PITTSFIELD — Tim McClelland was just a teenager when he stumbled upon a beginners jewelry making class. It started a spark that led to a profession that has given him great fulfillment.
McClelland makes original fine jewelry, a task that he’s done both by himself and with others for 50 years. The South County resident, who has run his own Great Barrington-based business, TW McClelland, for the last two years, is also a member of the American Jewelry Design Council, which is made up of some 30 lifelong U.S. jewelry makers. Membership is by invitation only. The group sponsors education programs, and provides design awards to increase the awareness of jewelry design in the United States.
We talked with McClelland about his craft recently.
Q: How did you become interested in doing this?
A: I got interested in making jewelry in high school. My public high school (in Pontiac, Mich.) had a very rudimentary jewelry making course. It was back in the early ’70s. The jewelry teacher was kind of a hippie and I thought he was cool. I also really liked the idea of watching metal get melted and made into objects like that. I was about 15.
It was good because in a way it was like a vocational thing because I wasn’t a great student. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but I wasn’t a good model citizen. It kind of kept me occupied. I was blessed to have it. It would be wonderful if more public high schools had things like that where they can engage students. That’s a really big deal. It was for me.
Q: Why did you stick with it?
A: It was very compelling to me. It was really the one thing I was good at even from the beginning. I wasn’t that interested in going to college. I went to a place in Maine called [Haystack Mountain School of Crafts] in Deer Isle. I ended up moving down to Boston from there and was able to enroll at Boston University. It was called the program in artisanry. It was for people who were interested in crafts. They had furniture making, musical instruments. weaving and textile design and metal working and jewelry making. So I got hooked in because it just seemed to work for me. It was really interesting, the people were artistic, and there was an artistic side to it. I was really interested in art.
Q: How do you make jewelry?
A: It’s a double process. It starts with an idea and the idea can be almost anything these days because there’s so much that’s already been done historically that you can pull from any place to get an idea. When I start with an idea it’s often based on things I’ve done in the past, but also a particular material, a gemstone, or sometimes techniques I’m interested in. I’m always looking to be original. I like originality. That’s really, really at the core of how I design. I don’t want to copy anybody. I want it to be as absolutely as original as I can do it.
Q: How do you develop an idea?
A: Once I figure out how a piece can be made, or if I can make it all, then I usually make a prototype and see how that looks. If it looks promising then I’ll either develop the idea and make multiples or make a one of a kind sort of beautiful thing to look at.
Q: How do you make the prototype?
A: I have a group of sketch books, maybe four or five that I’ve kept my whole career. If I get an idea usually it’s really late at night when I’m in bed or when I’m waking up in the morning when my mind is sort of calm. I’ll have an idea and write it down in the sketch book by my bed. What I do is keep those sketchbooks. I’ll look back in through some of my earliest ones from years ago and if a design still looks good, like it’s still promising after many years, I’ll do it. I let my designs gestate in my books for awhile so I don’t make something foolish.
It takes a long time to make a piece of jewelry. It can take a couple of months to make a piece, but usually a piece of original jewelry takes 10 days or two weeks. I don’t want to make a piece that’s not going to hold up over time. I want them to last.
Q: How does your wife react to the creative process when it gets you up in the middle of the night?
A: My wife is also an artist. She knows how to tolerate my idiosyncrasies like that. She’s also very opinionated and sort of tells me how to edit my ideas. She’s not afraid to tell me if it’s a terrible idea. It saves me a lot of foolishness.
Q: Where do your ideas come from?
A: I’ve paid a lot of attention to design and visual art my whole life. You never know exactly where inspiration comes from. Nature is the biggest. The natural word is the teacher of all design. If you’re looking at the natural world. even if it’s a bunch of weeds growing out back of your porch, you will see theory and design. That to me is where inspiration comes from always.
Q: How do you determine what materials to use?
A: After I decide on the original design I will do a number of other sketches, and drawings, and technical drawings. There’s a lot of engineering. It has to be engineered properly. You do it from a visual design to see how it’s going to look the best but you also have to make sure its properly constructed. There’s a lot of planning. A lot of times I’ll do samples of colors to see what the metal looks like in relation to the stone.
Q: What’s the most intricate piece that you’ve ever made?
A: I made a box that was meant to be part of a desk ornament, an ornamental box that was designed to be quite small. I would say it was about 3 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter. It’s a scene of a group of birds, robins, guarding a bird’s nest with a life size robin’s egg that is made out of turquoise. (The box) was made out of gold and different minerals, gold and turquoise and malachite, a mineral that is a greenish turquoise color, and coral. It was very elaborate. I would say that one took me close to five months off and on.
Q: What are the best and hardest parts of making jewelry?
A: The hardest part is keeping track of everything because there’s a lot of little tiny stuff that you have to watch. Not only material stuff that has value to it, but also information and records and customer information, all sorts of stuff. Jewelry is incredibly detail oriented.
There’s two best parts. One is when you’ve been a jeweler for 50 years you can make anything you want. The idea is to make something that I call a joyful expression of a jeweler’s art. That’s incredibly gratifying. The other thing that’s really gratifying is that I really like working with customers who are interested in jewelry. I like to talk about it and express what I know and I like to get other people excited about it, too.
Q: What advice would you give to somebody who’s interested in making jewelry?
A: For a very young beginner I would advise going to a school like North Bennet Street (a vocational school) in Boston. They’re kind of an old school that teaches the aspects of making jewelry. It’s not too crazy with the design thing. It’s more like learning the basics. If you like doing it after learning the basics you can get a job in the jewelry business. … If you learn how to make jewelry you’ll have a profession you can do until you’re 85 years old. It’s a lifelong thing.