Compelling Questions: Kate Wolf

April 11, 2016

Kate Wolf

Welcome to a new feature called “Compelling Questions.” Every month SNAG will feature a question that is posed to one or more people in the field of jewelry and metals and post their answer(s).  We start with jeweler Kate Wolf:

“What was your path as a jeweler and designer early on, and how did it influence your branching out into creating products for other jewelers?”

Kate WolfKate Wolf: I earned a BFA in Metalsmithing and Jewelry from Tyler School of Art, in 1981. I learned that I loved making jewelry, but not how to make a living at it.

For the next six years, I worked in the Samson Street Jewelry District, in Philadelphia, with the Merdjanian brothers––5 wild and crazy guys who grew up in a refuge camp in Beirut. They were new to this country, and epitomized the immigrant story––work crazy hard, for little money, and build a dream–– a full service trade shop, doing repairs, fabricating master models and one of a kind pieces, wax carving, mold making and injection, casting, finishing, stone setting, plating and polishing.

Some of my classmates got jobs in the field, too. They did grunt work for years before their bosses taught them anything. This was typical of our industry; but my bosses wanted me to learn everything they knew (except stone setting––Nubar did that). A typical day went like this: Hampo, Varouj, Apo or Nazaret would say “Lon, Querique (Hey, Sister) I need you to learn this fast, because we need 50 of these by 2 o’clock.” They taught me how to be a jeweler and how to modify my tools.

Kate Wolf AcornThis was when people started buying jewelry by the gram; it was cut-throat. We cranked out thousands of rings for a customer who was looking for third world prices. I got into the Zen of production. I had mountains of raw castings on my bench to finish, so made a game of it––found ways to be efficient, to break up the monotony. My boss helped: he took a torch to a casting and burned it into the benchpin; now the castings fit in the burned arc and made filing easy. I made plenty of mistakes, but my bosses weren’t tough on me because I was serious about my craft and conscious of the cost.

They took me to my first trade show, MJSA New York. At Rio Grande’s booth I saw Adolfo Mattiello carving wax. I was captivated. I remember thinking, “I’d love a gig like this.” Hah. I watched him all day. Every year.

I applied to grad schools and did freelance wax carving, on the side. One of my customers, The Franklin Mint, offered me a job as a master model maker. I was not qualified, but my bosses told me I’d be crazy to turn it down.

A few days before my new job, I went to a lecture by Albert Paley. He didn’t see obstacles, just opportunities. He didn’t turn down commissions, because his space was small; he cut through the ceiling and said yes. He showed me not to let the limitations of my understanding determine what I could accomplish.

At The Franklin Mint I worked with master wax carver Lazar Portnoy (he showed me how to make carving tools from bike spokes) and master engraver Ralph Alpen. They inspired me.

I went from making vast fast quantities of jewelry to making master models that were to be molded and mass-produced. Every mistake I made was multiplied by the size of the production run. I was terrified.

I realized that my creative process is divided into 3 phases: Avoidance, Amateur Hour, and Flow.

Avoidance: I had to evaluate designs, estimate my labor, and the weight and cost of each piece. I was clueless.

Amateur Hour: Unfortunately, this lasted much longer than an hour. I didn’t know the techniques and tricks that I teach now. The evil monolog in my head said I was an imposter and the last job that I pulled off was a fluke.  (Someone told me they call this ‘Spending time with my itty bitty shitty committee.’) Come to find out––this painful part of the creative process is vital, it fosters breakthroughs.

Flow:  Miraculously, the piece I carved pulled together like it was being freed from the block. I’d get excited, and work around the piece, finally seeing the form––losing sense of time and space. In this joyful, creative zone, the piece was completed.

By the end of the first year, my Amateur Hour became shorter and less crippling. I was promoted to Production Manager, then Director of the Jewelry Division. In three years we went from doing 54 to 91 million dollars in jewelry sales.

Kate Wolf toolsI moved to Maine, produced a line of jewelry (during a recession), ran out of money, and ended up doing master model work for 16 years. I did work for Monet, Lenox, Gorham, Art Carved, House of Faberge, QVC, Disney, and many others. All the while I took out my frustrations on my tools. If I was having a problem, maybe it wasn’t me; maybe my tools were wrong. I kept modifying my tools until they became new, better tools.

I started as a jeweler, and ended up inventing tools for jewelers and teaching them how to use them. I didn’t foresee owning a tool company or teaching when I was in art school, but I can’t imagine a richer life.

top image: Acorn earrings, 18k gold and garnet, ©2001

bottom image: Wolf’s Precision Wax Carvers – Winners of MJSA’s Innovators Award


SNAG would like to take this opportunity to recognize our Corporate Members for their support: Aaron Faber Gallery, Halstead, NextFab, and Pocosin Arts.

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