but it also brings better restaurants. I know I’ve moved enough. I plan to stay here and work to keep the good things we have.”

Growth does mean competition, “but the more galleries, the more shoppers they attract. And for some reason, Salida has become home to some great metalsmiths, so there are people down the street who know some tricks and techniques that you don’t — nobody can master everything.”

Salida is such a center that it always hosts the Colorado Metalsmiths Association gathering, a small convention devoted mostly to workshops for the experts. It is scheduled this year for July 20-22.

One national magazine called Salida an “unlikely place” for such a gathering of expertise in the working of gold and silver, but that’s why Salida was built in the first place — as a railroad terminal for the silver and gold mines of Leadville and the Gunnison Country.

It seems fitting that gold remains part of the local scene. And just as Salida’s economy has seen ups and downs since the first mines opened, so has Scavezze in his 22 years in town. “Things look pretty good now, but it can turn on you. You just have to keep going, and believe in what you’re doing.”

Ed Quillen works metal every time he tries to get a computer’s case to fit back together, and usually gets cut or pinched in the process. Most of the time, he writes in Salida.