Santa Fe Symposium Advances the Science of Adornment

It began in 1987 in Santa Fe, N.M., as a gathering of manufacturers interested in exchanging ideas on metallurgy and other jewelry-manufacturing processes. Eddie Bell, chief executive officer of Rio Grande, and his friend and colleague Dave Schneller created it to address what they saw as a lack of available information on those topics. It was an immediate hit, and 20 years later the Santa Fe Symposium has become the world’s best source of advanced jewelry-making technology.

“There was a lot of secrecy in the jewelry industry,” Bell recalls. “We thought there was a need for a good technical forum for people who had the technical ability to do research, to find the real needs of the jewelry industry, and find a place to publish that work. In 1986, someone from the International Precious Metals Institute decided to find out how much technical information there was. It was amazingly small. Technical symposiums were going on, but the papers weren’t published. As a consequence, as an industry we were growing very slowly because everyone was trying to solve the same problem.”

The Santa Fe Symposium presents white papers researched and written by academics and others with a great deal of knowledge in advanced jewelry-making technology. In its first year, 1987, nine speakers presented 13 white papers to about 100 persons. At the most recent symposium, approximately 25 papers were delivered over a four-day period. Bell says that because of the symposium, published information on jewelry manufacturing has tripled, and it has spurred similar events in other countries, including Italy and Germany.

Although the annual symposium takes its name from the artist enclave of Santa Fe, it has long since moved from that city. Most years it’s held in nearby Albuquerque. The 20th anniversary event in mid-September was held for the first time in Nashville, Tenn. It attracted about 130 people from all over the world, including custom casters, bench jewelers, large manufacturers, academics, designers, stone setters, model makers, business owners, and managers. Every attendee received a hardcover book of the proceedings—a practice that began with the first symposium.

“The jewelry industry is a highly visual industry and is driven by design, as it should be, because they are selling art that adorns the body,” Bell says. “But having great design is complemented by having sound science behind it.”

Papers at this year’s event covered metallurgy, casting techniques, model making, wax processes, jewelry design, and related manufacturing processes and techniques. Anyone unfamiliar with advanced jewelry making and the scientific approach could be forgiven if they got slightly lost during presentations with titles such as “The Effect of Wax Removal by Steam and Dry Process on the Micro-Chemical Structure and Morphology of CaSO4-Bonded Investment” and “Microsegregation in Pt-Co and Pt-Ru Jewelry Alloys.” However, longtime attendees, many of whom perform at the highest levels of their trade, love the presentations.

“For our industry, there is no other resource like this,” says Teresa Fryé of TechForm, an advanced casting technology company in Portland, Ore., who attended her 10th conference. “The caliber of the papers gets higher over the years. There’s always so much learning that takes place.”

Sharing information doesn’t end with the presentations. At coffee breaks and lunches and during nighttime group events, attendees talk among themselves about jewelry-manufacturing issues. Even during presentations, people are often milling about talking frankly about manufacturing processes. It is during these discussions that relationships are formed and friendships made. And it doesn’t matter if participants are from one-man shops or represent the largest manufacturers in the world. Everyone is an equal.

“You’re not going to get greater expertise in the world,” says Andrea Hill, chief executive officer of The Bell Group, the parent company of Rio Grande. “If I have a question, it gets bandied about, and I have an answer. There’s incredible generosity here—incredible giving with their information.”

For many attendees, these frank discussions are as valuable as, or even more valuable than, the presentations. “It’s not so much in the actual presentations, but in the networking and sharing experiences,” says Larry Sher, operations director of Chemgold—a precious metal services in Sydney, Australia, who was attending his eighth symposium. “You can’t talk about this to a regular jeweler. They wouldn’t understand it. Here, I can talk to others who do what I do, and get excited about what I do.”

Bell and Schneller intended to ensure that these discussions are done in a noncommercial environment—in other words, no selling. For many attendees, this kind of environment has made the networking more valuable. “It’s like going to science camp,” Fryé says. “People open up technically in ways that they would never do at a trade show.”

Model-maker Steve Adler, A3dM, attended his second symposium. “I wish I had been coming many more years,” he says. “After speaking last year, I knew I was missing out.” Adler spoke about sharing knowledge on a personal level—particularly in regard to distilling the science discussed in casual conversation. “The networking is as important if not more important,” he said. “There is a great depth of information, much more than you would get anywhere. There’s no way to learn this through the school of hard knocks. It’s not all about the seminars. … Smaller manufacturers and companies learn a lot. There is much more free-flowing information here than at any other trade show. I had lunch with people from Tiffany, JC Nordt, and Stuller. I would never have that kind of opportunity anywhere else.”

Barbara Berk, of Barbara Berk Designs in Foster City, Calif., presented a paper on applying textile techniques to metal. This was her third symposium. She first attended as a winner of a drawing. Berk is a designer, not a metallurgist, which made her initially hesitant about attending. “I’ve always been intimidated coming here,” she said. “I don’t understand base diagrams, and I have nothing to do with casting.” She says the prime benefit of attending is receiving answers to questions she has in her own work. “Presentations are the start,” she says. “The people you meet, the resources, conversations are equally important. The symposium facilitates that.”

For at least one person, attending the symposium turned out to be a good career move. “I came last year for the first time to learn about CAD/CAM and ended up staying for other seminars, and I learned about just-in-time production and six sigma,” says Scott Gooch, a production manager for South Dakota Gold Co., Rapid City, S.D. “I just became a production manager, and I tell everyone I see that I became a production manager because of what I learned at my first Santa Fe Symposium.”

It’s a sure bet he’ll be returning for many more.